Every generation finds nostalgia for a time when many of its members were just being born. It’s how young adults in the ‘90s found the ‘70s fascinating, and how the styles and trends of the ‘80s and ‘90s have enjoyed their own revival in the years since.
Generation Z has kept this streak alive in recent months with a boom for all things #Y2K- – a unique historical marker that’s become something of a touchstone for a simpler, happier time, even if those old enough to experience it don’t share that point of view. Part of this nostalgia for turn of the century culture has manifested in a renewed appreciation of one of the most unique cars of the era – the Volkswagen Beetle.
We asked Freeman Thomas, half of the design duo behind the Beetle and current CEO of Meyers Manx, how the iconic design has maintained a pop-culture edge through the years.
Originally conceived as an electric car in 1993, the New Beetle started as a small-scale model captured with a photo shoot on the sunny beaches of California before being greenlit as an auto-show concept car. At the 1994 Detroit Auto Show, Volkswagen unveiled “Concept One” a nostalgic concept car that paid homage to the original Beetle while offering a modern, front-engine chassis. The car was revealed with a sentimental video asking viewers to “remember when…,” hearkening to the golden age of the original Beetle.
“The journalists were all tearing up [at the video],” said Thomas. “The overwhelming response from the press was so big that they would not leave the show stand and go to other press conferences, they wanted to see if Volkswagen would actually build the Beetle.”
After immense success at the Detroit Auto Show, Concept One was approved for production and Thomas and his team designed every interior and exterior detail. They took the original Beetle down to its most geometric elements—the three arches— and were inspired by industrial design to mix Bauhaus flavors with warm character design, making the New Beetle stylish and approachable. They wanted to go forward with a design that brought in modernity rather than relying on the shapes and lines of the past.
The original interior of the vehicle reflected its exterior body lines, featuring a simple arched instrument panel with aquamarine-colored dials inspired by glistening swimming pools of California. Thomas designed the famous flower vase in Concept One as a bit of humanity for each vehicle and as a tribute to the porcelain Rosenthal bud vases in the original models.
“Everybody has their own Volkswagen Beetle story,” said Thomas. “Memories based not just off the charisma of the design but the reliability of the vehicle and [how] it represented Volkswagen’s philosophy of how to build, design and sell a vehicle.”
Introduced to consumers in model year 1998, the New Beetle was immediately popular. In 2003, the cabrio model was introduced and once again inspired by a mixture of modernity and nostalgia. Thomas and team designed the cabrio model’s rag top to fold down and sit on the rear of the vehicle in a way reminiscent of original convertibles.
The New Beetle was all about cohesive design—one that even today maintains a precise balance between welcoming and whimsical. The vehicle is still the star of music videos, movies and now social-media posts because of its iconic design and the feelings of nostalgia it evokes.
“The [Beetle] means the simplicity of the past, when things were innocent and accessible and fun”, said Thomas. “That’s really what the Beetle represented.”