By on December 10, 2008

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.

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111 Comments on “Review: Used Car Classic: VW Beetle...”


  • avatar
    NickR

    From my youth I can remember that the Beetle had four virtues (and little else):
    - it was cheap
    - it was easy to repair
    - it was easy to push out of mud and, more importantly, snow
    - it was easily turned into a dune buggy

    You can get a damn fast Beetle now though…I have seen Beetles that have been bored and stroke, turbocharged, and even with a shot of nitrous. But of a handful to drive, I suspect.

    • 0 avatar
      squon01

      Easy to fix but easy to break.
      Germany engineering in the VW is really flimsy engineering.
      Hoses were tucked in without clamps. Save wt when new but plop right out after no time at all.

      Why i still reminesce about classics – they are toys or pets that pretends to be a car. Classic owners are guys or girls that own sort of an animated pet that goes when the owners want some of the time.

  • avatar
    dolo54

    My mom had one in the 70s. It was a torture chamber. Especially in the winter as the rear engine/broken heater combo meant the most bone chilling cold. I remember shivering constantly in that car even under the blankets that were kept in the back seat as the only source of warmth.

  • avatar
    psarhjinian

    The Mini was better.

  • avatar
    psarhjinian

    Especially in the winter as the rear engine/broken heater combo meant the most bone chilling cold.

    Our neighbours had a Microbus with the same setup. The heater never worked in it, either. And thus was my first experience with what has become typical German engineering: great in theory, perhaps not such a smart idea in real life.

    • 0 avatar
      joeaverage

      You know, it didn’t take much to keep those heaters going through. Get the shop manual at the library and figure them out. I have owned a half dozen of these little aircooled critters and they are about the easiest car in the world to keep running.
      My Beetles would roast your sneakers off if all the hoses and clamps (all cheap to buy) were present and in good condition. Each fall I’d give the system a good look that took 30 mins and we were ready to go.

  • avatar

    I had both Beetles, a ’72 Beetle with the 1 + 2 gear (clutchless manual) and a ’98 Beetle. I had the ’72 at the perfect time in life, during high-school. Yes, it was dead slow, but everyone loved it and it created a lot of fond memories.

    The ’98 Beetle was decent, but it had the usual slew of VW’s gremlins at that time (I rarely had both headlights working at the same time for instance). But it was very, very reliable and no serious issues whatsoever, so I can’t put it down too much. You definitely can’t get that with an automatic, thankfully I had a manual.

  • avatar
    jet_silver

    That “cozily carpeted hidey-hole” was always called “the sleeping place” when I was a kid and my dad had a ’62 Beetle. It fit my little sister perfectly.

  • avatar
    Lokki

    The best thing about the old beetles was that they were really fun to drive slow.. because it seemed so fast. You could drive those cars on the absolute edge of crashing at speeds far too low to really hurt you.

    The worst thing (as has been pointed out) was the heaters. You could melt a pair of rubber boots placed on the floor in front of the back seat, but it was going to be May before you could actually defrost the windshield.

    • 0 avatar
      joeaverage

      Check the defrost tubes under the front hood hinges at the bottom. Not easy to reach. You had to have tiny hands and long arms or a tool. Those tubes could come loose and heat anything but the windshield.

  • avatar
    brettc

    I had an ’89 Jetta diesel with manual steering a few years ago. That thing wasn’t fun to turn either, but it was great at building up my arm muscles. Great car overall though for the price I paid. I’ve never driven an old Beetle, but have driven an NB, and I didn’t like the lack of visibility compared to my Jetta. Maybe someday I’ll drive an old model. Nice review.

    • 0 avatar
      AbyssGP

      I have a 1986 Jetta manual with the gas engine,and let me tell you, I had my friend’s 1972 Superbeetle at my house for about a week because I was working on it, and once I got it running I drove it around for a while. Let me just say driving that thing was an experience, on the highway at 60mph it wanted to go wherever it pleased. When I got in my Jetta it felt like getting in a Cadillac. But I did love driving the old beetle and I do someday want to get one of my own.

  • avatar
    friedclams

    Here come the 100′s of nostalgic comments!
    The car I learned to drive on… at age 12. Our 1960 model (lacking a synchro transmission) was an unkillable vehicle. The old Beetle’s faults are obvious but its charms sneak up on you. I remember my dad spraying the running engine with the garden hose just for kicks (don’t ask me why)… and it having no effect! A car a 12-year-old can fix. Eventually it was vaporized by rust.
    It set my personal automotive benchmark: A basic vehicle masterfully engineered.

    Great review!

  • avatar
    toxicroach

    What products from childhood wasn’t complete garbage by today’s standards? You just gotta smile and enjoy the memories anyway.

  • avatar
    dadude53

    @psarhjinian :

    I assume you are talking about the original Mini.
    Well,as them then being part of Leyland what can I say. Calling them better as the original Beetle?
    In terms of design and average traffic space usage -yes, you might be right.As for modern engineering and plowing the direction for the FWD vehicle generations to come? Probably yes.
    But those things virtually had zero safety at all , so they never passed any regulations for the U.S.
    They also never achieved a substantial sales volume- worldwide.The dealer service was of no value.Needles to speak about the vehicle’s resale value. If you had one is was a marriage until death.In comparison to the VW, I would like to make following comment: Perfect design, poorly executed.For the VW, poor design- perfectly executed.

  • avatar
    montgomery burns

    My mother used to rave about her ’66 Beetle for many years after the floors fell out of it in 1971. What a horrible vehicle. Of course if you say that to the wrong person you are flirting with disaster.

    My sister had a 71 or 72 Super Beetle. Because the engineers at VW thought it was a good idea to put large cooling vents in the engine cover (hood, hatch whatever) the car would not start when it rained. Sister would put a plastic bag over the vents when rain threatened. Then one day she forgot it was there and the bag melted all over the back of her car. Car had constant problems.

    But I will say one of the more entertaining vehicles I’ve had was a ’69 Bus. Bought for like $200 with a dead cylinder.
    Rebuilt the engine with new heads, 45 minutes to instal and I was good to go. Slow, weird sensation steering being over the front wheels, but fun.

    • 0 avatar
      joeaverage

      SOME of the Beetles had a raintray under those vents. I have no idea why some did and some did not. I have one for my ’65. Yeah, wet ignition is a problem especially if the generator covers are gone, old ignition wires (cracked) or old distributor cap (cracked). I have seen an O-ring under the cap on a Beetle making that weather proof too.

