What Does an Electric Makeover Mean for the Car of the Counterculture?Roundup
tags: hippies, cars, 1960s, automobiles, counterculture
Lepore received her Ph.D. in American studies from Yale in 1995, and is the David Woods Kemper ’41 Professor of American History at Harvard University.
In 1976, at the tail end of the Ford Administration, hippies no longer hip, Sue Vargo and Molly Mead decided that they wanted to drive to the Florida Keys in a Volkswagen bus. They were best friends, in their twenties, living in a women-only commune in Massachusetts: muddy boots, acoustic guitars, mercurial vegetarians. They bought a beat-up VW bus, circa 1967, red and white, with a split windshield, a stick shift that sprouted up from the floor like a sturdy sapling, a big, flat, bus-driver steering wheel half the size of a hula hoop, and windshield wipers that waved back and forth—cheerful and eager, like a puppy—without wiping anything away. The bus had no suspension. “You just bounced along,” Vargo said, bobbing her head. “Boing, boing, boing.”
This year, Volkswagen is bringing back the bus—souped up, tricked out, and no longer bouncy—as the ID. Buzz. “ID.” stands for “intelligent design,” and “Buzz” means that it’s electric. It might be the most anticipated vehicle in automotive history. Volkswagen has been teasing a return of the classic, iconic, drive-it-to-the-Grateful-Dead bus for more than two decades. (I’m one of the people who’ve been counting the days.) The company keeps announcing that it’s coming, and then it never comes. Finally, it really is coming, and not only is it electric but it can also be a little bit psychedelic, two-toned, in the colors of a box of Popsicles: tangerine, lime, grape, lemon. It’s on sale in Europe this fall and will be available in the United States in 2024. (One reason for the wait is that Volkswagen is making a bigger one for the U.S. market, with three rows of seats instead of two.) Volkswagen expects the Buzz, which has a range of something like two hundred and sixty miles, to be the flagship of a fast-growing electric fleet. The C.E.O. of Volkswagen of America said that the demand for the Buzz in the U.S. is unlike anything he’s seen before. “The Buzz has the ability to rewrite the rules,” Top Gear reported in April, naming it Electric Car of the Year.
Bus nuts are busting out of their pop-tops. “I want one!” is more or less the vibe online. But not all bus nuts are on board. Sue Vargo is dubious. The Buzz, in the way of new E.V.s, is more swoosh than boing, less a machine you operate—pulling levers, cranking wheels, pumping brakes—than a computer you ride around in while its screen flashes officious little reminders at you. This is what new cars do, what they are. It’s not what old cars did, or what they were. The bus was cheap; the Buzz is pricey. (The base U.S. version is expected to cost around forty-five thousand dollars.) Also, the front end of the bus, famously, had a face, a loopy, goofy, smiling face: the eyes two perfectly round, bug-eyed headlights, the nose a swooping piece of chrome trim, the mouth a gently curving bumper. The Buzz has a face, too, but its eyes, hard and angular, look angry, as if beneath a furrowed brow, and its smile is a smirk. “If this is the future,” someone on the VW Bus Junkies Facebook page posted, “I’d rather live in the past.”
The future of the automobile is, undeniably, swoosh and buzz and smart—smart this, smart that. But is it appealing? VW’s pitch for the Buzz marries nostalgia with moral seriousness about climate change, a seriousness that, for VW, is a particular necessity. Volkswagen dominated the diesel-vehicle industry with its “clean diesel” cars and trucks until, in 2015, it admitted to tampering with the software on more than ten million vehicles in order to cheat on emissions tests. The scandal shattered the company and led to the resignation of Martin Winterkorn, then the VW Group’s C.E.O. He still faces criminal charges in Germany; another VW executive was given a prison sentence by an American court. Civil suits are ongoing. Just this May, Volkswagen agreed to pay nearly two hundred and fifty million dollars to settle claims filed in England and Wales.