Everyone has a story about the Volkswagen Beetle, or at least a memory. For some, it’s the car they learned to drive in or took to protests or music fests. For others, it’s the visual cue in a children’s car game—“Punch Buggy” or “Slug Bug”—for punching a sibling in the arm while on a road trip.
The lovable, instantly recognizable, two-door, rear-engine coupe with a hippie vibe was everywhere. From the 1970s to the 1990s, it was the world’s best-selling car, with a total worldwide production of more than 21 million vehicles, living up to its moniker: the people’s car.
The car is not just legendary; it’s celebrated by celebrities. For actor Ewan McGregor (Moulin Rouge, Star Wars), it was the car he grew up with. “My parents had three in a row, a white one, then a red one, and then an orange one. They would put us in the back of the Beetle in Scotland and drive to France for camping holidays in the summer.” McGregor’s first car was a 1978 Beetle; and he currently owns two, parked at his home in Los Angeles. “I just love them. They’re like old friends.”
Today, the original Beetle, or Bug, has largely disappeared from the world’s roads. In their place are sleeker, safer, cleaner-energy rides loaded with accessories now considered essential, from cruise control to keyless entry, backup camera to Bluetooth. Over the years, the classic roadster has become an endangered species, increasingly relegated to museums, vintage car shows, and movie reruns of Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo (The Walt Disney Company is majority owner of National Geographic Partners).
But not in Mexico, where first-time visitors are inevitably struck (and car aficionados made giddy) by all the VW Beetles clambering up and down hill towns, such as Valle de Bravo, San Miguel de Allende, and Cuernavaca—defying both age and gravity. “A lot of them are in the sort of holiday parts of Mexico,” says McGregor. “You see the ones that have been made into a convertible by taking the roof off, literally with a chainsaw—an open-top Bug that didn’t use to be an open-top Bug.”
In Mexico City, stricter pollution controls have kept many older cars off the roads. Still, dented and dinged models peek out of garages in working-class barrios like La Lagunilla, while buffed and restored showpieces vogue for Instagram shots against 19th-century Baroque facades in trendy neighborhoods like Roma.
Throughout the year there are festivals, races, and various gatherings of the faithful. Though far reduced in number from their heyday, these autos are a testament to the country’s decades-long love affair with the plucky car born in Germany.
Part of the culture
“Whenever I’m in Mexico, I feel like I’m on safari, seeing these rare animals in the wild, because everywhere else you don’t see them so much anymore,” says Andrea Hiott, a resident of Berlin, Germany, and author of the book Thinking Small, on the history of the Beetle. “They’re in museums, of course—like the Volkswagen AutoMuseum in Wolfsburg—but to buy one you have to pay tons of money, so even people who have them don’t drive them anymore. But this car was made to be driven; it’s a tough little thing, and it wants to be out in the wild. It makes me happy because in Mexico, especially outside the big cities, you see the car being used as a car.”
Affordable and practical, they were a popular choice not only for families, but for Mexico City’s cab drivers. Their ubiquity in the landscape made them a fixture in Mexican cinema—a scene-setting backdrop beamed out over Latin America in telenovelas and arthouse films.
The vocho, as it’s nicknamed in Mexico, “cannot be separated from the culture,” says Nicolas Caillens, who runs architectural tours of Mexico City with his fleet of restored vintage Beetles and Buses (VW vans). “Through the last half of the 20th century, it was impossible to walk down the street without seeing one; they were all over. It literally became the people’s car, linking generations—a grandfather taught his son to drive in a Beetle, who, in turn, taught his son.”
After frequent visits, Caillens moved to Mexico City from the U.S. following the 2008 financial crash. He bought a beat-up Beetle to restore, then a second, a third, and a fourth. Finding he didn’t have the heart to sell them, he combined this passion with his love for art and architecture, and The Traveling Beetle was born. (These days, until visitors return, the company focuses on restoring vintage Volkswagens for primarily United States clients.)
“It’s the family member that lives in the garage,” explains Mexico City resident Enrique Wanzke, who once owned the oldest Beetle in the country, an avocado-colored 1950 split window model. Wanzke helps organize Treffen, one of the best-known VW vintage shows in Latin America, exhibiting “close to factory condition” cars. “People love this car and every country has a nickname for it—often more than one—whether it’s fusca in Brazil, pichirilo in Ecuador, pulga in Colombia, or sapito in Peru. But here in Mexico, we are just crazy over our vochitos.”
