Saturday 21 September 2019

Bitten by the Bug

After nearly 80 years the VW Beetle's long ride is about to come to an end. Irish owners tell Geraldine Herbert of their love affair with the iconic car

Rescued: Colm Jennings in 1997 with the Beetle he and his father lovingly restored and Colm with the car 20 years to the day after it was first bought
Rescued: Colm Jennings in 1997 with the Beetle he and his father lovingly restored and Colm with the car 20 years to the day after it was first bought

Geraldine Herbert

"Our 1971 1300 VW Beetle has been in the family since my father and I rescued it from along the banks of the Royal Canal," says Colm Jennings. "And from the very first journey on Halloween day, 1997 - towing it back to our house - I have been obsessed with Beetles."

Colm, a musician from Dublin, and his father Paddy spent the next 12 years restoring the old Beetle until it finally becoming roadworthy once more in 2009.

"Though many parts of the car had to be replaced, such as the floor, we're proud to say that the majority of the car, including the original 1300cc engine and much of the bodywork, doors and windows remain original."

Today, Colm's Beetle is in regular demand by friends and family for weddings and other events.

The iconic Beetle traces its roots back to the early days of Nazi Germany. It was commissioned by Adolf Hitler and designed by Ferdinand Porsche. Despite being unable to drive, Hitler was fascinated with cars and wanted a small, affordable family car. The first production-ready Beetle debuted at the 1939 Berlin Motor Show - by 2003, more than 21 million air-cooled, rear-engine Beetles had been built.

Through the years owners have always been driven by a passion for iconic cars and a desire to own something out of the ordinary; for them it's like driving a piece of history.

"My first car was a Volkswagen Beetle," says Paddy Breslin a UX designer from Galway. "At the time, I was working in Sydney and had this vague plan to purchase a Beetle as the warm climate of Australia tends to keep them in much better condition than in Ireland.

"The car I finally found came with the original warranty book with the first year's service stamps, given to him by the first owner who bought it new. It was signed and dated 20th of August 1968 and I shipped this car back to Ireland in 2002. Despite being 50 this year, it looks and goes like a car that is 10 years old and I can't imagine ever selling it."

Cathal O'Toole owns a 1973 1300 Volkswagen Beetle, but that one car isn't enough.

At the last count he had three more - a 1975 Beetle, a 1977 Cal Look Beetle and a 1979 Karmann Beetle - and doesn't deny his addiction. In Cathal's words, "I have never been able to walk away from a Beetle in need."

And he isn't alone.

Cathal recently set up a website called Beetle.ie with another VW enthusiast and aims to document Ireland's history with the Beetle, from the first one made in 1950 in an old tram depot in Ballsbridge to the large plant on the Naas Road where Beetles were produced until 1977. The overall goal of Beetle.ie is to produce a book featuring photos from the factory, stories from those involved in the industry and of course stories and photos from people who have owned and loved their Beetles.

The mid-1970s signalled the demise of the Beetle as motorists were demanding more modern, efficient and comfortable cars. In response, VW dropped the Beetle in favour of the Golf.

However, the Beetle story did not end there and Volkswagen rolled out the New Beetle in 1998. Built on the Golf platform, it was styled in the original Type 1 theme and paid homage to the past with a flower vase, round headlights and instrument cluster.

And it wasn't long before it was recapturing some of the romance of its predecessor and winning new fans like Naomi Feely whose relationship with the new Beetle dates back to her college days.

"The new Beetle launched around about the time that I started college and ever since then I have wanted to own one. Two University of Limerick campus residents had Beetles - one red and the other yellow - and every time they drove by I looked lustfully at them," she says.

"I finally decided to trade in my Golf last year and bought a new-model Beetle Sport. Once I test-drove it I knew it was for me".

The Beetle still turns heads in ways that would be the envy of any sports car owner.

Brenda Dunne, a communications manager from Newbridge, Co. Kildare, is constantly surprised at the amount of people who notice her car.

"It's a conversation starter. I find myself getting stopped at petrol stations all the time," she says.

It may be the spiritual successor of the original, but Volkswagen's new Beetle is an entirely different breed of Bug.

"The Classic Beetle was the first car I ever drove," recalls Brenda. "It was magnificent despite no power steering and no fancy interior gadgets. I always swore that I would own one some day. But when the kids came along. a Beetle seemed impractical so it got put on the long finger again. 

"The new Beetle manages to be retro  and modern yet capture that timeless notion of fun.

"While there is the fun side to it, it is also a really comfortable car. I do a lot of long journeys in it and it feels safe and solid on the road. It performs well and is really fuel efficient," adds Brenda.

The Beetle first went into production 80 years ago and the last unit rolled off the assembly line at Puebla, Mexico, at the end of July 2003 and in between the car had become an automotive icon, winning hearts and changing lives around the world.

Relaunched in 1998, Volkswagen announced on September 13 the end of the road for the Beetle and production will cease next summer. It may be the end of a long and winding road for the Beetle, but the Bug will live on through its fans.

In the words of Hinrich J. Woebcken, president and CEO of the Volkswagen Group of America, when he made the announcement: "Never say never."

Sunday Independent

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