Clarkson on: the new Beetle
Launching the new Beetle to quite the largest gathering of motoring journalists I've ever seen could not have been easy for Dr Ferdinand Piech, head of VW.
Obviously, he had to make reference to the old Beetle - which, rather inconveniently, was inspired by Adolf Hitler. This is not a big selling point.
Hitler told his motor industry to design a little car so people could enjoy the new autobahns. It should cost less than 900 Marks and it would be called the ‘Strength Through Joy'. Again, not a big selling point.
Only after the war when a British major got the old Wolfsburg factory up and running again, did the rear-engined tool with its unusual faired-in headlamps come to be known as the Beetle. And who came up with that? Step forward Gordon Wilkins - one of the first Top Gear presenters. Does this mean that in future the Vectra will be called the Dungheap?
None of this war stuff was mentioned in the press conference. Instead, we got Janis Joplin singing, rather cleverly, "Oh Lord, won't you buy me a brand new Beetle".
And afterwards, in one of the most lavish corporate videos I've ever seen, we saw hippies and flower-power people, at Woodstock and in San Francisco, naked and stoned. Earlier, we had been to a huge party in the old Roxy Theatre in Atlanta, Georgia where to the accompaniment of the worst Hendrix tribute artist in the world, waitresses in miniskirts and waiters in tie-dye T-shirts offered us free love and beer. But why, for heaven's sake? The Beetle has been around for seven decades. Why should it have come to symbolise the '60s?
The video could have shown SS stormtroopers burning books in Poland, or vast hordes of underpaid Mexican peasants, or my mum using her Beetle to jumpstart yet another of my Dad's ailing Fords. And it would have been just as relevant. I mean, the Queen Mother was around in the '60s too, but she's hardly an icon of free love is she?
Anyway, when the rather clever video, which had been set to The Who's My Generation and the Stones' Under My Thumb, finished, the lights in that vast auditorium were turned back on and there on the stage were... seven Germans in suits.
"The old Beetle was bought by a bunch of tree-huggers precisely because it was crappy"
They'd been hammering away all evening about what fun the old Beetle had been and how much fun the new one was, and yet... and yet. Fun. German. German. Fun. These two words do not sit well together.
Dr Piech, notorious in the car world as easily the least funny man alive, tried to smile, but I suspect there was a PR man under his desk tickling him. It was more of a grimace.
I suppose that now is a good time to explain that I was never a fan of the old Beetle. I mean the engine was air-cooled - why? and located at the back, behind the rear axle - why?
It had a crappy suspension design too, so anyone trying to corner with any verve would end up facing the other way, or dead.
The heater didn't work, the six volt power supply was disingenuous and if weathermen even thought it might drizzle later, the sills would oxidise. It was a poor design, badly built and horrid to drive.
And that's exactly why it did so well in the '60s. It was bought by a bunch of tree-huggers precisely because it was crappy. Ideally, they would like to have driven around in a bush but as this was not possible, they chose the worst car available. Like now. Visit any road protesters' hideout and you'll find the car park awash with 2CVs. Another anti-car car.
At this point, fans of the Beetle will doubtless point out that 21 million have been sold, many to people like my mum who has never felt tempted to hug a silver birch. Quite right, and nor do the vast army of South American Beetle drivers have much to do with trees - except for chopping a lot of them down, that is.
Sure, but, you see, the Beetle's greatest strength has always been its cheapness. It was designed to be cheap and, in Mexico, where it lives on, it still is. My mum had one because it was cheap. Tree-huggers had them because they were cheap. Students buy them even today because they're cheap.
But they are not, and never have been, fun. Whereas with the new car, it's the other way round.