The last new Volkswagen Beetle I can ever expect to drive turned out to be a $30,225 Coupe Wolfsburg Edition. A lovely little two-door. Well appointed and lively, it occurred to me when I returned it that I could make a case that the demise of the Bug has a lot to do with our throwaway culture. Indeed, as a Globe and Mail headline notes, “Most people under 50 have no idea how to fix things.”
VW, of course, ended production at its Volkswagen de Mexico Puebla plant in July. The affordable, eminently repairable People’s Car envisioned by Adolf Hitler in the 1930s, was first brought to North America in the late 1940s, a symbol of Germany rebuilding and redefining itself out of the wreckage of WWII.
The Beetle hit the sweet spot in the 1960s marketplace, a symbol simultaneously of the culture AND counterculture. That is, it was affordable transportation for capitalist masses needing to get to work, while also being ideal for drop-outs and hippies and anyone else who might reject the gigantic, tailfin-clad beasts that were typical of Detroit’s products.
VW sold some 21.5 million Beetles in all. For some, it was a cuddly Love Bug. For most, it was cheap transportation that anyone could repair with the help of, say, the bible of VW fixing first published in 1969: How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive: A Manual of Step-by-Step Procedures for the Compleat Idiot.
If you owned any air-cooled bug built through 1978, this classic manual could walk you through a “compleat” rebuild. Karmann Ghias and campers, too. You can still find a used copy on Amazon for about $30 or less, depending on new or used. What you get, as the bumph points out, is a manual for “novice and veteran mechanics alike – anecdotal descriptions, and clear language, this book takes the mystery out of diagnostic, maintenance and repair procedures, and offers some chuckles along the way.”
“How to” is a cultural artifact. And I’m not just referring to this particular book. That is, as one repair-addicted British ex-pat reader notes in a Globe and Mail personal finance column devoted to saving money for the middle class, “I am ‘handy,’ and it seems most people under 50 years old in North America have no idea how to fix things.”
I learned to fix a lot of things, including and especially cars, at the elbow of my father, a WWII vet who was a radio officer who did naval convoy duty in the North Atlantic. Yes, my dad could fix things – from radios and our black-and-white TV to washing machines and lawn mowers. Fixing things kept him alive in the war and our family solvent in 1960s suburbia.
He could repair anything and he taught me how to fix things, too. Out of necessity. We weren’t poor, just very middle class. We had enough of everything necessary, but we were no where wealthy enough to pay the Maytag repair man. My dad had a garage full of tools and a willingness to figure things out.
My first car repair manual was, in fact, “How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive.” I bought it and read it cover-to-cover not because I actually owned a Bug, or even planned to. But because it explained and entertained; it made a mechanical contraption completely understandable and thoroughly unintimidating. To borrow from another popular book of that era, though one more philosophical: “How to” was Zen and the art of Volkswagen maintenance. What I learned in that book was the foundation I needed to set about rebuilding everything from an old Chevrolet Novas to a Peugeot 404 with four-on-the-tree and a crank starter up front.
The capitalism I grew up with valued maintenance and repairs as much as the new and the shiny. Today’s capitalism, however, is, as The Ecologist notes, grounded in a “throwaway culture” that has resulted in mountains of perfectly good things, like old cars and past-generation mobile phones, piling up beside plastic bags and desktop computers.
“We live in a throwaway society. Innovation in the tech industries means ever more powerful products come to market. But the death of repair shops and a culture of reliance is not simply the result of shiny new things. Corporations, and capitalism itself, requires planned obsolesce,” argues The Ecologist.
The Beetle’s charm and appeal lay in its simplicity and in its accessibility to the backyard mechanic of limited skills and means. The 2019 Beetle Coupe Wolfsburg Edition I last drove was a modern, finely crafted, high-tech car with a design that charmed thanks to its reference to the original Beetle. But with all its computers and control devices, with its modules and tight tolerances, not even my dad could fix much on that car.
I’d argue that at least one of the main reasons the Beetle has died a quiet death is that throwaway culture made the very concept of such a car obsolete. For the last decade and a half, the Beetle survived on its retro charm. But that doesn’t provide a business case for a mass-market automobile in 2020.
We, as a society, are poorer for it.