  • avatar

    The European Beetle was also a lot more stripped down than the US one. My ’62 Canadian Standard is halfway between the two with less chrome, no gas gauge, less headliner, etc than its US cousins.

    I bought mine for $500 recently – just needs a brake bleeding, tires and track down an electrical gremlin then I can report on how it drives.

    http://flickr.com/photos/daveseven/2952835980/in/set-72157607579623807/

  • avatar
    SupaMan

    How much power can you get out of those old Beetles sans forced induction?

    And oversteer at 15-20mph? That I gotta see to believe.

    My Dad had a 72 Beetle but sadly he sold it before I was born. Drat…

  • avatar
    jpcavanaugh

    VW’s engineering reminds me a lot of Henry Ford’s Model T. Nothing wasted. My favorite example, not mentioned in the review, is the windshield washer system. The force to propel the fluid from the reservoir to the windshield was the air in the spare tire. Seriously.
    My wife grew up in a family loaded with VWs in the 60s and 70s. It was drummed into her head that you NEVER use the windshield washer.
    As noted elsewhere, the heater design was a problem, though. In the upper midwest, the road salt would rust out the sheetmetal tunnels that carried engine heat from the engine in back to the footwells in front. So, the only places where the heaters really worked long term were in warm climates where you don’t need it anyway.

    • 0 avatar
      joeaverage

      Yeah the rust proofing was the paint. A few stone marks and you were going to start rusting… If they had just galvanized the heater channels the heaters would have been impervious to rust.

  • avatar
    bunkie

    The correct term for the “clutchless 1-2 speed manual” is A.S.S. as in automatic stick shift, a marketing blunder that is only exceeded by the insanity of what was, essentially, a two-speed transmission (assuming that you drove it as recommended by starting off in D1). My dad used to give me crap because he heard me using all three gears. The day he bought it, he reneged on his promise to involve me in the purchase process (I was 14 and a confirmed gearhead). Had he not done so, I would have told him to run like hell. The irony is that the damned thing almost killed me when I couldn’t quite get out of the way of the bozo who ran the red light and almost t-boned me at 55mph.

  • avatar

    I don’t believe in anything supernatural, but if I did I’d have to say that I have a magical VW fairy that follows me everywhere. I’ve owned a small fleet of Volkswagens over my lifetime and every one of them has been reliable, long-lived, and a joy to own.

    One of those was a 1973 1303 (aka ‘Super Beetle’) in Sumatra Green. It had over 350,000 miles on the clock, and other than me neglecting points maintenance once, it never let me down in any way. It was a commuter car for me in the late 80s and early 90s here in Seattle. I sold it when I was transferred overseas to the UK in 1996 and have regretted that sale ever since, and will for the rest of my days. That car was indeed perfectly executed. The design was late-30s, and filled with stupid compromises throughout… but those damn Krauts over-engineered every little imperfection to the point of… perfection.

    Oil changes and valve adjustments for me were like analog therapy in my Digital Life. Working on that lovely boxer-four filled my weekends with the joy of certainty after my weeks of wrestling with immature Information Technology.

    It never failed to start or run, rain (and we have months of that here) or shine. It looked almost showroom new at an age where it could have legally bought me a beer.

    I was hit by inattentive drivers (both women in the pre-cell phone era) twice and one time was able to literally fix it myself with bolt-on spares, pocketing several hundred Insurance Claim bucks in the process.

    Yes. It was ugly. Yes, it was slow. But damn that car was a true Quality Product.

    –chuck

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    A ’57 Chevy six had a substantially better power/weight ratio (25 lbs/hp) than a 36 or 40hp Beetle, and would have easily ran away from it.

    Regarding the oversteer you experienced at low speed: rear-engined cars like the VW, Corvair and Porsche are very sensitive to front/rear tire air pressure differences. If the air pressure is the same front and back, like many folks do not knowing otherwise, the oversteer will be dramatically worse.

    Keep the fronts some 6-8 lbs lower, and it’s much more reasonable.

    My memories:
    http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/auto-biography-14-bug-eyed-and-painless/

  • avatar
    jberger

    I had a couple of beetles, including the “Super” beetle in my teens.
    What a fun car to learn on, I think it was only 8 bolts to pull the motor and it was light enough to lug over to the workbench for a teardown by yourself. I once drove for a week using a very large rubber band as the main belt since i was too broke to buy a new one. I think I paid $150 for the first beetle, and less than $500 for the superbeetle.

    Stuffed a 1850CC engine in the back and later a converted 914 setup in another one just for fun.
    Fast in a straight line, scary as hell in a turn. Those torson bars just could not handle any real HP, and made for some interesting off road adventures.

    But if you think the beetle was hard to turn, try sporting around in a “thing”, the beetle is a slot car by comparison. . .

  • avatar
    VerbalKint

    In 1962 my pappy bought a brand new anthracite grey Beetle. All options: sunroof (not because it was neet– it was a safety feature: if you crashed or drove into the Chappaquidik you could climb out), AM radio, white walls and lap belts. To this day I remember going to the dealer to pick it up.

    I remember the fuel filler under the hood right next to the vacation luggage we wedged in there. And of course the air-pressurized windshield washer fluid tank.

    Several years later I was always eatin’ shit cuz we still had that thing and all my li’l buddies dads had Dodge Polaras [sp?], Electras, LTDs and GTOs. (My grade school math teach had a new ’64 black/black GTO ragtop… later traded in for a fully loaded ’67 Gran Prix.

    Th e bug was cold, cold, cold in the winter. I remember dad had installed some kinda defroster reflectors that diverted some air from the vent wings to the defrost vents to “improve” things. Actually the things did work. (My air cooled 911′s heat was like a toaster oven… what did they do that VW didn’t??)

    Bug was reliable as an anvil. And slow. 36 hp = 72 mph on a still-wind day; but also usually 32mpg.

    In ’69 we bought a LeSabre 4-door/ 350/4 barrel. That expanse of hood shouted “this is America goddamnit!!”. Then a ’76 Buick Regal 350-4 w/ rallye suspension.
    In ’89 he bought a new Accord DX. The Buicks really were good cars. (The Regal was slower w/ less mpg than the LeSabre, though.) The Honda he raved about as being the only car as good as the Bug. 102,000 miles later that Honda is my commuter and still gets 29-31mpg on I-696.

