IT WAS A mixture of déjà vu, a feeling of stepping back in time, and my own failing memory. Whatever the cause, my drive through the cutesy Oxfordshire town of Henley-on-Thames was very enjoyable. That was partly down to the range of rich aromas emanating from the endless stream of top class restaurants where ladies-who-lunch were gathering to do just that after a draining dander round the town’s devastatingly dear retail establishments.
There was certainly no sign of the current state of the economy seen in many other parts of the country. Spending money seemed plentiful and parking spaces between the Range Rovers, Mercs, Audis and BMWs were few and far between; and if they were there, beggars, Big Issue sellers and graffiti artists must have been in disguise or undercover. It was like the good old days of black and white, when there were no social problems and men doffed their bowlers to passing ladies.
Had I been wearing a hat I would have been able to do the same with some flourish because on this occasion I was travelling with my top down and had only clear blue sky above. And while a bowler hat might have been appropriate, what I had in mind was something peaked, festooned with badges and military regalia. To complete the picture, I should have had a uniformed driver behind the wheel, with me standing in the rear on a platform accompanied by a rousing oompah band – but maybe this is going just a bit too far.
The reason for my ramblings was that I was at the wheel of a special 50s edition of the VW Beetle Cabriolet in a stunning black paintjob, with red and black leather interior and retro black and chrome alloy wheels. But this car wasn’t from the immediate post-war era – even if it did conjure up images from that time. No, this was one of the latest babies from VW, which seems to have gone from a staid and safe brand to one with a tendency to go off-piste occasionally and come up with a surprise. For instance the cheeky little up! (the exclamation mark is compulsory apparently) is one example of what it’s doing these days, and the special edition cabrios are another.
There’s the 50s which I was driving, which VW calls “stylish”; the 60s, which is “cool” and the 70s which is “elegant”. They each have their own character and range of options and styling, and I have to say I like not only the idea but the execution of it too. I went for the 50s, not only because it was the decade of my birth, but also because it looked the most dramatic and, in its black livery, reminded me of the first Beetles I encountered at that time, with their split rear screens and the distinctive chatter of their air-cooled engines.
But that image was where the similarity ended. This may have a 50s label but it’s very much a car of the twentyteens, crammed with the latest equipment. All Beetle cabrios come with aircon, remote central locking and DAB radio as standard, but my test car also had cornering headlights, heated seats and windscreen, Bluetooth, cruise control, parking sensors, touchscreen with satnav and Fender premium soundpack with 400 watts of output, eight speakers and special ambient lights around the speakers and door panels.
So it’s thoroughly modern but it makes the most of the Beetle convertible theme, which incredibly has been around since the original in 1949 and has continued with the latest cabrio version, unveiled at the Los Angeles Auto Show last year. Sales figures are extraordinary – 330,000 of the originals were produced between 1949 and 1980, and almost a quarter of a million of the subsequent versions were made in just eight years before the present update.
It’s a cracker of a car, bursting with bags of personality, and now you can choose which decade you think best suits your image. I can remember the 50s – just – but they weren’t like this… or were they?
CAR VW Beetle Cabriolet 50s Edition 1.4 litre 158 PS
PRICE £24,895 (£26,565 as tested)
PERFORMANCE Max speed 128 mph; 0-62 mph 8.6secs
MPG 41.5 combined
CO2 EMISSIONS 158g/km