Volkswagen AG’s decision to end production of the Beetle from next year will make readers of a certain age feel a touch nostalgic. Few, though, will be surprised that the vehicle that captured hearts in the movie “Love Bug” has met its demise.
VW’s North American arm sold just 15,000 of the mass-market model last year — a derisory number for a vehicle that was created to be the “People’s Car.” Indeed, with the hippy generation now entering retirement, “Think Small” appears to have had its day and soulless, gas-guzzling SUVs are taking over the roads.
Happily, though, that’s not the whole story. The Beetle, also known as the Type 1, may be dying out, but the counter-cultural spirit of the Type 2 — the VW camper — is set to live on, albeit modified for a more materialistic, comfort-seeking age.
Consider the VW California, one of Europe’s top-selling camper-vans. Even the basic model will set you back 43,000 pounds ($56,000) and buyers often fork out much more than that for extras such as a more powerful engine and a pimped-up sound system. The steep price tag hasn’t hurt demand for these vans. The number of Californias produced last year jumped by about a fifth to more than 15,000 in what is still a niche market. Many of them seem to be parked in my Berlin neighborhood, where well-off young parents also use them to ferry their kids around.
Camper van sales have boomed on both sides of the Atlantic since 2010 as wealthy retirees have hit the open road and millennials set out to explore the great outdoors and show off their (enviable) #vanlife on Instagram.
The California isn’t available in the U.S. but VW aims to rectify that with the I.D. Buzz, an all-electric camper that’s set to go on sale in 2022. As envisioned, the Buzz will accelerate from 0-60 miles per hour in about 6 seconds. That’s rather more nimble than the original Type 2, but its retro silhouette is still instantly recognizable.
The zero-emission vehicle should assuage the guilt outdoorsy types must feel when driving around in a petrol or diesel camper, and with a projected driving range of up to 600 kilometers (370 miles) even intrepid travelers should able to find a charging point in time.
It’s possible, of course, that the Buzz will arrive just as the RV craze peters out. Following a strong run, shares of RV producers such as Thor Industries Inc. and Winnebago Industries Inc. have been hit hard this year amid concerns about rising raw material costs and decelerating demand. But I still think the Buzz could be a winner for VW, and not just in sales terms. As it battles to repair its image in the wake of the diesel emissions scandal, an electrified dose of Hippy-era nostalgia could be just what the German carmaker needs.
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Chris Bryant is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering industrial companies. He previously worked for the Financial Times.
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