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Article: The Beetle Industry,
Past, Present and Future
Last updated: 10/30/01
While most of my articles tend to be pretty objective and technical, this one is going to be a bit of a rant/ramble. But I have been meaning to write this for some time, so let me get started. I'll try to keep it interesting and hopefully keep your attention.
In the 18 years that I have been messing around with Beetles, much has changed. Notably:
I reply to lots of e-mails and posts on the newsgroup from people who are trying to find a plastic widget from a '72 Super or are trying to buy a Beetle locally and aren't having any luck finding what they are looking for. My first inclination is to say "Geeeez, just drive around and open your eyes!", but more and more, it just ain't that easy.
So I am writing this to offer my thoughts
on how the Beetle industry (parts, Beetles for sale, "New" Beetles)
is changing for the purpose of scoping where things are and where I think
they are going. This for the Newbie, as well as the old timer. Just my
thoughts, of course.
The History of the Beetle: Introduction
Well I started to make a cool graph and tried
to harvest sales numbers from my books (like a true engineer), but then
the literary character in me kicked in, and I decided to take a more "evolutionary"
view of the Beetle market. Gather from this (if you even finish it before
giving up thinking "boy, John was really having a tough day") where things
were, where they are now, and where they are going.
The History of the Beetle: The Dawn
Ok, were not going to go into a history lesson, just make a few points. If you really want to know the history of the Beetle, find a book called "Small Wonder" by Walter Henry. It is very factual and follows the evolution of the Beetle from the 1920s. I'll just give you my bulletized version:
The History of the Beetle: The Explosion
Again, no history lesson. But during the
50s and 60s, the Beetle's presence in the US grew exponentially. It was
popular (the "opposite" of all of the Detroit iron) and reliable. Dealerships
and parts dealers flourished. But there was virtually no "enthusiast scene"
to speak of.
The History of the Beetle: Leveling off
There are many opinions, and misconceptions on what eventually killed the Beetle. I'll offer mine (yes, please John, tell us!). US sales of the Beetle peaked in the US in 1968 (just under 400,000), worldwide around 1972 (around 1.6 million). But the gross design of this car was thirty years old at this point. Yes, the engine had been refined and made more powerful, more features were added, but it was still a 1940s design. The rest of the automotive industry was starting to pull away from a technology and evolution perspective. Audi was born and introduced the first successful front wheel drive car, the Audi 100LS. VW had been experimenting with "other" models, the Type 3s, for several years.
Through the early 70s, sales started to decline, while US models were successful with big, smooth riding, quiet and power assisted-everything models.
In the very late 60s and early 70s an enthusiast
scene was budding. EMPI began offering some performance goodies and body
modifications were becoming popular.
The History of the Beetle: Put out to Pasture
In the mid 70s, VW began to realize that the Beetle was loosing ground to technology and desperately tried to "update" it with such things as MacPherson strut suspension and air conditioning. Image and marketing wise, it was touted as "new" and a "Super" Beetle. Bumpers, lights and other externals got bigger in size to make the car look less feeble next to the big American iron. But past 1975, VW "threw in the towel" in the US market, and re-focused sales of the Beetle elsewhere where competitive pressures were lower. Eventually VW discontinued the Super and went back to selling just the "Standard" Beetle. In '78 and '79 only Convertibles were sold in the US and sales fell below 10,000. The end was near.
Earlier, in 1974, VW started playing around with a water cooled design. It was launched as the "Dasher" and eventually went on to become the Rabbit/Golf. The Beetle continued to sell reasonably well in Mexico and South America.
But after 1979, the Beetle was gone in the US dealership. In it's place, the Rabbit, Scirocco and Jetta were establishing a firm foothold
In spite, the enthusiast scene was really
heating up. Clubs, meets and business were starting to spring up everywhere.
The "Cal Look" was born (lowering, dechroming and "shaving").
The History of the Beetle: The Assuming Years
Well, the Beetle was hardly "gone". In the
early 80s, there were still literally millions of them on the road,
and people went on about life like they would be around forever. After-market
businesses flourished, dealer parts stashes were still plentiful. Beetle
Clubs and "customization" continued to grow throughout the 80s. Other than
the really old ones, there were Beetles for everyone. And they were cheap.
Nobody ever considered the day when they just wouldn't see them anymore.
They were truly taken for granted.
The History of the Beetle: The Realization
Around about 1990, people (like me) started noticing something. There were fewer Beetles on the roads. After a colleague of mine told me in 1989, "You know that car is long gone when you see elementary school kids stare at it when it goes by. When I grew up, everyone knew that car, there was nothing odd about it". He was right. From that day on, I started noticing when I drove my '68 through the neighborhoods, the kids in the yards and at the school bus stops did stare as I went by. The local autoparts store started dropping some Beetle parts from their stock. "Just not enough demand anymore" they said.
Simple as it was, we finally came to grips
with the fact that every time one was wrecked, rusted away, modified into
worthlessness, etc., it was gone. There wasn't another one popping
up to take its place. We weren't going to get any more. The real enthusiast
started getting an uneasy feeling in his/her stomach. We started taking
note of some rare and/or one year only parts and started hoarding stuff.
