The proving ground for Concept 1, a reincarnation of the legendary Volkswagen Beetle, was the 1994 North American International Auto Show in Detroit. This was a brave choice for Volkswagen, like taking a show straight to Broadway with no Hartford tryout.
one after many years of also-ran status. It's held in the backyard of the Big Three U.S. automakersGeneral Motors, Ford, and Chrysleras well as VW's own North American headquarters. By the early 1990s, the international press had turned the Detroit show into a media circus. In the past, reporters could count on leisurely buttonholing auto executives at each company's press stand. By 1992, the throng of international reporters was so thick, reporters had to skillfully jockey for appointments in order to get key interviews. If Concept 1 lacked credibility, or failed to impress, VW would be embarrassed in front of a large, jaded, international gallery of reporters. Sales of Volkswagens in the United States had fallen below 50,000 in 1993, down from a half-million 20 years earlier. The auto press was already throwing shovels of dirt onto Volkswagen's future in the United States.
Angeles Auto Show, just a week after the 1994 Detroit show. The Los Angeles show would have allowed the company to do an outdoor publicity stunt, like dragging reporters to the Santa Monica Pier or Venice Beach for the unveilingan impossibility in Detroit's cruel January. A smaller, regional show drawing fewer reporters was another cautious option.
Chrysler had seen to it. By 1994, Chrysler was the court jester of the auto shows, staging theatrical stunts at the Detroit show to jazz reporters' interest in the company and its cars. One year, Chrysler President Bob Lutz drove a car through a glass window to introduce it. Another year, the company introduced the Dodge Ram pickup by dropping it from a platform 15 feet off the ground. At the 1994 Detroit show, Chrysler was introducing its Cirrus and Stratus sedans with a Mission Impossible theme, complete with actor Peter Graves (Mr. Phelps in the TV series) as press conference host. Chrysler was also showing the Neon, a cuddly little economy sedan priced under $9,000. Priced with college students and underpaid teachers in mind, the Neon was launched with an ad campaign that had been described as reminiscent of the classic VW ads of the 1960s and early 1970s. Ads for Neon simply said, "Hi." Some people in the car business thought the Neon could, in fact, be the spiritual successor to the Beetle. That notion seems ridiculous now: Since the launch of the New Beetle, the Neon is scratching for a toehold against its Korean rivals amid mismanagement of the Dodge brand by parent Daimler-Chrysler.
Concept 1. Public Relations Director Maria Leonhauser hid the press kits at her own house. Freeman Thomas, one of the two lead designers of Concept 1, drove the car to Detroit's Cobo Hall in a ridiculous disguise: The car was clad in foam blocks to conceal the Beetle's familiar eggish profile.
to expect at the auto shows. This allows time to prepare coverage, which is particularly important for the monthly buff magazines like Automobile and Car & Driver. There are few surprises. Those products and product plans that are pulled from a hat are usually greeted with skepticism by the press. Particularly frowned upon have been the concept cars, which rarely end up looking much like the show car when they are produced and eventually hit the showroom.
connected to Concept 1. First, not everyone at VW wanted Concept 1 to succeed, which created huge internal political ramifications for the whole project. Second, those itching for success knew that if it failed, it could mean the beginning of the real end of the brand in the United States. The headlines running in business magazines spelling out the demise of Volkswagen in America might well come true.
United States was beginning a love affair with retro culture. The cable TV station Nick at Night started resurrecting TV series from the 1960s and 1970s with sensational ratings in prime time. Movies based on those series were in development. Teenagers were wearing bellbottom trousers and platform shoes. So-called futurists said that baby boomers were turning to their past, looking for what they perceived as simpler times as a refuge from broken marriages and the overconnected madness of computers, pagers, and cell phones. Just a year before, Porsche, a kin company of Volkswagen's, introduced the Boxster concept, a dazzling retro sports car styled to remind people of the classic 550 Spyder that James Dean made famous both in life and in his death behind the wheel.
