Thursday, June 13, 2024

For something really Mexican in transportation you want a VW Beetle

I left my outdoor life in the wilds of Idaho in my three-quarter-ton diesel truck and headed to Mexico without any thought of having to drive and park in an urban area.

A year later, when I found myself living in Centro Mazatlán and driving a large diesel truck, it became clear that I needed to downsize quickly.

It was difficult to part with a vehicle that was so much a part of my past life; I needed to supplant my melancholy mood with something really Mexican. So I bought a Vocho (Mexican slang for a VW Beetle).

I quickly realized that there were certain upsides to this sudden change in my transportation style. For example, I was no longer asked to shuttle various pieces of furniture for friends, and I could now park where many other cars couldn’t.

In my early life in the states, during the 70s, I had owned three VWs, so I loved the idea of another Bug which could nostalgically reconnect me with my dark and jaded past.

I paid 25,000 pesos for a 2001 Volkswagen Type 1 in good condition; about what a new set of tires for my truck would have cost. I did not hesitate when I chose to switch to the Beetle rather than something else; I knew I would be acquiring an updated version of the most enduring automotive design in history.

This enduring design was brought about by a collaborative effort between one of the true pioneers of automotive design, and a mad man. When Adolf Hitler commissioned Ferdinand Porsche, then a race car designer, to build a car “for the people” in 1934, no one could have prophesied the stunning success of the VW Beetle.

In the era of such cars as Duisenberg, Rolls Royce, Stutz Bearcat and Auburn Speedsters, the first few Beetles in 1936 did not create much of a stir.  But it was reliable and relatively cheap so it sold in Germany.

By the way, when the Beetle was introduced at the Berlin Motor Show in 1935 it came with the moniker “Kraftdurch Freude Wagen,” or “Strength Through Joy Car.” I have always thought Japanese emperor Hirohito helped Adolf with the name.

But then, at the end of the war, the heavily damaged VW auto factory at Wolfsburg fell into the hands of the British occupation forces, who delegated a 40-year-old British Army officer, Ivan Hirst, to rebuild it and begin production.

The refurbished factory was part of the allied plan to rebuild industries which could move Germany into economic self-sufficiency, so speed was of the essence. Under Hirst’s direction, the Kraftdurch Freude Wagen became the Volkswagen Type 1.

Interestingly, Hirst initially wanted to bring back the “Kubel Wagen,” which the factory had assembled during the war. However, the bodies of those vehicles were constructed by a company in Berlin which happened to be in the Soviet zone of occupied Germany.

Having no other choice, as well as being resourceful, Hirst used what he considered to be the funny looking car bodies which were lying around the factory. This allowed him to get under production almost immediately.

Little did Hirst foresee that his re-release of the little Bug would be the initial launching pad which propelled Volkswagen into the 21st century as the world’s largest car manufacturer. In 1946, with the fervor of the recent fascist regime still ringing in its ears, the European community was initially loath to purchase anything even remotely connected to Nazism.

Consequentially, the sales of the VW Type 1 were lackluster at first. But when the word got out about an inexpensive vehicle which was stingy with post-war gasoline supplies, as well as incredibly reliable, it began to catch on.

However, it was not until 1948, under the new director, Heinz Nordhoff, that production of the Beetle really took off. By the mid 1950s, over a million VWs had rolled off the assembly line and much of Western Europe reverberated with the little Bug’s distinctive exhaust note.

In the latter part of the 50s, while United States auto makers flaunted cars with bigger fins and more chrome, the diminutive Beetle quietly became the bestselling car in North America. And shortly after it became the bestselling car in the world.

By the mid-60s, there were plenty of cheap Beetles and VW buses to transport the growing counter-culture movement which could identify with the utilitarian simplicity of the scarab-shaped cars; peace, love and VW.

When Walt Disney anthropomorphized a VW Beetle in the 1968 movie The Love Bug (and the five sequels), the Volkswagen Type 1 became, if it hadn’t been beforehand, an icon firmly ingrained in the culture of the western world.

The first Mexican Beetles rolled off an assembly line in 1962 at a plant in Xalostoc, a city in the state of México. In 1967, production shifted to the shiny new VW plant in Puebla, which churned out 21 million Type 1 beetles from 1967 to 2003. For a number of years, the beetle was the most common taxi plying the streets of Mexico City.

When the Mexico City government established strict (well, strict for Mexico) clean-air standards, thousands of well used VWs became available for very reasonable prices.

Consequently, purchasing a used Beetle in Mexico, as well as all the parts required to keep it going, is very affordable as well as being fun.

After I acquired my first Mexican Vocho, I spent both hours and pesos to overcome the propensity of older Mexican cars to only complete the first leg of a round trip. Some time afterward, when I felt secure in the notion the car was a “two-way-er,” my Captured Tourist Woman and I went to Puerto Vallarta for a few days.

When we checked into a motel in the old part of town I asked for access to the locked car park area we saw on the net and had in large part been the reason for choosing the hotel so I could park my car. The manager told me that it would be completely safe in front of the hotel because there were two security cameras and a night watchman at the door.

I believed him and parked my car there, directly in front of the door. However, the next morning I went out to retrieve something from the car only to find an empty space at the curb.

Bewilderment was replaced with astonishment, which quickly flashed to anger, which melted into a profound sense of loss. I immediately went to the security office in the hotel and told them my car had been stolen and I wanted to see the video from the two cameras out front.

Of course neither security person made any move to search the previous night’s video.  Instead, they ask me how much tequila I had consumed the night before. Did I walk around the block to see if the car was parked somewhere else? I calmly assured them the car had been left in front of the hotel and the video would show it there earlier the previous evening.

Sure enough, the video showed the Vocho parked in front and then chronicled 45 minutes of a pinche ladrón breaking into my car, hot-wiring it and driving off. Fortunately, my second Mexican Vocho is still in my possession, as is the new Club lock with which I secure it.

So as you watch the VW Beetles trundle around the highways and byways of Mexico, I hope you have a better understanding of how this simple little car became a worldwide phenomenon in the latter half of the 20th century, and why it’s so popular in a country where both thrift and longevity are highly regarded.

The writer describes himself as a very middle-aged man who lives full-time in Mazatlán with a captured tourist woman and the ghost of a half wild dog. He can be reached at [email protected].

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