I’m causing a traffic jam on the Pacific Coast Highway, heading north from Malibu Beach, California. Nobody seems to care though, the horns as I’m passed joined by friendly waves and smiling faces, the 1949 Volkswagen Beetle that’s valiantly trying to reach the 55mph limit may be slowing everyone down, but it’s bringing cheer at the same time.
An enduring icon, the Volkswagen Beetle might have been born via disturbing means, but post World War II, Ford offered the VW plant in 1945, before the British Army took it on. Major Ivan Hirst spotted the simple car’s potential, the British Army ordered 20,000 to be built and the rest is history.
That original went on to sell 21,529,464 in a production run that spanned six decades, the VW Beetle establishing itself as no-nonsense transport in Fifties America, with a famous advertising campaign extolling its simple virtues, before becoming popular with counter-culture people in the Sixties. Cinema success with Herbie helped cement the Beetle’s appeal to millions, the Beetle an enduring icon that seems to transcend mere transport and appeal to people on an emotional level.
That’s obvious today, as the traffic passes the blue moving roadblock that is my ’49 Beetle. It’s slow, noisy, and anything but simple to drive if you’re used to modern convenience. The gearbox needs double-declutching, the brakes are only moderately effective at stopping it, the accelerator isn’t much good at making it go and the steering, that, at best, is vague.
The Final Edition Beetle that’s following me isn’t having any of the trouble I’m having behind the wheel, the motor car, and the Beetle having come a long way in 70 years that separate the two cars. The modern, or ‘new’ Beetle was first mooted in 1994, when the Concept 1 was shown at the Detroit Auto Show, its production version arriving in 1998. Based on the underpinnings of the Golf — the car that effectively replaced the Beetle — it would go on to be a successful addition to the VW line up, being built alongside the original Beetle at VW’s plant in Puebla, Mexico.
Being based on that Golf meant its engine in the front, the Beetle offered with a range of powerplants, from four-cylinder petrol and diesels, to the 3.2-litre V6 with 225 horses in the, rare, limited-edition Beetle RSI. VW would only build 250 of those hot-rods, but the regular New Beetle would be a big success for the brand, particularly in the USA, where in its first year it was responsible for increasing VW’s sales by 55 per cent, eventually selling 1.2 million units up to 2011. Successful enough then to be renewed, the Beetle’s success has waned in more recent years, with just 600,000 sale since its introduction, US customers preferring the Jetta or one of VW’s SUV offerings. That means VW will close production of the Beetle in 2019. Before it goes it’s launching a Final Edition model, its specification aping that of the Ultima Edicion of the original that signed off its production in 2003.
Like the Ultima Edicion the Final Edition Beetles are offered in two colours, Safari Uni and Stonewashed Blue. Chrome body trim. Body-coloured mirrors and Beetle badging in place of the more usual Turbo badge on the boot. There are two unique wheel designs, a 17in 15-spoke design, or an 18in wheel in a disc design that resembles the original’s chromed hubcaps. Inside there are some unique features to send of the Beetle, the seats in SE Final Edition being Rhombus patterned cloth and leatherette, or Diamond stitched Nappa leather if you choose the SEL Final Edition. In the USA pricing for the ‘Coupe’ starts at $23,045 for the SE, rising toe $25,995 for the SEL, with the Convertible costing $27,295 and $29,995, respectively.
There’s a turn-around ahead, and I’ll be vacating my 1949 drive and jumping into the Final Edition. It couldn’t be more different. Power comes from a 174 horse 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder petrol engine. That’s mated to a standard six-speed automatic, meaning no double-declutching or grinding gears here, the Final Edition an absolute cinch to drive in comparison with its ancient ancestor.
There are similarities between the two cars. Outwardly VW’s designers retained the Beetle’s signature shape as much as is possible, these last cars able to visually identify with those before it. Inside, too, there are some retro nods, the relative simplicity and design of the dashboard and instruments evoking the original Beetle, even if the infotainment system with its connectivity options, reversing sensors, blind spot monitoring — the 1949 car doing without rear-view side mirrors — underlining the march of technological progress in automotive technomolgy.
The Final Edition feels like a Rolls-Royce in comparison to that original, effortless to drive, comfortable, quiet and refined, yet simple and unassuming, too. That is true to its roots, so too are the nods of appreciation from those around you in traffic, the Final Edition might be a modern Beetle, but it still seems to garner an affection from those around it. It’s a shame, then, that it’s bowing out, but sales are unsustainable, the Beetle story ending in 2019 when the last of these Final Edition models run down the line in Mexico.
An enduring icon, nobody’s ruling out the Beetle might come back in some form or another in time, an electric model mooted as one possibility, but for now, and for the first time in over 70 years Volkswagen will no longer be able to sell you a new Beetle, but with over 24 million built you might just be able to find an old one…