By on July 28, 2007

paul-in-xb-003.jpgReaders who’ve accompanied me on this long, strange trip– from my automotive awakening to this, the final installment of my Auto-Biography– may recall my earliest childhood memory: riding in a 1950’s VW Beetle in Austria. The bug was the automotive womb from which I sprang. I’ve carried the Volkswagen DNA ever since. Even as a freewheeling young adult, I was a loyal Volkswagonista. Eventually I strayed, looking for more space, speed, comfort and even prestige. But I’ve finally returned to my automotive happy place, reunited with my one true love.

Of course, I wasn’t the only one who wandered away from my roots. Volkswagen abandoned the original “People’s Car” decades ago; the New Beetle was/is nothing more than a pretender to the throne. But the Volkswagen formula– an innovative, thrifty, well-built, practical, distinctive and fun automobile– is immortal.

Like the hunt for a successor Dalai Lama, it took me a while to recognize the Beetle’s latest incarnation. (Of course, there were others even before the VW.) One look at the xB’s design and I got it: the Beetle had metamorphosed (and disguised itself) as… a box.

Like many enthusiasts of a certain age, I was thrown off-scent by Scion’s self-conscious youth marketing and hype. I avoid fads like the plague; the harder someone tries to tell me something’s cool, the less I believe them. But one day I cleared my mind of all thoughts and saw the xBox for the remarkably creative, compelling and timeless Volkswagen it really is.

There was a time when the word “cool” stood for something. For going against the grain. For being truly different and authentic. The Volkswagen Beetle had it; it was an extended middle finger at everything the Big Three stood for. And it single-handedly started a revolution that brought Detroit to its knees.

Toyota also had captured lightning in a jar. The original xBox went against the grain of today’s super-sized, overwrought, flamed and fake-side-air-vented automotive fashion parade every bit as much as the Beetle did against the fins, chrome and vinyl roofs of its time.

The brave little Japanese toaster was just hitting its stride. With a little updating (like VW’s), the xB could have been built for decades. It would have made the perfect low-CO2 era NYC taxi cab: half the price of a hybrid Escape, bigger interior, nimbler and better mileage. Don’t get me started, I can spit out other applications and variants (sedan delivery, El Camino-pickup, etc.) all day long.

In fact, if I had serious money, I’d replicate a whole family of xB’s in China and sell them for $10k by the millions. And I’d can the youth marketing thing; the gen one Xb’s qualities (like the VW’s) are universal. They appeal to the young at heart of all ages.

But Toyota threw it all away. In a misguided attempt to give Japanese youth appeal an American mien, it killed the coolest car since the Beetle. When I tested the new xB, urgency followed horror. I fully saw the light of truth, and found myself an immaculate low-mileage five-speed ’05 xB.

I am enraptured. The Scion xBox works perfectly for my middle-aged needs. It’s my urban errand-mobile that keeps me young carving back-road twisties– yet pampers my 6’4” frame with Tahoe-sized stretch-out room. The upright seating position, vast headroom, vertically-flat windows and, especially, the round instrument pod, all invoke (and improve upon) the VW Beetle experience.

I can shuttle my gangly teenage son and his friends without feeling their knees in my backside, or flip down the rear seats and haul bags of insulation or a range.

The little 1.5-liter engine’s torque curve isn’t a curve at all; it’s flat as a board. Also very Beetle like, except that instead of petering out at 3600 rpm, it just keeps on winding with lusty eagerness. The 108hp on tap is triple of what my slug-bugs had. Yet no matter how I flog it, fuel economy is exactly what I got back then: 32mpg. Almost fifty years in profligate America haven’t wiped out my Austrian appreciation for thrift.

My wife used to suggest that I indulge my nostalgia and buy an old Beetle. But this is the best of both worlds. It’s youthful nostalgia reincarnated with real progress: twice the interior room, three times the power, same mileage, modern amenities and all for pretty much the same (inflation-adjusted) 1960’s VW price. And the Scion’s much higher fun-to-drive quotient is the icing on the cake.

