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At the end of the twentieth century the largest city on the planet is Mexico City, an immense sprawl of some 30 million inhabitants. From the air, glancing through the yellow-gray haze punctuated two volcanoes, one sees not people but seven or eight million mobile metallic objects - automobiles. Coming closer, one can even distinguish the dominance of a single model, a buglike shape in a vast variety of colors, the majority green. These are the famous Volkswagen Beetle taxi cabs of Mexico City. Numbers and letters are painted on their roofs so they can be tracked helicopter, but together, the characters seem to spell out some complex, secret message for the aerial visitor.

There are more Beetles here than anywhere in the world - nearly two million. The Vocho, Vochito, the Mexicans call the car, or "the navel," because everyone has one. In the thin air at 7,500 feet, their motors run at half power and despite fuel injection and unleaded fuel, many of them emit twice the emissions of modern cars. Reconfigured as taxis, with their front passenger seats removed, they run almost twenty-four hours a day.

Warned against the dangers of robbery in these taxis, most American tourists avoid them, and few of the tourists know that the original Beetles are still being manufactured in Volkswagen's factory a hundred miles from the capital. The 1998 high-tech, high-style New Beetle, a homage to the original, is rarely spotted in Mexico City's traffic and few owners of the car know that it is built, not in Germany, but only in Mexico, almost side side with the old car.

Once tens of thousands of Beetles were produced in Germany, Brazil, Australia, Nigeria, and other spots around the globe. More than 22 million have been made since 1941. Mexico City is like a tidepool where the species has lived on long after the great wave of its success has receded. In this weird ecological microsystem the Bug survives, brand-new ones alongside ancient ones, in varying degrees of repair and in rich colors: wine, handpainted house white, lustrous silver blue, mineral green - and a rust brown rich as chocolate.

The Bug is not only the most produced, but the best-known car of all time. Its history is usually told as a glossed and gilded tale, glowing with nostalgia. But as in the story of Poe's gold bug, the insect itself is only the inspiration. The physical bug points the way to another, shadowy image of a beetle and a code, a secret language of wider cultural meanings.

The Bug's mental life far exceeds its metal one. It played many roles: poster logo for Hitler's National Socialist ideology, symbol of economic miracle in the Cold War years, paradigm of no-nonsense utility in the face of Detroit excess, icon of 1960s do-your-own-thing individuality, and - in the New Beetle - chic embodiment of fin de siècle retro.

The Bug's biography is a story of the way history can be forgotten, reshaped, and revived.

The Bug was contagious; it spread all over the globe and has kin in many countries: in Italy, the Fiat Topolino, or Little Mouse, in France the Citroën 2CV, in the U.K., the Mini, each with its own national characteristics. Even the Jeep, named for a Popeye character, has many of the same qualities the Bug acquired. More recent vehicles such as Chrysler Neon, Ford Ka, Renault Twingo, and Fiat Brava have attempted to build Beetle-like affection among the public. Each presents itself as the true heir to the Bug.

The Bug's direct descendant, the New Beetle of 1998, exaggerates the shapes and colors of the original like a cartoon. Although built only a few feet apart and sharing a rough common shape, the old and new Beetles are culturally as well as mechanically very different. The old has an air-cooled rear engine, the new a water-cooled front one. The old is driven the rear wheels, the new the front.

The original Beetle was a universal product of minimal ability, built to be cheap above all. The New Beetle is an object of style and pop culture. What the two share is a shape, a gestalt, a logos, as simple and winning as a cartoon or a popular tune.

The old and new cars share a childlike appeal. The re-creation of the old car's shape in the New Beetle brought with it the revival of a 1960s children's game. "Punch buggy" was one of those pieces of children's folklore, a game that called for a child who spotted and "called" a Beetle to strike another, exempt from retaliation. "Buggy" suggests either a horse-drawn vehicle or a ba's pram and even adults often colloquially refer to both old and new Beetles as "punch buggies."