    I hated that Bug growin’ up. Now I wish I had it back. (The kid we sold it to turned it into a dune buggy. It was still registered in the mid-’70s.)

  • avatar
    bill h.

    ’71 Super Beetle here. Bought it used in ’75, my first car. Already starting to show rust staining along the front hood/trunk seals. But had no major problems with it, easy to fix and maintain. Could even drive it at full throttle without much fear; taking on the Vegas and Pintos of the time wasn’t such a big deal since their engines were always on the edge of self destructing if they tried to keep up……I took it all over the Midwest on trips to visit friends and such, with 25-30 mpg. Oh, and the heaters worked! I even remember a day with freezing rain, and I followed the instructions (shut off the footwell vents, and let the heat rise up from the windshield defroster vents–the car even had a blower fan for it) and got by fine, even while all the American cars were stuck in the ice. Bequeathed it to my brother, who drove it a few more years in upstate NY winters until the bottom rusted out and we sold it to someone who rebuilt them.

  • avatar

    Paul,

    Somehow I missed your Beetle story. Great!

    My recollection on the ’57 Chevy is that there were two sixes, and the parental model, a totally stripped 210, had the smaller engine. Also, that the car was a total dog, with lousy pickup and lousy handling. (The ’57 Ply, a POS in terms of reliability and rust [loads of it] was a much better drive. And in those days–both cars were sold in summer, ’65, when we went off to France–to me GM was the One True Car Company, and I absolutely hated Chrysler Corp, and I still remember the Ply as better to drive.) Nonetheless, I was 12, and had driven them mostly around parking lots, and perhaps the Chevy was better than I remember.

  • avatar
    psarhjinian

    I assume you are talking about the original Mini.

    Yup.

    Calling them better as the original Beetle?
    In terms of design and average traffic space usage -yes, you might be right.

    Oh yes, I am. The Beetle is decent car, but the Mini was a much better take on basic transportation. More space, less stupid engineering gimmicks, handling that wasn’t creepy.

    There’s a reason you can, e.g., stuff a Honda B18C in an original Mini and not kill yourself driving it down the street. Granted, the Beetle is several years older a design, but it’s still a bad one that spoke to the (still-omnipresent) German engineer’s need to design something cool at the expense of something pedantic but functional.

    There’s something wrong when you’ve engineered a 40 horse Death Car.

    As for modern engineering and plowing the direction for the FWD vehicle generations to come? Probably yes.

    Nice pun on plowing. Yeah, the Mini plowed. I’ll take plowing over snap oversteer.

    In comparison to the VW, I would like to make following comment: Perfect design, poorly executed.For the VW, poor design- perfectly executed.

    And that “poor design, perfectly executed” also applies to the 911.

    You’re right, though. The Mini failed because of Leyland; VW succeeded despite the Beetle. And yes, the Beetle was, if nothing else, simple and fairly mechanically robust as long as you lived somewhere that wasn’t cold, snowy and/or wet.

  • avatar
    OldandSlow

    Small death traps have come a long way over the past 1/3rd of a century.

    My favorite Beetle was a dark green 66 that went across the country twice. Spartan except for a Bendix AM radio. In today’s world we would definitely call it a penalty box. It was a $200 purchase. The heater worked when on the open road, but you had to move your foot away from the vent at the foot well.

    I still have a 71 Westy. With 1776 jugs, acceleration is still glacial. 4,000 rpms in 4th gear will get you down the highway at 65 mph with an unimpressive 20 mpg – slightly less with a headwind. It just made the 550 mile Thanksgiving journey to NOLA and back. 11 hours each way.

  • avatar

    So now we know what “old and slow” refers to.

    Polly Matzinger, the woman I refer to in the article, has several VW buses from the early ’80s (backup in case one isn’t working). The main one has a Subaru engine. She still drives those things half way across the country for sheep dog trials, and once had to get a VW engine rebuilt in some podunk town in North Dakotas, and managed to cajole a retired VW mechanic into doing it.

  • avatar
    psarhjinian

    I don’t believe in anything supernatural, but if I did I’d have to say that I have a magical VW fairy that follows me everywhere.

    Chuck,

    Did you own a VW when you lived in a snowbelt area, or anywhere with dramatic (say +30C to -30C) swings? I’ve noted that a lot of Bug fans (or VW fans in general) seem to live where they don’t need to face Jack Frost on a regular basis. Maybe the cars don’t handle winter better, or those of us who’ve had to suffer the lack of heat in an older Beetle or Bus are Bitter.

    On a related note, I had a Lada Niva for a year. It was about the only car I could afford at the age of 16 that wasn’t a American land yacht, and they could be had new, in Canada, for not a whole lot of money. Total crap, but it didn’t suffer in the snow nearly as much our neighbour’s Microbus. In fact, I think winter was the only time I actually liked the car.

  • avatar
    Gottleib

    The old Beetles were good in their time as economical cars. But much like rotary telephones, who would want to use one today.

    I had one of the 67 models with the 1500 engine. While far from being a hot rod, it was much better than the 1200 or 1300 cc engines.

  • avatar
    friedclams

    Strange to hear the disparaging comments about Beetles in the winter. Their bad-weather traction was legendary, with all the weight right over the drive wheels. Compare that to their contemporary competition.

    I do yield to the criticism of heat & defrost. I remember doing lots of scraping on the inside of the windshield.

  • avatar

    The Beetle is my personal Terminator. Mom flipped hers on an icy road and nearly got killed, several years before I was born. I’ve always found them to be the subject of pure, unadulterated nostalgia – people completely forget how terrible they were in favour of warm, fluffy rose-tinted memories. If Freud lived today I’m sure he’d have some interesting things to say about repressed memory and the Beetle, maybe something about suppressed sexual urges.

  • avatar
    Lumbergh21

    A friend of mine in highschool had an old Beetle. Perfect car fro the responsible non-hooligan kid. It was cheap and easy to fix and generally fun.

  • avatar
    psarhjinian

    Their bad-weather traction was legendary, with all the weight right over the drive wheels. Compare that to their contemporary competition.

    Snap oversteer and primitive suspension. It was bad on dry roads. It was lethal on ice. It still is, if you drive a 911 with the nanny off.

  • avatar

    @ JEC
    Memory tends towards the positive. It’s been shown scientifically, although unfortunately I can’t quote chapter and verse offhand.

