Numbers push New Beetle fete, but old one still claims heart

3rd February 2008, Comments 0 comments

It is not easy to find the place in the Volkswagen plant in Mexico where the engine of the world-famous Beetle continues to be built.

Puebla/Mexico City -- It is not easy to find the place in the Volkswagen plant in Mexico where the engine of the world-famous Beetle continues to be built.

Even experts in the plant must stop often and ask before finding it in the corner of Hall 25 in Puebla, some 120 kilometres east of the Mexican capital.

The little old workhorse will likely be far from mind when Mexican President Felipe Calderon met VW boss Martin Winterkorn Friday in Puebla to celebrate quite a different watermark: the production of the one-millionth model of its successor, the New Beetle, which is worldwide exclusively in production in Puebla.

It's been 10 years since VW introduced the New Beetle. This year, the factory's 16,000 workers are hustling to beat their old record from 2000, when 425,000 units were produced.

On the sidelines of the celebration in Puebla, the seat of the Mexican motor industry, Winterkorn and Calderon are to also discuss what's next with German-Mexican auto production.

The cooperation already has quite a legacy, going back to the old Beetle.

And even though the last Beetle in the world came off the Puebla assembly line in 2003, there is still a small corner of the huge 300- hectare factory dedicated to keeping it alive.

Amidst the assembly lines that crank off the modern Bora, Jetta, Golf Variant and New Beetle, a small team of eight workers builds 40 Beetle engines every day in the confines of a few hundred square metres.

Germany stopped production of the Beetle in 1978, but the plant in Puebla kept making them largely for the local and Latin American market, where they were hugely popular. The last new Beetle emerged in 2003, the last of the 21-million-plus Beetles ever built.

It's not clear if the New Beetle will ever reach those numbers -- or reach into the hearts of drivers the way its predecessor did.

Mexicans fondly refer to the car that continues to be seen in large numbers and heard with its familiar engine purr as "Vochito" -- for little beetle.

The "Vocho" continues to be the classic, indestructible Mexican taxi -- green and white in Mexico City, blue and white in Acapulco, red and white in Zacatecas.

But the days of the cult car are numbered. Cheap vehicles from China and India are entering the market, and others from Japan and South Korea have already been there a while.

Many are unhappy about that - for example, the taxi drivers from Taxco, a high-altitude mining town with steep streets in the state of Guerrero. They asked Volkswagen to at least continue to produce the car's engines. These drivers claimed that there is no other vehicle that suits the tough conditions in their area as well as the "Vocho."

And there are also the numerous fans of the car, who take care of their Beetles as if they were jewels.

For all of them, the Puebla plant continues to make spare parts to this day. Of the several thousand workers who produced some 100,000 Beetles per day in the 1980s and 1990s, only the eight remain building the 40 engines.

Faustino Cosatl, 52, has worked at the plant for 35 years, and of course the "Vocho" was also the first car he bought, the one that helped him impress his girlfriend.

"The Vochito was ours," said Fabian Amaro Bueno, 28, who stuck fabric covers into the cars until 2003.

The plant bosses in Puebla are not so nostalgic.

"The New Beetle has only inherited the design language from the Beetle," said Thomas Karig, the factory's communications director. "This car can only be a Volkswagen."

However, technically, the New Beetle has nothing to do with its predecessor, Karig noted.

The New Beetle, which was particularly successful in the United States and even today continues to sell well there, started a new era in Puebla: it was the first vehicle built exclusively in the Mexican motor industry that was produced for the world market.

Nowadays, it is pushed through the halls alongside other models, over kilometres-long production lines, welded together by robots, moved up and down by lifts from hall to hall mostly underground. Finally, after some 36 hours, the wheels are assembled.

Then, it stands ready alongside all the other new vehicles - behind the hall in which the last Beetle was built in 2003 - to be transported away to destinations across the world.

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