Amid a flurry of confetti, the VW Beetle was ceremoniously squashed. After over seven decades of production, Volkswagen discontinued its iconic vehicle this past July. It is the end of an era. The Beetle is one of the longest-lived and best-selling vehicles of all time. Since the car’s inception, 22.7 million Beetles have been sold worldwide, making the Bug the second most sold car in history, topped only by the Toyota Corolla.
Having been born in the 1990s, my generation largely missed any sort of Beetle-boom. I missed the iconic “Think Small” and “Lemon” advertisements by a long shot and any notion of the vehicle as a counterculture car was merely from what I saw on the screen. Growing up, I refused to watch The Love Bug or any Herbie reboots time and time again during Friday night trips to the local video rental store. To my six-year-old brain it seemed old and outdated. I wanted to see Are We There Yet? with Ice Cube. My dad did not.
The punch buggy game did make it—an easy excuse for a tween to impose a little rebellion on his friends, cousins … parents? But besides that, the Beetle was not a big part of my life. And I would wager that it was not for a significant portion of my generation. My middle-school-aged brother does not even know the game. While the nostalgia remains, the era of the Beetle has come and gone.
The Mexican Bug
But that was not completely true when I visited family in Mexico. There, in the humid climate of the Yucatan, Beetles abounded. They rested in the shade alongside dusty sidewalks and pastel-colored homes. They sat, unnerved, on the side of highways as families inspected the machines, hoping to make a quick fix, effective enough to get home.
Best of all was the way in which they complemented, or even better, matched, their backgrounds. Lime green Beetle parked in front of a lime green wall. It had to be Latin America. White Beetle and pink and yellow background. Bright blue skies.
And they came in colors: reds, oranges, greens, or often, rust, trotting along bumpy streets, a relic of the past as newer cars flashed by. But I enjoyed the Beetles most when they were parked. In front of store fronts and houses they sat lazily, stationed perfectly as if staged. Cars so clunky that they were beautiful, light rebounding from their curved helmet-like frames. Best of all was the way in which they complemented, or even better, matched, their backgrounds. Lime green Beetle parked in front of a lime green wall. It had to be Latin America. White Beetle and pink and yellow background. Bright blue skies.
This combination of walls and Beetles is beautiful. I am not the only one to notice. The explosion of color and feeling of wistfulness is undeniably attractive to anyone who visits. Countless photography blogs or artsy Instagrams capture the Mexican Bug in its natural habitat. The Beetle, too unique to fully blend in, but perfectly placed. Cars, with little wheels and rusting fenders, alongside little houses with big doors and peeling walls. They seem at home.
And they are. In the last thirty years when the majority of the world moved on from the little car, the dying Bug found a new life in Latin America. Mexicans embraced the car and in turn the Beetle not only found a new home, but also a new sense of identity.
In Mexico, the Beetle is The Vocho. And it is not just another nickname for the funny looking car, the Vocho symbolizes something more. It symbolizes a distinctly Mexican cultural icon, one that somehow moved past its German origins and embedded itself into the fabric of Mexican cultural life. There are Mexican songs, Mexican jokes, Mexican art, and dozens of fan clubs dedicated to the little vehicle. “Although German by birth, the Volkswagen Beetle became as inextricably linked to modern Mexican culture as Frida Kahlo, mariachi bands and sugar skulls,” a BBC article explained a few years ago.
To understand the car’s place in Mexican society, you can start with the Vocho taxi. Anyone who visited Mexico City between the 1970s and early 2000s can attest to the omnipresence of the VW Beetle taxi. In a city of 20 million people, and four million cars, Vochos served for decades as taxis in the clogged metropolis. Initially green and white, and later red and yellow, the cramped two-doors were a staple of Mexico’s capital. In 2003, 80,000 Vocho taxis roamed the city, waiting at street corners and darting in and out of traffic. Even up until 2006, three years after the last original Beetle had been produced, the Vocho made up almost half of all taxis in Mexico City. That is a swarm of about 50,000 Bugs.
