Rusted and stripped of their right seats, cars parked in queues on street corners serve as unofficial taxis in the hilly neighborhoods of Cuautepec in Mexico’s capital. The curvy symbol of the 1960s hippie era is admired — even decorated and named — by residents who say the car represents their resilience and work ethic.
They can be spotted throughout Mexico City, but they swarm the bustling streets of Cuautepec, where cockroaches can be heard climbing steep hills past residents lounging on rooftops and dogs keeping guard on balconies.
One of Cuautepec’s many mechanics is usually just a couple of blocks away. The smell of car exhaust fills the streets as yellow, green, red and purple Beetles buzz past each other at intersections.
“It’s not a standard car like the others,” said Yolanda Ocampo, 45, as she admired her graying 1982 Beetle parked outside the pharmacy where she works. The brake pedal may be stiff, but owning the Beetle means “your car is tough.”
“We love Vochos so much,” he added.
There are conflicting theories about the car’s beloved nickname, “Vocho.” Some say it comes from the Spanish word for bug, “bicho,” and combines the first two letters of Volkswagen. Others say it’s just a shortened slang version of Volkswagen.
Although the German Classic Beetle was officially discontinued in 2003, the Classic Beetle has long been a source of pride for Mexico, and particularly Cuautepec. Originally designed for Adolf Hitler in the 1930s, Volkswagen sold hundreds of thousands of Beetles in the 1960s as the car became an emblem of the anti-establishment counterculture.
Eventually, Volkswagen stopped imports into the United States because it couldn’t keep up with crash testing and emissions standards. The company began to outsource production to other countries. In 1964, it opened a plant in Puebla, Mexico, where it produced Beetles until 2003, and continued to build the sleeker New Beetles until 2019, when Volkswagen ended the Beetle’s reign completely.
In Cuautepec most of the cars on the road are still classic models.
“The good ones are the old ones,” said Eduardo Jiménez León, whose son gave him a Beetle that he previously used as a taxi.
For residents like Mr. Jiménez León, 73, Vocho’s popularity is a matter of convenience. The Beetle’s engine is in the rear rather than the front, making it easier to drive on Cuautepec’s steep hills. Cars marked with green and white paint are still used as unofficial taxis in the neighborhood. Many visitors who choose to take a cable car up to the top of the city’s northern hills choose to descend aboard a Vocho for more retro transportation.
“They say you drive just by the pure smell of gasoline,” said Uriel Mondragón, a local mechanic who said 40 percent of his customers owned a Beetle. “It’s not like a new car. “This car doesn’t run out of gas.”
For others, owning a Beetle is more about what the car represents.
In Cuautepec, the car has united generations of families, often passed down from parent to child.
“Our beloved Vocho has become part of Mexican folklore thanks to its unique personality, quality and reliability,” Álea M. Lozada, spokeswoman for Volkswagen in Mexico, said in a statement. “It is an honor to be the last factory where this iconic model was assembled.”
Each Beetle in the neighborhood has its own personality and name; Owners post their car’s nickname at the top of the windshield or on one side. On a recent trip to Cuautepec, a beetle was named Ashley. Miranda was walking a couple of blocks away. Another had “New York” spray-painted along the side.
Custom designs and decorations are also coveted in the Vocho community.
A taxi driver drove a Vocho with fake $100,000 bills glued to the side. Another had a Scooby-Doo doll installed in the trunk. Stars adorned the windshield of another Beetle.
Ms Ocampo said she prefers driving her Beetle to her brand new SEAT Ibiza, a supermini. For her, owning a Vocho is a way to push back against the gender stereotypes that were prevalent in her home when she was growing up. She often heard men in Cuautepec wonder if women could handle the Scarab.
“How is it possible for a woman to drive a Volkswagen because of the heavy steering wheel?” Ms. Ocampo recalled that people had asked for it. But now «if there is a Volkswagen they aren’t surprised, right? So the truth is, I’m proud to drive a Volkswagen.”
But since the Beetle is no longer in production, it can be difficult to find the right parts in case of repairs.
As a result, cars are often made up of color-matched parts. A Beetle might have a green hood, blue passenger door and yellow trunk — signs of past repair work and an effort to match the neighborhood’s vibrant homes.
Beetlemania is not limited to the Vocholandia neighborhood.
Berenzain Amaya, a tattoo artist at Octattoo Studio in another part of Mexico City, says he has inked the car on at least 10 die-hard Vocho fans.
“It’s hard to explain because if you come from another country and you see this German car, it’s a little strange, but I think Mexico is a strange place,” Mr. Amaya said. “There are many things that are not so common to see in other countries. “This is part of the culture.”
Cars have been part of Mario Gamboa’s family for decades. Together with his brother Alejandro, Mr. Gamboa, 45, runs a repair shop in Mexico City, Grillos Racing, which mainly serves Beetle owners. But Mr. Gamboa and his brother also equip the cars with more powerful engines and shiny new exteriors for drag racing around town.
It was a family tradition started by their parents, who were still racing Beetles in the mid-1960s.
The family owns a total of 15 Beetles. Mr. Gamboa himself owns seven. On a recent afternoon, the brothers said they were preparing to show off at a car show for the best of the best Beetles.
He has been fond of the Beetle since he was a child.
“All the people in Mexico learned to drive a Volkswagen,” Mr. Gamboa said. “All families have a Volkswagen. If you don’t have a Volkswagen, maybe your uncle, cousin or grandmother does.”