Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Messing With An Icon

Yesterday, Volkswagen unveiled its redesign of the iconic New Beetle. As VW explained it, they wanted to make the Beetle more masculine—which is another way of saying, they want more male buyers. In the process of refocusing the car for a wider market, I believe they sacrificed an icon. They should have just let the Beetle die a dignified death.

When a prototype of the New Beetle first appeared in 1995, the stunning bauhaus design captivated the public. The New Beetle paid homage to the original Beetle and eclipsed it at the same time. The New Beetle's sublime elegance was consistent inside and out. Every detail of the car played in concert with its design theme. Clearly, this was not a car designed by committee or by a marketing department. The result was a product reminiscent of the iPod or iPhone, and the New Beetle carried the same cachet. The New Beetle was an instant classic.

In recent years, VW attempted to massage the New Beetle's design with new bumper designs and fender creases to try and nudge the car in a more masculine direction. They shouldn't have bothered. The first production version of the New Beetle was a near-perfect design. These attempts at improvement only blurred its image. This latest revision is a complete remake of the New Beetle, now called simply, the Beetle.

USA Today Article

The marketing department's complaint about the New Beetle was that it was a "girls' car" and was therefore missing market share. This female identity problem raises a broader question about how we as a culture identify with our cars, and how we use our car's image to project things about ourselves that may or may not be true. For example, we see young married women driving over-sized SUV's—cars they wouldn't be caught dead in if they were single. Likewise, the short balding gentleman in the Corvette would never have considered such a car when he was young and virile. We wear our cars, the same way we wear fashions. Sometimes the goal is to remake ourselves into something we wish we really were.

I speak from experience about this subject, because I've lived at the extremes. I've owned several Ferraris over the years. I love the design and engineering philosophy at Ferrari, so that explains my interest in them. While many people who can afford a Ferrari won't buy one because they feel it will make them appear ostentatious, I went ahead anyway. The point of driving it wasn't to impress anyone. I just loved the design, the sound and the road handling.

But it wasn't that simple. Even with my good intentions, the hours spent behind the wheel of a Ferrari did affect my connection to my world. The Ferrari transported me into a universe that was clearly more fantastic than the one I actually lived in. I became noteworthy simply because of the car I drove. And this is a bad thing, you ask? It's only a bad thing if it stunts your growth and clouds your vision. In this way, a car can be like a drug. I instinctively knew it was time for a change—to get the horse back out in front of the cart again, so to speak.

I sold my last Ferrari a few years ago. No regrets. Its replacement caused a number of friends—people who had based their fantasy lives on mine—to launch into full blown identity crises. The Ferrari was replaced by a New Beetle in appliance white. It's the original 1998 version, before VW tried to improve it.

Sometimes less is more.