Thursday, January 15, 1998
Beetle revs up for nostalgia trip

BY LAURA PULFER
The Cincinnati Enquirer

It has always been convenient to be a baby boomer. The world is our personal shopping mall with everything available in vast quantities, just when we need it. Services abound, just for us. In return, we have enthusiastically spent our way through the economy like a giant pig through a python.

Just ask Miracle Ear and Rogaine marketers if they see growth ahead for their products. We're aging. And, of course, a natural part of the aging process is nostalgia. Although we like being in our peak earning years, we also like remembering how it felt to be young.

Cute, sturdy, cheap

No wonder the new Volkswagen Beetle was a sensation at this year's auto show in Detroit. At some point in their lives, most boomers either had a Bug or wanted one. They were cute. They were sturdy. And, best of all, they were cheap.

''You could tool around all weekend,'' says my friend, Paul, ''on three bucks worth of gas.''

Never mind that the heater never worked. Not that it was broken, but it just never actually provided any warmth. Driving with one hand and scraping the windshield with the other was part of the fun. It went unremarked, as did the rust, the noise and the rear-end shimmy.

Now comes a VW Bug that's as good as we remember. And then some.

''Its little butt is not going to shake,'' says Scott Stockwell of Century VW in Loveland, ''but the inside will look just like the old ones.'' Including the bud vase, he says.

Bud vase? No tofu tub or smoke detector? He claims the bud vase was standard on the original. By the time my friends got their Bugs, I guess the vase was gone and the hole covered by a Grateful Dead decal.

Aileen Ettensohn says she can't remember vases either. She should know. Director of nursing for RHMR Inc., she raised six kids ''in beautiful downtown Dent,'' and every one of them had a Bug. Secondhand. ''As I remember, they all cost $300.''

Thirty years ago, a new one cost less than $2,000. Sticker price on the 1998 model is $15,200, which includes passenger grab handles, running boards, power locks and air bags.

The Ettensohn kids formed a caravan for a family wedding in July 1970 when Mrs. Ettensohn says the girls had a ''hard time squeezing into the Bugs with their long dresses. But they didn't mind. They just loved those cars.''

A grudging introduction

Germans were never as hot for the Bug as we were. Developed after the war when Germany was rebuilding, it came to represent hardship, Auto- Week's Matt DeLorenzo reports.

''To celebrate such a car would be like Ford doing a '90s version of a Model T pickup to celebrate the Joads' trip from Oklahoma to California during the Great Depression.'' But when the ''Concept 1'' was half-heartedly unveiled at the 1994 auto show, reaction was swift and warm. From Americans. ''We were almost forced by the customer to make it a real car,'' VW Chairman Ferdinand Piech says.

Four years later, at this year's show, a VW official gushed, ''It's a legend, a dream.'' A critic sniffed that it is merely a ''niche-oriented boutique car.'' But when that niche is occupied by baby boomers, it becomes a very big boutique indeed.

By the end of March, you should see them around here. About 60,000 Beetles, produced in Mexico, are earmarked for North America. Mr. Stockwell says he has sold eight of them, ''sight unseen,'' including a man, whose first car was a Bug. ''He came to buy a first car for his son.''

So, the torch has been passed. The time has come for a new generation of transportation hardship stories. Our parents told us that they walked five miles to school in the snow. Now it's our turn.

Our eyes will mist, our voices quaver as we explain to our children that we gallantly drove our little Beetles without CD changers, beverage holders or heated seats.

Laura Pulfer's column appears in the Enquirer on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call 768-8393 or fax 768-8340. She can be heard Mondays on WVXU radio (91.7 FM), and as a commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition.

PULFER ARCHIVE