On 10 July 2019, the final units of the Volkswagen Beetle were seen off at a plant in Mexico's central Puebla. Serenaded by a mariachi band and surrounded by proud factory workers, this marked the end of the production for one of the most iconic cars in the world.
The “Bug” as the Volkswagen Beetle (VWB) was nicknamed, debuted in 1938 as an affordable vehicle developed by Ferdinand Porsche and commissioned by Adolf Hitler to promote car ownership among Germans. (In 1937, Hitler had formed the state-run Volkswagenwerk or the People's Car Company.) With its funky design and inexpensive price tag, the Beetle became among the top-selling cars of all time, and found fans the world over. The 1968 Disney movie The Love Bug, featuring an anthropomorphic Beetle car named Herbie that takes the California race circuit by storm, further amplified the Beetle’s allure.
Above: Film poster of 1968 film The Love Bug. Image via Facebook/Movies Unlimited
Despite being immortalised in popular culture, sales of the Beetle have been lacklustre in recent years. In September 2018, Volkswagen (VW) announced that the 'small-is-beautiful' icon of the 1960s would be taken off the assembly line.
India too hasn't been immune to the charm of the VWB, and a loyal fan base continues to cherish the car on the subcontinent. Firstpost reached out to Beetle aficionados in Mumbai, finding out just why a tiny car rouses big devotion among its owners.
Gaurav Gohil fell in love with the VWB after watching the Disney film The Love Bug as a child, and dreamt of owning one himself. In 2005, the opportunity presented itself, and Gohil used the funds from his very first salary to buy the car. However, “it turned out to be a wrong buy and I had to let go of it pretty soon,” he says. Gohil did get to buy another Beetle — this one in 2009 — and restored it.
“Driving my 1961 Beetle makes me feel like I am in the ‘60s, and yet, if I find a modern car driving alongside, I think I’d be able to chase it down and give it a tough time!” says Gohil, who has driven his VWB to Goa twice, and on countless occasions to Pune and Lonavala, always enjoying a smooth ride.
Well, that’s if you discount the times Gohil’s beloved VWB (he admits that he feels agitated when he doesn’t spend the weekend with her) is being temperamental!
“I remember once my wife and I were going out for Sunday dinner. We drove all the way from Borivali to Bandra — which is a good 25 km drive. It was hot because the car isn’t air-conditioned. Irritated, my wife tapped the dashboard and said, ‘What a shitty car, it doesn't even have an AC’. Believe me, the car suddenly stopped! Till then we had a smooth ride without any problems at all, and then my wife says this and the car stops; it just wouldn't restart. I knew what the problem was, but just to tease my wife, I asked her to apologise to the car. The minute she said ‘sorry’, the car started. So that's one thing I always say: Don't treat the car badly, it will get back at you!” Gohil laughs.
Santaji Shirke’s father loved cars, although he never owned a classic model. Shirke’s mother drove a Beetle — her brother’s car. About 10-12 years ago, a family friend found out about the sale of a Beetle in Goa and booked it on the Shirkes’ behalf.
The Shirkes were new to caring for a vintage car, but got the hang of it over time. “Currently, we own a 1963 Beetle which has been with us for more than 10 years, and a 1978 Campervan that we have had for four years,” Shirke says.
Their first Beetle opened them up to a world of VWB enthusiasts in Mumbai, from owners’ clubs to meet-ups around the city. “With the Beetle, it’s not just the car, but also the subculture it. Anywhere you go in the world, you will find local VW communities who are always ready to help. Everybody seems to have this connection with older VW cars, especially the Beetle, and they are always ready to share that love with others,” Shirke says.
However, he adds that while many profess to be fans of the Beetle for its hipster look, it is not an easy car to own, maintain and drive. That doesn’t detract from the many lovely memories the Shirkes have built up around their little VWB — from the hours spent restoring the cars in the garage to group drives as far as Goa.
“An early incident that sticks out dates to when we had owned the car for barely a year. We decided to drive to Mahabaleshwar for New Year's Eve, leaving Mumbai at 2 pm,” he recounts. “We just started up our 1963 model Beetle as if it were a modern car and made it to Mahabaleshwar on time — despite a dynamo failure on the way that meant the headlights had to be used sparingly even at night!”