  • avatar
    50merc

    In the 60′s I knew a guy who was bringing in bootleg VW’s, bought really cheaply in Germany, and making the minor modifications to turn them into more-or-less US-spec cars. He called them “ten dollar cars with hundred dollar paint jobs.” But in an America accustomed to cars that came in three sizes–large, larger and ludicrous–the Bug was revolutionary.

  • avatar
    VerbalKint

    I keep seeing barbs about slow steering and gawdawful tail-happiness– In the 9 years I lived in the “back seat” of the bug it was never unpredictable. Great in snow. Dad was in the Detroit Police and in the blizzards Buglie was the one vehicle that picked up his buddies & got everyone there in time for shift-change.

    I drove a friend’s ’66 when I was in high schoole (’73) and while it weren’t no Loutus it was sharper than the same year Pontiacs and Fords in its steering response. We used to go “baha-ing” in the hinterlands in Bugs an if you weren’t suicidal they were very predictable. Anyone who whines about tail happy needs to take a road racing driver’s school…

  • avatar
    jkross22

    A friend had a Beetle in high school… in 1988. The car was a POS. Positive memories of this car must have more to do with memory lane than actual experiences with this car.

  • avatar
    VerbalKint

    I keep seeing barbs about slow steering and gawdawful tail-happiness– In the 9 years I lived in the “back seat” of the bug it was never unpredictable. Great in snow. Dad was in the Detroit Police and in the blizzards Buglie was the one vehicle that picked up his buddies & got everyone there in time for shift-change.

    I drove a friend’s ’66 when I was in high schoole (’73) and while it weren’t no Loutus it was sharper than the same year Pontiacs and Fords in its steering response. We used to go “baha-ing” in the hinterlands in Bugs an if you weren’t suicidal they were very predictable. Anyone who whines about tail happy needs to take a road racing driver’s school… sprint to the corner, use the heavy backend to you advantage under heavy brakes, enter “slowly” and hard gas on the exit…

  • avatar
    VerbalKint

    My last post didn’t… so I hope this doesn’t show as a rerun…

    I keep seeing barbs about slow steering and gawdawful tail-happiness– In the 9 years I lived in the “back seat” of the bug it was never unpredictable. Great in snow. Dad was in the Detroit Police and in the blizzards Buglie was the one vehicle that picked up his buddies & got everyone there in time for shift-change.

    I drove a friend’s ’66 when I was in high school (’73) and while it weren’t no Loutus it was sharper than the same year Pontiacs and Fords in its steering response. We used to go “baha-ing” in the hinterlands in Bugs an if you weren’t suicidal they were very predictable. Anyone who whines about tail happy needs to take a road racing driver’s school… sprint to the corner, use the heavy backend to you advantage under heavy brakes, enter “slowly” and hard gas on the exit…

  • avatar
    RedStapler

    In high school my best friend had a 1967. I’m the class of 98 so it was ancient by the time we got it.

    We would cram 5-6 people into it to make it quite possibly the most underpowered passenger vehicle ever.

  • avatar
    friedclams

    psarhjinian, what car of its era wasn’t lethal on ice? That’s just silly. Compare the car to its competition at the time and it fared very well in the snow, primitive suspension or not.

    I agree the car is a tin can relative to current cars but gimme a break.

  • avatar
    dadude53

    Fact is if one can`t handle a rear engine/ rear wheel dricen car (VW, Porsche,Renault Alpine) stay with public transportation.
    A lot of post`s are talking about rusted out heaps where due to little or no maintenance over 20 plus some years half the stuff stopped working. Very few people here had the experience of owning a new Bug.It was a fine small automobile, dependable, economical, had off road capabilities and the heater did work.Someone was wondering why the 911 had a better heater output.Well, they all had auxillary heaters installed.Which by the way could have been purchased as an option with the VW.(Alaska had `em standard).
    Talking about primitive suspension:All the Super`s had the same rear suspension as the 911. Until today you can interchange 944 rear suspension parts with the Bug.The Mini`s did not even have shocks.They had rubber cushions- spot on as the mate`s say.
    The largest european car manufacturer was founded and prospered through the Bug and it`s siblings.
    In comparison to “other car manufactures” long gone and soon to be gone,they had a late start.But came out amongst the best and brightest in the industry.
    The Bug had it`s defficiencies no doubt,but it was a genuine article well build, well supported in Service and perfectly marketed.

  • avatar
    Martin Schwoerer

    I think this is a near-perfect review. It tells you how a car feels when you drive it. Also, the review helps you to understand the car in its social, historical and psychological context. Written in beautiful, plain English, to boot. Thanks, David!

  • avatar
    psarhjinian

    what car of its era wasn’t lethal on ice? That’s just silly. Compare the car to its competition at the time and it fared very well in the snow, primitive suspension or not.

    It’s era was pre-WWII. By that measure, yes, you’re right. The problem is that it continued well, well past that date with the same fundamental structure.

    The Mini is one example. Yes, you could lose it on ice, but when you did it was a slow, easy push, not a “goodbye, Mr Tail-End, hello, Mr Guard Rail” moment. Even import-fighters like the Valiant and Falcon were better: they didn’t have the weight/traction advantage of the rear engine, but a sandbag in the trunk and a decent set of snows would get you moving, and you wouldn’t swap ends quite so easily.

    Hey, I like the Bug, but between the heater and the handling it wasn’t a good winter car.

  • avatar
    dadude53

    @psarhjinian :

    It’s era was pre-WWII. By that measure, yes, you’re right. The problem is that it continued well, well past that date with the same fundamental structure.

    You are right, it`s design origins dates back to that era.But let me ask you, what does it tell you that such an outdated design outsold anything on the market(in it´s class) in it`s heydays in the 60`s to 70`s.
    How many Minis were sold in the US grand total? 10.000? This is about what VW sold in a week.
    How many BMC,Austin, Innocenti,Leyland and last but not least Rover Minis were build( did I catch all the parent companies that owned that car?) 5 Million? This is just about what VW sold in the US and less than 25% of what VW built.
    So regardless, success speaks for itself especially when transferred into any currency.

  • avatar
    VerbalKint

    The Beetle was an old design. But it fulfilled its design intent wonderfully– for 40+ years. If the “Big 2.8″ had offered a vehicle with the same reliablity and character the imports would have had a serious fight for market share. Anyone remember the old Mopar ads that showed the “road hugging weight” Chrysler cracking the “fragile” import egg??

