Nothing Lasts Forever

In manufacturing there is a tendency to hang onto tools, processes and methods that are familiar and comfortable, yet not as efficient or advanced as others available.

Since I was a small boy, I have been a fan of the Type 1 Volkswagen. Yes, that's the designation of the old Beetle and its variant, the Karmann Ghia. Through the years, I've owned many of them—most recently a 1971 Karmann Ghia convertible that I faithfully drove daily for 16 years.

My first exposure to Dr. Ferdinand Porsche's legacy was in 1961 when my dad purchased a new old Beetle. For me it was love at first sight. The car was so different than anything on the road in those days.

Its air-cooled motor was in the rear, trunk in the front, the horn went "beep" and it had four-wheel independent suspension with torsion bars. Until (I think it was) 1963, there was no gas gage. Instead, when you ran out of gas, you kicked a lever on the floor that opened a reserve tank with enough fuel to get you to a station. An important owner's lesson in those days was to remember to close the reserve tank when you filled up, otherwise the next time you ran out of gas, you were truly out of gas. What was really cool to my young eyes was the canvas sunroof—a rarity in 1961. Later, they changed the sunroof to metal, but the affectionately termed "rag top" is still highly sought after by collectors.

The secret to the long-term success of the Beetle was sound design. It was conceived in the 1920s, designed in the 1930s and continuously built until 2003. When the last Type 1 rolled off the line in Mexico, there was no mistaking the heritage from which the car evolved. According to serious VW fans, every single part of the original bug had, at some point, been changed or improved over the car's long production run. Yet there was no mistaking that a 1945 Beetle was a direct ancestor of the 2003 model.

In its 70-year production run, more than 21.5 million Beetles were produced worldwide. There is no disputing the success of the car. I see this record as even more remarkable when I peel back the fog of nostalgia and remember how cold the car was in the winter, how slow it drove because of a puny 50-something horsepower engine, how top heavy it was during turns and how noisy it was because of its air-cooled engine. Driving the old Beetle, especially on windy interstates, was challenging. However, the car was dependable, utilitarian and fun, which engendered loyalty.

In addition to the Beetle, Dr. Porsche also fathered the car that bears his name. It is considered by many to be among the best automobiles in the world. Working with what he knew, Dr. Porsche's first designs relied heavily on the Beetle. His first production model, the Porsche 356, had numerous components that were interchangeable with the Beetle.

The two lines permanently diverged in 1966 when the 911 was introduced. Today, about the only resemblance between the old Beetle and the Porsche is the engine in the rear. Porsche has built its world-beater reputation by technical innovation and cutting-edge engineering. Unlike the VW Beetle, which succeeded by minimizing change to the original, Porsche's success is testament to how far the automotive design and development envelope can be pushed.

Many shops in the precision parts manufacturing industry are a similar crossroad to the 1966 VW and Porsche. Like the basic Beetle design used by both, Porsche chose to use that solid design base as a springboard to create a world-class automobile. VW chose to ride the Beetle as long as possible.

The question for manufacturers is: Which of these paths do you see your company moving down? Like the VW Beetle owner who overlooks the car's flaws, in manufacturing there is a tendency to hang onto tools, processes and methods that are familiar and comfortable, yet not as efficient or advanced as others available. As good as it was, the Beetle's run finally came to an end. Porsche, however, is still going strong.