“For most Beetle owners, it all ended in 2003 when production of the old Beetle was stopped,” says Karl Bhote, diving into a quick history lesson:
“The car was always made in Germany. Production stopped there in the 1970s, but continued in places like Mexico. In 2003, production stopped in Mexico as well. In 1998, I think, the new Beetle concept was shared. The new Beetle has nothing in common with the old Beetle except for the name. It is a Golf restyle with a body that mimics the original; otherwise, it is a modern car. Now production has stopped for the new Beetle as well.”
Bhote got his first Beetle 15 years ago, and says his love for the car was part-hereditary, part-inspired by The Love Bug movie. Bhote’s is a rare 1956 model — an oval-window Beetle. “From 1953 to ’57, the rear windscreen was a small oval glass. By the end of ‘57, they reverted to the larger, commercial, rectangular-shaped glass,” he explains.
Earlier, the biggest problem was getting a spare: these were impossible to buy, too expensive to import from Germany. “Today there are a lot of other vendors manufacturing new spares for these cars. You can also source a lot of parts from Thailand, Singapore,” Bhote says. “It’s easier now than it ever was.”
Allan Almeida’s love for the Beetle can be traced to summer vacations in Goa.
A Mumbai resident, Almeida would visit Goa during the holidays, where he’d see plenty of Beetles on the roads. “Most of the Beetles that came into the country, came via the Portuguese in Goa, and then reached the rest of India over time. During the late ‘80s and ‘90s, Goa was flush with Beetles, and even today, the majority of the VWBs in India will be found here. That’s why you’ll find that Volkswagen meets are usually held in Goa,” Almeida says.
As an automobile restorer, Almeida has worked on a lot of Beetles. He’s quick to say that the VWB is not his forte, but he enjoys working on them. Almeida bought his first Beetle in the ‘90s but didn’t own it for a very long time as it caught fire. The last one he owned was about a year ago, and he says that he only gives away a car when a new and more exciting project comes along.
Almeida prefers restoration projects that offer him a real challenge, and tends to pick rare cars. Among the cars he has restored are India’s oldest Beetle (owned by Viveck Goenka) — a 1952 split-window Beetle, the only one of its kind in India. He has also worked on an oval Beetle, another early version. For such rare cars, the parts need to be imported, or manufactured. Many-a-times, Almeida needs to reverse engineer parts by observing photos.
The restoration process takes between 6-8 months, and Almeida admits he does feel sad when it’s time to let go, although he tries “not to get too attached” to the cars. “Most of my clients have been rather big-hearted and let me take the car out for a drive whenever I want. Driving a Beetle, that too one you have worked so closely on, brings a smile on your face,” he says.
Almeida points out that the VWB is among the most recognised cars in the world; even an iconic car like Mini Cooper doesn’t enjoy the same level of recognition. The Beetle is also a very “drivable car”.
The other important factor is that they are very drivable cars. “I know people who use them almost every day,” says Almeida, before emphasising the other features that make the Beetle a class apart — it’s air-cooled, unlike the other conventional water-cooled cars with radiators etc; its engine is in the rear, in contrast to most vintage cars which have them in front. “It is not very expensive either,” Almeida affirms. “You can get a well-maintained car for something like Rs 8-15 lakh. Also, you can always pick a car from the scrap for, say Rs 2 lakh, and then invest another Rs 10 lakh in restoring it. Maintaining a Beetle, contrary to what people think, is fairly easy.”
Anand Desai got his very first Beetle as an 18th birthday present in 1993. Persuading his parents to buy one was an uphill task; Desai’s mother was convinced the car would be “a white elephant”. But Desai was determined that it would be a VWB and no other.
The Desais — who had a luxury car business — began looking for a Beetle in Mumbai, Pune, even Goa. Finally, the car they bought was from someone who lived on the same road as theirs! “I saw the car parked outside, gave my telephone number to a bhelpuri seller standing next to it, and he put me in touch with the owner,” Desai, who still has the Beetle, recalls.
Desai drove the Beetle all through his college years.
