Retro, but not yesterday’s car: 25 years of the Volkswagen New Beetle. (2024)

Twenty-five years ago, a dream came true: the New Beetle celebrated its world premiere at the Detroit Motor Show. Right from the start it has not been just any car, but a cult – to say it with one of the buzzwords of 1998. But how did this happen? In our anniversary special, we will highlight the history of the VW New Beetle.

California dreaming

From today's point of view, retro design is almost old hat. Numerous manufacturers have styled models based on historical models – to varying degrees of success. In the early 1990s, things looked very different: the original Beetle ran and ran and continued to run as a new car off the production line. The idea to design a modern Beetle was then born in the Californian Volkswagen Design Centre in mid-1992. Especially in the USA, many people associate the Beetle and its unique exterior inseparably with the Volkswagen brand. So why not connect the past with the future? The team led by chief designer Freeman Thomas and project manager J Mays received the green light from the Wolfsburg headquarters and got to work. Just over a year later, the decision was made to show the concept car as an eye-catcher at the Detroit Motor Show – this also happened in the absence of attractive new series-production models for the American market. Within a few months, a lemon yellow, conditionally roadworthy prototype was created: the Concept 1.


What its world première in January 1994 triggered, however, exceeded wildest expectations: Concept 1, the modern Beetle, became the celebrated star of the most important American motor show. Observers on the spot reported that the audience could only barely be held back, while shouting loudly “Build it, build it!”. The reactions of the press were also almost enthusiastic: there was talk of the “hit of the year” or “a bang that could sound until the end of the world”. That meant that Volkswagen hit the mark with its trial and stole the show from all of the other exhibitors. However, this also unintentionally put them on the spot: customers and the media were calling loudly for the Concept 1 prototype to be put into series production. Even while the trade show was still in Detroit, the press were speculating on possible sales prices and market launch dates, magazines were launching signature campaigns (“Give us our Beetle”) and pre-orders were received from customers. After a short time, Volkswagen had received around 1.2 million(!) requests from interested parties. There had never been such a thing – “Beetlemania” gripped the world!

Retro, but not yesterday’s car: 25 years of the Volkswagen New Beetle. (2)

An open secret

How do you deal with so much enthusiasm? On the one hand, Volkswagen dampened expectations, because the concept vehicle could not be produced ad hoc in the form put on show. On the other hand, the next prototype followed in March 1994, which made fans dream: at the Geneva Salon a red Concept 1 as a convertible caused a sensation. The new prototype was created in just seven weeks and stood in Geneva next to the yellow Concept 1 from Detroit. The duo confirmed impressively that the European audience was also reacting euphorically to the new Beetle. This meant that serial production was becoming more and more likely. At the trade fair, CEO Ferdinand Piëch said: “We want visions not to just stay visions, but to become reality. This also applies to the Concept 1 and the Cabriolet.“ A great promise and, at the same time, a great challenge, because as pure concept vehicles, the two studies were far from being ready for series production. But, the decision had, in fact, already been made in 1994 – the new Beetle was coming! Designers, market researchers and engineers were working on developing a production model from Concept 1. The media were eager to report on this and were already speculating on a possible market launch in 1998 at prices of around 20,000 marks.

Retro, but not yesterday’s car: 25 years of the Volkswagen New Beetle. (3)

