Two Days in Berlin: A VW insider finds his own Beetle story in Berlin

This should come as no surprise, but when you work for Volkswagen, you end up spending a lot of time with cars. Every once in a while, though, a VW employee gets to spend some quality time with a car—a fond moment that lives forever in their memory. Volkswagen Digital Marketing Manager Brian Chee got to do just that recently, and he was kind enough to write about his experience. Here’s the story in Brian’s own words:

Just about everyone has a Beetle story. And now, finally, I do, too. But first, a little context: working for Volkswagen provides for quite a lot of interaction with the iconic car. We talk Beetle. We live, breathe eat and dream about the Beetle, just as we do the Touareg, Jetta, Passat, Golf and Tiguan; all of our vehicles are a great source of pride and the reason for our driving dedication.

But let’s be real: the Beetle is different. When Volkswagen first came to the US, the Beetle was the car people purchased. The advertising was classic, the shape unmistakable and its place as a cultural icon assured. The Beetle, as a result, became the automotive equivalent of charisma in a cold world, simplicity during a time of complication. It became, ultimately, a reminder of what it feels like to simply drive–and to enjoy the heck out of doing it. Such a simple task, that, yet it is the source of so much satisfaction for so many around the world.

Despite my immersion into Volkswagen, I had no story to tell when someone asked me if I had a fond memory of the Beetle. Sure, I knew a girl named Stacey who drove around in a beat-up yellow Super Beetle. Plenty of great memories there. But no story.

I accepted the assignment to go to Berlin, Germany and cover the Beetle International Press Drive in part so that I could find that story. I had two days to interview journalists, shoot some video, take as many photos as I could and report back on the spectacle of a Beetle press drive. Consider this: over a span of 3 weeks, Volkswagen will have welcomed more than 1,000 journalists from around the world to a magnificent, specially constructed Beetle Center in the heart of Berlin. One thousand of the most respected automotive writers from publications and sites such as Kelley Blue Book, Edmunds, Autoweek, The Wall Street Journal, and in Berlin to drive the 2012 Beetle and form opinions about whether or not it achieves our clearly stated goal: to remind all who take a spin in it that driving is supposed to be fun, and, by golly, life is supposed to include those simple moments when something like a car makes you grin. It’s like a friend once said: “When you see the Beetle coming down the road, it looks like it’s grinning at you. You can’t help but grin back.”

Day One: We arrived in Berlin to beautiful weather and the biggest and brightest billboard we’d ever seen: a white car on a white background with a single phrase: Hier sieht nichts mehr aus wie früher [Which roughly translates to “Nothing here looks like anything before“]. It was so big that it covered a good portion of an entire building. The ad dominated Potsdamer Platz–no easy feat–to the extent that people stared and pointed, took photos and generally gawked. There was no doubt that the Beetle and Volkswagen had taken over the town for three weeks; in addition to the massive billboard, our colleagues in Germany had conveniently placed several classic Beetles on the median of the Boulevard of Stars. The two massive displays virtually assured that if you entered the vicinity, you’d learn that the Beetle was new.

Walkabouts could take a close look at Herbie, or the super cool 2000 blue New Beetle RS, a 1973 Super Beetle, a classic Beetle and of course, two 2012 models–one red and one white with Turbo. I stood out on that pavilion for awhile, taking pictures and soaking up the experience. There was a boy, maybe eight years old, who came running up and grabbed his mother by the hand, tugging and dragging her to the display. She hesitated, rolled her eyes then simply smiled and went along. Later, I watched as an old man walked up to the classic Beetle. He turned to his wife and smiled, as if to share in the joy of seeing an old friend.

Day Two: Want to know who to call when you have to put on an event? Call Volkswagen. Not only did we construct an entire media and entertainment building in a matter of weeks–on a field in Berlin–but also, ready for Day 2, sat a 1951 Type 1 Volkswagen, a 2003 Final Edition Beetle and about two dozen perfectly shiny 2012 Beetles in black, gray, red and white. These cars were not to be tussled with; for each ham-handed journalist or corporate person pawing on the cars, there was a guy with a towel and a bottle of cleaner polishing and polishing and polishing to make sure all cars remained in pristine condition throughout the day. Of course, once the journalists were released from PowerPoint bondage, the cars were gone, most not to return until the end of the day.

I took pictures early and often, interviewed journalists and looked for my story. It finally came in the guise of a 2003 Final Edition Beetle. “La Ultima Edicion” was the last classic Beetle–just 3,000 built with all the bells and whistles and only in blue and beige. None were ever sold in the US. With the journalists gone, I grabbed the keys and motored through the streets of Berlin. It was surprising how vertical the windshield was and how that changed the driving perspective. It was good to drive a car with an actual manual transmission. It felt good, really good, and the longer I drove, the more I felt I could get used to driving a car like that old Beetle: the vertical window, the unmistakable chug-a-chug-chug-chug sound of the engine, the feeling of the hard and skinny steering wheel and the faint but rich smell of fuel. I got a feeling that I was right there, on the road and in the heart of the action. It made me glad that we had a new version of such an old classic, one that brings that sensation of performance to the driving experience.

And that was it. Sure, it’s not Leno’s 1938 moment in the Wolfsburg sun. But then again, I’m no Jay Leno. This Beetle story was mine–all mine–on the streets of Berlin, in the last classic Beetle ever built, chugging down Unter den Linden with a big old smile on my face.

– Brian Chee


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