The ubiquity of the Vocho taxi was crucial to the car’s adoption as a cultural icon. The green and white Beetles were like the double-decker buses of London. When you went to Mexico they were just something you expected to see.
But it was not only the fact that the Beetles were used as taxis in Mexico City. People throughout the country owned the car. As my dad, who grew up in Mexico, explains: “Everyone knew someone with a Vocho.” For my dad it was his brother’s car, it was his aunt’s car, it was his friend’s car. It was the car in which he would practice learning to drive stick. At some point or another, everyone in Mexico had an experience with the Volkswagen Beetle. From first crash to first kiss, or even birth of first child, the Vocho was there, ingraining itself in the collective memories of entire generations of Mexicans.
It was not only the fact that the Beetles were used as taxis in Mexico City. People throughout the country owned the car. As my dad, who grew up in Mexico, explains: “Everyone knew someone with a Vocho.” For my dad it was his brother’s car, it was his aunt’s car, it was his friend’s car.
The Bug’s enduring impact on Mexico can still be seen today. In Valladolid, a colonial town in the Yucatan Peninsula, there is a hotel where you sleep inside colorful converted VW Beetles. In Taxco, a small, hilly town in the state of Guerrero, the Beetle remains king. Tough, nimble, and powerful enough to navigate the city’s steep and winding streets, the outdated Volkswagen is the official vehicle for the town’s fleet of taxis. In Cuautepec, a neighborhood in Mexico City, the Volkswagen Beetle has also found another home. While licensed taxis often avoid the area due to the neighborhood’s high crime rate, an informal network of Vocho taxis have thrived in their absence. The neighborhood sits at the top of a hill and its citizens swear by the Beetle’s ability to climb its inclined streets. So many Beetles exist in Cuautepec that the neighborhood is popularly known as Vocholandia.
Just a few decades ago Mexico was like Cuautepec, a haven for the Beetle while the rest of the world had moved on. But how did that come to be? How did a little German Bug travel across the Atlantic and become so ingrained in Mexican culture that it took on a new life and became adopted as a Mexican symbol?
That story—the story of the Beetle in Mexico—starts with a forward-looking prince and a very dangerous race. The first concessionary of Volkswagen in Mexico was Prince Alfonso de Hohenlohe, descendant of German royalty and godson of King Alfonso XIII of Spain. The Spanish-German Prince had long been determined to bring the Bug to Mexico. But he hit a snag.
In the early 1950s, Prince Alfonso de Hohenlohe reached out to Volkswagen, hoping to secure the company’s rights to distribute the little car in Mexico. To his chagrin, a local politician, General Martinez, had already beat him to it. Unwilling to give up, the Prince approached the General with a trick up his sleeve. Knowing that General Martinez had never actually seen the Beetle, Prince Alfonso de Hohenlohe brought a picture of the car to his meeting.
The first concessionary of Volkswagen in Mexico was Prince Alfonso de Hohenlohe, descendant of German royalty and godson of King Alfonso XIII of Spain. The Spanish-German Prince had long been determined to bring the Bug to Mexico. But he hit a snag.
Of course, the General was surprised. It is an odd-shaped little car, after all. There is a reason that a decade later Volkswagen would release an ad with the tagline “It’s ugly but it gets you there.” Disappointed by what he saw, General Martinez allowed the Prince to take over the franchise’s rights. Prince Alfonso de Hohenlohe had won.
It is hard to know what in that story is fact or fiction, but it sums up who the determined Prince was. He was clever, ambitious, and perhaps more than anything, he was charming. He seemed to have a way with people … particularly the ladies. He went through three marriages, the first to Princess Ira von Fürstenberg, the Fiat heiress, who at 15 years old had to receive a papal dispensation for marriage due to her young age. Their 16-day wedding was attended by hundreds of Europe’s elite. After they divorced five years later, the Prince dated Ava Gardner and Kim Novak, Hollywood’s biggest stars at the time.
