Volkswagen recently advertised in India the commercial launch of its iconic small car, Beetle. Sporting the almost similar exterior that made the car a folklore for decades from its first launch in 1938, the Beetle of today incorporates ultra-modern technologies. The author of this blog post is gratified that the launch coincides with the topic of retro-futurism which the author has discussed in his recent blog post titled “What Palm Holds, Eyes Behold: The Retro-Futurism of iPhone SE”, Strategy Musings, April 18, 2016. (http://cbrao2008.blogspot.in/2016/04/what-palm-holds-eyes-behold-retro.html). Without doubt, the arrival of Beetle in a new avatar is a striking example of retro-futurism, and reinforces the insights of the previous blog and offers additional perspectives.
Some comparisons and contrasts with Apple SE are also inevitable and quite necessary.
Fundamentally, Apple SE being an electronic product and Beetle being an automotive product they are as different as chalk and cheese in design, manufacture and usage. Yet, they represent, in real time context, the relevance and practicality of retro-futurism as a concept. They also demonstrate that ‘retro’ can be as recent as four years (as is the case with Apple SE) and as distanced as eighty years (as is the case with Beetle). Given the thousands of products that have been designed, developed and used as well as rendered obsolete and phased out over all through the four hundred years of successive industrial revolutions, the impact of retro-futurism as a practical paradigm is self-evident.
Origins, growth and decline
The first Beetle was designed as an idea by Joseph Ganz, a Jewish Engineer in early 1930s. Adolf Hitler, however, grabbed the concept and ordered Porsche to develop a Volkswagen (literally, a “people’s car”). The design and manufacture of the Beetle including building of Volkswagen factory was completed in the late 1930s. Enduring the trials and tribulations of successive world wars, Beetle survived to grow as the most sustained small car design, and Volkswagen as the most dominant European automobile company. The Beetle was designed as a basic small family car at the cost of a motor cycle to transport two adults and three children (Is not Tata Nano a retro-futuristic concept?). It was one of the first to have air cooled rear engine and chassis mounted on torsion bars, and a roundish body looking like a bug!
In its long history, over 21 million Beetles were produced. Beetle’s most successful period was the decade of the 1960s, with it becoming a favourite all over the Americas and Europe. However, the emergence of new global designs, especially from Japan, brought its glory down. Volkswagen had to officially end the declining production run of Beetle in 2003, worldwide. There is no denying that Beetle was the most successful rear engine design and had little spec to spec competition in its class. Volkswagen itself had to go through several iterations before its successor Golf could be perfected and popularized.
Interestingly, Volkswagen attempted to update Beetle in 1995 itself with a redesigned vehicle based on its Polo platform. It had the same exterior but used a higher horsepower engine and multi-speed gearbox. The final edition of the New Beetle happened in 2010, marking the demise of the New Beetle as well. The phase-out of the New Beetle demonstrates that there is a difference between the ongoing requirement for annual updating of automobiles and retro-futurism as a distinctive repositioning. Typically, retro-futurism needs to deploy a few breakthrough approaches to breathe new life into the retro designs.
Upgrade versus reinvention
Over the first twenty years, Beetle had continuous upgrades which by today’s standards would look very marginal. For example, the engine capacity moved from 1 litre to 1.2 litre and engine power moved from 24 HP to 36 HP. Elimination of starter button, repositioning of ash trays, redesign of bumpers, windows, turn lights and fenders were all that to claim for upgrades. The first syncromesh gear box did not arrive till the 1960s. Such minor changes continued to propel Beetle until the fade-away years of the 1970s, which brought hot new competitive designs from Japan on one hand and stringent fuel economy and emission standards in US and Europe on the other. Yet, supported by improvements like electronic fuel injection internally and convertible body designs externally, Beetle moved on with a niche positioning until the complete phase-out in 2003.
Volkswagen realized that notwithstanding the decline in sales, there was a huge reservoir of goodwill for Beetle as a design concept and owner experience. The New Beetle which was designed in the late 1990s was aimed at making the car contemporary with 1.8 litre capacity engine developing 150 HP, transverse mounting of engine, nippier drive train, independent suspension, bright colours, ABS brakes, high intensity discharge headlights, traction control, and other stylistic changes. Yet, the combination of the largely untouched Beetle exterior profile and the more powerful Golf internals as the new Beetle was not enough to fuel a new rally for the new Beetle. This is ample proof that retro-futuristic designs must not only retain the best of the old but also integrate the best of the future.
