Volkswagen kills Beetle, ending production of iconic vehicle

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  • Friday, 14 Sep 2018

VOLKSWAGEN is calling it quits for its iconic Beetle, ending an 80-year global run for a car that introduced many Americans to the German brand in the 1960s.

The German auto maker said it would stop building the compact next year at a factory in Mexico, the last plant in the world to make the car.

The latest generation of the Beetle debuted in 2011, but its roots go back to 1938 as VW’s first vehicle. It is one of the longest-lived and best-selling vehicles of all time, with 22.7 million sold world-wide.

Production of the original Beetle ended in 2003, but a more-modern version of the car that was larger and had more creature comforts debuted in 1997. The newer model has been produced in Puebla, Mexico, since 1999.

For many Americans, the Beetle is a quintessential “hippie car” of the baby boomer generation, whose success paved the way for an influx of affordable foreign models in the 1970s and 1980s.

VW’s decision marks the second time the car will disappear from American showrooms. U.S. sales of the Beetle stopped in 1979 and resumed with the newer iteration of the car in 1998. The revamped Beetle, which featured a dashboard flower vase and front-mounted engine, was replaced by a more muscular-looking version in 2011. But neither redesign caught on like the original among its baby boomer fans or younger generations of car buyers.

“The [original] Beetle was a legend,” said David Kiley, author of the book “Getting The Bugs Out: The Rise Fall and Comeback of Volkswagen in America.” “But the tepid response to this latest Beetle is proof that even Baby Boomers have moved on,” he said.

Even though the U.S. is the vehicle’s biggest market today, VW sold only 15,000 Beetles in the country last year. That is less than 5% of the 339,700 cars the company sold in the U.S. in 2017.

Company officials said the move comes as VW focuses on other models and its electric-car lineup, but left the door open for a return of its best-known nameplate. “There are no immediate plans to replace it,” said Hinrich J. Woebcken, the head of VW’s American operations.

The Beetle joins a growing number of small-car and sedan models being retired in the U.S. amid a shift in consumer preference toward crossovers, SUVs and pickup trucks. Those larger, more versatile vehicles now make up two-thirds of U.S. sales and tend to return higher profit margins. Other car makers, such as Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV and Ford Motor Co., have killed off or plan to abandon several slow-selling car models in recent years.

The move to kill the Beetle comes as President Donald Trump has criticized imports from Germany and after a new U.S. trade deal with Mexico that industry experts say could inflate costs for some Mexican-built small cars shipped to the U.S.

A U.S. spokesman for VW said the decision to halt production was unrelated to changes in U.S. trade policy. To make up for the loss of the Beetle, VW’s Puebla plant will shift to production of other models, he said.

The original Beetle became a symbol of the youth-driven counterculture and peace movement of the 1960s, despite its roots as a vehicle ordered up by Adolf Hitler in the 1930s as a cheap car for the German masses.

Annual U.S. sales of the model peaked at 423,008 cars during the heyday of its popularity in 1968, the same year a Beetle named Herbie was featured in the Disney film “The Love Bug.”

Buoyed by its success with the Beetle, VW became the first foreign brand to open a factory in the U.S. in 1978. That plant in New Stanton, Pa., was closed amid slumping sales in 1987. Several decades later, VW opened another U.S. factory in Chattanooga, Tenn., that now produces the Passat sedans and the Atlas SUV. - WSJ

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