When the final Final Edition Volkswagen Beetle comes off the line this June, one thing is sure to outlive the iconic bug: punch buggy.
Also known as slug bug, punch buggy dictates that the first person to see a VW Beetle on the streets and call out the color gets to punch an occupant in your own vehicle or simply a friend nearby.
It’s schadenfreude with wheels. Only the people who have a word for finding joy in others’ pain could inspire such a game.
Launched in Hitler’s Germany in the early 1930s, the people’s car (“volks wagen,” in German) was a low-cost utilitarian compact known for practicality and reliability. Its round ends and round headlights didn’t catch on in the U.S. until the late 1950s, when its easy-to-fix air-cooled rear engine and compact design attracted the nascent counterculture at a time when America lacked small, efficient, practical vehicles. It became, for a time, the best-selling car of all time.
It’s hard to pin down when the game first started, but it was invented by “bored American children,” according to Volkswagen, which dug into the history of the game.
VW unearthed the first known printed use of the phrase slug bug. In a 1964 edition of the Arizona Republic, a columnist “wrote a question-and-answer with his daughter, who tells him, ‘I think slug bugs are cute.’”
It wasn’t until 14 years later that the first published reference to “punch buggy” was found in Florida, according to Volkswagen, which said slug bug was the preferred nomenclature in the Midwest, while punch buggy was used on the coasts.
The original Beetle ran its course in the U.S. in 1979, when production ceased for the first time. The 1998 return of the Beetle to our shores caused a rift in the space-time continuum of slug bugdom.
Purists say only the original Type 1 Beetle is slug-worthy. But why should parents and their children be deprived of such schadenfreude? The 21-year run of the modern Golf-based Beetle levels the playing field across generations.
“The old and new cars share a childlike appeal,” Phil Patton wrote in his 2002 book, Bug: The Strange Mutations of the World’s Most Famous Automobile. “The re-creation of the old car’s shape in the New Beetle brought with it the revival of a 1960s children’s game. ‘Punch buggy’ was one of those pieces of children’s folklore, a game that called for a child who spotted and ‘called’ a Beetle to strike another, exempt from retaliation.”
It could be argued.
The variation I grew up playing and have punched on to my kids is the call, the color, and the slug, followed by a swipe or else the punchee can punch back. The swipe involves touching the spot that the punchee punched and making a swiping gesture like shooing away a bug. A convertible is worth two slugs and requires two swipes.
There are many interpretations of the game, such as one parked in the same driveway can’t be called more than once, as well as some gross misinterpretations.
In its 2010 Superbowl ad campaign called “Punch Dub,” Volkswagen suggested a punch for any Volkswagen model. In it, Stevie Wonder slugged Tracy Morgan, which was almost as good as the woman in labor punching her husband. The campaign, produced by ad agency Deutsch LA, consisted of a profile and social media accounts of the fake inventor of the game, Charlie ‘Sluggy’ Patterson. Clearly, a slug for any VW is a step too far.
In these sensitive times, the slug is becoming as endangered as spotting an original Bug. Janet Polk, in her 2006 manual “Rules for Playing Slug Bug and Punch Buggy!” suggested a light punch, or that punching was optional. Even Volkswagen in 2018 said to “Try hugs, not slugs.” The game is punch bug. The punch is integral.
Whatever it’s called or however you, um, embrace it, the game will live on. In another 20 years, the next incarnation of the Beetle, a round electric thing, might inject new life into the game for a new generation.
When asked about a possible return of the Beetle, Volkswagen of America president and CEO Hinrich Woebcken said last year at the launch of the Final Edition, “Never say never.” Schadenfraude could have its day once again.