Beetle-mania spawns a customizing frenzy
November 9, 1998 By Chris Woodyard
The convertible top and custom wheels and tires that Vickie Boyd added to her Volkswagen New Beetle aren’t enough.
“I’m going to paint some butterflies on it. It will be even cuter,” declares the self-described “old hippie girl” from Laguna Beach, Calif.
From neckties to rear spoilers, the uproarious success of Volkswagen’s New Beetle has spawned a huge market for aftermarket products.
Beetle fanaticism is boosting the $24.7 billion parts market. “It all adds up,” says Al Gaspar, CEO of the Automotive Parts and Accessories Association.
Customizers are popping up to mass produce convertible versions of New Beetle, which VW itself isn’t planning for at least two years. And mail-order parts firms are springing up to cater to the fanaticism that surrounds the curvy car. Bug-based businesses have “probably brought products to market faster than any car I’ve seen,” says Bruce Simurda, editor of Hot VWs magazine. “They’re doing everything – paint, graphics, interiors, engines, suspensions.”
One New Beetle parts seller, Rocky Mountain Motorworks in Woodland Park, Colo., put out a 24-page catalog of New Beetle accessories last summer. “It’s a growing part of the business,” says Greg Patterson, marketing director.
Another accessories seller, Randy Carlson, got the idea for his business after seeing the reaction to the leather interior, custom wheels, custom exhaust, souped-up engine and aluminum bud vase in his own New Beetle.
After being wowed at how folks ogled his customized bug on a coast-to-coast trip, Carlson sys, “I spent the first couple weeks of June trying to get as many items as I could related to the New Beetle.”
Now his store, TVA of California in Brea, Calif., stocks items such as a roof rack ($399.95), an “I’m baaack!” Beetle T-shirt ($14.95) and the aluminum vase ($65).
“The emotional tie people have to this car,” Carlson says is “more than any other car on the road.”
Volkswagen is watching the aftermarket grow, mostly with appreciation.
“We love the support, but we want it be factory-approved equipment, not just garbage that goes on the car,” says Steve Stalnaker, a VW operations support specialist who sports a factory-approved New Beetle necktie straight out of the automaker’s catalog.
Stalnaker says most of the unauthorized aftermarket items he has seen have been well done. They look good, but he worries about safety.
The New Beetle is the safest small car ever tested by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, an industry-financed research group. That’s because its design routes crash energy around the vulnerable passenger compartment to other parts of the car. It is not clear how removing the roof affects its ability to withstand a crash.
In addition, cutting off the roof weakens the body. But modifiers say they address that by reinforcing the chassis before removing the roof.
Despite those concerns, converters expect business to boom. Newport Convertible Engineering in Placentia has completed 14 New Beetles so far, including a blue one for a Jordanian prince. President Al Zadeh plans to open a new factory by January with at least 55 workers to do 50 or more VWs in assembly-line fashion a month. That would add $^ million in annual revenue, quadrupling his annual sales.
Competitor Richard Straman of R. Straman Co. in Newport Beach, Calif., has done six New Beetle convertibles. He plans to convert up to 2,000Bugs a year.
Both converters charge about $10,000 for a manual ragtop, on a car that lists for $16,850. Straman’s version retains the rear side windows; Zadeh’s version removes them.
Boyd opted for a convertible from Zadeh. She was so thrilled at the prospect that she traded in a $100,000 Mercedes to buy yellow convertible Beetle. She says her husband was “so freaked out” at the prospect.
Now, the Beetle convertible is such a crowd pleaser “I can hardly get out of the parking lot. They’re saying to me, ‘Where did you get it?’ “
Even after the painted flowers, Boyd says her customizing won’t be done. Next comes the personalized license plate: BUGZTER.