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Business

Bye-bye Beetle: An Era Ends in Mexico

The days are numbered for the old Volkswagen Beetle. On Thursday the perennially popular Love Bug will roll off Mexican production lines for the last time, bringing an end to over 70 years of automobile history.

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Hardly any other car has generated so much interest and enthusiasm as the VW Beetle -- shown here in 1968.

It’s unlikely any other car could have held onto its popularity for so long, providing generations with affordable and reliable transportation for over half a century as well as inspiring millions to embrace its plucky sense of "Fahrvergnügen". Then again the Volkswagen Beetle is no ordinary car.

First conceived in the early 1930s out of Hitler’s desire to create an affordable "people’s car" (that’s Volkswagen in German), the chubby Beetle went into mass production after World War II. Since then some 22 million bug-eyed cars have rolled off the assembly lines, making it the most-built car ever.

But starting Thursday when Volkswagen rolls out one last special limited edition at its production plant in Puebla, Mexico, the Love Bug -- an icon of 1960s flower power -- will go the way of so many other popular and cherished relics of the era and find itself relegated to collectors’ garages and museums.

Adios to the Beetle

When the VW plant in Mexico – the only one in the world still making the old-style Beetle – launches its last retro edition on Thursday it will be a slight intermission before the curtain finally falls on nearly 70 years of automobile history. According to the German company, the Beetle line will almost certainly be put to rest by the end of the month.

"There has never been a car like it, but I don’t think production will go beyond" the end of July, Christine Kuhlmeyer, head of corporate communications at Volkswagen in Mexico, told Reuters.

The car’s fate was actually sealed last month, when the carmaker cited falling annual sales as the reason for the company’s decision to stop production of the original Beetle. "The Beetle has been a hugely successful car for decades, it made Volkswagen famous," company spokesman Fred Bärbock told Deutsche Welle. "But now we’ve had to recognize that demand for the original Beetle has fallen."

At the height of its production, the company made between 30,000 and 40,000 of the dome-shaped cars each year. Last year only 24,000 cars rolled out of the factory, a drop of nearly 50 percent compared to 2000 sales.

VW Volkswagen Mexiko

Volkswagon employees walk out of an office in the city of Puebla, Mexico, July 9, 2003.

Beetle City Mexico

The end of the original Beetle will be especially hard felt in the Mexican town of Puebla, where the car has been manufactured since 1967 and for many has become like a member of the family. Although the plant will continue producing VW cars, it’s the Beetle they are most fond of.

Since the Wolfsburg mother factory moved its Beetle production south-east of Mexico City, an entire generation of factory workers have placed their hands on the cherished car they call "vocho." And the car has become a veritable symbol of the town, appearing on all the street signs in the historic center. Even the cathedral was sponsored by Volkswagen.

"It’s a jewel for me. The little bug has given my family prosperity," said Armando Pasillas, 60, describing to Reuters how much he’ll miss the car. Having worked at the plant for 37 years, Pasillas said he likes seeing the cars on the street because he knows they have all passed through his hands.

More importantly, the company has had a significant influence on the town’s economics. The VW factory employs 14,000 workers who produce both the New Beetle, the New Beetle Cabriolet and the Jetta in addition to the original Beetle. Together with auto parts suppliers, distributors and dealerships more than 60,000 townspeople have found work associated with Volkswagen.

Despite shutting down production on the Beetle, Volkswagen has insisted that the Puebla plant is still an important investment and manufacturing site.

"Mexico remains, as it was before [stopping the original Beetle] an important point of investment for us. It is our only plant in the North American region," Bärbock said, adding that the company will move its entire production of the Bora to Puebla starting in 2005.

Although that’s good news for the Puebla plant employees, it does little to console those who are mourning the end of the Beetle.