Finding retro niches in an electric future
An electric vehicle push could bring a surge in oddball concept cars, Volkswagen brand boss tells Michael Taylor
Zero-emission modern versions of 1970s cult classics like the Dune Buggy and the Kübelwagen are being seriously considered at Volkswagen (VW).
The German company’s brand boss Herbert Diess thinks bringing emotional cars back should be a priority and he is keen to rebirth Bruce Meyer’s dune buggy and the Kübelwagen, the German military equivalent of the Willys Jeep.
Sources at VW have suggested it will show an all-electric Dune Buggy concept car in 2018, possibly at the Los Angeles Auto Show, under the Californian sunshine that gave birth to the custom classic.
It’s part of an almost-anything-goes push for concept cars to enliven the Volkswagen brand for the US, in particular, but for the rest of the world as well. It’s a push given credence by the planned flexibility of the Volkswagen Group’s upcoming MEB battery-electric architecture, which will roll out to at least five production VW’s before 2022.
"I think the world lacks characterful cars, you know?" Volkswagen brand CEO Herbert Diess says. "MEB is flexible, rear-wheel drive, front-wheel drive, all-wheel drive and we have so many emotional concepts. Then there are all the buggies, the kit cars. We have the bus. We have the various derivatives of the bus."
The only problem with that line of thinking is that while VW has ownership of the Beetle, Kombi-Microbus and even the amphibious Schwimmwagen concepts, it has no conceptual ownership of the Dune Buggy-Beach Buggy.
It was instead conceived by Californian Bruce Meyers, who developed the dune buggy in 1964, based off a Volkswagen Beetle chassis and running gear, and sold more than 6,000 of the California-built machines.
While Meyers’ operation closed down in the 1970s after losing a patent case that allowed cheaper competition to flood the market, Meyers Manx was refounded in 2000.
Regardless, it puts paid to an assumed two-pronged "emotional" battery-electric vehicle (BEV) surge by VW, which would have delivered a Kombi-Microbus on one tine and a Beetle on the other. In all likelihood, a future Beetle could be electric, but VW would need to decide if it’s worth repeating after two mediocre modern iterations.
"No decision yet. The next decision on the electric cars will be what kind of emotional concepts to do," Diess admits.
"We have so many exciting concepts in our history that we don’t have to do a Beetle.
"It might happen next year. This Beetle won’t go electric. The next one might, if there is a next one," he says.
One of the key reasons VW hasn’t locked in a third-generation Beetle yet is that Diess hasn’t been convinced that the current car hits its marks.
"It’s quite a good car. Is it a good Beetle? I don’t know."
He explains that using the MEB all-electric architecture opened up an entirely new world of niche possibilities in production compared with the MQB architecture that uses BEV, hybrid, petrol, diesel and even gas power and ranges from the Polo to the Atlas.
"We have a good chance on the electric side, to do derivatives and emotional derivatives, it’s probably more efficient to do so than in ICE (internal combustion engine) cars," he says.
"For instance, we have been talking about a convertible. I think an electrically driven convertible would make a lot of sense. If we do a convertible, let’s think electric first."
"We could [build an electric Beetle], because it is rear-wheel drive, no grille. If we wanted to do a Beetle electrically, it would be much better than the current car. Much closer to the history of the Beetle.
"I think the Microbus [Kombi] is a much better emotional concept for the brand than the Beetle. If you go to California, everybody would say it’s the bus."
Another retro concept that is gaining traction in VW design circles is the Kübelwagen, which would counter Citroen’s modern Mehari concept and its rumoured H-Van concept.
The first generation Type 82 Kübelwagen saw service in the Second World War [though it was also manufactured by Mercedes-Benz, Opel and Tatra], but VW made the more civilian-friendly Type 181 from 1968 to 1983. Built off the wider Karmann Ghia platform, rather than the Beetle, the Kübelwagen was sold in the US as the Thing, in the UK as the Trekker, in Mexico as the Safari and in Germany as the Kurierwagen.