In the end, that’s what Volkswagens (and I) are all about: the sheer joy of communion with honest, simple and fun-to-drive mechanized locomotion. As I look back on my automotive life, I do so with absolute clarity. These plain virtues spoke to me as a toddler. The recipe has never lost its magic. And it never will.

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31 Comments on “Auto-Biography 27: Squaring the Circle...”


  • avatar
    1169hp

    I’ve enjoyed your series and could relate with many of your experiences. Thanks for the interesting read.
    DT

  • avatar
    Gottleib

    Not only have I enjoyed your series I am going to miss having the joy of reading the next installment. Writing your memories of cars in installment form was the best, it gave us a bit of nostalgia and it conjured up many of our best memories of the cars and times of which you wrote. My two favorites were your first one of coming to America and seeing the cars of the 1950′s and the installment about your experience with the city bus. Enjoy your time off and I will look forward to whatever you choose to write involving the times and cars of your and my past.

  • avatar
    Dayveo

    Unfortunately the lastest generation of xB seems to have unboxed itself and dumbed itself down for the american audience.

  • avatar
    murphysamber

    Thank you, Paul.

  • avatar
    turbosaab

    Paul, thanks for sharing so many of your great stories, your writing is always a pleasure. Hope you enjoy your hiatus from writing, but I am selfishly hoping you come back to TTAC soon!

  • avatar
    jthorner

    Thank you Paul. Your series is some of the most enjoyable and honest automobile related writing I’ve read, and I’ve been devouring all things car related for over 30 years now.

    Keep the shiny side up! ~ John

  • avatar
    postjosh

    thanks, paul. your series has been my favorite part of ttac. as to the car stuff, how does the xB gestalt compare to the honda element?

  • avatar
    pb35

    Paul, I enjoyed the series immensely. I’ll miss it with my Saturday morning coffee.

    Please sell the xB, buy some other cars and write about it.

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    postjosh, the Element is too big, fussy (rear doors), a bit over-styeld, and too heavy to be a true Volkswagen. But that doesn’t mean I don’t like it (I do).

  • avatar
    starlightmica

    Thanks for the ride, Paul, Good luck on the book version!

    Although Toyota no longer offers a lightweight box in the US market, sooner or later, someone else (Nissan Cube3?) surely will.

  • avatar
    Hippo

    It was fun reading every single chapter. A trip back in time.

  • avatar
    kazoomaloo

    Paul,

    Thank you for your contributions to this site, your Auto-Biography entries have been one of my favorite parts of TTAC. I think they really get into the Truth about cars, which besides the unforgiving straight-up reviews is what this site has gotten very right in my opinion. Your writing has helped me reconcile the fact that I still harbor an irrational love for my first car, a bone-stock Ford Aspire (it didn’t even have a clock). I even get a slight thrill pulling my wife’s Lumina out of the driveway each morning because every car is a story, a vehicle not only for transportation but for expression and experience. I think your entries really get down to that deeper core of the driving experience that is so far beyond 0-60 times or skidpad numbers or interior quality… idunno, but Auto-Biography always left me feeling good. I hope to see you contributing again on here sometime in the future.

  • avatar
    ZCline

    At first I didn’t like this series. I like my TTAC with its usual bite and edge. But, I figured, if RF and the boys were going to put it on the site, it deserved at least a read, and much like the rest of the commenters, I greatly enjoyed reading it. You have a very honest way of writing, and I found it very easy to feel what you were feeling right along with you.

    I too moved to Oregon, from the east coast, however I live in downtown Portland and while I still have my car, (a Nissan 350Z Roadster, completely wrong for this area of near constant winter rain, and no storage space to boot) I’m thinking of selling it for .. a bicycle.

  • avatar
    AGR

    Compelling series especially that you recount portions of your life through your automotive experiences.

