The name change even if April Foolsy is indicative of what this change is all about.
The Volkswagen literally translates into German ‘the people’s car.’ It was Germany’s open emulation of America’s people’s car, the Ford Model T.
In terms of their looks and layouts, they were as different as a square and a circle. Henry’s car had a water-cooled, inline four-cylinder engine up front powering rear wheels, outback. It was angular and upright and jacked up off the ground to enable travel over America’s then mostly dirt roads.
As the first Volkswagen was affectionally called, the Beetle had its air-cooled horizontally opposed four-cylinder engine mounted in the rear on top of the rear wheels, and it was as round as the T was not.
It sat low to take advantage of aerodynamics and Germany’s new Autobahn system, which predated America’s Interstates by more than 20 years.
Yet both reflected the same wonderful concept—that of putting people behind the wheel, which opened up not just the road but possibilities that ordinary people of modest means had never previously had.
With a people’s car, whether it was the Model T or a Beetle, the people were mobile. Just like that, they were freed from the necessity of having to stay put or stay close. They could live at a distance from where they worked. They did not have to consider the proximity of the bus stop or the train station either.
Most of all, they were no longer riding and waiting on the government’s transportation schedule. They were able to come and go as they liked, whenever they liked.
And go wherever they liked.
Neither car was fast, although the Beetle was capable of a higher top speed, around 60 mph for the original 1930s version vs. about 45 mph for the T, with a tailwind. And both were basic, even by the standards of nearly 100 years ago.
But that was intentional. Both cars were designed to be inexpensive so that more people could afford them—practically anyone, in fact.
Both cars not only put a generation of people behind the wheel, but they also put future generations behind it, too. The Ts and Beetles purchased new by the former were hand-me-downs to the latter, providing those people with even more affordable mobility.
For many people, a used T or Beetle was their first “new” car. This was especially the case with the Beetle because they were still commonly available for next to nothing well into the ’80s and even the ’90s. I drove one during and after college—a ’74 Super Beetle purchased for $700 in the early ’90s.
It enabled me to work and save the money I earned, rather than spend it on a car payment to go to work. Whenever it needed work, I was able to fix it often without having to spend anything. It helped me buy my first house. These tangibles aside, it created cantankerous memories I cherish to this day, including the time the hood came unlatched on the highway and flew up against the windshield—the 1930s version of Drowsy Driver Alert.
I sold that car for about what I paid for it, and another person was put behind the wheel.
The Voltswagen and its electrified ilk will reverse all of this because most people cannot afford them. A Voltswagen—the pending ID.4—has a base price of $40,000 ($39,995 to be precise).
This is equivalent, in Volkswagen terms, to the cost of four 1965 Beetles, which sold for about $1,400 brand-new back in 1965, equivalent in today’s money to about $11,000 each.
Yes, of course, the Voltswagen comes standard with amenities the Volkswagen never offered, such as air conditioning and glowing electric screens to peck at for info. All of this is beside the point if people cannot afford it and most people cannot afford to spend $40,000 on a car, roughly twice the price of many non-electric economy cars.
The Voltswagen is also not owner-serviceable. There will be no Manual for the Complete Idiot, a reference that will be familiar to anyone who ever owned a Volkswagen. Apologists for the Voltswagen tout the elimination of the need to change engine oil and other grubby procedures. But when the Voltswagen does need a procedure, it’s off to the dealer, which, again, is no problem if you can afford to pay the dealer. How many people can?
The Volkswagen was for people who couldn’t. It kept them on the road that way instead of the poorhouse.
Younger people, especially. An old Volkswagen was their ticket not to ride but to drive without going broke. It empowered them financially as well as individually. They were no longer dependent on others for a ride or taking transit.
Volkswagens aged well. There are probably still more of them in drivable shape today than electric cars—notwithstanding that VW hasn’t sold a new old Beetle in the United States since the late ’70s, which was a long time ago.
The Voltswagen won’t last a long time because that’s not how it was designed. Batteries are inherently disposable and when it costs as much as a Beetle once cost, most people will not because they cannot afford to, which will make the Voltswagen disposable.
It’s a shame what we’ve lost and what’s been taken away.
Volkswagen had been making, until recently, a whole line of affordable people’s cars with stunning range (700-plus highway miles) plus Beetle-like longevity due to diesel engines. These were available for a little more than half the price (about $22,000 as recently as 2015) of the 2021 Voltswagen.
Volkswagen had another one in the works, too—a small, diesel-hybrid powered commuter car with the expected capability of 240 MPG. If it had ever been mass-produced, this one would probably have cost a great deal less than the Voltswagen, as its diesel-hybrid engine is (was) much less inherently expensive than the Voltswagen’s all-electric drivetrain.
It was small and wasn’t laden with amenities, but it would have been affordable, practical, and thus, a modern people’s car.
Instead, the people will get the Voltswagen, which most of them won’t because most won’t be able to afford the high price.
Eric Peters lives in Virginia and enjoys driving cars and motorcycles. In the past, Eric worked as a car journalist for many prominent mainstream media outlets. Currently, he focuses his time writing auto history books, reviewing cars, and blogging about cars+ for his website EricPetersAutos.com.
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.