The Friday-dressing car? Tech-billionaire’s new toy?

Hitler would have hiccups and spin in his grave at the same time if he knew. He’d commissioned this car – or rather its daddy – for the fatherland. To be the ‘people’s car’. But this laptop-generation hippie is light years from what the Fuhrer would ever imagine, enough to give him a mild seizure right in the middle of his Mein Kampf.

How should I describe it? Let’s see, if you put Peter Pan, Einstein and Moby in a room together, this is what you’d get. A car with the self-possessed cool of an IMac, the buzz of a rock star and design that a spaceship would envy.

You can put those jaws together now. There is no doubt about it. This is the wunderkar, the new Volkswagen Beetle. The car to trade the Merc when the weekend hits. At a whopping 14 lakhs and climbing, a car for the fat of wallet and swanky in taste, a collectors item. A car for the non-conformist, and a mascot of change.

Hitler would bark, he certainly would, if he knew that the economy car that first trundled out of Germany is now a prize possession, the toy of the yuppies and technobiz billionaires. But nearly seven years ago, this was the definitive quirky car that blew minds all over car-crazy America. And it’s now set to clear traffic down Marine Drive. Or create a traffic jam, whichever way you look at it. And even though I can just about afford the rear fender, I’m excited.

I know this is the kind of car Andy Warhol would’ve driven, if not immortalised, making it a pop art hero. But then, the new Beetle is already part of legend.

Its forefather – the Classic Beetle was pulled out of Nazi grimness and adopted by the Flower Power generation. And then celebrated in the pot-smoking days of free love, idealism, starry eyes and rock n roll. Take a chair now – Five million beetles were sold between 1949 and 1979, and most of them in the Summer of Love.

But where the Classic Beetle starred in Hollywood movie ‘Lovebug’, and was chauffeured by loveniks, flared jeans, kurta and rastafarian braids to Woodstock in the 1960s, the new Beetle now transports gel spiked hair, and sharp duds and honours driveways in snobnosed Nottinghill, garages off Central park and the inclines of San Francisco. And to think it once used to be driven by old Parsis.

While the classic Beetle draws nostalgia, the new one evokes envy. A case in point.

The place: The highway ribboning to downtown Chicago. A SUV (Standard Utility Vehicle ) tears up tar behind us. Then, it spies the small silver smiling bug singing to the wind. The SUV sidles in slyly for a closer look. Notice, the driver in the SUV is not concentrating on the road. Two seconds, and the SUV has to pull his way out of an oncoming Mac truck. Advantage Beetle!

I’ve heard it invite a lot of complimentary adjectives, “oh!?” “er..” “and “whoa” being the commonest. But even if I am a crusader for its drive and a sucker for its looks, the new VW Beetle has its share of evil.

People stare. Curiously, unabashedly. Like you’ve just stopped over from Mars – antennae et al, or have your fly open or have forgotten your clothes at home. Be burdened with the attention heaped on a movie star. Prepare to be accosted by complete strangers. From paanwallahs to old Parsi women, who will tap you on your starched shoulder and ask questions. From an wide-eyed “What is this?” to a smug “How much did it cost?” And of course, wiping off fingerprints every time you go back to your parked car will become a necessary ritual.

But, then, smile when you consider the upside: how the female species especially the young nubile variety – for whom you were invisible man till date, suddenly become an intricate part of your universe. Just be careful where you go. It’s the curse of the VW beetle. Everyone will know where you’ve been.

All things considered, I’d still say its greatest talent is that it can make even the most road-hardened trucker, who’s been at the wheel all the way from Haryana to Bombay non-stop, crack a greasy grin.

True to its roots – and its advertising “If you sold your soul in the 60’s here’s your chance to buy it back” it brings people together.

Sitting inside a Chicago deli I saw a couple stop in the middle of an argument as a Beetle slid into a parking space and then together turn and ask the driver about the car. Which is why it doesn’t really surprise me that along with the hippies’ VW micro bus it became an icon of flower power, of love. It was well-deserved.

The new beetle is cleverly retro, not severing its umbilical cord, sticking only with the features that made it an icon.

And yet it fits perfectly into this palmtop life and almost non-existent parking space. Pack your driving worries into the ample space in the trunk, this bug has been built to shimmy its way through traffic, with happy demeanour. And though it may be named after the insect family Coleopteria for its compact and intelligent design, at 60 miles per hr. it has all the growl of a tiger.

The design however takes a bit of a toll on headroom. But if the average American can emerge unscathed, exhibiting no bump on his head then an Indian should have no room to complain. Speaking of which, it doesn’t have the legroom of first class, but is definitely and comfortably spacious thanks to a truly deep dashtop. And though the black or grey interior, luxury and leather packages are standard, I’d ask you forget about trying anything other than sitting on the backseat.

Underneath the skin, the new Beetle is thoroughly modern, the engine, the transmission brakes and suspension borrowed from the Volkswagen Golf which is a very good car.

Front wheeled engine and front wheeled drive as opposed to the Classic Beetle’s rear-engine and rear wheel drive, water cooled where air and oil once kept the engine at sane temperatures, the new car has almost nothing in common with the old. Except its shape. Which I suppose is the feature its popularity is most based on – going from the fact that it speaks to mommies and clubbers, war veterans and hippies alike.

Even its most basic form it boasts more than twice the grunt of the old one. The hoarding you pass quite rightly announces “Less flower. More power.” Acceleration is brisk, and for all its gentle disposition it won’t hesitate to shame a Japanese small car on the road.

Now if the tech specs don’t get you maybe the bud vase will. A tribute to flower power? Who knows, but its sits there on the elegant, minimalistic, curving dashboard that can be bathed in a blue light at the flick of a switch further propagating the mind-bending vibe of the sixties.

It doesn’t take long to fix your heart on a Beetle, but believe me you have to get the colour right. And deciding that, can successfully turn your hair a fine shade of grey. The Beetle flaunts colours more psychedelic than the free love generation could ever have visualised, even after ten pulls on a pipe. You could put your finger on the Vortex that the brochure says is ‘a blue on ten cups of coffee’. Or on Reflex, almost a blazing sunflower yellow. Or maybe the Lime. Looking back, it’s easier to hand over the 14 lakhs.

Now to those who plan to show-off a Bug in their driveway, there’s three laws you should follow. One: Don’t embarrass it with a bumper sticker that says ‘My other car is a Merc.” It has too much dignity for that. Two: Don’t make any enemies. Three: Unbutton those cuffs. Lose the stiff lip. And gain some patience for all the raised eyebrows. And yes, you’d better book now. Import is being limited to just 100 units per year.

What would Hitler say? Well, who cares. Give thanks Hitler is dead. Give thanks it’s the 2000s and you can flaunt your eccentricity down the road. But once, just for a tiniest fraction of a second – and even if the politically correct flog me for it – for the car he gifted to the world, Heil Hitler.



(Published in the Sunday Times supplement)

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