    I clearly remember the 300E experience with the car and with your life at that time.

    In this age of technology the majority of people are more visual than in years gone by, with a shorter attention span.

  • avatar

    Paul, great story and superbly written. It’s been a pleasure to read.

    Good luck with the book. I don’t think you’ll get the Man Booker Prize though; your writing is too clear and unpretentious :-)

    I wish I had your excellent memory!

    Cheers

    Malcolm

  • avatar

    Yeah it was my opinion Toyota should have reclaimed the Xb from the marketing types and from Scion and simply made three Toyota versions. Very Small XB, Small corolla sized and medium Element sized.

    I’m going to keep my Xb as long as I can keep it running.

    An excellent series, I look forward to the buying the book should you go that route. I also like that you posted a picture so that we have a face to go along with your name and your stories. My suggestion for the book is to be generous with pictures of yourself and your family so we can picture your transformation and journey through life

  • avatar
    Sanman111

    Paul,
    I have really enjoyed the series. Being fairly young (still in my twenties), I haven’t had nearly as many automotive experiences. However, this series reminds of all of my old car memories from my first car show to the first time I held the keys to MY car. Though have since graduated from my then nine-year-old base Corolla, I still miss the simplicity, tossability, and all out fun I had with that car. Perhaps it is simply those high school memories of piling all my friends in and going out on a friday night, but I do miss that car. In all honesty, the best part of this series has been its relatability for the every-carguy. While much of automotive journalism centers on driving ferraris at laguna seca or M3′s on the autobahn, most of our memories will have to do with driving corollas, xbs, etc on the back roads behind the house. I guess that is why as I get older my dreams have shifted from owning a ferrari f40 or 355 to autocrossing a 1992 vw gti. One will create great memories while the other will likely always remain a dream.

  • avatar
    seldomawake

    Paul,

    You series was a great read. Thanks!

  • avatar
    The Flexible Despot

    Hello Mr. Niedermeyer,

    I’ve enjoyed the whole series. If I had to pick one chapter that really stands out, it would be the part of the auto-biography where you talk about being a busdriver back in Iowa. That was a really hilarious chapter.

    A book based on all this? Hey, this would make a good movie. If the Disney Pixar movie “Cars” can be such a rousing success, why not “The Auto-Biography?”

  • avatar
    scottb

    Paul, I enjoyed your Auto-Biography installments as much as, if not more than, the reviews and other editorials on this site. Great job, keep writing.

  • avatar
    johnf514

    Paul – your essays have brought a tear to my eye and a smile to my face time and time again. I cannot thank you enough for sharing your incredible experiences, and I look forward to your return to the pen (keyboard).

    Take care, and happy driving.

  • avatar
    gfen

    Paul, I didn’t read ‘em all but when I did I invaribly enjoyed it. Thanks for the memories. :)

    That said, its interesting, but I didn’t see a paralell between the Xb and the Beetle til you pointed it out, and I’m pretty sure I’m prone to agree with you. OTOH, while I don’t disagree with your views on the Element, its interesting that upon first getting to know (and consequently, purchase) the Element that from my vantage point it strikes me as the spiritual sucessor to the VW Type 2 van.

    Convienence, an alternate style, and function over form. Maybe not for everyone, but everyone who has one seems to love and use them. A middle finger to conventional SUV engineering, and truly a big brother to your little Xb.

  • avatar
    der_rote_tornado

    I really enjoyed your series Paul and I would also like to read your book. It would be cool if you could include photos of your cars and adventures in the book and really flesh out the chapters. The more of your funny and smart writing the better.

  • avatar
    Yuppie

    Paul: Thank you for an entertaining odyssey. TTAC is fortunate to have your contribution, all 27 parts of it.