Part of its universal appeal is its unique look. “There’s something about the car that just makes people smile,” says Caillens. “It has to do with its timeless design: its curves, its non-aggressive shape, its cheerful palette of colors, and perhaps its small size.” Says McGregor: “It has such a nice, happy shape. They have a character almost. It’s so bizarre, it’s beyond machinery. They have a sort of soul in a way. Yeah, they have a soul, I think.”
The perfect terrain
How did a car born in Nazi Germany (from an idea promulgated by Hitler, even), revived by the occupying British after World War II, and embraced by American hippies in the ’60s end up living its best life in Mexico?
“There’s something really tough and persistent about this car; you can see it in its history—it’s constantly remaking itself—but also its mechanics,” says Hiott. “The engine is air-cooled, never needing water. It can go and go and go.”
In Mexico, with its deserts and dusty hills and easy access to replacement parts, the Beetle found its perfect terrain. “The car just felt right there for a much longer time,” adds Hiott.
“I’ve been restoring Bugs for over 10 years, and they’re basically sophisticated lawnmowers,” says Caillens. “I’ve never had to call a tow truck; you don’t have to be a mechanic to fix them. That means you can have a reliable car out on a remote farm or village.”
A traditional street celebration known as a calenda happens almost daily in Oaxaca to celebrate special occasions like weddings or baptisms.
The first Beetle arrived at the port of Veracruz in Mexico in 1954 as part of an exhibition. It was an instant hit. The success prompted the German car company to build a factory—the biggest outside of Germany—in the central state of Puebla in 1964. By 1973, a third of cars sold in Mexico were Beetles.
The plant kept churning them out by the millions, even as more stringent safety standards and Japanese imports caused sales elsewhere to drop and Germany to stop producing the car in 1978.
The Puebla plant produced the classic Beetle for another quarter century before finally pulling the plug in 2003. It continued manufacturing the second- and third-generation “New Beetles” until 2019, when the last one rolled off the assembly line to the tunes of a mariachi band. By then, most of the original vocho taxicabs had also been sidelined and sent to junkyards.
“An iconic piece of Mexican history”
But history has shown that pronouncements of the death of vocho culture in Mexico are premature. “You can still find them operating as taxis in places like Taxco, in the state of Guererro. Or they’re puttering around like workhorses in farms in Oaxaca,” says Caillens. “And suddenly folks are realizing that what they have in the garage is an iconic piece of Mexican history, and more people are starting to restore them. They’re coming back to life in that way.”
Car and culture converge in an exhibit titled “Vochol,” in which eight artisans applied more than two million tiny decorative beads by hand onto a 1990 Beetle using a traditional Huichol indigenous design from the regions of Jalisco and Nayarit. The exhibit has toured the globe; when not on loan, it’s parked at the Museo de Arte Popular in Mexico City.
Jorge and Tanya Reich have been renting vintage Buses (another VW cult car) to travelers on road trips around central Mexico through their company Matilda 70. A couple of years ago, they bought a red Beetle (circa 2000) with the idea to develop vocho touring. “Unfortunately, the pandemic put a stop to our plans, and we had to sell it to help us survive,” says Jorge. Still, like the spunky car that keeps on going, they’re optimistic they can get their plans back on track.
McGregor thinks the car’s future is electric. He converted his 1954 oval-window model to be a fully electric car. “You wouldn't be able to tell from looking at it that anything's not original about it until I drive past you and it's completely silent, and you'd go ‘wait, wait, what?’” he says. Moving forward, “maybe we'll just have to think: smaller cars, no emissions, and something that makes us feel happy. Tick those three boxes.”
The smiles that Beetles evoke in people are not simply due to their design. “For the better part of a century this car has been intertwined, in the most literal way, in people’s lives,” says Hiott. “Seeing these cars on the road is like a time capsule. It opens people to memories, and prompts stories that might otherwise go untold—that’s why these objects matter.”
She adds: “By allowing us to travel back in time, they remind us of what’s important. In today’s overly complicated world, this car represents something very basic and earthy and genuine.”
Exactly the kind of travel we need right now.