Clarkson on the Volkswagen Beetle
As I'm sure you know by now, there are very few things on which all the TopGear presenters agree. James and I, for instance, like Sandwich Spread very much, but Hammond doesn't, because he dislikes food "with bits in".
Then you have the Fiat 500. Hammond and I think this is a terrific car, with lots of character and a genuine lust for life. May, meanwhile, thinks it is too backward-looking. Strange for a man who sees everything in black and white and was born aged 53.
Motorbikes? May and Hammond love them to bits and spend about six hours a day saying letters and numbers to one another. "ZZR?" "No, CBR." "The 600?" "I prefer the 750.""GT?" "No, TT." So far as I'm concerned, it's all gibberish. All bikes are exactly the same.
There are, however, one or two things on which we do all agree. The Subaru Legacy Outback, for example. We all like that a lot. And the Volkswagen Beetle, which we all detest on a cellular level.
When I was a child, my mother had one. Actually, to be fair, over the years, she had five. Followed by a Volkswagen Variant, which, so far as I could tell, was the stupidest car ever made. It was a shooting brake, but since it was rear-engined, all of the space where you would normally put things in an estate, was full of engine. So really it was a cramped four-seater with a very long parcel shelf.
Still, it wasn't as terrible as all the Beetles that preceded it. Of course, I didn't know then about the woeful handling or the involvement of Hitler in the original design. I just thought it smelt funny. It doesn't matter if someone with a penchant for garlic, flatulence and large cigars has owned a Beetle for 50 years, it will still smell of Beetle. Hard to put my finger on what that smell is exactly. It's a sickly odour that pools at the back of your throat, causing you to gag and spasm. I've checked on the internet, and I think it may be vinyl chloride, coming from the seats. It's highly toxic and carcinogenic.
“There has never been a sporty Beetle. Not even Herbie. He wasn't sporty. He was just speeded up”
Of course, fans of the Bug will explain that there is no such thing as ‘a Beetle' and point out that over the years, 78,000 separate changes were made to the original design. I would counter by suggesting that this means there were 78,000 things wrong with the original design. And that's incredible. There aren't even 78,000 things wrong with Richard Hammond.
So why, you may be wondering, did so many millions of people flock to buy a car that would give them cancer and which had 78,000 things wrong with it? Simple. It worked.
The soundtrack of my youth is the wheezing starter motor of my Dad's Ford churning pointlessly in the damp, cold mornings we used to get back then. Followed by several bits of swearing as he attached a tow rope to the back of my Mum's fully functioning Beetle.
Now, of course, we all like reliability in a car. We all want the damn thing to start in the morning. But not if it would kill you in the first bend it encountered, or give you liver cancer.
The second-generation Beetle was built in Mexico. So obviously, it was exquisite in every way. Except that it was basically a Golf with a big pricetag and a vase. The vase was supposed to put us in mind of the Summerof Love, when various Beetle-driving hippies met up on the corner of Haight and Ashbury in San Francisco and sang songs about putting flowers in each other's hair. To forget perhaps that they'd turned up in a car that was the brainchild of perhaps the most evil man who ever lived.
But the Joni Mitchell thing didn't really work, because mostly the modern Beetle was not driven by ex-hippies. It was driven by plump girls who had the time to pluck a flower for the vase every day. Because they didn't have a love life.
I was very happy when the second-generation Beetle went away, because I felt that the world could now move on from its obsession with the carcinogenic Hitlermobile. And buy something else instead.
But no. It seems that the damn thing's coming back again. Only this time, we're told, it will be ‘sporty'.
I'm sorry. Sporty? Where's that come from? The new Fiat 500 can be sporty because the last one was fun and lively and Italian. The new Mini can be sporty because it harks back to the days of the Coopers and the Monte Carlo rally. But there has never been a sporty Beetle. Not even Herbie. He wasn't sporty. He was just speeded up.
Launching a modern-day incarnation that has sporty credentials is like launching a modern-day incarnation of the Mona Lisa who's crapping herself laughing. It's not a modern-day incarnation at all. It's something that's completely different. It's a new car. But of course, when you look at it, it's not a new car at all, because it's been willfully designed to look like the car that took me to school every day. Because my Dad's Cortina wouldn't start again.
Like the last Beetle, this one will also be built in Mexico - my God, but they're an industrious lot - alongside the Jetta, with which it shares a platform.
Ah, so it won't be sporty. A Jetta is as sporty as an aqualung. It is motoring's answer to the Hush Puppy and the big, sensible pair of pants. If it were a man, it would have a hat. I do not understand why anyone in history has ever looked at a VW Golf and said, "Yes. But do you have a version that's a bit worse in every way?" Because that's what the Jetta is: a s**t Golf.
And now, you have the opportunity to say "Yes. I was interested in having a s**t Golf, but can it be even s*****r?"
"Well, sir, how about this steaming pile of horse manure? It is available early next year with exactly the same engines you get in a Jetta, but at the back there is a spoiler which rises up at a given speed for no obvious reason at all. Plus, and here's the clincher, sir, there's no vase."
There is also no point. And I suspect m'learned colleagues will agree on that as well.