Piëch (the grandson of the original Beetle's inventor/designer, Ferdinand Porsche) and Dr. Jens Neumann (who was in charge of Volkswagen's North American business), had an idea that a new Beetle would jump-start U.S. interest in the Volkswagen brand. However, they didn't know for sure if people would still care that much about a new Beetle, or if the idea would prompt the press to view the company as desperate. If Concept 1 wasn't liked, or not taken seriously, it would be a terrible blow to VW's hopes for a comeback.
It was a front-wheel-drive car with its engine mounted up front, instead of the rear-mounted engine and rear-wheel drive of the original. The engine would be liquid cooled instead of air cooled. It was a three-door hatchback, unlike the two-door original. Finally, it wouldn't be the simple car that so many owners had fixed on the side of the road. Modern auto technology, full of computers and sensors, made do-it-yourself repairs an impossibility. Concept 1 would have a sophisticated microchip-controlled engine. The question loomed: Would the complex necessities of modern engineering and safety technology obliterate what made the original Beetle lovable? Would Concept 1 end up a niched retro oddity like the Plymouth Prowler, a modern homage to street rods of yore, which sold just a few thousand units a year? If Concept 1 were to become the new Beetle, VW had to have some real indication that it could sell at least 75,000 in the United States and Canada. Otherwise, production wouldn't make economic sense.
built, one must understand the mentality of the German engineer. The only car worth working on, worth developing, is the next carone representing design and engineering advances, not a retreat to the past. It was this mentality of always moving forward, never looking back, that erroneously convinced those German designers and engineers that Americans in the mid-1970s would gobble up Rabbits, the U.S. version of the Golf, just as they had Beetles, Karmann Ghias, and Squareback wagons. Going backward is nothing more than weakness, and that's how VW had long viewed any ideas about reintroducing the Beetle.
customers had been badgering VW's U.S. management for years about a new Beetle. That is what gave Neumann some inkling that a comeback would work.
press would embrace Concept 1. They prepared for the worst by having three pieces of so-called news for the January 5 press conference, the date scheduled for the release of Concept 1. Volkswagen executives would talk up the third-generation Golf and Jetta, which would hit showrooms later in the year, but had already been introduced in Europe, and a new hybrid diesel/electric engine designed to meet future fuel economy and emissions standards. If the press jeered Concept 1, VW still had two other news items it could use to play down the significance of Concept 1. Volkswagen was prepared to call Concept 1 "just something we brought to the show ... not significant ... a design exercise for an electric vehicle." That Concept 1 was an electric design, in fact, had been the cover story that designers Freeman Thomas and J Mays used in their Simi Valley, California, studio to put off inquiring eyes and wagging tongues.
selected to introduce the new Jetta and Golf, and Ullie Seiffert was tapped to introduce Concept 1. Seiffert, the VW board member from Germany in charge of technical development, was an ironic choice for this task because he was among the Germans who were decidedly against Concept 1. Not only had Seiffert led VW's battles in Washington, D.C., during the 1970s on safety and emissions standards that ended up killing the original Beetle, he also played a key role in developing the Golf/Rabbit that replaced it. Also, he was among those Germans eternally frustrated with the peculiarity of the U.S. market, like the importance buyers placed on trivial items such as high-fidelity stereo systems and cup holders. The Germans believed a car was for driving, not for concerts or picnics.
chuckle even now. From the start of the press program, Seiffert was really being set up for an ambush. Although he knew how the press conference was planned, he couldn't, in all his cynicism for the idea, anticipate the crush of attention that would follow.
1 should be built and why the time was right to reintroduce the Beetle to the U.S. car-buying public. The video opened with the dial of an old, black rotary phone, as if the past was about to be dialed up. Then, a shot of a 1950s-era tailfin and a 45-rpm record on a turntable followed.