Prince Alfonso de Hohenlohe was also an entrepreneur. Most notably, he developed a coastal fishing town in southern Spain— Marbella—and turned it into an opulent resort. He built his own luxury hotel, the Marbella Club, where he hosted the world’s elite including Audrey Hepburn and the Duke of Windsor. Nicknamed the “King of Clubs” and the “Little Prince,” he was center stage among the socialites of the 1950s as his relationships and extravagant adventures captured international attention. Creating fanfare was just in his nature. Which is why when the Prince acquired the first Volkswagen concession in Mexico, he knew what to do.
The Beetle first made its appearance in Mexico in 1954 at the “Germany and its Industry” exhibition, a major convention hosted at the National Autonomous University of Mexico’s newly inaugurated campus in Mexico City. The foreign car attracted attention, even from former Mexican President Lázaro Cárdenas who made a visit to inspect the curious vehicle. But the Bug’s presence at the fair was not enough. While it gave the public a taste of the foreign car and it generated some publicity, Prince Alfonso de Hohenlohe was thinking a little bigger.
He established the Central Volkswagen Distributor in Mexico City and then entered seven of the newly arrived VW Beetles into a race. But it was not just any race. It was the Carrera Panamericana, a 3211 kilometer race through Mexico, reputed to be the most treacherous competition in the world. Over its five years of existence, from 1950 to 1954, the race claimed 27 lives. In 1954 alone, the year in which the Beetles competed, four racers, two spectators, and a crew member were killed during the event. But despite its death toll and challenging terrain, the Spanish-German prince entered the little Bugs, determined to prove to a new Mexican market that the German cars were reliable and up to the test.
So alongside Ferraris and Porsches decked out with eight-cylinder engines, the seven cute, four-cylinder-engine Beetles took to the course. But in classic style, Prince Alfonso de Hohenlohe upped the stakes. He personally drove one of the seven competing Beetles, clocking in 30 hours of driving time by the end of the race. And if just participating in the deadly competition was not theatrical enough, he had the engines and gearboxes of all seven Beetles sealed prior to the event to prove that the oil would not be changed and no maintenance would be needed during the five-day race.
Alongside Ferraris and Porsches decked out with eight-cylinder engines, the seven cute, four-cylinder-engine Beetles took to the course. But in classic style, Prince Alfonso de Hohenlohe upped the stakes.
The 1954 Carrera Panamericana did not disappoint. Over the course of the event, cars caught fire and drivers fainted from exhaustion. One car flew off a bridge, while multiple contestants wrecked their vehicles avoiding stray dogs. Crashes were commonplace and drivers frequently exited the race due to injuries. But despite the incredible challenge, the Prince’s gamble paid off: all seven Beetles finished the race. Although coming in at the end of the pack, their completion of the course was a significant achievement. Only 85 of the 150 contestants managed to finish. And as the Prince promised, all the Beetles finished with no oil change, no mishaps, no maintenance.
The public was shocked by the Vochos’ strong performance. So much so that rumors circulated that the Beetles were actually modified and were using Porsche engines. An expert mechanic had to be brought in to verify the legitimacy of the Beetles’ showing. Sure enough, they were original and unmodified. The Vocho had made its mark.
The Dance Part One
Despite the theatrics, the Beetle did not flourish. It did not flounder either, but the domestic car market remained small and production continued to be limited. It was not until 1962 that this began to change. That year, the Mexican government declared that all cars sold in Mexico had to include at least 60 percent components made domestically. So Volkswagen responded swiftly: they opened a plant in Mexico. The new factory was located in Puebla, the central city known for driving out French invaders in 1862, an event commemorated by Cinco de Mayo. Over 100 years later, when production at the new plant began in 1967, the city was now driving out something new: the Volkswagen Beetle.
Volkswagen’s decision to adapt and open a plant in Mexico would prove to be crucial for the Beetle. Not only did moving production domestically allow for increased supply in Mexico, but it also helped associate the car with a product made in Mexico. The VW Beetle was solidifying its place as the Vocho, unique in its ability to blend its association with strong German machinery and a distinctly Mexican product worthy of nationalist pride.
