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(File pix) The new VW Microbus prototype. Pix from VWNewsroom website

THE Volkswagen (VW) Beetle is no more and after a brave unbroken run of 81 years, the legend has finally been put to pasture.

It is sad but, to be honest, quite expected.

The new beetle concept designed by J. Mays and Freeman Thomas was first shown off to the public at the North American International Motor Show in Detroit in 1994 and, boy, was it a hit.

As if the cute exterior wasn’t enough, the concept car even had a little flower vase on the dashboard and that must have triggered the original hippie fans of the car.

How can it not be when it was such a cute little thing, adorable to the max and everyone having said they would buy one if only VW would build it.

In terms of testing the waters, this bad boy came back with top scores and there was really no way that the executives back in Wolfsburg would have said no to the production version.

But even then, many had wondered how the car would feel because it was to be built on a Golf platform with front wheel drive, with the sacred rear-engine layout sacrificed in favour of engineering convenience and cost.

While the front engine front-wheel drive layout was just as good, in terms of packaging, the rounded body shape was chosen because it could be made rigid with less internal ribbing or stiffeners, and thus required a certain proportion to work properly.


(File pix) The many generations of Volkswagen Beetle at an event bidding farewell to the iconic model in Putrajaya on July 15. NSTP Photo

The concept car was designed to be cute; it was not designed to maximise cabin space, minimise cost and minimise maintenance worries and, therefore, those considerations never made it to the top of the design brief.

Anyway, it likely started as a fun project to see if they could get enough people interested in the idea of a new Beetle without much hope of ever having it go into production, and so they whipped up the nostalgia nice and thick.

The media lapped it up and the public cheered them on.

When the first cars came out in 1998, we began to see the car for what it was in the wild, a cute concept car that somehow made it to production; beauty did not go too deep beyond the skin.

The windscreen was sat so far away from the driver it was like seeing outside through a movie screen. The packaging, especially the rear cabin, was heavily compromised by the shape because the bones of the car that assumed a tall, nearly vertical rear-end for passenger and cabin now had to make do with a heavily sloping rear.

The first generation of the new Beetle, cute as it was, was perhaps too feminine and that kind of limited its appeal and prompted a major change in the design approach for the second generation new Beetle.

Although the second-generation design was more masculine and had more attitude and looked more like a hot rod than a feminine ride, it was still heavily compromised in terms of packaging.

The truth is, there is nothing fundamentally wrong with the Beetle for what it is.

The problem with the new Beetle is that it isahighly stylised car suitable for a premium niche market but it was instead sold like an ordinary family car with the sales expectations of a similar product.

It’s not as if the VW group is unfamiliar with niche products; they have them in every brand.

If it had really wanted, perhaps it could have done a rear engine platform, modified something from Porsche and produced a highly stylised version of the Beetle.

If it had decent performance and stunning good looks, they might have been able to ask more for it and sell to a smaller, more dedicated crowd.

Or they could have reinterpreted the car as a front wheel drive and kept some styling cues rather than kept the shape but not the idea. However, this could have resulted in a car so hideous that it would not have made it past concept.

Compare the Beetle with the Mini where the BMW Group, pragmatic as ever, decided that it only had to look nominally like the original Issigonis sketch.

Lucky for BMW, the original was a front wheel drive car and the proportion could be translated into a modern car quite easily.

Since BMW is also the world’s leading expert in niche marketing, it has come up with so many varieties of the Mini that it simply amazes me. I mean, the Clubman and Countryman are basically the same cars but with different rear doors.

In the end, the key lesson here is that car companies probably should not take public adoration of a concept as proof that it works beyond the fact that the concept looks good and exciting.

We are made to understand that the VW Microbus will make a return as an electric vehicle. I am betting that this idea will have longer legs, much longer legs.

Good luck to the Microbus.

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