After-market vendors stepped up and began to reproduce or import the common,
high demand things, but the value of the old, low volume stuff really started
to climb. Beating on or hacking up almost any Beetle now was becoming a
travesty. The VW Clubs and Shows grew even more.
The History of the Beetle: Today
So here we are. No longer can we pick up the paper and choose from 10 or 15 Beetles for sale. We give that old engine under the neighbor's deck a second look, to see if maybe it is a 36 hp. We wince at the thought of drilling a hole under the dash of our Beetle for some kind of accessory. Even I, who just a few years ago considered mid 70s Supers and standards to be dispensable metal, am re-thinking my ways. The real enthusiast is emerging as a guardian of Beetles and will pummel any "kid" who suggests buying a '65 and making a baha out of it.
But what is very interesting, and encouraging, is that interest in the Beetle is far from fading. It is clearly growing. The Connecticut shows I have attended in recent years have had to close their gates to new show entries mid-morning. I'm not old fart by any means, but I see some high school age kids seeking out a VW as their first car instead of the "everybody-has-one" Mustang or Camaro. I chuckle when I see that rare bus going down the highway and turn to see who is driving. Instead of some Jerry Garcia look alike, it's often a 19 year old guy with a goatee and a tie-dye T-shirt. The music emanating from the bus is different though (thank God).
I bought a 12 year old Beetle when I graduated
from high school, today high school graduates are buying 30 and 40 year
old VWs. The interest has not faded at all.
Curiously, aircooled VW enthusiasm seems
to have a way of simply regenerating itself.
The History of the Beetle: The Future (John's Extended Forecast)
With all of this in mind, it is interesting to try to predict where things will go. But before I go there, my engineer genes have regained the high ground and possessed me to try to make a graph to explain the past present and future graphically. You will notice no numbers on the left vertical axis. This is a "concept" graph folks. I am just trying to illustrate trends; don't try to read too much into it
Beetles on the Road This line represents the number of Beetles being driven regularly for a given year. Notice that it closely matches the cumulative sales during the US sales years as most Beetles stayed on the road. But some were wrecked and/or scrapped. Immediately after 1979 this number stayed pretty constant as the cars were reliable and parts were still plentiful. But eventually the numbers fell sharply, as rust took over, people became attracted to "newer technology" cars in the mid/late 80s. Remember that this is the number of Beetles on the road, driven daily. Many of them were simply "parked". By 1990, mostly only the diehards were still driving them.
Average Beetle Value This is a tough call. During US sales years, I used the selling price of the car, year to year to approximate the curve. After US sales ended, I figured on an average selling price for any Beetle. In 1980 this would include 1 year to 30 year old cars, the average would definitely be lower than the 1979 selling price, hence the instantaneous drop. In the years following, the average continued to fall as the aggregate age increased and condition of the average Beetle probably worsened. But once the end of sales was far enough behind, values started to creep up just a bit.
Market This line represents the dollar value of
the "parts" market. But really this is the whole after-market for Beetles,
from stock dealer replacement items to custom this and that, fiberglass,
interiors, engine and lowering kits, etc. As the "stock" parts market fell
away a bit after US sales ended, the "after-market" picked up some slack
and the overall market showed a solid growth well past the end of sales.
It was not until years after the number of Beetles on the road started
to decline significantly, that this market started to shrink.
Beetles on the Road Yes, this line will continue to drop. It has to. But it will never reach zero. Eventually, there will be a barely detectable (on a graph measuring millions) but steady group of "road-going" Beetles still on the road. Only on nice days.
Average Beetle Value This will continue to rise, but not astronomically. Yes the super cherry '51 that still has original paint will skyrocket in value, but old Beetles will still generally be affordable to masses.
The Parts Market The after-market parts industry will continue to thrive, but not grow, for the mainstay products. Common body panels, engine parts and all of the custom and modification stuff parts will continue to sell well, but overall the market will shrink. The market for true vintage "correct" parts however, will grow slightly, as more enthusiasts become interested in vintage preservation. This will force the vintage dealers to greater lengths to dig out good used and NOS parts. This will also fuel the market for quality reproductions of some parts (bud vases, oval grilles, reserve tap levers are good example of these today). Prices on the NOS stuff that is not being reproduced will rise steadily. Eventually, the industry will not be able to support the large number of vendors that exist today and some vendors will start to drop off or expand to include other lines like watercooled and other makes.
In general, popularity of the Beetle will not fade. But it will continue to transition from the commonplace to the nostalgic. The "New" Beetle will help this. And that often argued "treasure/trash" line (what year is old enough to warrant preservation vs. do-with-it-what-you-want) will continue to creep up until ALL Beetles are treasured.
Availability of Beetles will continue to
wane, but there will also be a shift in what is available. The pool
of available and inexpensive "unrestoreds" will shrink and more and more
be made up of badly rotted basket cases. At the same time, the pool of
restoreds and nicely preserved originals will rise slightly as interest
grows. But the prices for these will go up sharply.
