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16 Jul 2024 18:36
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  •   Home > News > International

    Volkswagen Beetle: How Mexico is keeping alive the legacy of one of the world's most beloved cars

    Mexicans reflect on the deep significance "The Bug" holds for them after celebrating this year's Worldwide Volkswagen Beetle Day.

    Years after going out of production, the iconic Volkswagen Beetle still has fandom so strong Mexico dedicated a chunk of its biggest metropolis to the car. 

    The Beetle, introduced in 1938, was a household name in the late 1900s after shooting to popularity for its appeal as a comparatively economic and low-maintenance vehicle in the wartime years. 

    It arrived on the cusp of the World War II and in its epicentre — Nazi Germany. 

    Founder of luxury automaker Porsche, Ferdinand Porsche, proposed to Adolf Hitler the idea of a "people's car" in 1934, and four years later the first Volkswagen hit the market.

    But mass production only resumed about a decade later, after the war ended and the new manufacturer could both sell to its European neighbours and export to the United States.

    And it was smooth sailing from there. 

    The Beetle, nicknamed "The Bug", became of the symbol of the times, sweeping the world in the 50s, 60s, and 70s.

    It became the world's bestselling vehicle during this period, until being overtaken by the Toyota Corolla about 1975, and was also the first car globally to hit 20 million sales.

    Today, it remains a beloved cultural icon and is still one of the most widely sold vehicles ever built. 

    On Sunday, aficionados across the world celebrated VW Beetle Day, which is held annually on June 22. 

    Mexico keeps the legacy alive

    Janette Navarro's 1996 Beetle roars as it barrels up a steep hill overlooking concrete houses stacked like boxes on the outskirts of Mexico City.

    She presses her foot on the pedal, passes a lime green Beetle like hers, then one marked with red and yellow, then another painted a bright sea blue.

    "No other car gets up here," she said. 

    "Just the vocho."

    The Volkswagen Beetle, or "vocho" as it's known in Mexico, may have been born in Germany, but in this hilly neighbourhood on the fringes of Mexico City, there's no doubt that The Bug is king.

    The Beetle has a long history in the country's sprawling capital. 

    Old-school models — once driven as taxis — used to dot city blocks as the quirky look captured the fascination of many around the world.

    But after production of older models halted in Mexico in 2003, and the newer versions in 2019, The Bug population is dwindling in the metro area of 23 million people. 

    Yet, in the northern neighbourhood of Cuautepec, classic Beetles still line the streets — so much so that the area has been nicknamed "Vocholandia".

    Device of deep sentiment

    Taxi drivers like Ms Navarro say they continue to use the vochos because the cars are inexpensive and the engine, located in the back of the vehicle, gives it more power to climb the neighbourhood's steep hills.

    She began driving Beetles for work eight years ago as a way to feed her three children and put them through school.

    "When they ask me what I do for work, I say proudly that I'm a vochera (a vocho driver)," she said.

     "This work keeps me afloat … it's my adoration, my love."

    While some of the older cars wobble along, paint long faded after years of wear and tear, other drivers dress their cars up, keeping them in top shape.

    One driver has named his bright blue car "Gualupita" after his wife, Guadalupe, and adorns the bottom with aluminium flames blasting out from a VW logo. 

    Another painted their VW pink and white, sticking pink cat eyes on the front headlights.

    'The car of the people'

    Mechanics in the area, though, say driving vochos is a dying tradition. David Enojosa, a car mechanic, said his family's small car shop in the city used to sell parts and do maintenance primarily on Beetles. But since Volkswagen halted production five years ago, parts have been harder to come by.

    "With the current trend, it will disappear in two or three years," Mr Enojosa said. 

    "Before we had too many parts for vochos, now there aren't enough … So they have to look for parts in repair shops or junkyards."

    Less lucky drivers have to do laps around the neighbourhood looking for certain parts. Even more cars fall into disrepair and don't pass emissions inspections.

    But Jesús Becerra, a customer, is brimming with hope.

    "You adapt them, you find a way to make it keep running," he says. 

    "You say, 'We're going to do this, fix it and let's go.'"

    Others like Joaquín Peréz say continuing to drive his 1991 white, Herbie-style Beetle is a way to carry on his family tradition. 

    He grew up around Bugs, he explained as his car rumbled. His father was a taxi driver just like him and he learned how to drive in a VW.

    Now, 18 years into working as a driver himself, his dashboard is lined with trinkets from his children, and a fabric rose from his wife.

    "This here is the car of the people."

    ABC / AP

    © 2024 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved

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