By on August 13, 2011

With the world’s established automakers facing increased competition from ascendant Korean car brands, and with even more competition from Chinese automakers just over the horizon, the key to continued success is leveraging every single advantage that’s been accumulated in the past. Traditionally those advantages have been technical, whether in engine technology, suspension set-up know-how, or long-established relationships with suppliers. But as technical advantages fade, brands are having to cash in on their other, less tangible assets… including heritage.

Few brands have the kind of mass-appeal heritage assets that VW has, as witnessed by the profound success of the previous-gen New Beetle. But rather than limiting its advantages to a single model, VW envisions an entire range of heritage-inspired models which will leverage vast platform commonality into passion-inspiring cult cars. The next of these “cult cars,” after the new New Beetle: an electric mini-MPV based on the Bulli concept, to bebuilt in Puebla for the 2014 model-year. VW design boss Walter Da Silva tells Autocar

As a designer, I am convinced by this idea. We don’t have a space for another conventional MPV, but this one would be desirable on a different level, combining practicality with the heritage appeal.

Meanwhile, VW isn’t the only brand with this idea. Facing slack sales and an uncertain place in the European market, Citroen has bet big on its “anti-retro” DS line to revitalize its flagging fortunes. But if brands are increasingly leveraging their pasts to bolster their futures, why aren’t any American brands betting big on retro? After all, if anyone in the global car game can look to the past as being better than the present, isn’t it Detroit?

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16 Comments on “VW’s Secret Weapon: Heritage...”

  • avatar

    Detroit has already tried this, with mixed success.

    The muscle cars, Mustang, Camaro, Challenger are all sporting a lot of heritage styling. But it’s a small part of the overall market.

    Ford tried the retro-bird, and it was ok, but it didn’t set the world on fire.

    HHR (Heritage High Roof) is doing so-so.

    It doesn’t seem that heritage styling is a bad idea -people seem to respond favorably. But it doesn’t seem to be enough by itself to set sales records.

    Of course, Chevy has yet to try the retro-’57 convertible.

    I can see some sense in a retro micro-bus, and possibly a retro Ghia, but they better draw a line somewhere before the make the mistake of a retro 412 or retro type 3.

    • 0 avatar

      But if brands are increasingly leveraging their pasts to bolster their futures, why aren’t any American brands betting big on retro?

      To the list above, you can add the Prowler, the PT Cruiser and the SSR.

      Much of Detroit’s car heritage comes in the form of land yachts. There is little demand for behemoth four-door gas guzzlers in today’s market, so there is no point in replicating those.

  • avatar

    VW has to tread lightly on this concept considering the true heritage of the entire company.

    • 0 avatar

      In my youth, Volkswagen jokes that had the punchline “in the ashtray” were considered amusing.

    • 0 avatar

      Not that I got any sort of heritage message from the video, unless it is the heritage that caused VW to try recycling the Rabbit name after making the Golf unsalable to straight people, but I’m not sure the Kdf heritage would be a burden in Europe. Antisemitism and anti-Americanism are are the closest things they have to shared values.

  • avatar

    I’m confused as to how that ad actually describes heritage. Seems to me it’s all about looking to the future, with iPads and Apple products (I noticed the MacBook Pro) leading the way to a more modern car interior what what ironically looked like an Android-based dashboard system.

    I know the car itself is meant as a homage to the VW Microbus, but I really liked the future-oriented nature of the ad more than the blast from the past. The vehicle looks real nice, too.


    • 0 avatar

      I’m confused as to how that ad actually describes heritage.

      In this case, heritage = retro, and the heritage refers to the history and obvious homage to an iconic product (in this case, the Microbus.) The fresh-faced hipsters are featured in the ad so that the more-tired-than-hip families will feel good about buying it.

  • avatar

    Heritage can be an asset when selling a niche product to enthusiasts, such as the Mustang and some other examples given here.

    I don’t think it makes much difference for mainstream transportation appliances – the market for these is based on utility divided by price. Brand experience probably makes a difference in this space, but I don’t see heritage being a big differentiator for the appliance market.

    Heritage alone is not enough to save a mass market manufacturer – brands like Oldsmobile in the US and Rover in the UK arguably had more heritage than VW, look how well that worked out for them.

  • avatar

    Volkswagen really has become a master of marketing. Their marketing team must be one of the best in the business right now.

  • avatar

    All I can think about when I read about VW bringing it back is riding across Eastern Ohio and Western PA in my best friend’s parent’s VW microbus in the late 60’s. What a gutless POS. With 6 people in it, it struggled up hill so slowly we got flipped the bird so many times it made us laugh, after we got over being angry.

    • 0 avatar

      Vws heritage isnt anything to shout about Adolf and Ferdis awful aircooled beetle or the Kombi type2 neither of these POS are worth remembering the beetle was nearly VWs undoing they made it way past it dump by date and the motoring population was glad to see the last of it

      • 0 avatar

        If you think of the situation in the early 1970s, none of the Beetle, Fiat 500/600, Citroen 2CV or Mini were class-leading vehicles.

        And yet they met a very real need when they were first built for Western European countries hungry for transportation (1940s for the Beetle and 2CV, 1950s for the 500 and Mini).

        For many people, it was the first car they experienced and lived with. Often simple to the point of being crude, they were simple cars that could take enormous amounts of punishment and still be repaired on the roadside. In spite of their faults, these cars transformed millions of lives, and rightfully can be called iconic. (Arguably the Trabant and the original Lada had similar status in Eastern Europe.)

        Now, where is Citroen’s retro take on the 2CV?

  • avatar

    Love it, though things like UP! are probably VW’s future – not bound by the past, and incredibly “Fresh”….

    I’d love one of these for the “family truckster”, though it wouldn’t replace my Audi daily driver.

  • avatar
    Dr Lemming

    All too often “heritage” cars have been little more than styling exercises linked to trite, feel good marketing. The trouble with this approach is that sales will do well only as long as the styling and marketing stay trendy.

    The New Beetle is a good example. It captured the look of the original but none of the underlying qualities that made VW so legendary in the US during the 1960s. Much the same goes for the current batch of pseudo-pony cars, which resemble a high school quarterback . . . with 25 years of flab and wrinkles added.

    Contrast that with the Miata, another heritage design (stolen from the British) that has had enviable staying power. The Miata’s styling has been consistently strong but the key factor in overcoming stiff competition from the likes of the Pontiac Solstice has been offering a better all-around ownership experience.

    The new Citroen DS was disappointing to me not so much because it didn’t look retro, but because it flagrantly disregarded Citroen’s DNA, e.g., ground-breaking technical advances and aerodynamics.

    Automakers who offer heritage designs tend to be those who have run too far away from their past. When VW switched to FWD in the 1970s it completely repudiated the basic look of their RWD era. It took VW a while to realize how dumb that was.

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