Clubs and Shows
Aircooled VW shows will continue to thrive
and actually grow in areas outside of California. Many clubs will feature
more of a vintage focus, and national clubs and registries will emerge,
mostly due to the facilities of the internet. But many VW shows will include
watercooled VWs to keep the needed crowd draw up.
Where the treasure is
This is what gets my blood pumping. Think about it. With the sheer volume of Beetles that once roamed the earth and all of the dealerships and parts stocks that once existed, there must be some real finds left out there. Some of you may have read those "treasure hunt" stories in Hot VWs about a couple editors going down to Venezuela or South America and finding an old warehouse full of 50s parts (and getting them for peanuts). And there must be many a good solid Beetle, parked in a dusty, dark garage, willed to some thirty-something couple after the original owner passed on. And as we sleep at night, the market value of this stuff is creeping up.
They are out there, it is inevitable. We just have to find them. And the too-good-to-be-true deal will come when you find such a thing and purchase it from someone who is not an enthusiast and does not know the market, or the hard to find parts, etc.
And there will be hoarding of parts, you
should expect it. I do this myself. Here's an example; probably 6 years
ago I was out yardin' at my favorite local junkyard when I noticed a dark
blue Beetle in some heavy undergrowth. I hadn't noticed it before. As I
get closer I think "OOOooh!, a '67", and sporting an almost pristine decklid.
I didn't need a '67 decklid, in fact I had just sold my '67, but I knew
that was a rare part. I went to the counter to pay for the stuff I had
and asked "you guys, take $20 for that decklid on that blue Beetle under
the trees out there? I'll go take it off...". "Sure." So I take it home
and wipe it down and put it up in the loft. Just to have it. That
is hoarding. No, I wouldn't take $20 for it, how much more? I don't know,
make me an offer....
What the Internet has Done
The internet continues to amaze me with the content and reach that it has to offer. This past week I replied to 2 e-mails sent to me from this page. One was from a fella who had just bought a '56 and needed a windshield wiper arm. He listed his town of residence, it was the town north of mine, 10 minutes away. A few messages down my in tray is a message from a guy in Russia. In barely comprehensible english, he tells me that after years of saving his money, he has finally bought a car for his family. A "1303". He is thrilled to have found my site (on his "Amiga" computer) and asks some questions about how to do a tune up.
The internet serves the VW enthusiast perfectly. We represent a tiny fraction of a percent of the world's population, but via newsgroups and websites, we might just as well all be in one room together every day to share ideas and swap parts.
The BugShop is an excellent example of this. The visitation and feedback from this site astounds me. It encourages me and it is lots of fun.
The internet brings enthusiasts all together
and helps all of us keep our Beetles running and enjoying them to the fullest.
"Hey John, whaddya think of that new Beetle?"
I can't tell you how many times I have been asked that in recent months (since it has made its big splash in the press and at the big autoshows). Fact is, I'm pretty neutral. I am not so much a vintage VW purist that I scoff at it (I drive a watercooled VW daily, after all), on the other hand, I don't think that it is such a big deal. It is just a another VW model.
What is more interesting to me than that car though, is what VW is doing with it. For those that don't know the history, VW gave a group of design engineers an isolated design facility in Simi Valley California back in 1993. They told them to design a "new" Beetle. Purposefully among the group of engineers where some real hard-core vintage Beetle enthusiasts. The were told to manifest the style and character of the old Beetle using today's technologies. What came out, showed up at a major auto in 1994 (in Frankfurt, I think). I created quite a stir. VW would only concede that the car had been designed as a prototype "only for promotional purposes" and the car would never be mass produced. Well, 4 years later, we await their arrival at the dealership. Word is that even VW (clever as their ploy was) was stunned by the response. To me, one of the biggest disappointments of this new Beetle was the loss of the non-functional oval "horn grills" that were on the original 1994 prototype. But many other "Beetle-isms" have survived like a single big, round mutltifunction gauge and a bad vase. And of course, the "tri-arc" silhouette of the car. VW tapped into the gold vein of their past with this car.
Will it be successful? Yeah, I think so.
But many people say that "It will never be like the old Beetle". Of course
not. And it wasn't meant to be. Worldwide, VW is on top of the world
today in mass auto sales, not exactly the position that they were in in
1945. The new Beetle is intended to be a "magnet" model for VW, and sales
are projected well below the "bread and butter" Golf/Jetta models. I might
buy one one day, but it is not on the radar screen right now.
So that's my rant. No science, no preaching, just tiny bit of data (but a cool graph); but it was fun. I helps me to keep in mind that things are not the same as they were ("when I was a youngster, everybody had a Beetle!") years ago. I think it is great that the enthusiasm has not waned a bit and that the internet is just giving us new ways to keep these really cool cars on the road.
In the words of Terry Shuler: "Drive and
enjoy your VW daily."
Copyright© 1998; John S. Henry