Paul Batura: Bye, bye Volkswagen Beetle -- Rest in peace

This week marks the end of the line for production of the Volkswagen Beetle, the iconic German car first produced in an era of war and later embraced by a Hippie culture that was hungry for peace.

In between, the “VW Bug” was a hit with cost-conscious Americans who appreciated the vehicle’s low price, diminutive size and corresponding fuel efficiency, especially during the gas shortages of the 1970s.

First produced as Adolph Hitler’s vision of the “people’s car” in 1938, the instantly recognizable rounded silhouette design would eventually become the most produced car in history. Over the years, tens of millions of them would be seen on American streets.


Like many people, my first car was a VW bug. In 1989, I purchased my 1974 gold Beetle from Jim Cahill, a friend from our church. I paid $1,200 for it, money earned by working in our parish rectory, mowing lawns and delivering newspapers.

I loved my bug, but there was just one problem – I didn’t know how to drive a stick shift.

Learning as I drove presented all kinds of embarrassing challenges, from stalling in the middle of a major intersection (and getting a ticket for going through a red light) to failing to properly shift into first gear and apply the emergency brake before getting out in a downpour.

“Mister, mister!” a young kid yelled to me through the raindrops. “Your car is rolling away!”

I somehow managed to chase down the runaway vehicle, dive back into the car and apply the brake – right before it would have plowed into a tree.

My friends also had fun with the car, once picking it up and turning it around out front our high school.

In time, I got the hang of driving it, though the car would begin to vibrate if I took it over 55 mph, a flaw that didn’t seem to bother my mother or father.

The clean exterior belied the ripped up interior and exposed seat springs. Old cushions from our porch dulled the poke. The gas gauge was also busted. “But don’t worry,” Jim had told me. “I put a ping-pong ball in the gas tank. When it starts to rattle around, you’ll know it’s time to fill-up.”

But none of that bothered me. After all, it was my own car and no matter how dilapidated, it beat walking or riding my bicycle.

I loved my bug, but there was just one problem – I didn’t know how to drive a stick shift.

It’s always been interesting to me that the Beetle managed to achieve a level of cultural status that no other cars seemed to muster. From their popularity with the anti-war crowd to Hollywood’s “Herbie” movie franchise, the vehicle model has always been more than just an efficient mode of transportation.

Those of a generation will remember that the Volkswagen Beetle was even featured prominently on the cover of the Beatle’s famous Abbey Road album, the car’s “LMW 281F” license plate even spawning a conspiracy theory that Paul McCartney had died.

According to the rumors buzzing across the radio and magazines back then was that the plate was signaling McCarthy would have been 28 years-old – if he were still alive.

Of course, Sir James Paul McCartney wasn’t dead, and in fact, is still performing today. As it turns out, the Beatles always claimed the car just happened to be there for the photoshoot – either a happy coincidence, given the popularity and prevalence of the VW Beetle or a brilliant marketing ploy.

One suspects the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

Over the years, I’ve noticed that you can hear a Volkswagen Beetle long before you see it. That’s because the air-cooled rear-mounted engine operates its valves by mechanical means, producing a tinny, “click-click” sound – unlike motors today that use more modern technology.


In the end, it seems appropriate that the instantly recognizable sound of the German-born vehicle precedes the sight of the actual car. That’s because, in my hallway of high school memories, I can still hear that engine and see my buddies all packed inside of it, laughing and riding together.

Rest in peace, Volkswagen Beetle.