Within a couple of years of being introduced the New Beetle became an icon of hip prosperity, a star in one of the Austin Powers films, which parodied the James Bond vision of 1960s gadgetry. It was the top prize in numerous sweepstakes, a familiar prop in advertisements and fashion shoots. It was inevitably included along with the Apple iMac computer in time capsules of the artifacts of the late twentieth century.

The two models provide an object lesson in the way images and ideas mutate through culture. They form a half-century-long parable of form and function, shape and association, a meme greater than the people who built and designed them, a complex of ideas and concepts and affections. The story involves a key paradox: how an impersonal universal design becomes an object of such personal attachment.

The Bug's history is not just the story of a single model of car, or even of the automobile in general, one of the two or three most profoundly influential pieces of technology to reshape daily life, but a parable of how the things we buy reflect the character of the culture. The Bug stands as proof that images and ideas swing through culture as if their own power, evolving, adapting to new environments, latching on to new human champions, infecting human beings with enthusiasm. In some places and at some times, the Bug wore a self-deprecating mode of the servant, in others the personality of the émigré, the visitor, the friend and adopted guest.

Part of the universality and persistence of its appeal was the car's harmony between the two sides of design - the functional and the aesthetic. Its engineering and styling shared a common modesty and cleverness. Even the sound of its engine and the sensations of its movements on the road contributed to this. It crystallized the idea of the universal design with a human face. The Bug was cute and lovable, and soon electronic devices, appliances, even kitchen tools, aspired to be cute, cartoonlike friends: the smile on the Macintosh screen, the elfin character of the Kodak Brownie. The IBM standard PC "clone" was once described as "the VW Beetle of computers" and Steve Jobs pushed the Apple Macintosh as the "volkscomputer." A mouse looks more like a beetle than it does a rodent.

The Bug was a shape, a set of ideas - and a selfish meme.

The term meme is the creation of Richard Dawkins.

A VW ad in the 60s described the Beetle and the Coke bottle as the two best-known shapes in the world. It is hard to imagine any other object whose bio-graphy includes as vital players Adolf Hitler, Henry Ford, Charles Manson, Walt Disney, and Woody Allen. As much a character as a car, a hero and an antihero, the Bug has had a Zelig-like knack for appearing again and again on the main stage of history. The car that was first built as a tool of Nazi propaganda was, in the postwar years, transformed by American salesmanship into a counterculture icon, then finally into a product of global marketing.

In his first year as German chancellor, Adolf Hitler described publicly his desire for a real car for the German people, mass-produced and affordable to everyone. By 1938, the vast new factory at Wolfsburg was turning out the Beetle, called the KdF-wagen, designed by the great race-car engineer Ferdinand Porsche and his team and financed by the German Labor Front, the Third Reich's labor union. "It should look like a beetle," Hitler apparently advised him. During the war, supplied with labor from concentration camps, the factory manufactured ordnance and tanks. After the war, under British control, it turned out 1,000 cars a month, but they were noisy and lacked heat, and many Germans were eager to put the car behind them.

In America, the few Beetles on the road were those shipped over by GI's. The U.S. auto industry saw no need for a small inexpensive car when there were so many large inexpensive used ones on the market. But in 1959, when VW hired the innovative ad agency Doyle Dane Bernbach to build a campaign, the car's greatest liability was diffused: a Jewish firm would sell Hitler's car. Small was beautiful. Souped-up racing Beetles were cool enough for Steve McQueen to drive. Herbie the Love Bug made Walt Disney hip.

In the 1980s, the Bug lost its popularity to the better-engineered and -designed cars from Japan. To reinvigorate the American market, VW in 1998 unveiled the New Beetle, a car far removed from its German roots -- created in a Southern California design studio and built in Mexico. VW's senior executives made pilgrimages to the brand pavilions of DisneyWorld and Niketown and returned to Germany to build Autostadt, a theme park and museum near the site of the old slave-labor factory in Wolfsburg. The Bug's transformation into a global product was complete.

Bug is the fascinating story of the automobile that became as famous as Mickey Mouse, not just as a means of transportation but as a critical artifact in the cultural history of the century.

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