"It's funny the things we remember," the video began. "The things we hang onto. The first day of school. A first dance. A first kiss. Our first car. Some things are simply unforgettable." Text was set against background photos and film footage of original Beetles. "One little thing can bring it all rushing back. A song on the radio. The smell of suntan lotion. Seeing an old friend at the beach. The friend you could always depend on. Everything was a little less complicated then. Tennis shoes didn't cost $200.00. A jukebox played your favorite song. And a car was a part of the family Right from the start."
more contemporary Then, shots of Concept 1 appeared on the big screen.
hear gulps in throats and people catching their breath. Typically gritty auto writers gushed. Helen Fogel of the Detroit News reported that some were wiping tears away Autoweek named it "Best in Show." Just about every newspaper in the country covering the show, along with many that just picked up the wire stories, put a picture of the car on their front pages. The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, and USA Today all gave Concept 1 prime real estate in its pages. All three network newscasts in the United States ran pieces, as did most of the local newscasts around the country A month or so later, the Chicago Tribune's Jim Mateja wrote an open letter to VW Chairman Dr. Ferdinand Piëch that began:
press gallery, Seiffert told reporters, "We can never bring the Beetle back, but we would like to go back to our roots with an honest, reliable, timeless, and youthful design on an affordable car." Hedging? The press stand was going nuts, and he was still hedging. The emotion was palpable.
President Shell Tomlin. "We all know those modern things cost money ... The Concept 1 is not a Beetle. I think people are going to be disappointed in it. I don't know if I would even have one."
Made in America
For good reason, Germans tend to be wary of history. Whenever the Beetle is mentioned as "Hitler's car" (referring to the fact that the Beetle was a car commissioned by Hitler), and a German VW executive is present, the unease is so palpable it can be cut with a knife. Too few Germans appreciated the romance and, ironically, innocence that Americans associate with the Beetle. Germans view it as a car that had its time and ran its course. To Americans who owned one, however, it was a pet, a child, a canvas. It became an icon for a time when young Americans felt more in touch with their lives' dreams and aspirations, and when life seemed simpler, less connected to technology. People had relationships with their Beetles like no other car before or since.
light a flame under the New Beetle: J Mays and Freeman Thomas. Mays, in his early forties when he began thinking about a new Beetle, was from Oklahoma and studied at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California. He was recruited by Volkswagen from his job at BMW in Germany to work at its Audi division. In 1991, he was named head of VW's new North American design studio in Simi Valley, California. Thomas, born and raised in California, also attended the Art Center College, and initially worked for Porsche's design studio in Germany When he was hired by VW, Thomas first worked in Germany and then moved to the design studio in Simi Valley.
1950s and 1960s. He drove Beetles of all kinds, from the basic model to one tricked out with the legendary Baja dune-buggy packaging. He drove a Beetle while attending Art Center College. "In my neighborhoods in Southern California, Cypress and Huntington Beach, the culture was and is very different than Detroit," said Thomas. "California is like Switzerland. We don't care what the rest of the country is doing. My neighborhood was a combination of Mustangs, Beetles, the newer Japanese cars, older Detroit Pontiacs and Chevys that had been preserved, Jeeps."
car, which would become the hit of the 1991 Tokyo Auto Show. It was a beautiful designa midengine, all-aluminum-body supercar that was inspired by the German Auto Union show cars and racers of the 1930s. It was an important experience for Mays, and it provided an important lesson to Thomas as well. Like VW, Audi had been driven to its knees in the United States. The company chose to unveil the Avus at the Tokyo Auto Showfor symbolic reasons. Japanese companies like Honda and Toyota won many of the customers that both VW and Audi lost in the 1980s. Therefore, Audi wanted to make a splash by introducing the Avus in its rivals' backyard. Mays said the lesson of the Avus, which energized the organization and stirred interest in the Audi brand with the press, was that a design was "an important piece of brand communication." Inspired by the Auto Union race cars of the 1930s, it also showed his German colleagues the value equity that is inherent in historic designs.
times past than any of his peers. There were, however, "lines and proportions" that remain timeless, Mays said. "You can take a design, if it was beautiful and enduring, and let it establish a tone. It would never be right to take an old design and just make it again." Though the Avus was a retro design appealing to people's emotions, it was packed with cutting-edge technology.
who was on assignment from Germany to the California studio. Both men were despondent over the sagging fortunes of VW in the United States, and they discussed the frustrating, long shadow that the Beetle cast over the company The subject often came up with people they knew outside of the company, especially previous Volkswagen owners. Discussions inevitably concluded with the sentiment, "You guys should never have gotten rid of the Beetle." Bill Young, president of Volkswagen of America at the time, concurred: "Every interview I did at that time would touch on the Beetle, and why didn't we bring it back somehow."