  • avatar
    VerbalKint

    I was wondering… in light of the response to this trip down memory lane… would a thread of “I remember growing up with a ????” be a nice bit o’ history of our B&B’s?

    Before we got our LeSabre dad came really close to buying a ’69 383 Road Runner. “The back seat didn’t have enough room…” Mind you I never voiced that concern. I still remember that car: 383-4bbl, light blue, auto, a/c, am/fm & not much else… Pa asked me if I was disappointed he bought the Buick… In an extraordinary display of diplomacy I said “No”. God forgive me…

  • avatar
    Mirko Reinhardt

    SupaMan :
    “How much power can you get out of those old Beetles sans forced induction?”

    A lot. Tafel makes a 231hp kit, 0-62 in 4.7 seconds and 150 mph top speed, if you also take their custom 5-speed gearbox and suspension upgrades.

    http://www.autobild.de/artikel/getunte-kaefer_43341.html

  • avatar
    johnny ro

    Neidermayer is right.

    They handled a whole lot better if you observed engineering recommendation for tire pressure. 17psi front. (I forget rear but likely 28.) Few did. Then or now on any car.

    I remember argument with a non-car guy cousin who owned one. He told me I was reading the tire pressure sticker wrong. That the number on the tire was the right one (max PSI of 32 I think.) Successful lawyer driving a skittish bug with concrete tires and not liking it.

    I had a few, they rusted, same as Detroit and europe and japan.

    For a late 30s design they certainly fit the bill for many millions for many decades on every continent.

    I have it on my list to buy a nice clean one to have as 4th car (Ghia is preferable to me). I would want to really seal it and get some form of modern heat and windshield air. I bet its out there. This is, when I get to where I can afford more than 2 cars, ie, never. Still I want one.

  • avatar
    Mark MacInnis

    Anyone who expected any serious performance from these fails to understand the basic premise of these cars: Basic transportation. Safe, if you drove sanely. Economical, easy to repair. Reliable.

    I grew up in the 70′s, and I remember that these were sensible cars for college students. I had a ’71 Super Beetle convertible, yellow of course, with the black top. My buddy had a blue Karmann Ghia convertible.

    Mine survived two front end crashes, and kept me safe, as well. Parts were dirt cheap, and owning and maintaining those cars taught you self-reliance and respect for machinery and basic engineering. I swapped the engine in mine, me and my brother, who had, like, one shop class between us. Just followed the pictures in the Chilton repair manual. Fired right up, and the whole thing took two hours.

    Yes, they were drafty in the winter. Okay, truth be told, damned cold. At 18, we didn’t dive a damn. They were the shit on hot summer nights going to Pine Knob.

    And, as much as my Mustangs and Charger did, this car always got me laid. Girls loved its cuteness factor, and always wanted to drive it.

    So there.

  • avatar
    kurtamaxxguy

    The 1974 Super Beetle I drove:

    1. Loved to spin out on icy roads (I practiced in parking lots to learn how to drive it safely).
    2. Semi-auto transmission made it absolutely bog slow getting on freeways.
    3. Recirculating ball steering became incredibly sloppy after 40K miles, while front struts began leaking at 45K.
    4. Heater was a joke; air was heated passing through cores inside mufflers (CO, anyone?), and it took ages for defrosters to warm up as their air channeled through cold metal passages within the frame.
    5. It was relatively airtight, which made summers hotter than blazes as air vents into passenger compartment were minuscule: you drove with windows open, or roasted.

    In CA, it would have been OK as basic transportation. In PA, no way – it was traded off in ’75.

    • 0 avatar
      joeaverage

      I had a ’72 in ’91-’94. The steering problem you mentioned MIGHT have been because of the U-joints in the steering column above the gas tank. My car had 100K on it when I had it and the joints were sloppy, the steering box was original and still tight. This was despite rough Italian roads. I swapped that part and all was well.
      These cars were hot in the summer because the heaters relied on sheetmetal flappers to control the heater air flow. Once I discovered they were passing heated air in the summer I blocked off the system at the engine and the interior was much cooler. The vent windows and door windows meant the interior could be kept at a reasonable temp on the hottest days. I miss those little vent windows. Fortunately I still have two aircooled VWs and can still use them. My modern cars without them have much worse ventilation and must rely much more on A-C to stay cool. That said vent windows aren’t so good at interstate speeds – noise and all that. A/C is much better then.
      My heaters always worked very well. Yes CO was a concern. Even more so on early Beetles and Corvairs with the stale air heating system. I kept solid heaters on my car and kept an eye on them. I replaced one due to rot. The heater on my 1200cc Super (Italian spec) was quick to warm up. Like a couple of minutes quick. Like we’d go snow skiing and I’d start the engine while we changed out of our winter overalls. A few minutes later when we got into the car it was warming up just fine. The defroster wasn’t up to blizzard conditions for certain but for clearing frost or humidity off of the inside of the glass it was fine. If I needed major heat I could have bought the gas heater option and an inline fan to force the heated air up there. I’d do that if I relied on the Beetle for transporation up north.
      Ya know – the Beetle – like any other car is a tool to get you around. It’s not going to fit everyone’s expectation or everyone’s needs all the time. I don’t think it is fair to call it a piece of crap at all. From a different perspective a person could call the modern SUV a piece of crap b/c it gets poor mileage, doesn’t last or is too big to throw around the curvy roads. You’ve just got to pick what you need and like.
       
       

  • avatar
    Kendahl

    I had two of them — a ’62 with 40 hp and a ’68 with 53 hp. The ’62 did 0-60 in 30 seconds, topped out at 80 mph and got 33 mpg. The ’68 did 0-60 in 18 seconds, was 10 mph faster and got 30 mpg. Although both cars had swing axles, the ’68 handled significantly better because I equipped it with a camber compensator and Michelin XAS tires (130 mph tires on a 90 mph car).

    The trick to making reasonable progress in either car was conservation of speed. Slowing down was absolutely the last resort. To pass a slower car on a two lane road, you had to drop back and build up speed.

    I was satisfied with both cars. They met my needs in high school and college. But I wouldn’t want one now, not even a Karman Ghia convertible. (I have given some thought to a decent Porsche 356.)

