The Classic Modern

I like VWs. Old ones. Mostly transporter vans from the 1960s and 70s and Vanagons from the 80s. But really, I’m not too picky. Except when it comes to the modern day bug, or that hideous Euro van. Neither compares to the iconic past designs.

For the past few years I’ve often heard of Volkswagen’s plans to unveil a modern version of the original transport van, but I’m pretty sure it’s all hype. If VW actually comes through with it, my prediction is it’ll suck. They’ll round the boxy edges, fancy up the grill, make too many components automatic and put a computer in the engine. And I highly doubt the bubbly, tell-tale sound of the motor will remain. No way. Their upgrades will eliminate all that makes the oldies so doggone cool.

A modern VW classic will become something like the PT Cruiser—meant to resemble an ageless style but in reality, a cartoonish, forgettable and unreliable flash in the pan. Sort of like when the US mint rereleased the new Buffalo Nickel. Or when Hollywood remade the likes of Total Recall or Point Break. Just horrible. No soul. The cinematic exception might be True Grit. But still, without John Wayne it’s merely a namesake.

I’m completely against reinventing what’s already nostalgically grooved into our brains. We ought to let old things stay old while passionately inventing the vintage of tomorrow. This, no doubt, is a huge challenge. But it’s so, so worth it.

I’ve owned a few old vans and bugs over the years. I often sought out parts to replace thrashed originals. I never gave much thought to the fact that these parts regulary came from Mexico. Took for granted the fact that I could get new parts for my ’72 bug from south of the border.

Turns out classic VW bug and van designs were still coming off the assembly line in Puebla, Mexico until the early 2000s. The transport van, known as a “Combi” in Mexico, had the longer run, lasting from 1950-2001. But bug production totaled more than 21.5 million units when the last one rolled away in 2004.

These days, classic VWs are everywhere in Mexico City. But technically speaking, they aren’t true classics. Certainly their style mirrors those of my childhood, but people in Mexico shopped for Honda Civics in lots that also sold brand new VW Bugs. Though there are VW enthusiasts in Mexico, I wonder if the vintage nostalgia is less prevalent than in the US? For an American, associating one’s self with a vintage VW is loaded with meaning. It’s a cultural phenomenon.

For two weeks I wandered around Mexico City taking photos of the classic VWs I saw. But after a few days (and a couple hundred pictures), I had to stop. I couldn’t keep up. Some were dilapidated and covered in a layer of smoggy film, but plenty looked straight out of the showroom. Probably because they were barely ten years old. Relatively new by all accounts.

The rules for automobile manufacturing in Mexico are different than those in the states. In order to register a Mexican VW in America you need to do some major upgrades which will cost a chunk of change. This is likely why the roads in el norte aren’t crawling with Mexican produced later models. If they were, my heart probably wouldn’t race when I hear an approaching VW bug. Nor would the sight of a cherried-out van cause stories of family road trips to flood out. And that would be a bummer.

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