The People’s Car

True confession:  (if my 928 posting didn’t already reveal this) Like most mechanics, I have some less-than-justifiable affections for some cars.  One such car (for me) is the almighty Volkswagen Quantum.  Sold in the US between 1982 and 1989 this trusty VW will have a very hard time making it to any automobile hall-of-fame.  It was, really, the first Passat sold in the US but like all VWs of its time, it got rebranded for this market.  At my shop, during winter months, you will likely find a 1985 Quantum wagon fitted with VW’s all-wheel-drive ‘Syncro’ system.  It is one of approximately 500 that made it to the US for 1985 and one of approximately 3000 that were ever sold here.  If the Quantum has a chance of any immortality (and it doesn’t) the Syncro Wagon is it.  Mine represents a 5-year restoration effort in my first (and last!) full automobile restoration.  If you think it’s an ugly car now . . .

Anyway (don’t laugh) there is a close-knit web community of Quantum owners whose activities center around a Yahoo! Group:  Syncronized.  It was recently brought-up there that the Quantum is still built and sold in China!  

Which reminded me of the original People’s Car:  the VW Beetle and its recent production hault in Mexico.  Until a few years ago you could still buy a brand-new old-style Beetle south of the boarder.  An friend of mine, who grew up in Mexico, told me that there the old Beetle is referred to as a bellybutton because “everybody has one”.

Now think for a minute of the ‘economy of scale’ such a huge production level would have!  The R&D costs, distributed over all cars ever built, would have to be tiny.  Likewise the cost of making the custom toolings to stamp out the sheet metal, to hone the engine blocks, to mold the various plastics, etc would also be very small per car.  An economist would be able to answer this better but I expect VW’s costs to build a Beetle was almost entirely production.

Same too for the Quantum in China.

So, why doesn’t this happen more in our market?  

Would you be interested in an old car like the Beetle if it was, say, $5,000 new?  What about the Quantum?

Would that be good for our economy?

The simpliest answers are in our regulations:  an old Beetle wouldn’t have a prayer of passing our modern new-car emission standards.  The Quantum would have a chance but not in the way it was configured back in 1985.  Safety too would be a failure.  Personally I wouldn’t want to only be protected by the Beetle’s safety features on a modern US freeway but the Quantum isn’t as bad.  Add some airbags and it would probably be able to pass new-car standards with only a few more tweaks.

In fact the modern VW Jetta and Golf (er – we’re back to calling it the Rabbit) use a derivative of the Quantum’s engine as their base engine offering:  the 2.5L 5-cylinder.  The Quantum’s most common engine was a 2.2L 5-cylinder so obviously if the new engine can pass emission standards the old engine could be built to do so.

The other glaring issue is the buying public’s demand:  as much as I love the old Quantum even I have to admit that our modern cars are certainly more desirable.

I’m no economist so I won’t draw any conclusions here but I do want to leave you with these thoughts:  if the US automakers built cars with those kinds of ‘economy of scales’ would they be in the financial trouble they are in now?  If our safety and emission standards had more flexibility to allow car technology to have a longer lifespan would that be good?  Would we as a buying-public want that?

Just thoughts.  

Oh – and now that my secret is out – if you ever need professional help with a VW Quantum you would have a hard time finding someone with more capability and knowledge in the US / ‘Quantum Mechanic’ jokes aside!!

Quantum Wagon and Quantum Coupe