Welcome to the BugShop FAQ

The text following is part of a series of articles written by John S. Henry on the restoration and maintenance of air-cooled Volkswagens. While his experience is exclusively with the Beetle, many of the techniques can be applied to other models.

This text is copyrighted and duplication, re-distribution or publication is prohibited without consent of the author.

Article: The Beetle Industry, Past, Present and Future
Last updated: 10/30/01

The Beetle Industry, Past, Present and Future

Why am I writing this? (call it an introduction)

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:

In recent years I have noticed that things have changed. The '68 I got in 1980 was as commonplace a car (and about as worthy of preservation) as the Chevy Vegas and Mustang "II"s running around at that time. Just 7 years ago I was treating another '68 like a garden tractor but today I would second guess that action.

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:

Ok, we'll stop there for now. That's how it all started...

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

I'm out on a limb, don't ya think? It just helps me to visualize these things with lines an color (that's what computers are for, right?). So what do I think the future holds for these lines and colors?

Other Predictions

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

[back to FAQ Index]