In 1962, the Mexican government declared that all cars sold in Mexico had to include at least 60 percent components made domestically. So Volkswagen responded swiftly: they opened a plant in Mexico. The new factory was located in Puebla, the central city known for driving out French invaders in 1862, an event commemorated by Cinco de Mayo.
With the factory producing Beetles in Mexico, the Bug began to find its place within the Mexican car market. The Beetle was entering a Mexican market up to that point almost entirely geared towards the elite. General Motors and Ford dominated with their compactos and standards, larger cars for the upper class. The Beetle was different; it was, after all, meant to be for the “people.” Priced more affordably than its competitors, the little German car increasingly attracted Mexico’s urban middle-class, bringing car ownership to a segment of the population previously excluded from the market.
The car might have found its niche, but it still was not fully “the people’s car,” or el carro del pueblo, that it could later claim to be. Mexico’s urban middle-class—composed of managers, teachers, technicians, bureaucrats—was small, and slowly growing. From 1964 to 1980, the Bug’s targeted demographic grew only 4 percent, from 9.4 percent to 13.4 percent of the country’s population. Although the Beetle was a breakthrough for a portion of the population, car ownership was still unattainable for the majority. The vehicle was an exclusive commodity, a fact only exacerbated by dramatic economic problems in Mexico in the early 1980s. The Vocho still had not attained the cult status that it has today.
The Dance Part Two
That did not happen until the late 1980s when again the Mexican government imposed a new policy and Volkswagen responded adeptly. In 1989, the Mexican government declared that all vehicles being sold for less than 14 million pesos (roughly $5,000) would be eligible for significant tax breaks. Volkswagen responded. The only manufacturer to do so, the German automotive brand lowered the cost of the Bug to 13.75 million pesos, a 20 percent price cut for its funny looking vehicle. Unknowingly, the Mexican government had just prompted the foreign company to make a decision that would give the little vehicle its major boost.
The timing was impeccable, both for consumer and company. For Mexicans, the cars’ new affordability, coupled with Mexican development and higher incomes in the early 1990s, brought car ownership, but more specifically, Beetle ownership to consumers throughout Mexico. For Volkswagen, it gave the Beetle a new life. While the Beetle had fallen out of favor in Western Europe and the US, the Bug was finding a new home in Latin America.
The Volkswagen plant in Puebla was the last man standing, enjoying the longest uninterrupted production of the original Beetle from 1967 to 2003. That is a longer run than any other Volkswagen plant in the world, including in Germany.
In 1979, Volkswagen stopped selling the Beetle in the United States. By the 1990s that was true for all of Europe, as well. But while sales ceased in the United States and Europe, production continued and intensified in Mexico. Germany stopped producing the Beetle in 1978 and all production shifted to Latin America. When Brazil permanently stopped producing the Beetle in 1996, only Mexico was left manufacturing the iconic car.
The Volkswagen plant in Puebla was the last man standing, enjoying the longest uninterrupted production of the original Beetle from 1967 to 2003. That is a longer run than any other Volkswagen plant in the world, including in Germany. During those 36 years, more than 1.4 million Beetles were produced as Mexico supplied the world with the little Bug.
But the Mexican plant also supplied the Mexican market. With the Beetle’s price cut in 1989, the Vocho saw its heyday in Mexico in the early 1990s. Throughout Mexico, Beetles zipped around, while swarms of green and white Vocho taxis dominated Mexico City making the vehicle an icon of the Mexican capital. VW Beetle sales peaked in 1993 with almost 100,000 sales in Mexico alone.
The Beetle’s success in Mexico is largely a story of serendipitous timing. It was the right car for the right place at the right time. The price cut made the car affordable to Mexico’s burgeoning middle class. However, had the same price reduction occurred ten years earlier during Mexico’s economic crises of La Década Perdida (The Lost Decade) of the 1980s, the Beetle might not have taken off.
