As a child born in the early 1970s, the Volkswagen Beetle or “Bug” features heavily in my early memories. My grandmother drove her early 1960s model for decades. As school kids we played “punch buggy” or “slug bug” on bus rides. The proliferation of the already discontinued (in North America) model on Maryland’s roads in the 1980s made for some very sore arms.
As I grew older the cute old Beetles disappeared from US streets, replaced by the Rabbit/Golf and eventually the more expensive Beetle. But there were some places they remained.
Upon my first visit to Mexico City in the mid 1990s, I stepped out of the airport and was greeted by a seemingly endless sight of green and white Beetle taxis. I’d read that the beloved Bug was still being produced in Mexico and Brazil, but hadn’t realized just how numerous they were in these countries.
A subsequent visit to São Paulo only confirmed the continued Latin American reign of what was originally called the Type 1, born of Adolf Hitler’s pre-war dream of an affordable “people’s car” to traverse Germany’s rapidly expanding autobahn.
Dark beginnings and the global conquest of the people’s car
The Volkswagen Beetle began as a Nazi project — Hitler was in fact the only individual to receive one before the Second World War. During the war VW switched to the production of military vehicles utilizing large amounts of slave labor. However, after the war’s conclusion British occupying forces assumed control of VW’s facilities and began building hundreds of Beetles for their own personnel.
After the Allied occupation of Germany demobilized, no foreign car firms were interested in purchasing Volkswagen plants so the firm began anew. By the mid 1950s over a million Type 1s had been produced. By the 70s the Beetle had become the highest selling car in history.
Beetles infest Brazil and Mexico
Production of the Type 1 in Brazil (known as the “Fusca”) began in 1953 and lasted until 1996. In Mexico, where the Beetle is known as the “vocho”, production lasted from 1955 all the way through July of 2003.
Vocho taxis operated in Mexico City until 2012 — drivers were even given $1,000 to get rid of their old bugs.
Too dangerous and too polluting
In the wake of choking urban pollution, the vocho’s charm and affordability could not prevent its death.
The fact that no more Beetle taxis transport fares through the streets of Mexico DF is largely down to measures to clean up the streets.
Back in 2008, Setravi, DF’s municipal transport and road ministry, ruled that Beetles are more dangerous and polluting than other modern vehicles. As part of a series of measures aimed at improving the air of the vast metropolis, it was decided that vocho taxis were to be phased out by 2012.
. . . after the era of the oil crisis, the Beetle began to lose its charm. It was suddenly seen as too polluting, too noisy and too uncomfortable.
Its backseat was too hard compared to newer vehicles. The passenger seat was often removed by taxi drivers. When the driver hit the brakes too hard, the passenger risked flying through the windshield.
While we may feel nostalgic over the affordable, cute and simple cars, we should welcome any efforts to clean up air. Mexico city has long been one of the most heavily polluted cities in the world — and places with the kind of air quality that causes poor human health cannot afford that kind of nostalgia.