Digital Beetle 2016
After decades of incremental mechanical engineering as above, the Beetle is now reinvented as Beetle for the millennials’ era incorporating digital technologies to make the much loved buggy car future-proof. It is a combination of classic style and contemporary engineering in a future-ready digital platform. It retains the iconic two-door design and rear wheel drive but has now a larger engine series capable of delivering up to around 200 HP of power and up to around 30 KgM of torque, previously unthinkable for such a compact car. It also sports a seven speed automatic transmission, large alloy wheels, keyless starter, light sensing Xenon headlamps, electronic braking distribution, anti-lock braking system, traction control, electronic stability programme, six air bags and digital multimedia. It features all the digital bells and whistles that make travel in a contemporary car a joyous ride of safety and pleasure.
With affordable pricing, the Digital Beetle could scale up to sell in millions again. With premium pricing it could just be an everlasting niche product, selling in just thousands. Either way, the product could continue to retain its iconic status even decades later. Beetle reflects the requirements of retro-futurism brought up in the earlier piece on Apple SE: (i) A product should be developed with a state of elegance that could enable it to qualify itself as a new product even years later, (ii) Recalling a retro design has to be more than for emotional or reminiscence reasons; it should bring the latest technologies within the restored contours, (iii) The higher the size of the industry market base (and its growth rate), the greater is the potential for retro-futuristic products, (iv) Retro-futurism is not about using old dies, moulds or chassis for cheap products but is more about creating superior products with re-optimized cost and technology balance, and (v) importantly, Retro-futurism should never be mere refurbishment; it must be on reinventing the ‘old’ as a contemporaneously relevant ‘new’.
Additionally, however, there are a few important lessons from Beetle that supplement the above. It is not uncommon to have legends and legacies. What is relatively uncommon is for such legends and legacies to live on physically across generations, which is not impossible as Beetle demonstrates. The enduring living legacy principles are as follows.
Inspirational designs have no expiration risk. As demonstrated by Apple SE and Beetle, inspired, and inspiring, design have no shelf life. They can survive and succeed in perpetuity. Indian epics and Raja Ravi Varma paintings are irrefutable evidence on an entirely different level. This is because inspirational designs and products appeal to the spirit as much as to the eye.
Structured teams can continuously develop innovative themes to perpetuity. History has it that Beetle concept was the brainchild of one innovative designer, way back in 1930s. By virtue of the design getting passed to Porsche, the established car maker, the concept became a reality, with continuous updates by Volkswagen teams. Designers and Developers in harmony can embed lasting value in products.
What lasts in crisis outlasts competition. Beetle was a pre-World War car. Though essentially a civilian design, the product was hijacked for military purposes. Its manufacturing facility was ravaged in bombings. Lasting through the crises, Beetle proved its mettle as a product that is crisis-proof, and hence as a product of sustainable success over generations.
Global businesses can be built on single but marvellous products. Many companies and leaders believe that they require multiple products to scale up, more so globally. While such a strategy has its relevance, Beetle is one example (along with scores of others) that one great product can create, or at least lay a lasting foundation for, a global corporation. Sony, Intel, Microsoft, Facebook, Google, and several other global corporations, each founded on just one core product, are living examples.
Glorious past gives lasting legacies but unflinching faith shapes living legacies. Managements that are driven by numbers of margins and viability as well as phase-outs and fade-outs lose track of the evergreens they have in their midst. It requires more than ordinary managerial skill and leadership insights to identify, support and nurture designs and products of perpetual value.
It is an evolved human characteristic to be creative and innovative and to constantly invent or discover something new, and build new businesses around it. While there can be no two opinions that it is a natural path, it is equally important to retain the soul and spirit of the original innovation and creativity. The paradigm of living legacies, as discussed herein, inspires us to recognize that certain types of unique innovation and creativity are everlasting in nature.
Posted by Dr CB Rao on April 28, 2016