Tuesday, June 3, 2014

The Car Tangent, part 9...

Before the IDx was unveiled, before the Challenger was resurrected and well before Fiat and Mini had modern releases there was one company that remade an icon. More important they remade it right. Volkswagen unveiled a car called the Concept One at the 1994 North American Auto Show, the show held in Detroit. It looked very much like a modern interpretation of the classic Beetle. The public fell in love with the car and pushed Volkswagen to pursue it. The following year a revised design was unveiled that looked a lot closer to the final design of the New Beetle. Volkswagen seemed to move quickly to the feedback. The car went on sale in 1997 and became an instant hit.

A generation had passed since the Beetle had last been seen in the US. Although the car continued to be manufactured in Mexico up until 2003 not many of those cars ended up in the USA. Advances in technology, safety and performance made the little car antiquated. People still desired the quirky shape. It was bold compared to the homogenized look of most mass produced passenger cars. But fans also wanted modern components under the body as well. Volkswagen engineers and California designers J Mays and Freeman Thomas collaborated to determine what a modern Beetle would look like and how it would exceed the expectations of drivers. Few could argue that what they came up with was nothing short of inspired.

No sooner did the Beetle hit the road than people began wondering out loud when the VW Microbus would get a remake as well. The "Bus" which we would call a van was almost inseparable to the Beetle in '60s counter-culture America. People seemed to equate the van to hippy culture and early environmentalists. Even the Pixar film Cars featured an organic fuel growing hippy bus named Fillmore. The SUV was a big seller in the US but people were longing for something more unique than the boxy shaped road tanks. Volkswagen was listening and wanted to predict where the curve was headed. The SUV was indeed popular but also a huge gas guzzler. If the Bus were to get a remake then it would have to be far more economical than any SUV. The engineers developed a couple of different concepts that they unveiled publicly.

One remake, dubbed the Bulli focused on hybrid technology, alternately switching between a gas engine and electric motor depending on necessity. The technology was sound and mileage very good for a large passenger car, however the public took exception to the shape. The profile was more aerodynamic than the original Bus and the mileage had been increased but the addition of a hood made it look like an SUV or wagon. The public wanted the Bus to retain its classic shape, similar to how the Beetle had been remade. Volkswagen engineers found that challenge difficult to meet. Both the classic Beetle and early Bus models had rear-mounted air-cooled motors. They were small and out of the way, giving plenty of interior space. Modern engines were water cooled and required more space. The trunk that used to be in the front of the Beetle now had a motor under the hood. The Microbus was given an engine compartment at the front as well and this changed its basic shape. Even the more streamlined all-electric Bus concept still had a bit of a bump at the front. This may have been more aerodynamic design and a better safety feature for head-on collisions but to audiences the concept Bus just did not work. 

German engineers managed to get a revisionist Beetle to work and they also had a hand in bringing back the Mini. Engineers at BMW were looking for a way to relaunch the British Mini but by incorporating everything they had learned over a lifetime of working on performance cars. They developed an engine and platform that would compliment either a BMW model or Mini model. This allowed designers the leeway to create a unique body and interior around the new base. The result was a car that maintained the familiar shape but was actually much larger than the original Mini and larger than most compact cars.

Most people did not seem to mind that the Mini was not that small, especially those in the USA. The car did not originally have a big of a following in the states. It was not mass produced in North America like the original Beetle. This was a second chance for the Mini to become a major player in a big market. Very few car companies would ever get a second chance to make the right impression. A solid ad campaign in print, television and online made sure that by 2001 the Mini was the most desirable new car on the road. People were willing to pay some heavy mark ups for a new Mini rather than put their name on a waiting list because the demand was so high. Both the Mini and the Beetle had managed to make triumphant returns. The tiny cars helped carry their respective nations back from brink of economic collapse following World War II. Both England and Germany had made leaps and bounds with automotive technology for over half a century. They were willing to incorporate all those lessons into their iconic rides and make them the platforms that would move the rest of the world.

The US was learning too, perhaps a little late, that a legacy should always be honored. Great cars defined a nation and helped shape a culture. The Big Three began rethinking what the Mustang, Corvette, Charger and Challenger muscle cars could become to the present era. They managed to meet every expectation and would undoubtedly inspire a new generation of car buffs in the process. There was one little car however that would be joining the relaunches. It would take advantage of the road paved by the Beetle and Mini, and more important from the Big Three during their time of crisis. We shall look at the last but certainly not least of the little cars that moved the world in the next blog.

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