Like anyone who had been to Mexico City in the 90's, I was fascinated by the seemingly endless sea of green and white Beetle taxis that seemed to keep the city running 24/7. While the rest of the world had moved on, Mexico City in particular seemed to be stuck in a Cuban-esque time warp of technology. No other city, or even country on the planet relied as much on the decades old design of the "vocho," as it's affectionately known south of the border.
For countless impoverished inhabitants of Mexico City, the Beetle was not just a convenience, but a necessity to move about a city riddled with congestion and a whopping 573 square miles in size. Walking great distances was out of the question, so the Beetle taxi quickly filled a niche of cheap, reliable public transportation on demand starting in the early 1970's. The vocho taxi would undergo many facelifts in its decades long service. The earliest Beetle cabs being the familiar yellow and white livery we are all accustomed to seeing in metropolises like NYC.
With mounting pollution problems in the early 1990's the government would give the Beetle cabs their first official facelift. All cabs were now required to be green for the perception of being much more environmentally friendly. They even went so far as to call the cabs "Ecological Taxis" despite the fact that Mexican built Beetles were still carbureted at that point and didn't even come with catalytic converters until 1991, and fuel injection two years later. Despite the "eco" paint jobs, the VW's were basically the same cars that had always been contributing to Mexico City's ever growing pollution problems. And unfortunately for the Beetle, there would be another problem that would threaten its very existence...
At its height of popularity among Mexican cab drivers in the late 90's, the Beetle taxi fleet numbered over 100,000 cars strong. This was also not taking into account the new danger of "pirate cabs." Those being unofficially licensed cabs that were driven by citizens looking to make a living shuttling civilians around without being licensed, insured, or even experienced in taxi-driving. And there was a darker side to many pirate cabs too. Many tourists soon fell victim to "express kidnappings," which were well executed robberies wherein victims would be held at gunpoint in these VWs and taken to ATMs to basically empty their bank accounts. If the victims cooperated, they would be set free, albeit with a newly depleted checking account. Many of these kidnapping relied on the cooperation of crooked cops assisting in this activity for a cut of the earnings. Tourists were essentially sitting ducks in the back of the VWs 2 door configuration. Some cab drivers even rigged the passenger doors to only open from the outside. Robberies were becoming so commonplace in that the U.S. government finally issued a travel advisory in 1998 to tourists warning of the dangers of hailing Beetle taxis.
With pollution worsening by the day, and taxi crimes on the rise, the Mexico City government had little choice but to put new regulations into effect that would start the slow demise of the vocho cabs. Rumors of back room deals with Nissan were also swirling as they did what they could to prop up lagging sales of their version of the Nissan Sentra-known as the Tsuru in Mexico. The famous green Beetles would give way to red, white, maroon, gold, and even pink paint jobs in an effort to calm people's nerves about the killer VW's. It didn't work.
In 2001, Mexican legislators dealt the Beetle a devastating blow when they put into effect a law that said all taxis must be 4 doors for safety of the passengers. One year later they also passed a law banning all taxis older than 10 years. This was essentially the nail in the coffin for Beetle production in Puebla. Sales of the Beetle in Mexico was as high as 40,000 units per year in the mid 90's, but had slipped now to barely 10,000 units annually by 2002/2003. The writing was on the wall, and on July 30, 2003 the last Beetle would roll off the assembly line in Puebla Mexico. The taxi ban had effectively killed the Beetle in Mexico like one giant can of Raid. But the story doesn't end there. The government's mission to rid the streets of the Beetle is an even sadder story to tell.
Beginning in 2002, the Transportation Ministry began a "cash for clunkers" program to rid the streets of the vocho. Owners of the green/white beetles could turn their personal cab in for a cash allowance of roughly $1200 US dollars-good enough for a down payment for the now-legal Nissan Tsuru. Most of the VW drivers jumped at the opportunity. Beetles began piling up at government impound years by the thousands-the crushers working 24/7 to keep up with the supply.
Rather than part cars out or sell them to enthusiasts, every single car that was sold back to the government met the same fate. Not even the engines were pulled before being compacted...
I had the chance to visit the last of the Beetles awaiting the crusher on a trip to Mexico City last year for the Carrera Panamericana. It was a sad sight. Especially knowing the fate of these last cars waiting was certain death. While government buybacks were off limits, I knew in a city of 9 million people there had to be a few survivors that hadn't been sold off. And with lots of help from some friends south of the border and a little luck I found one.
Ignacio had been a cab driver and bonded with his Volkswagen over the years, and fortunately for me he cared so much for his car that when he found out it would be crushed, he decided not to take the money. He removed the taxi bits and used the car as a civilian vehicle until he sold it to me. I've since re-commissioned the car with its taxi equipment, signage, and even it's meter that still reads in pesos. It's one of my favorite VW's in my collection. But every time I get behind the wheel, I can't help but think of all the VW cabs that weren't so lucky. For a car that was once such a common sight in Mexico, the fact that they've all but since disappeared makes my little beat up taxi that much more enjoyable when I take it out for an errand run. It's also a lot more fun when you control the fare meter...