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    VerbalKint: I was wondering… in light of the response to this trip down memory lane… would a thread of “I remember growing up with a ????” be a nice bit o’ history of our B&B’s?

    Here’s some 27 Chapters:
    http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/autobiography-pt-1/

  • avatar
    obbop

    Recall well the old man buying the new 1965 Bug.

    He showed me the 18 one-hundred-dollar bills… that’s $1,800 for us regular folks. Cash out the door. Tax and license additional.

    Fine automobubble for California, east of ‘Friso, where it never got too cold and salt never saw the roads.

    Back in the early 1970s it was used by me for cruising McHenry in Modesto… post ’62 “where were you” style cruising.

    Sure, I was jealous of the street Hemis and the Boss 351s and the 454s, etc but….. two bucks covered the gas for an entire weekend of cruising, leaving money to spend on the babes.

  • avatar
    Dave M.

    I’ve always loved these cars and the simplicity of their design….but the perhaps 30 times I’ve ridden in one, I always manage to get motion sickness. Something to do with the windshield in your face, infamous VW Bug smell, or both.

    Still love the design however.

  • avatar
    bunkie

    “Very few people here had the experience of owning a new Bug.It was a fine small automobile”

    My family had three of them, all bought new. The first was a ’58 which was traded for a ’65 which was traded for the aforementioned A.S.S. ’70, the car in which I learned to drive. All three were economical and reliable. I drove the ’70 to my senior prom and ended up with my date and five other prom-goers in it, all of us in full regaglia.

    What people don’t remember is that early Toyotas weren’t all that great, the Corolla (introduced in 1968) was the first decent Toyota. In the 1960s, Beetle alternatives included such fine cars as the Renault Dauphine, the aforementioned Mini, the MG 1100, and the Fiat 124 Sedan, none of which was terribly reliable, all of which had lousy dealership networks, and poor parts availability.

  • avatar
    Robstar

    My brother in law got a…68 ? (IIRC) beetle less than a year ago. It’s all he could afford in Brazil. I believe it is a 4 speed manual. I took one ride and it…..and it is quite something different. 1.0L engine + 3 people in the car + hilly city = adrenaline.

  • avatar
    pb35

    Mine was a 73 that I drove to my HS graduation in 1985. It was red but the front was faded pink. Being a young enthusiast I couldn’t drive half a pink bug so I painted the faded panels with spray cans one Saturday. I also removed all of the brightwork and painted it flat black for a sportier look. When all was said and done it looked pretty good.

    My Bug needed a muffler when I got it. Badly. It was so bad that it would shoot flames out the back when I would downshift while going downhill. My buddies thought it was the coolest thing. I replaced the muffler and it was..different. Quiet, even. I also experienced a new phenomenon after muffler replacement…heat. Directly on my right foot, only. That heat combined with some of those magic “defroster wipes” got me through a Long Island winter or two.

    That Bug took everything I threw at it. Driving over curbs, on the beach, you name it. Ah, to be young again…Alas, I had to get rid of it as the throttle cables kept snapping for some reason. One time the cable snapped right at the pedal and I worked the gas with a vise grip for a few days. Kinda tough while shifting.

  • avatar
    Robert Schwartz

    I owned a Beetle in the early 70s. I didn’t buy it because it was fun, it wasn’t, I bought it because it was cheap, real cheap. And when the price of gas shoot up in 74, it was cheap to run.

    But the car was a terrifying experience to drive. It had a top speed of about 67 mph. At that time, trucks could legally do 70 on the freeway. When they blew past you, which they did all the time, the aerodynamic wake would push the Bug about 3 feet to the side. They didn’t handle very well, but they did not have the power to get into real trouble.

    The cars that are available now, even very inexpensive ones, like the Fit, are so much better than the beetle as to be almost a different species. And, given inflation, they are really not that much more expensive.

    I am not nostalgic for the beetle, even though it was a brilliant engineering concept and a smashing commercial success.

  • avatar

    In the 1960s, Beetle alternatives included such fine cars as the Renault Dauphine, the aforementioned Mini, the MG 1100, and the Fiat 124 Sedan,

    A friend had a Mini during my last year of high school, in Palo Alto, CA. He would drive that thing on the twisties up to Skyline going 45 if he had a passenger, scaring the daylights out of me, and 60 if he didn’t. Much more stable than the Beetle. He also drove down to LA and back, and always had to do a valve job when he got back. I think part of the reason the Beetle did so much better than the Mini was the brilliant marketing. The Dauphine was certainly a POS.

  • avatar
    Johnster

    Would someone please explain about the optional dealer-installed gas heater? What was it? Did it run on propane? I imagine it looking something like a Coleman lantern. How did it work without asphixiating the driver or catching on fire?

    • 0 avatar
      joeaverage

      I loved that aux heater – never had one and but the concept scared me to death. It was mounted in the trunk up front and used gasoline from the gasoline tank – yeah the same one the engine sipped on. So you had a little flaming jet engine above the gas tank… I never heard anyone have any big fires because of the aux heater but the concept was scary. Dr. Porsche had one in his personal car (Speedster). Well integrated but still right next to the gas tank.
      Anyhow it pulled air into the heater with a fan and then dumped the heated from the other end into the interior of the Beetle. Where I;m not quite so sure. The Bus had the gas tank under the back seat sort of between the seat and the engine. The gas heater was located int he driver’s side rear fender area. Again close to the gas tank but separated by a couple of layers of steel.
      All the aircooled VWs had engine fire problems when they got old b/c the factory had a gravity fed gas tank leading to a fuel pump on the engine. If the gas tank started leaking it would spray gasoline under the car and the engine or ignition would light the spray. No stopping the fire b/c the tank was going to leak until it was empty. Imagine 10-15 gallons of gasoline draining into a fiery puddle… It’s easy to work around today – just keep fresh fuel lines on your car. Never let them get more than 5 years old. The other possible update is to connect your gas tank to a fuel solenoid that stops the fuel flow when power is removed from the solenoid. You can update the fuel connection on the bottom of the gas tank with a threaded connection so the solenoid connects directly to the solenoid. $50 upgrade if you have the skills. $100 if you don’t. Yeah a 40 year old Mustang just dumps it’s fuel on the ground behind the car if this happens. It’s another reason to appreciate the modern fuel tank with it’s top mounted fuel pump.
      Another fiery problem are the 50 year old Beetle and Bus carbs. The brass nipple for the fuel inlet could come out allowing the mechanical fuel pump to spray gasoline all over the engine compartment until the engine stalls (carb bowl empty). Again easy to fix before it happens. Mechanical fuel pump is safer in this regard and an electric fuel pump that would just keep pumping until you turned it off (or the fire burned the wiring up enough).
      These were good cars but they do have old-age issues that need to be dealt with just like any other car.

