Volkswagen in reverse

Volkswagen in reverse

As the owner of a 1972 Beetle that still turns heads with its eccentric hump and its air-cooled roar, which drives so well in snow and on the roughest roads, and having driven a similarly aged Combi van all over Greece, Volkswagen’s current fiasco is a source of personal pain. Like seeing a friend falling flat on their face by pretending to do more than they could.

Volkswagen had done so much to become a people’s car, managing to distance itself from its Hitlerian beginnings, with vehicles that were functional and charming, that worked their way into people’s sense of themselves and their place in the world. The magic was that a mass-produced item became a personal statement. Volkswagen got this right when Apple’s founders were kids.

My Beetle, which I bought in 1989 and had to repaint because its previous owner used to cart a boat around on its roof, preceded the first oil crisis in 1973. Even at today’s relatively low price, the cost of each kilometer is exorbitant, as is the level of emissions, turning my particular “people’s car” into a sentimental indulgence – best admired in its parking spot. The brand’s latest models, however, combine luxury with utilitarianism, performance with low emissions. Paragons of efficiency and social responsibility. The brand recently overtook Toyota as the world’s biggest automaker.

That is why the confession that Volkswagen models’ low diesel emissions were the product of fraud is so painful. I can’t think of another brand that had such good will behind it for reliability and honesty: the honesty to be what they were and still be lovable, to be both functional and desirable. With such breeding, it was a tragic choice to shoot for greater conquests on false pretenses. With such experience, surely the company’s engineers could have come up with engines that may not have had the low emissions they pretended to but would still be outstanding. I cannot believe that such a respected company could stake its future on a lie.

The scandal has ramifications that go beyond a company’s culpability or past and present owners’ disenchantment. If other German automakers are caught up in this, if the German economy takes a hit, this could affect developments in the European Union. Would a humbled Berlin become more tolerant of the failings of others? Will regulators realize that when companies (or countries or people) cannot reach very high standards, and if the stakes are high enough, they may lie? Will we all realize that when something looks too good to be true it is usually neither that good nor true?

One thing that is certain is that German introversion at this stage will be a blow to the European Union just when it needs strong hands at the wheel and greater self-confidence to adapt to unprecedented challenges. That, for all of us, is the most unsettling part of this sad saga.

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