The Perfect Match
The Beetle’s design was also a great fit for the Mexican market. While the rear engine made the vehicle tough and able to navigate Mexico’s difficult roads, the simplicity of the car made the Vocho a car to be tinkered with and easily fixed, a fact that only played into the resourcefulness embraced by many Mexicans. Online you can read stories of Mexican Vocho owners reminiscing about amusing fixes that they used on their struggling Beetles such as taxi drivers replacing fan belts with pantyhose. Last, but not least, the car was accessible: it was being produced right there in Mexico after all.
The Vocho became a source of pride, and with its ubiquity, it became a Mexican icon. As a 1980s Mexican Volkswagen ad featuring a Beetle-shaped loaf of bread declared, the Vocho was as quotidian as el pan de cada día (the daily bread). The Beetle had become a staple of daily life. Which is why when Volkswagen decided to discontinue the original Beetle model in 2003, it was a big deal in Mexico. Although Vocho sales had significantly fallen and by and large the country was moving on, the Beetle had solidified its place in the collective memory of Mexicans.
The First Goodbye
To commemorate the ending of an era, Volkswagen released its last line of original Beetles in June 2003. The Volkswagen Sedan Última Edición (Final Edition) was a final retro run of 3,000 Beetles in “Aquarius Blue” with white wall tires, reminiscent of the Beetles first produced over a half century earlier. The last car left the production line in Puebla to the tune of a Mariachi band singing Las Golondrinas, a famous Mexican song about goodbyes, before being shipped to the Volkswagen Museum in Germany.
A series of ads in Mexico came with Volkswagen’s 2003 discontinuation of the classic Bug. The advertisements focused on a tiny parking space. Car after car tries unsuccessfully to fit into the spot until finally its left empty. In the empty parking space, the viewer reads: “Porque tu lugar nadie lo podrá ocupar” (No one will be able to take your place). In another version, the ad shows the same parking space with the text: “Es increíble que un auto tan pequeño deje un vacío tan grande” (It is incredible that such a small car leaves such a large emptiness).
Although the original Bug was officially dead, its evolved relatives remained. In 1998, Volkswagen had released the “New Beetle,” a revamped version with a front-engine and a built-in dashboard flower vase. Despite attempting to appeal to people’s nostalgia for the original car, the new version did not have the same effect. But the Puebla factory continued to churn out these models until 2011. The following year, Volkswagen gave the Bug a final try with a third version known as the A5. This version, featuring a redesign meant to appeal more to men, also failed to capture the public’s attention. The Beetle, always resilient, had continued to extend its lease on life for another 15 years, but it was struggling to stay alive.
The last car left the production line in Puebla to the tune of a Mariachi band singing Las Golondrinas, a famous Mexican song about goodbyes, before being shipped to the Volkswagen Museum in Germany.
By 2012, even Mexico City lost its iconic taxi. Citing the cars’ negative environmental effects, as well as the vehicle’s safety concerns, the capital city mandated that taxi drivers stop using the once-ubiquitous Bug. Government officials offered 15,000 pesos to drivers who turned in their outdated Beetles, hoping to speed up the process of eliminating the Volkswagen vehicles from the city’s streets. With laws ordering all taxis to have four-doors and Vocho taxi licenses left un-renewed, the era of the Vocho taxi came to an end.
While Beetles are not used as Mexico City’s taxis anymore, traveling throughout Mexico you still see the Bugs. They are parked next to pink houses in small towns and can be seen chugging along on bumpy streets in big cities. From those who collect and restore the car, to those for whom the original Beetle is still what suits their family’s needs, Mexicans continue driving their Vochos.
This Time For Good
But Volkswagen has again said its goodbye. This time apparently for good. And what better place for the little car to make its grand departure than in Mexico, among the people who have embraced the car and made it their own?
The Beetle took on new meaning. It adapted to its environment. It transcended its German origins and became something distinctly Mexican. Which is why in July, when the final Beetle rolled off the production line, it did so to the sound of mariachi music. Oom-pah be damned.
It is incredible how such a small car, had such a big impact on an entire nation. Beetle sightings might become increasingly rare, but even as the car’s physical presence diminishes, the impact of the little Bug will remain imprinted on the collective memories of entire generations of Mexicans. While the Beetle might die, the Vocho will live on.