The fun becomes serious

In October 1995 at the Tokyo Motor Show, Volkswagen surprisingly presented a significantly revised version of the Concept 1, this time in plain black. Today we know that their design was already largely identical to that of the later New Beetle. For example, it is a whopping 24 centimetres longer than the 1994 studies, which were based on a Polo format with an outer length of only 3.8 metres. Now, however, the larger fourth-generation Golf platform was under the black body, which was already undergoing intensive testing in autumn 1995. While Concept 1 in its original form was a bit of a “caricature of the Beetle” for Volkswagen chief designer Hartmut Warkuß, the revised version from Tokyo seemed even more successful to him: “The Concept 1 has matured more into a car as a result. It has lost some of that toy-like character and has grown into a more realistic car.“ Realistically, the assessment of the then Board of Management for Research and Development, Prof. Dr.-Ing. Ulrich Seiffert was: “We will probably celebrate three Christmases before the Concept 1 is in showroom windows.“ The enthusiasm was still unbroken – at the trade fair in Tokyo, 21,000 customers(!) supposedly wanted to sign a pre-contract for the new Beetle.
We didn’t have to wait long for the next stage of evolution , because in January 1996 the North American International Auto Show took place again in Detroit. And, once again, a Volkswagen prototype was in the spotlight: it was called the New Beetle, which is when the name of the later series model was also revealed for the first time. A format-filling glass sunroof in the style of the Porsche 993 Targa created new speculation as to whether the New Age Beetle would actually be available as a convertible. With its cybergreen pearl effect paint and light grey-yellow interior, it was much more colourful than the black Concept 1 from Tokyo. Four airbags, all-wheel drive and the then brand new “Super-TDI” with 110 hp give a taste of the technology in the series version. In the spring of 1996, the prototype was also on display at the Geneva Motor Show, where Volkswagen presented another gag: the homepage went online. Here, interested parties from all over the world were able to view the new Beetle online, design “their” Beetle virtually, contribute ideas and leave their address to find out more about the development of the vehicle. In 1996 this was quite innovative and no less than a world first – never before had a car manufacturer used the Internet to seek opinions, gather ideas and provide information about a product still in development. It did so quite successfully, because in just under two years the website for the New Beetle recorded over 1.2 million hits.

Retro, but not yesterday’s car: 25 years of the Volkswagen New Beetle. (4)

The “rebirth of the Beetle” – in series production!

While Beetle fans were only able to admire their dream car on screen for the time being, behind the scenes the preparations for series production were running at full speed. Since the US was considered the largest sales market for the new Beetle, it was to roll off the assembly line in Puebla, Mexico – in parallel to its historical example. But in contrast to the Vocho, as the classic beetle is affectionately called in Mexico, which was still built with a lot of manual labour, the New Beetle production was to be largely automated. This was one of the greatest challenges in the development from a pure show car to a production-ready series vehicle. Volkswagen made its plant in Puebla fit for the New Beetle with investments of around one billion US dollars. On 1 October 1997 the time had finally come and series production began. By the end of the year, the first 415 New Beetles were built. Now everything looked forward to the world première, which – how could it have been otherwise? – took place at the Motor Show in Detroit. The 5th January 1998 was the day on which the world celebrated the “rebirth of the Beetle.” For the first time ever, a Volkswagen production model emerged from a pure prototype – within just four years. Four years earlier, only optimists would have expected that playful details, such as the central round instrument cluster, the loop handles on the B-pillar or the legendary flower vase on the dashboard would make it into that production model. For four years, Volkswagen was able to involve the enthusiastic public in the creation of the New Beetle. Old and new media celebrated every new study, demanded emphatically that the new Beetle was brought to the market, enthusiastically followed every step towards market maturity and, of course, also benefited from “Beetlemania”. In the second half of the 1990s, there was hardly a car magazine that did not dedicate at least one cover story to the New Beetle. Hardly any other car was discussed so intensively online when the Internet was still in its infancy.

Retro, but not yesterday’s car: 25 years of the Volkswagen New Beetle. (5)

The true miracle

The Volkswagen New Beetle, as a pioneer of retro design, demonstrates what an emotional car can look like for the new millennium. Jeremy Clarkson once said, “You see it, you want it!“. At the end of 1998 there were already around 200,000 orders for the “VW to love” (Der Spiegel). Volkswagen's sales figures in North America rose by around 55 per cent. In the following year, the Volkswagen Group achieved its best result since 1974 with 382,328 vehicles sold in the USA. Ferdinand Piëch had already suspected this in 1996 “The Golf never really replaced the Beetle there. After three generations of the Golf, no one in Europe mourned the Beetle any more. In America, however, it was the car of its time and has never found a successor in its emotional way. But from 1998 it was finally here – the New Age Beetle. The dream that became reality. And it is now on its way to becoming a classic.

Retro, but not yesterday’s car: 25 years of the Volkswagen New Beetle. (6)

Image credits:© Volkswagen AG

Retro, but not yesterday’s car: 25 years of the Volkswagen New Beetle. (2024)


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