  • avatar
    BobJava

    I’m in my mid-twenties; thus, your articles never elicited nostalgia. And yet, I read through every one of them and found great pleasure in doing so. It left me with a few conclusions: One, you grew up in a much freer and more exciting time than me. Two, I wasn’t the only one who found beauty in both likely and unlikely automobiles. Three, and most importantly, the appreciation of automobiles and our American “car culture” is accessible, even without paternal instigation or a dubious number of personal experiences such as yours.

    For me, your articles took vague and nebulous notions and turned them into assertions and insightful observations. To put it another way, previous to your articles, I had arrived at the same destination, but had no idea how I got there. (Memories of the family’s 1982 Ford Escort were a terrible starting point.) So, thank you for putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard).

    I’d love to see expanded chapters in a book. As one playing automotive cultural catch-up, the more information and insight, the better. I always wished these articles were longer.

    And you know, as the target of Toyota’s original xB marketing campaign, the ads made me despise the vehicle a bit … that is, until I climbed into one

  • avatar
    rennf

    Paul,

    Let me add my voice to those thanking you for your wonderful writing contributions to TTAC! I was hesitant when I first starting reading your series of articles — at the time I mentally associated TTAC content with one of two things: car reviews and piercing editorial commentary — and this didn’t seem to be either.

    But your friendly, warm, and engaging writing style, as well as a truly fascinating set of life experiences, quickly won me over and turned me into a fan of the series.

    I do hope to see more writing from you in the future, and I wish you the best in your adventures to come.

  • avatar
    confused1096

    Thank you so much for posting this and other articles. They’ve been well written and entertaining.

    I agree with you on your xB assesment. I love the 1st gen xB and come really close to buying one, until I stumbled on a great deal on a used (cash purchase) car. The new xB was a disapointment. They took a great car and turned it into a Matrix.

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    Thank you all for your kind words. I’m touched, and my eyes are watery, but that just might be from the drywall demolition I just came from (one of my rental units needs gutting and rebuilding). I’ve quickly learned to enjoy writing more than renovation, but I haven’t figured out the economics yet. But there will be more stories, somehow, somewhere, and I look forward to re-connecting with all of you.

  • avatar
    roadtrip

    Don’t worry about the economics. Just keep writing in this vain. You’ve got a fan club. The financial returns will come. If some of the major auto publications don’t pick up on you they’re either blind or stupid. Carry on fellow VW freak. I had six beetles when I started my driving career. Many thanks.

  • avatar

    Congrats on wrapping her up! Talk about one of those “never-saw-it-coming-but-damn-if-it-didn’t-make-sense-when-it-came” things that keeps life so interesting.

    Your words really have illuminated our relationships with these hunks of metal. That state of childlike calm I get when hearing and feeling the old truck work through its gears, the wave of nostalgia I get playing with the oh-so familiar window controls in the backseat of an old Cherokee, the way my neck snaps around when I hear a Caravan V6 being used in anger… Your writing reminds me of where these small thrills come from.

    As a matter of fact, I wondered how the series would hold up starting around, oh, the time I was born. Wild youth and cars are a crowd-pleasing combo, but your writing was about much more than that, and it held up well even through the less wild and crazy middle-age years. I think what kept it fresh was how it cut through all of the “Buy-this-car, be-this-person” marketingspeak that surrounds car culture. You really showed that if you get a car that really fits your lifestyle (not just your Madison Avenue dream lifestyle) it will be present for (or make possible) many of your most meaningful memories. Like backfiring all the way back from the dump in the pickup, or plowing through a small lake in the jeep, or, well… that’s a whole auto-biography on it’s own.

    Great work, Dad!

  • avatar

    Love the comparison of the Old Beetle and the xB. And I agree that Toyota utterly blew it by changing the personality.

    I must admit though, after driving the Element recently for the first time, I far prefer that car’s refinement. Although I think the xB is as aesthetically pleasing as the Old Beetle (which has amazing artistic integrity) though in a very different way, while I think the Element is ugly (terrible face, and that cladding just looks like junk), I would much rather drive the Element. If only Toyota had kept making the xB, they could have improved it.


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