Find­ing retro niches in an elec­tric fu­ture

IN­TER­VIEW/ An elec­tric ve­hi­cle push could bring a surge in odd­ball con­cept cars, Volk­swa­gen brand boss tells Michael Tay­lor

Business Day - Motor News - - MOTOR NEWS -

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 Bug­gyBeach 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 Kom­biMi­crobus 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 civil­ian­friendly 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.

The fa­mous Kombi, above, is al­ready set to make a come­back as the elec­tric ID Buzz. Volk­swa­gen could also bring back the orig­i­nal Dune Buggy, above left, as an elec­tric ve­hi­cle.

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