The Golf, Again, Or Who Framed The Volkswagen Rabbit?

June 17, 2010

The word Golf has had an intriguing year. The word conjures up an immediate mix of unfortunate associations, from the media sensation of the Tiger Woods scandal to the heartbreaking oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico--yes, just change one letter and you have a car name that sounds exactly like the environmental disaster caused by our very dependence on the automobile. Not something any company, no less a car company, wants. But why nitpick on the unfortunate coincidence of a name? Well, obviously because Volkswagen itself put a lot of importance in a name last year with its decision to rip off the word “rabbit”--as well as the cunning figure of the bunny--from the vehicle’s backside and replace it with the golden-oldie logo “Golf.”

And why “Golf” for a car in the first place? I often wondered this as a teenager at the country club where I caddied. It was never the kind of car the upper class members would pull up in so I could unload their clubs. That privilege was reserved for Cadillacs, BMWs, Lincoln Continentals. No, the bratty little hatchback was more likely found in the outer parking lots where the waiters, waitresses, golf pros and doormen, if not the caddies themselves, parked. Practical, efficient and affordable. But as with any name, that was really just the surface, not the true sum of its parts.

The Golf owner was the cool high school social studies teacher who would assign homework along the lines of: “Go home and watch such-and-such movie tonight on television.” As if we ever needed to be assigned such a thing. Or the Golf owner was the young couple just out of university housing, folding down the backseat to fill the car with all their worldly possessions and move to their first apartment in Brooklyn or Wicker Park or Oakland. Golf owners were the early environmentalists, before anyone really cared about the environment. Democrats, feminists, vegetarians, recreational pot smokers, that particular segment of the working class--with master’s degrees. These were car owners who could only afford something practical but still wanted a little taste of something European, but from a very specific part of Europe. The Europe of cheap cafes and moldy bookstores, not flashy convertibles and five star restaurants. People more likely to backpack than yacht, argue politics, write poetry, smoke anywhere they damn well felt like, and make an effort to learn the language. Cliches? All of them. But still, people I longed to become.

I got my first Rabbit three years ago because they weren’t making Golfs. I had grown weary of the image I projected as a man at forty pulling up to events in my candy-colored New Beetle, a car I had loved like a first love. A love forever remembered, but never really meant to last. To my surprise, the Rabbit was the perfect compromise. It had a more adult, practical exterior and yet, it came with a little silver bunny figurine on the back illustrating its childlike name that kept me from feeling completely over the hill.

I was born in the final year of what was to become known as the baby boomer generation, the greatest consumer phenomena ever to feed on capitalistic society. And now in my mid-forties I frowned a little when I went back to the showroom and asked to see the new Rabbits.

“They’re gone,” the salesperson explained. “They’re the Golf. Same car. Just changed the name.”

I sat in the showroom model of the old Rabbit, the new Golf, and ran a hand through my increasingly graying hair. Practical, efficient and affordable. Maybe Volkswagen was onto something with this aging demographic of history’s largest consumer group. Same car. Same driver. Just a little more grown up.

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