  • avatar
    davey49

    Dadude53- wouldn’t your logic of sales means that a car is better mean that the Corolla is the best car ever sold?
    Why the hate on the Mini? It was by far the more sporting car. The Mini is one of the best racing cars ever made.
    My family had a few Bugs all bought in various condition. None were ever new as we don’t usually buy new cars. They were OK, nothing special

  • avatar
    fli317

    What a car. My parents bought one new in 1969 just before I was born. Despite my grandparents’ protests, they took me camping from Ca. to Washington in it. All the while I sat in the back with the seat down and made a nice play area out of it. Child car seats weren’t a consideration.
    My parents bought me one in high school and I had it parked outside the gym. I came out one day and it was gone. I found it around the corner. I couldn’t figure how it was moved. My friend later told me that a bunch of guys on my basketball team got together and carried it around the corner to another parking spot. How many cars can be picked up and carried? That bug was the only one of our vehicles that would start one cold -10 degree morning in Boise, Idaho. If the heater boxes were intact, the heat would run you out of there. The defroster was not as effective.
    Best of all, the simplicity of driving the bug teaches you that you don’t have to go fast to have fun. So many cars now are so good at going fast, that you have to drive at excessive speeds just to enjoy them. They are too good for their own good. In the bug, you won’t win many races due to the lack of hp, but its hard not to have fun driving it.
    My uncle just paid $200 for ’74 bug that has been sitting in a barn in Oklahoma for 16 years. He said I could have it if I come pick it up. I will be making a trip to OK in the near future.
    Its interesting to think about these bugs and simplicity of transportation, just as the big 3 are begging for money just to stay alive. Where is their pride? All the while they got in trouble by loosing market share as they got fat selling luxobarge SUVs to Americans who don’t understand what basic transportation really is. Cadillac escalade ESV? How can you truly drive in anything less?

  • avatar
    MagMax

    My Beetle was a new 62 model that I bought to replace my first car, a used MGA. I had the VW for 4 years, including 4 bitter Alberta winters. It only let me down once, when we had to park it half a mile from home, on a hill, in a blizzard and walk the rest of the way to my parents’ house. Two days later it wouldn’t start in 30 below weather but that was the only time! The fit and finish was better than any domestic — you could run your fingers along the drip rail over the windows and not cut yourself or catch on anything. I couldn’t afford new tires so had to make do with retreads of the original Continentals but I did add chrome vent trim to the rear deck and set of white wall covers that fit over the tires on the rims. The car was bitterly cold inside during the winter and I kept a windshield scraper in the glove box for use on the inside. I never had snow tires and never once got close to being stuck in the snow in spite of having driven through any number of blizzards over those years. I drove it on graveled roads for three years while I lived in the middle of nowhere in southern Alberta, hours from the nearest dealer, and drove it flat out for 400-mile trips from home to university in Edmonton couple of times a year and it never missed a beat. And I never had the rear end come round on me, not even on ice and snow and not on the graveled roads either. You had to know how to drive it, that’s all, and keep the tires properly inflated. For service I drove it to the nearest city, an hour and a half away on Friday after work, got a free courtesy car to drive home, and came back on Saturday afternoon to pick up my car, all serviced, washed, with the engine compartment steam cleaned every time. We had several dust storms reminiscent of the 30s during those years and my car was the only one (it was the only VW for miles in that farming community) in the area that wasn’t filled with fine dust. It was the perfect starter car, simple, cheap, reliable, with comfortable seats. Would I want one now? No, of course not, but then I’m not 20 years old any longer, and cars have come long way since then.

  • avatar
    AnalogKid

    Growing up in California in the 70′s my friends and I all had souped-up VW’s. I had a ’66 and ’68 Beetle, a ’69 Squareback (with Bosch mechanical fuel-injection that never worked right – either the brain or the injectors were always failing) a ’66 split-window Bus and my girlfriend (now wife) had a ’73 Super Beetle. We’d lower them, add sway bars, pull the heater boxes and install headers (you could do that in Cali) and trade the Solex carbs for dual Webers. They were nimble and quick and while they were no match for the Camaros and T/A’s it didn’t matter because we were only racing against each other.

    Here’s an example of how robust the drivetrains were. My ’66 Bus had in a kink in the clutch cable housing and the cables would snap every two to three months. I would drive the car without a clutch until I could get home and install a new cable. You could just apply pressure to the shifter and let the revs falls and it would snick into gear. At stoplights you just let it stall, put it in first and use the starter to get going.

    They don’t make ‘em like that anymore.

  • avatar
    dadude53

    @davey49 :
    The Corolla changed it’s structural BIW several times in it’s history.The only thing that remained was the name.So you can’t compare it to the VW. Try swapping front fenders on a ’68 and ’83 Corolla. Won’t work. On the VW you could interchange them from ’52 to ’67 and ’68 to 2003(last model build).I certainly don’t hate the Mini as it is the forerunner of the modern automobile.However in it’s time it was inferior to the VW in the econo class.
    True it was a sporty little car with go-cart like handling.But the VW(entered by Porsche Salzburg) also won Rallye and Rallyecross championships in Europe.Just like the Mini.

    @Johnster :The auxillary heater supplied by either Eberspaecher in Germany or Steward Warner in the US and installed by the VW dealer was a gas powered heater that was located in the front trunk compartement.It was connected via a separate fuel pump to the tank of the vehicle and the exhaust fumes left the heater through the left front wheel well.The hot air was blown into the passenger compartement through another opening in the front foot well.It was controlled through a timer, just like todays units, that allowed preheating the passenger compartement.
    See;http://www.thesamba.com/vw/archives/manuals/bn2_installation_12_1976/bug1.jpg

  • avatar

    @fli317
    A guy I know was in on a stunt at Harvey Mudd College (one of the Claremonts, and a high class school) where a Beetle was disassembled and reassembled on the 7th floor of one of the classroom buildings.

  • avatar
    psarhjinian

    Why the hate on the Mini? It was by far the more sporting car. The Mini is one of the best racing cars ever made.

