MEXICO CITY — Mexico's capital is ready to stomp out its iconic Volkwagen "Bug" taxis. Officials said Friday that the last of the old-style VW Beetles will have their cab licenses expire by the end of the year, marking the end of an adventurous if uncomfortable part of Mexico City life.
The rounded, two-door sedan nicknamed the Bug – in Mexico, it's a "Vocho" – has long been an informal symbol of this sprawling city, a tough, rattling reflection of its gritty urbanity and chaotic streets.
At its height in 2006, the little VWs accounted for almost half of all taxis in Mexico City, with about 50,000 cruising the streets. Today, there are only about 3,500 of the privately owned and operated Bugs among 130,000 taxis.
Victor Ramirez, director of taxi services for the city's transport department, said time has run out for the classic VW design that evolved from the original Beetle of 1930s Germany.
The model hasn't been manufactured since 2003, when the last one rolled off an assembly line in the Mexican state of Puebla.
For safety reasons, Mexico City began mandating four-door taxis in 2003. So the Beetles that entered service in 2002 are the last to operate as cabs. Most car models are limited by the city to eight years of service as taxis, but the Bug was allowed a 10-year run – and that ends with 2012.
Despite their role as icons, the VW taxis have never won plaudits for comfort. Drivers remove the front passenger seat so customers can get in more easily, leaving only the ungenerous back seat.
And with no front seat, there is little to stop the passenger from being thrown forward in a mishap, Ramirez noted.
"If they slammed on the brakes and you weren't wearing a seat belt, you wound up in the windshield," he said. "The government mandated four-door cars, with trunks, to ensure passengers' safety."
For a time, in the 1990s and early 2000s, Bug taxis were notorious as a robbery trap. Because there were only two doors, muggers or kidnappers could push their way through the passenger door, leaving the passenger no way to escape.
Many people felt a pang of nostalgia for the Bug after Friday's announcement, even while acknowledging the little car's shortcomings.
"It's a loss – not exactly for its comfort, but because it was economical" to operate, said Hector Vera Perez, who was a cabbie in the 1970s.
Vera Perez, now a 65-year-old ambulance driver, said the Vocho was much cheaper to run than the big American cars that made up the majority of the city's taxi fleet in those days.
He also argued that the Bugs made the city's streets safer, noting they were slow, fragile and noisy.
"Today the cars (used as taxis) are bigger, and they drive faster," he said. "Before, they drove more cautiously, because any accident would destroy them."
Some people said the VW taxis are easier to find: The engine is so noisy you can hear them rattling down the street blocks away.
Ramirez said that after nearly 10 years of constant use on the capital's punishing streets, the VWs that are losing their taxi licenses are in pretty bad shape. But the city wants to get them off the road, so taxi owners who turn in Bugs to be crushed will get 15,000-peso credits toward the purchase of new cabs, he said.
In some ways, it was the VW's fragility that endeared it to drivers. Vera Perez recalled fondly how easy it was to fix a Vocho after a fender-bender.
"You just took the fender off with a wrench and got another one."