In This Mexican Neighborhood, Locals Say ¡Viva el Beetle!

Rusted and stripped of their right seat, the cars parked in queues rounding street corners serve as the unofficial taxi in the hillside neighborhoods in 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 vibrant streets in Cuautepec, where Beetles can be heard climbing steep hills past residents relaxing on their roofs and dogs standing guard on balconies.

One of the Cuautepec’s many mechanics is usually just a couple blocks away. The smell of car exhaust fumes fills the streets as yellow, green, red and purple Beetles buzz by one another at intersections.

“It is not a standard car like any other,” said Yolanda Ocampo, 45, as she admired her graying 1982 Beetle parked outside the pharmacy where she works. The brake peddle can be stiff, but owning the Beetle means “your car is tough.”

“We love the Vochos so much,” she added.

There are competing theories for the car’s beloved nickname, “Vocho.” Some say it is derived from the Spanish word for bug, “bicho,” and combined the first two letters of Volkswagen. Others say it is just a shortened slang version of Volkswagen.

Though the German Classic Beetle was officially discontinued in 2003, the classic Beetle has long been a source of pride for Mexico, and specifically 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 anti-establishment counterculture.

Eventually, Volkswagen stopped imports to the United States when it could not keep pace with crash test and emission standards. The company began to farm out production to other countries. In 1964, it opened a factory in Puebla, Mexico, where it produced Beetles until 2003, and continued to build the sleeker New Beetles until 2019, when Volkswagen ended the bug’s reign entirely.

In Cuautepec, most of the cars on the road are still the classic models.

“The good ones are the old ones,” said Eduardo Jiménez León, whose son gifted him a Beetle previously used as a taxi.

For residents like Mr. Jiménez León, 73, the Vocho’s popularity is a matter of practicality. The Beetle’s engine is in the back rather than the front, making it easier to drive up Cuautepec’s steep hills. The cars marked with green and white paint are still used as unofficial taxis in the neighborhood. Many visitors who choose to take a gondola lift to the top of the city’s northern hills elect to ride back down in a Vocho for a more retro transport.

“They say that it drives even just on the pure smell of gasoline,” said Uriel Mondragón, a local mechanic who said 40 percent of his customers own a Beetle. “It is not like a new car. This car does not run out of gas.”

For others, owning a Beetle is more about what the car represents.

In Cuautepec, the car has tied generations of families together, often passed down from parent to child.

“Our beloved Vocho has become part of the Mexican folklore thanks to its unique personality, quality, and reliability,” Álea M. Lozada, a spokeswoman for Volkswagen in Mexico, said in a statement. “It is a honor to be the last plant in which this iconic model was assembled.”

Each Beetle in the neighborhood has its own personality and name; owners post their car’s moniker at the top of windshields or on its side. On a recent trip to Cuautepec, one Beetle was named Ashley. Miranda chugged along a couple blocks away. Another had “New York” spray-painted along its side.

Custom designs and decorations are also coveted in the Vocho community.

A taxi driver drove a Vocho with fake 100,000 dollar bills pasted on one side. Another had a Scooby-Doo doll installed on his trunk. Stars adorned the windshield of another Beetle.

Ms. Ocampo said she prefers driving her Beetle more than her brand-new SEAT Ibiza car, a supermini. For her, owning a Vocho is a way to push back on gender stereotypes that were prevalent in her home when she was growing up. She often heard men in Cuautepec questioning whether women could handle the Beetle.

“How is it possible for a woman to drive a Volkswagen because of the heavy steering wheel?” Ms. Ocampo recalled people asking. But now, “if there is a Volkswagen they are not astonished, right? So the truth is that I am proud to drive a Volkswagen.”

But since the Beetle is no longer in production, it can be hard to find the right parts when repairs are needed.

As a result, the cars are often made up of mismatching colored parts. One Beetle might have a green hood, a blue passenger door and a yellow trunk — signs of past repair jobs and an effort to match the vibrant houses in the neighborhood.

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’re from another country and see this German car, it’s kind of weird, but I think Mexico is a weird place,” Mr. Amaya said. “There’s a lot of things that aren’t too common to see in other countries. This is part of the culture.”

The cars have been a part of Mario Gamboa’s family for decades. Along with his brother, Alejandro, Mr. Gamboa, 45, runs a repair shop in Mexico City, Grillos Racing, which predominately serves owners of Beetles. But Mr. Gamboa and his brother also outfit the cars with more powerful engines and shiny, new exteriors for drag racing events in the city.

It was a family tradition started by their parents, who in their mid-60s still race Beetles.

The family owns 15 Beetles altogether. Mr. Gamboa himself owns seven. On a recent afternoon, the brothers said they were getting ready to show off at a car show for the best of the best Beetles.

He has been attached to the Beetle since he was a child.

“All the people in Mexico learn to drive in a Volkswagen,” Mr. Gamboa said. “All the families have a Volkswagen. If you don’t have a Volkswagen, then maybe your uncle or your cousin or your grandma does.”

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