Not Too Shabby Cabbie

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This is a 1996 Volkswagen Sedán Clásico. Now, at this point you’re probably thinking to yourself: yes, finally, we’re going to talk about the Mexican economic crisis of 1995. That’s right, today is the day. It’s exciting, I know, but please keep your shirts firmly on for just a bit longer, because there’s some housekeeping to do. Firstly, we are once again fortunate enough to find ourselves in parts unknown, so these next few cars will be from in and around the city of Puebla, Mexico (not so “unknown” then, I guess). Secondly, yes- those dogs are very cute, but they were singular in their intention to rip my throat out. Who says writing about cars doesn’t get the blood pumping? Thirdly and lastly, this is the fourth Beetle to be featured on Forgotten Metal, which may seem like I’m beating a dead horse (or in the Beetle’s case, a dead insect), but then again, the VW Bug never was quite what it seemed.  

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What else can possibly be said about the Volkswagen Beetle? We know its shady beginnings, and its routes in Nazi Germany. We know its odd second life as a car for the flower people in the throes of 1960s counterculture. And if you live in Europe or the United States, that would be pretty much the end of the story, if you count the “New Beetles” as a kind of epilogue. But in Mexico, the Beetle pulled a Book of Mormon and decided to add a third chapter, owing mostly to the huge factory that VW set up in 1967 in Puebla. Which is here. Which is neat. So that means, while the youngest iteration of the (classic) Beetle that you’ll find in the states is from 1978, Bug production (Bugduction? Bugtion?) carried on in Mexico until 2003. Which is kind of crazy if you think about it. In the 21st century, you could buy a brand new car that was essentially the same as one that first rolled off the assembly line in 1938. This car is from 1996, but you could easily plop it down in, like, postwar France or something, and no one would really bat an eye. You can’t really say that about a lot of cars. That is not to say, however, that VW did not do its best to update the Beetle, which is simply called the “Sedan” in Mexico, over the course of the car’s unnaturally long life. Mexican Beetles were a little different from their European-made counterparts, and if you’ve been around these parts before, you know what that means: it’s ridiculous minutia time. But first, let’s talk about tequila.

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The Tequila Crisis of 1994 was a financial mess brought on by the Mexican government’s sudden devaluation of the country’s peso against the American dollar. For fear of getting too technical (here’s an article for all you economists out there from, fittingly, the Economist), the Sparknotes of this whole story is that businesses that operated in Mexico had to gear up for a more stingy, risk-averse public. For Volkswagen, that meant keeping prices low by offering stripped-out versions of what Mexicans lovingly call the “Vochito.” This is a product of that. Well, kinda. Here’s the situation. VW split your Beetle options into two categories in 1996. You could have a Sedán City, in which you didn’t get such luxuries as armrests, rear seatbelts, or front disc breaks. It came in red or white. That was the one designed to make money, because ultimately, how many seatbelts do you really need? This is the other 1996 Beetle option, the Sedán Clásico, and in this you got such extravagances such as velour, vinyl and a fancy new four-pronged steering wheel. Plus it was available in green!

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The engine in the Sedán Clásico is a 1.6 flat 4 cylinder, which was first seen in the Beetle as far back as 1974. The 1.6, which was linked up to a four speed manual, was the last engine ever used in the Beetle, and it produced a paltry 44 horsepower, made paltrier as time went on (even VW’s own Pointer made almost double the horsepower of the Bug by the late nineties). Perhaps the MexiBeetle’s biggest achievement was its approval for use as the primary taxicab for Mexico City. That’s a car you’ve definitely seen before, too, because, just like the Checker Marathon became a kind of shorthand for New York City, so too was the green-and-white “Vochito” for Mexico’s capital. The Beetle cabs were first introduced to the city in 1971- the same year the 200,000th Mexican Beetle was produced. All the cabs had their passenger seats removed so that people could access the rear seats more easily. But that created a bit of a problem, because that meant that only two people could be taxied in a Mexico City Beetle. Which was a little inconvenient. So much so, in fact, that a few years later, the city introduced legislation restricting cabbies to strictly four-door cars, and in 2012, the last Beetle cabs were taken off the streets. Interestingly, the Mexico City Beetles used to be painted yellow, and only transitioned to the more iconic green-and-white in the mid nineties. The color change was accompanied by an improvement in the car’s emissions equipment in an effort for Mexico City to improve its air quality. It worked too.

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I’m going to wrap up with a story. When VW was first testing the waters in Mexico (which is dangerous if taken literally) in the fifties, one of the concerns that potential customers noted was the car’s reliability. Prince Alfonso Hohenlohe, meanwhile, was a club owner and a playboy, back in an age when it was classy and adventurous to be those things and not creepy. The Prince’s family also ran in the same circles as one Ferdinand Porsche, so when he heard about the plight of the Bug in Mexico, he took it upon himself to rectify the situation. Hohenlohe entered seven Beetles in the 1954 Carrera Panamerica, a grueling coast-to-coast rally on open roads across Mexico, which was considered by many to be the most dangerous automobile race of any kind. None of the cars won, but they all finished, which was enough for VW to create Volkswagen Mexicana, and for Prince Alfonso to open the company’s first distributor. Who would’ve thought that Hitler’s little napkin drawing would’ve found itself here, with the last Beetle ever produced, the Última Edición, rolling off the line in Mexico and being gifted to Pope John Paul II? But then again, the non-sequitur twists in this car’s story make Flannery O’Connor look downright predictable. In a way, it’s fitting that this is where the mysterious, the funny, and the downright odd story of the Beetle ends: down dusty Mexico way, like a well traveled ex-patriot drinking away his days under old Popocatépetl.

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Additional Thoughts:

  • Many people were suspicious that the Beetles that completed the Carrera Panamerica were actually running on Porsche engines. A Texan mechanic was able to dissuade those rumors.
  • Before the Puebla plant was built, Mexican Beetles were assembled using CKD (knock-down kits), and later at a small factory in Xalostoc.
  • Another note about that Puebla plant: today is it used to build cars that were effected by the whole VW emissions scandal. In the months following the scandal, the factory has cut Saturday shifts.
  • So while the Bug may have died in 2003, the old Bus soldiered on into 2013, (pretty much) unchanged from its introduction in 1967. I love new old cars.
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One thought on “Not Too Shabby Cabbie

  1. Pingback: The Dream Of The Nineties Is Alive! | Forgotten Metal

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