design. He reasoned that VW in Germany failed to grasp the importance of the Beetle as a symbol of the company and the Volkswagen brand. What was missing in Volkswagen, as far as Americans were concerned, was the very heart of the brand: the Beetle.
wouldn't give serious consideration to a new Beetle. "VW left an awful lot on the table when they stopped the Beetle in the late 1970s," says Donny Deutsch, whose ad agency pitched for the VW business in 1995. "There are all sorts of economic reasons why you do or don't build a car. It has to make a profit. You have to be able to sell enough to make it worthwhile. But this car was so much bigger than what a balance sheet would show. It was the heart of the brand in America. Volkswagen's problem throughout the 1980s was they operated too much like a global company Every big company is global, but there is a danger in acting too globally. Markets like America, Europe, Australia, [and] Japan are individual. It's not one global market. They have to be thought about as individuals."
immediately understood its importance. However, one potentially polarizing issue, recalls Thomas, was the varying viewpoints around the design studio regarding retro designs versus something new and forward-looking. Full of ego and pride, most designers hate the idea of resuscitating an old classic. They're certainly inspired by past designs, but at first no one beyond Mays and Thomas could conceive how to bring back a Beetle, with its totally unique shape, without stepping full-shoe into the footprints of designer Ferdinand Porsche. The other problem was that both men were technically working for Audi at the time when they started to conceive the New Beetle. It was also the last decade before the new millenniumno small importance. Designs were already in progress for Volkswagen and Audi that would keep the engineers busy for the last decade of the century. Few wanted to commit to making one of those designs the reincarnation of a 50-year-old idea.
Mays as they set about making a case for a new Beetle. Both were skilled enough to know it would not be that difficult to actually conjure a design. The template was there. Doubtless, any reinterpretation of the original Beetle certainly had to capture the unique geometry of the original form. The real challenge, they knew, was lining up the right allies within the organization to support and fund the idea. A new Beetle had been so controversial within VW's ranks that they had to make their initial forays with care before the idea finally reached Dr. Piëch. The designers needed open-minded friends in high places at VW who could recognize the concept's value.
of the secret Beetle project when design studio administrator Mike Toser confessed that a Beetle design was on the boards. "I thought it was a fantastic idea, especially with the guys at Simi Valley working on it," said Huyett. "If it could work, that was the place to do it, not in Germany." Toser asked Huyett for all the archival information and material he could lay his hands on about the importance of the Beetle in North America.
AG's marketing staff to come to the United States. Huyett and Waterhouse, plus VW Brand Chief Tom Shaver and Sales Director Steve Wilhite went to Simi Valley to meet with Mays, Thomas, and Toser. The designers wanted some advice from Huyett and the other executives from Volkswagen of America about selling the idea upstream to the Volkswagen organization in Germany.
by staffers as go-to people for approving risky projects. In this case, Mays and Thomas knew they had to get Dr. Helmut Warkuss on board. Design director at Audi when the idea for the Concept 1 emerged, Warkuss liked the sketches that Mays and Thomas sent him. He told the designers that Piëch would soon be named head of Volkswagen AG, and he would follow Piëch as design chief of the company In addition, everyone would have to endure the dramatic changes and restructuring of the company that Warkuss anticipated under Piëch before a design so controversial could advance. Their concept had an angel, though, and it would be shown to Piëch when the time was right.
truly believed it: Change comes from great product, not the other way around. Warkuss had some idea about the importance of the Beetle in North America, and he knew that Piëch didn't want to cut the cord in North America. Nor did Piëch want his legacy to be "The Man Who Pulled Volkswagen from America." Warkuss shrewdly figured that two young U.S. designers working in California were just the right people to plant the seeds for a new Beetle, and that Piëch could warm to the idea. Not least among his enthusiasms for the project: The sketches were great.
the project secret, keep working on designs, and refine the concept. "We had to keep the idea to ourselves, because at that time we couldn't sell it. If we had, it would have been killed before it got off our sketchpad," recalled Thomas.
Excerpted from getting the bugs out by DAVID KILEY. Copyright © 2002 by David Kiley. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.