Bye-bye Bug: Lending a hand with the Volkswagen Beetle’s final assembly – Roadshow
I step into a production-line-adjacent conference room at the Volkswagen Beetle factory in Puebla, Mexico. The air inside is tinged with the aroma of what seems to be a nearby bathroom leaking its wretchedness into the air conditioning vents. A presentation slide entitled "How will be work" details the day's schedule upon a projection screen at the other end of the room. Clearly, I'm no longer in the United States.
I, along with a handful of US and Canadian media colleagues, are ushered around a table. We're given a schedule rundown and safety briefing lasting a mere 15 minutes, and then we're directed toward the production floor to help build a home-stretch batch of Volkswagen Beetles. In just a few weeks' time, VW's Bug will be swatted.
This factory-floor fast-tracking runs in stark contrast to my Volvo S60 production line experience just two months ago in South Carolina. With Volvo, I was put through a half-day's training to learn how to perform just one task on the line. Today with the Beetle, I'll be installing front bumper and radiator covers, mounting the right-rear wheel, bolting in the rear suspension and placing the front emblem.
I don't mind the opportunity to be involved in more of the Beetle's production process, of course. We're talking about one of history's most recognized and influential machines. Since the Beetle's inception in 1938, more than 23 million Bugs have crawled out of VW factories the world over, from Germany to Nigeria, Indonesia to Ireland and presently, Mexico. Getting a chance to build some of the final examples of the "People's Car" is one of those stories I'll likely tell my grandchildren.
My first task is to install the front bumper cover on a Stonewashed Blue Beetle headed to a Chinese customer. Bumper assembly would have been a rather simple process had I been given a crack at more than one car. That's not in the cards, though, so I go about my duties like a toddler navigating along the Brooklyn Bridge's railing.
Thankfully, I've got a supervision safety net of pros standing around me. For these men and women who work the line every day, proper component mounting is a matter of muscle memory. Click together a few electrical connectors, bang on the body panels just right so they snap into place (kind of like you're playing "Punch Bug" or "Slug Bug" with the Beetle itself) and six screws later, the little Beetle's cute face is complete.
That's not the end of my job at this station, however. I still must install a black plastic panel that sits under the hood ahead of the radiator, a task that's simply a matter of lining up the component and banging it in. Easier said than done, I soon realize. My infantile banging proves futile, so a line worker helps me by realigning the piece and then popping it into place as effortlessly as your most recent breath. Once that's complete, the car continues down the line, never for me to see it again.
The latter three assembly tasks prove smoother with other Beetles. My three-year-old fumbling isn't disruptive enough to make a mess of mounting the right-rear wheel. Nor is installing the rear suspension, which is simply a matter of torquing four bolts on each side and letting the computer validate my worth by lighting up with green OKs. Installing the front VW emblem is actually an automated process, but I get to place one on a Bug's nose anyway, because why let a good photo op go to waste?
By the numbers
Surprisingly, just 48 percent of the Beetle's assembly is by robot. The other 52 percent is by hand. Today's Beetle, which has slid to become VW's least-popular vehicle in the US, shares its assembly line with Volkswagen of America's best seller: the Tiguan compact crossover SUV. This popularity chasm is evident as I stretch my eyes down the production line. About one in every 10 vehicles is a Beetle, and there are moments walking along the floor where nothing but Tiguans flood my sockets.
Over the course of three shifts within a 24-hour production day (Monday to Friday and sometimes two shifts on Saturday), 937 new vehicles emerge off the line, 170 to 180 of which are Beetles. In addition, every unit is test driven. Fun fact: according to surveys distributed by the plant's human resources department, the test drivers are the factory's happiest employees.
Come on, get happy
After getting to play on the production line, VW lets me briefly test drive some Beetles outside the factory. I'm surprised at how heavy the (1998-2011) New Beetle's steering is, and how it feels more sporty to drive than the current (2012-2019) Beetle, which is a comparative snooze fest. I'm most excited to drive the 2003 Beetle Última Edición (Final Edition), the last of the original air-cooled Beetles. The Última Edición is much quieter than any classic Beetle I've heretofore experienced. Modern seating makes it categorically comfortable, too, but from there, its modernity slopes into the abyss.
The Última Edición has no power steering, but that's fine, as there's little weight over its nose. The car's clutch, brake and gas pedals, however, delineate evolution in reverse. The clutch is as light as any economy car's third pedal from 2019. The brake pedal trails the clutch's contemporary ease, but scrubbing speed isn't terrifying: Unlike earlier Beetles, you needn't stomp halfway to the floor before barely stopping in time. Even still, the pedal's modulation is precision's distant cousin. Traveling farther back in time, the throttle is straight out of World War II, somehow feeling heavier and clumsier than Beetles I've driven from the 1950s, '60s and '70s.
The Última Edición proves more ponderous than I'd expected, but it's a heartening reminder of an automotive icon whose production has lasted longer than the average human lifespan.