Unlike the New Beetle, an impractical fashion statement of a car, the (Real) Beetle eschewed style for utility. The ads of my youth played that up relentlessly, amusingly, logically. The Beetle was cheap. It was a cinch to fix. Fender-bender? Just undo several bolts, pop the old one off, put a new one on. The car was so tightly constructed that you had to open a window to close the door. Heck, the Beetle was so tight it could float. “If Senator Kennedy had been driving a VW, he’d be President today,” the National Lampoon opined.
Like the Smart and unlike the land barges of the classic car era, the Beetle was so light that the steering was surprisingly responsive, When a Washington Post editorial on the New Beetle dissed the original’s lack of oomph, I wrote in a published LTE that “The car is so light that its low horsepower would have been plenty adequate to leave my parents’ six-cylinder ’57 Chevy wagon in the dust.” I knew that because I’d taken a spin in a ‘63 Beetle about five years earlier, and also once in the late ‘60s.
But I was wrong. Recently, John MacDonald let me drive his ’65 on behalf of TTAC. It had a bad case of the slows. Granted, he AND his friend came along for the ride, and our combined mass, an estimated 400-450 lbs, trimmed the weight to horsepower ratio of the 1675 lb Beetle from a barely acceptable 42 lbs/hp empty to a pathetic 52.5 lbs/hp. (For comparison, in a 4-cyl Accord, each HP pulls around 20 lbs.)
But maybe MacDonald’s 43-year-old car was simply showing its age. I decided I needed to do due diligence. Peter Cook, an official with the Bay State VW Owners’ Club, let me pilot his ‘58.
Cook has owned the car for about ten years. He drives only about 1,000 miles a year, and doesn’t– wouldn’t –use it for a daily driver. But he once drove it about four hours from his home near Boston to Norwalk, CT. He reckons the Big gets around 35 mpg. The odo says 92k, and Cook says it’s turned-over either once or twice. Each of the car’s 36 horses pushes 44.7 lbs of Wolfsburg icon. It was reportedly in good tune. We took a spin.
There wasn’t much difference between the two Beetles. Both cars’ steering felt distinctly heavier than I remembered, leading me to suspect that steering the parental ‘57 Chevy must have felt like churning molasses (I last drove that car during the Johnson Administration). Moreover, there was play. Lots of it. But what did I expect for ball and nut?
Most surprising was the way both cars seemed to resist turning as if the camber was set for straight ahead, with a vengeance. As I steered, I could almost hear each car complaining, “do we really hafta turn? Do we really hafta turn? What’s the matter with going straight?” And I could swear that as I cornered that I could feel the frame flexing under the centripetal force.
But then the famous oversteer would kick in–frighteningly in MacDonald’s ‘65, at speeds as low as 15-20 mph. Suddenly I could understand how my friend Polly Matzinger, an immunologist who has changed scientific understanding of how the immune system works, who was a wild woman in her youth, had managed to flip Beetles on three occasions.
As I applied the brakes, in my mind’s eye I could see myself trying to slow my childhood go-kart, feeling the impotence of the little wooden lever pressing down upon the rim of the solid rubber wheel.
The one thing I really liked in both cars was the snick-snick of the shifter. But if you want to get the effect, don’t hold the knob. Hold the middle of the stem, because the smaller leverage allows greater sensitivity to the synchros. (I do this in my Accord.)
My inner child protests this mostly unflattering review. At six or seven, I had loved riding in the little way-back of the Dorfmans’ VW. The cozily-carpeted hidey hole was a kid’s dream. In contrast, the way-back in the parental ’57 Chevy was too cold and hard and expansive to be the least bit cozy.
But for the driver, the Beetle is spartan, and the lack of space between your head and the windshield makes one feel exceptionally vulnerable. I’m glad not to have accompanied Cook to Norwalk.
Before my test drives, I was appalled to find that Richard Porter rates the Beetle 5th worst of 50 in his humorous book, Crap Cars, calling it “…slow… noisy… and uncomfortable.” But now I understand, wistfully, because I love the philosophy behind the Beetle, and I can’t think of a car that better deserves to be displayed in the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York City. The Beetle has more artistic integrity than almost anything else on the road, and until they put those little vents behind the rear windows, in ‘68, the execution was almost flawless.
The lesson of this story is that they don’t make ‘em like they used to, and part of that is good, and part of that is sad.