Having driven its way into 60s kids’ collective consciousness through a love bug named Herbie, the Volkswagen Beetle enjoys a kind of fame not even a Ferrari can match. It’s classic, it’s compact, it’s cute but not cutesy.
Commissioned in the 1930s, it is also a visual metonym of a bygone era. If you could make an evolution chart for modes of transportation, the little beetle that could would sit squarely between a Lamborghini and a horse-drawn carriage. It calls to mind wartime industrialization, analog radios, drive-in theaters. A beetle can be found in the garage of committed automobile collectors (and maybe a few Germans), but otherwise, it’s an endangered species, rarely ever spotted in any concrete jungle.
Not surprising then that this year, Volkswagen will be ceasing production of the round bug design entirely.
Still, old metal bodies persist in the imagination as new technologies develop at breakneck speed. We live in the era of Large Hadron Colliders and billionaires who think they can terraform Mars sooner than we can reverse the effects of global warming. This historical moment is also characterized by a fascination with the retro—vinyl records continue production, and apparently, Volkswagen beetles can be converted into hybrid vehicles that run on clean energy.
Cars that get a second wind:
You might be familiar with Illac Diaz and his Liter of Light initiative, which involves providing the marginalized with alternative, low-cost sources of light. Through this clean energy initiative, he aims to reduce waste while also impacting technological production on a macro level, attempting to move industries to more sustainable ways of powering our utilities. And while Liter of Light might not bear much resemblance to refitting a Volkswagen to run electrically, the two ideas aren’t that different conceptually, and Diaz’s love of cars runs pretty deep.
“My grandfather (Jaime Balthazar Diaz) was an importer of printing machines from Germany. Like any good Filipino, he did not want to waste cargo space on 40 footers and an extra small bug fit properly,” Diaz shares. “Therefore a 1953 Beetle was the first imported one in the Philippines; which passed to my father and then to me.” Perhaps it was not known to Diaz when he first acquired it, but what he inherited was more than just a car that would fetch easy millions at an auction. What was passed down to him was the spirit of innovation in one of its forms, something that Diaz would transform and, in the process, make his own.
Which brings us to his creation, a fully solar powered Volkswagen Transporter. Its solar panels rest on an awning that can be unfolded like a wing and comes with a battery pack that allows the home to run for up to five days without an engine. All the wood is recycled acacia from PHILUX. The back of the van has freakin’ windmills. And the interiors look so livable, the idea of renting it out as an AirBNB doesn’t sound far-fetched. It looks like what would happen to the Mystery Machine if Scooby Doo and gang listened to Carole King instead of Grateful Dead.
This endeavor isn’t for him, though. Like many of his eco endeavors, this Volkswagen Transporter exists for others to learn from. “My love to teach and work with students made me determined to show a complete green tiny home. So I decided to make the 1977 a great way to enjoy and to showcase green technology.”
Diaz’s contemporary, and fellow advocate for clean energy, Sam Tan, shares this verve, as the “father” of a hybrid beetle he has named BIASTY. But you wouldn’t know it if you asked him a few years ago.
“I had no interest in cars,” Tan tells me through email. “I thought cars were a social disease because they generated so much pollution.” To him, the benefits and disadvantages of owning a car, plus society’s tendency to treat the car as a status symbol, just didn’t make sense to him. “Why couldn't people commute and bike more?” (Well, our public transportation is a mess, and this city isn’t exactly bike-friendly, but that’s another conversation for another day.)
For Tan, reducing the amount of pollution caused by mainstream private transport is a matter of obligation, of life and death. “I also had to be involved in the transport situation since it is one of the main culprits of ecological damage.”
But wheels began to turn on his head with BIASTY, a 1967 model which he procured in 2015, from an owner who wanted to be rid of a machine that forced him to pay street parking every month. This piece of history would have otherwise given itself to rust in M.H. Del Pilar, Ermita, if it stayed the way it did. But it didn’t. And while Tan’s disinterest in cars is on par with considering an old Volkswagen as little more than a piece of junk, it’s precisely this derision that drew him to hybridize a VW beetle. If one could turn a piece of junk into an eco-friendly machine, then surely, it would force others to consider greater possibilities.
In fact if you ask him about what kind of statement hybridizing a beetle would make, he’d probably meet you with a corrosive rebuttal. “What statement? Think people, think. It's not about electric vehicles, technology, change. It's about thinking, evaluating and awareness. Maybe even common sense.”
Both vehicles were exhibited at the Manila Mini Maker Faire, and will continue to draw surprised looks as long as the status quo favors oil and gasoline and continues to turn a blind eye to cleaner, more hybrid possibilities. Perhaps this surprise is better than the dead-eyed jadedness we wear whenever we inch through clogged, smoke-filled roads. Maybe the oxymoron of hybrid vintage cars can someday change the way we travel. But for now, exemplars of innovation like BIASTY and the Transporter, fill us with awe.