“If I made a mistake — broke a signal, for instance — the car would misbehave! It would either drive jerkily or stop completely,” says Desai, adding that he thinks his Beetle is not just a car, but a living entity.
Among Desai’s fondest memories is picking up his then-girlfriend (now his wife) in the Beetle for a Valentine’s Day date: “I had the car filled with red, heart-shaped balloons that were placed under the seats. The car doesn’t have air-conditioning, so were driving near Cuffe Parade with the windows down when the balloons began flying out of it. I didn’t realise that the wind gushing in would make the balloon fly out from under the seats. It was quite a filmi moment — hearts flying out of a white Beetle on Valentine’s Day,” he narrates.
Desai had his car restored in 1996 by Anoop Thakur (a Beetle aficionado and restorer). He had driven his car around so much that its door was falling apart, and Desai’s father insisted that he restore it fully. The father and son duo headed to Bangkok to pick up spares, and after Thakur’s restoration in ’96, Desai’s VWB hasn’t even had a punctured tyre, or a problem with the paint job.
Desai — who has a treasure trove of VWB-shaped collectibles — also owns a 1956 Beetle convertible, the oldest in India. Here too, serendipity played a role. The previous owner of the convertible had got the car from Germany and passed it on to her son. Desai followed up with the son for 5-6 years, but the latter had plans to restore the car and opened it up completely. However, he eventually lost interest and wanted to sell the car as is. “I arrived at their garage, saw the dismantled parts of the car spread everywhere, liked it, and immediately bought it,” says Desai.
On the occasion of the 150th anniversary of his children's alma mater (the Cathedral and John Connon School), Desai had the car painted by the students. “I think with that heritage it holds greater value than any other convertible Beetle running on the road,” Desai says, proudly.
Ratilal Bhavin’s family has been in the automobile trade since 1929; theirs was among the first few shops in Bombay. Beginning with importing parts for American-made cars, the family shifted focus to German vehicles from the late ‘50s. And by the time Ratilal joined the firm, Mercedes and Beetle formed the bulk of the business.
“In those days, there were very few VW cars on the roads here. In fact, for the longest time, we used to supply parts in various African countries where the volume of cars was considerably higher than in India. In the late ‘80s and ‘90s, many VW cars like Golf and Jetta didn't perform well in the market at all. Many people opted for other cars and they didn't want to keep these old cars with them anymore, nor did they want to invest any money in their maintenance,” Ratilal recounts.
As new models entered the market, older models like the Beetle, Fiat and Ambassador became secondary cars. And laws were changing, which meant Ratilal’s business could no longer export automobile parts to African countries — a setback for the firm. Over time, Ratilal’s business — a major supplier of car parts in Bombay — slowed down (and then stopped) importing them. “The unavailability of spares meant people eventually stopped bothering about their old cars,” he says.
The last decade has seen a resurgence of interest in vintage cars, with many being restored. It’s been good for business; the volumes may not be high, but the margins are satisfactory enough, Ratilal says. “With the arrival of online marketing platforms, the availability of parts has also improved. That’s among the reasons why so many old cars have been restored. Having said that, there are still very few mechanics on hand who understand the car really well.”
Anirudh Kasliwal is the owner of a 1965 Beetle ragtop, bought almost 15 years ago. Kasliwal had it meticulously restored and it has been running ever since. While Kasliwal has other old cars, he admits there’s a deep attachment to his iconic VWB.
“It is a fantastic car to use daily and because it is air-cooled, one doesn't have to worry too much about the engine’s heating and cooling if it is tuned well. Being a ragtop, she is unique as there are very few in the country; it is a left-hand drive. The engineering is very simple in regards to suspension,” Kasliwal says, introducing his ride.
Kasliwal points out that the Beetle was a car that was made to last — as long as it was serviced and cared for. He believes Volkswagen erred in phasing out the classic Beetle in the early ‘80s and launching the new Beetle. “The (new) car came across as way too cute and docile, unlike the classic Beetle which was unisex in appeal, in terms of its look and design,” Kasliwal says. “I think this evolution led to the downswing in sales and demand.”
— Images courtesy Anand Desai, Karl Bhote, Allan Almeida, Karl Bhote, Santaji Shirke, Gaurav Gohil and Anirudh Kasliwal.