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The new(er) Beetle and iconic design

2011 April 24

It feels a bit like the end of an era, to me: Volkswagon has announced that its “New Beetle” is being replaced by a newer Beetle with an intentionally much-different style:

2012 VW Beetle

Jamie McCarthy photo, from NPR.org story

The 2012 Beetle design is an open and acknowledged effort to make the car look more “masculine” than the 1990s “New Beetle;” VW’s web site uses the tagline “More Power, Less Flower.” Which almost seems gratuitous given the aggressive design of the car; doesn’t the picture say “3,000% more testosterone” just by itself?

I don’t know, frankly I’m a little puzzled by this move. Granted that even in my years of freelancing for a half-dozen different ad agencies large and small, I’ve never really worked on much of anything for the automotive industry. And I’ve obviously never designed cars or made strategic marketing decisions about the direction for those designs.

In fact, for what it’s worth, in my last car purchase I pretty much intentionally selected the most boring car in America. Which would of course be the Toyota Camry… which, come to think of it, may be a very good parallel with the VW Beetle in that both “ultimate chick car” and “most boring car in America” strike me as perfectly good “product spaces.” And both are, nonetheless, apparently unsatisfactory to the manufacturers who in both cases have attempted to design and market the vehicles away from those reputations.

Since neither car can be considered a sales dud (indeed, part of the reason why the Camry has a reputation as boring is its ubiquity), I can’t help wondering about the motivation to shed their reputations. Is it really a business decision? Or is it more an emotional desire by designers and marketing directors to compete for a more “prestigious” reputation, which, in the automotive world, presumably involves power, “oomph” and an aggressive, masculine sexiness?

I don’t know. I have read that VW is making a push to rival Toyota for largest carmaker in the world, and that this will require considerable gains in the American market. Given the fact that not only is VW’s most-recognized vehicle “the ultimate chick car” but, furthermore, the company’s products account for three of Car Talk’s top five “chick cars,” it might be that the Beetle redesign is motivated by a broader strategy.

Car Talk’s list flatly states that “anything by Volkswagen is a chick car.” To be honest, I was amazed that nearly two in five (old) New Beetles are purchased by men; I would have guessed the fraction was smaller than even that. In any event, it’s conceivable that if VW does indeed have an overall “chick car” reputation, it might see greater appeal to male car-buyers as essential for significant sales growth. And thus, repositioning the most prominent symbol of that “chick car” reputation may well be a “statement” to the market at large, rather than an attempt to “fix” anything specific to the Beetle.

(All speculation, of course, but you know I’ve just about got myself convinced, here, all the same; I should start getting paid for this stuff really.)

Anyway, all of that is (or is not) VW’s perspective; changes to something with such an iconic status in culture is bound to have significance beyond just the company which officially owns the design. Unsurprisingly, even the few comments I’ve seen have included protests along the lines of: “They ruined a classic design.”

Of course, I suspect that the same things were said when the previous New Beetle itself debuted… in any event, I’m reminded of the recent redesign of Wonder Woman, and the lengthy investigation into iconic designs and our relationships with them which it inspired (see parts 1, 2, 3, and 4). As with Wonder Woman and most iconic graphics, complaints of “ruining” raise the thorny question of whether and how it’s possible to actually ruin a work which is an ephemeral idea, made incarnate by mass reproduction.

Perhaps the best short answer to this question, as far as I’m concerned, is a Raymond Chandler quote which has long been one of my favorites. Indeed, I’m surprised that I apparently haven’t used it on Modern Ideas before now. I can’t find a source for it, but honestly, whatever; even if it is apocryphal the idea is still valid. So, allegedly,

…someone asked Raymond Chandler once what he thought of Hollywood ruining all of his books. And he took them into his study and pointed up to the shelf where they all were, and he said, “Look, they’re there. They’re fine. They’re okay.”

Likewise the New Beetle, Wonder Woman’s costume, and even the UPS logo, really; sure, there’s nothing wrong with debating the merits of one design vs another, but in some sense, at least, a good design is never truly “ruined.”

These relatively weighty speculations aside, meanwhile, for me personally the retiring of the old “New Beetle” design prompts a reaction of somewhat bittersweet pleasure. (Warning, it’s all very-misty-eyed nostalgia from this point on. Eye-rolling likelihood: high.)

I take some pleasure from VW’s discontinuing the old “New Beetle” not, mind you, because I dislike the design. I’m actually quite fond of it and it’s for that reason, perhaps ironically, that I’m in some ways happy to see its era draw to a close.

For me, the old “New Beetle” will always be associated with happy memories of the late 1990s, and shall hereafter be the “1990s Beetle” even though it of course persisted more than a decade into the 21st century. The 1990s Beetle always reminds me of my student days at dear auld ISU, and a kind of subtle but lasting design-joy at both the cute and cheery appearance of the Beetle itself, which never failed to bring a smile to my face, and the odd, wonderful synchronicity between the 1990s Beetle and the original iMac.

Both of them began appearing here and there around campus within a short time of each other; both were very overtly-designed objects at a time when I was just learning to take a conscious interest in the design of things; both shared a rounded, friendly, baby-toy appearance which some loved and some loathed but which, either way, seemed to have an obvious connection, at least as I saw it.

I never had one of the “space egg” iMacs, in any color, and have never driven a New Beetle nor really had any desire to own one… but it made me happy to have them around.

And now, the life of both as “active” products is over, both have in a sense gone “out of print,” and this too makes me happy. Because they’re still around, but in a different way. The original iMac and the 1990s Beetle are now fixed in history; they’ve always represented a specific era, for me, and now the completed production run of both attaches them to that specific era in a more literal sense, too. And that feels “right” to me, and makes me happy.

Literally, of course, it’s 2011, and the production run of what I think of as the “1990s Beetle” was mostly after the 1990s ended, having begun only in ’97. But it still arrived in the 1990s, and even if it stayed around for another decade, I think that conceptually it belongs to the halcyon days of 1999 and earlier.

Again, per my idiosyncratic and personal organization of the world into conceptual boundaries and symbolic relationships, the iMac and 1990s Beetle just belong together, and belong to the era when they first appeared alongside one another. An era which, at least in retrospect, the pair’s cheery, rounded-off, safe-and-happy appearances seem to complement, in notable contrast with the era and attitudes which have followed the closing of the 1990s and the discovery of what seems to be the “new normal” in the 21st century. The aggressive, even borderline-edgy, lines of the 2012 Beetle certainly seem more in-step with the times, now, for good or ill.

Hm. I can’t actually decide where in all of this stuff the “weighty speculations” really lie, now. Probably “e) none of the above,” but oh well.

Roll on, loveable rounded Bug. Thanks for a lot of smiles; as long as memory persists you will no doubt keep on prompting many more.

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