The Most Minimalist Car?

Not that it’s a competition, but…

I spent last week writing about how much money I’ve lost over the years by buying vehicles I don’t need. (I still haven’t sold my truck yet!) So over the past year and a half I’ve been really looking into what we really need in our vehicles. At a bare minimum: Four wheels, a steering wheel, brakes, an engine big enough to move the car at a reasonable speed, no unnecessary seats or cargo space… and that’s pretty much it.

It’s hard to get that in any new-ish car. Most cars come standard with power windows, air conditioning, a stereo, and a bunch of other features that are secondary to getting you where you need to go. These types of cars are great; don’t get me wrong. But can we do a little better? Can we get a little more minimal?

To me, all of these little features are things that will eventually break and are hard to work on yourself. I like working on cars, so if I’m given the option I’ll drive a car without air conditioning versus paying hundreds of dollars later on to fix something that doesn’t directly contribute to me getting to my destination and that, in some cases, is impossible for me to fix myself.

My solution to this problem hasn’t been to get a new car, or a slightly used car, but a VERY used car. Old enough to not have air conditioning, power steering, or even fuel injectors. It gets about 30 mpg which is reasonable, and it’s very easy to work on. It’s an old Volkswagen Beetle.

I know, I know, this approach probably isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. Not everyone wants to cover themselves in grease every weekend with the almost constant tinkering a classic car requires. But bear with me for a minute! Buying a classic car financially makes at least some sense. In most states, registration is a fraction of what a regular car costs. Classic car insurance (in some situations) is less as well. Depreciation on your asset has already happened, so you can generally sell a classic car for at least how much you paid for it, regardless of how long you own it. And “classic” generally only means “old”, so a 80s Toyota is just as much of a classic, legally, as a 69 Camaro. If you only need it to get around town and aren’t taking crazy long road trips, it might be viable!

For me, at least, I’ve found the Beetle to be a great vehicle. It’s easy to work on, it doesn’t have power steering or power windows or locks or air conditioning. It doesn’t have any luxury or frills of any sort. I’ve found that these are all things that can break, and the fewer options a car has, the less likely it’ll be in the shop. The car doesn’t have fuel injection either (it’s easier to work on carburetors) and therefore doesn’t need an ECU (computers are found in 100% of modern cars in the US, and are prone to failure… something that is not user serviceable). This car doesn’t even have a radiator! It’s so simple!

Also, the Beetle turns heads. It’s great fun to drive.

My classic Beetle aside, researching modern “minimalist” cars was actually pretty difficult. There was this great take on how to make your current car minimalist, but in general it doesn’t seem like there’s a whole lot of clamoring for small, simple, and cheap cars. I’d probably point my finger at our consumer culture which demands more features, more buttons, and more space… all at the expense of mileage. An article at autoblog.com had this great quote in it:

 “People say, ‘I only want basic transportation, I want the price to be low, and I want good gas mileage.'” said Brunner, who did market research for the smart car, “But then you ask them what they are going to buy, and it’s not that kind of car.”

Our culture proves my point. Sit in a 90s Honda Civic and you’ll be shoulder-to-shoulder with your passenger. Sit in a brand new Civic and 90s you will think you’re in a Cadillac. Sit in a brand new Cadillac and… well, you get my point.

While the autoblog.com article mentions the Volkswagen as a minimilist vehicle, and another great article called The 10 Greatest Minimalist Cars of All Time features the Volkswagen Thing (mechanically identical to the Beetle) as one of the best, what we truly need now is a return to this style of car. Four wheels, brakes, and a steering wheel. Although today’s emissions and safety probably won’t allow for something quite as spartan as an old Beetle, it’d be great to use it as inspiration.

Photo: One of the 60s ads for the Volkswagen Beetle. Along with the famous “lemon” ad, these changed the automotive and advertising landscape for quite some time. 

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