    Partially because it really was a better car, despite lacking German Engineering, partly because Leyland et al were so disappointing to actually deal with. Mostly because both cars are polarizing.

    Personally, I think we need a Beetle Versus Mini Bake-Off. How ’bout it, TTAC? I’ll try to secure a Mini in exchange for some pimping of a local business that remanufactures them for sale.

  • avatar
    jerseydevil

    Wonderful review, great thread. I love these forays in to the misty past of wasted youth!

    My friend had one. It was – how should i say it – challenging to drive, at best. My regular ride was a Olds 442, the difference was – striking! Nevertheless, i liked the little thing, it introduced me to little cars, a fevered love I have to this day.

    A friend of mine had a ’70′s camaro, i went for rides in it a few years ago. Geeze what a terrible ride. I think we forget how bad all cars were back then.

    We were driving around one day in an new STI, all comfortable and airconditioned. I see a lot with ’70′s era european cars in it – in the jumble was a Fiat x1/9, the first small sportscar i bought. I was so in love with it – I looked at it. I forgot that it had no a/c, was woefully underpowered, and pretty much fell apart immediately. But i didnt care. I was soo cool, i could barely stand myself.

    HAHAH, thanks.

  • avatar

    psarhjinian: Chuck, Did you own a VW when you lived in a snowbelt area, or anywhere with dramatic (say +30C to -30C) swings?

    I lived, and still do live farther north than you. However we have the moderating influence of the Pacific to temper the swings in ambients. I did live for a while in the 80s in Montana, where temperatures in mid-winter can make Ontario seem balmy by comparison. I was driving a VW, but it was a Rabbit Diesel. It never failed me either.

    The Beetle was driven in plenty of ice & snow, and as a later (73) model the heater was up to the task and that Montana training prepared me for driving in slick conditions. Like today’s posted editorial about Winter Driving says, the keys to safety are patience, knowing the limits of your car’s behavior in varying conditions, and keeping a watchful eye out for impatient, ignorant, inattentive morons who think that SUV+AWD+Snow=Invincibility.

    –chuck

  • avatar
    tonycd

    I agree, nice review.

    My college-age sister bought a Super Beetle as her first car in the ’70s. We tried to talk her into a Corolla or Datsun, but she wasn’t listening – she considered the VW “cute,” and gave it a first name. Later on, she would pre-emptively snap before we could say a word that yes, she knew her choice had been a mistake.

    I drove the car several times. It had the infamous clutchless manual. I started trying to use the low-low-low first gear just to get a little snap off the line, but it was so low that you had to shift out of it at about 10-15 mph anyway, and the time needed to make the shift itself offset any gains. Everything else about the car was as others have described it here, except that the extra wheelbase of the “Super” version got the windshield away from your face a little. It was so underpowered that you couldn’t maintain a steady speed on the highway, constantly surging and then falling back.

    Around the same time, I borrowed my older sister’s Sedan De Ville with the 472-cubic-inch V8. I was astonished to discover that my entire on-road personality got a transplant, from paranoid to imperious. From behind its Queen Mary prow, I practically felt like daring other motorists to let me hit them. Being an inexperienced driver and used to the VW, I was surprised by this. It was actually a pretty educational experience.

    My sister did get one compensation from owning the Veedub: I wrote a speech for her speech class, humorously castigating the car as unsafe. (Let’s not forget the gas tank in your lap here.) The money shot: “From the man who brought you Auschwitz.” She reported that the few smartest people in the class laughed heartily. She got an A, I think.

  • avatar
    dadude53

    @tonycd :

    The “wheelbase difference” between a Standard and a Super Beetle (20mm) contributed to an increased luggage compartement and not to a “further away” windshield. The reason why the windshield is a) more bonded and b) further away from `73-`75 is because the car got a different cowl and “firewall” resulting in a shorter hood and slightly longer roof.
    The “Autostick” you described was a manual transmission with an automatically operated clutch.The low, low gear you described indeed was the gear acutally reserved strictly for driving up steep hills/ downhill using the max engine brake power.Max acceleration if that terminology can be used with this setup only was achieved with driving range 1.Sometimes reading the manual before operating a vehicle does help though.
    About long shift delays:
    It also was mandatory to keep your hand off the shift lever once you shifted as any movement was detected by the clutch sensor and the selected gear would not engage until such was achieved.
    Again everything in the operators manual.

    The fuel tank in the front was a much dicussed item, but never let to any crash test failures.Note, all 911 and rear/mid engine Porsches until this day have the fuel tank in front.

    And as usual if nothing else works with the VW one tries to play the “Nazi” card. Well, there even are Volkswagen clubs in Israel.Go figure

    • 0 avatar
      joeaverage

      Keep in mind that the Beetle design came along before Hitler did. It was F.Porsche’s long term pet project. Each of his employers would not touch “a car for the working man” ide a- they just wanted cars for the rich classes. Finally Hitler came to power and gave Porsche the working capital to build the Beetle and the factory. The Beetle showed the way for Frace, Italy and England to build something after WWII for the working man.
      The car wasn’t Hitler’s idea. It wasn’t a Nazi idea. It was Porsche’s idea finally funded by the German gov’t headed by Hitler (unfortunately).

  • avatar
    BEAT

    The problem with Old VW Bug was the battery catches FIRE and is located under the seat.

  • avatar
    davey49

    BEAT- I think that only happens if you install the incorrect battery and its too big for the compartment or doesn’t have proper venting. It could happen to my car too with its battery in the trunk.

  • avatar
    johnsonc

    Had 2 Beetles. Got the 1st one, a ’64, in ’82 for $300. Needed a valve job, all of $150 and it ran great except when the temp dropped at night below 10 degrees. Had to bring the 6 volt battery inside or it wouldn’t have enough crank. Sunroof was great even with broken crank(they often did) – I couldn’t lock myself out of it. Just slid it back and forth with my hand. Even the heater core worked. The wipers were rather ineffectual in snow, though. Verrryyy sloooowww. When the snow built up too much on the windshield you could just reach out every now and then with a 3′ brush and clear the windshield while you were driving. One night the headlights started going dim and were basically out by the time I got home. Next day, 5 minutes and $20 for a new voltage regulator and it was fixed.
    Next one was a “73 Super I bought the next year. Ran perfectly and regret selling it 4 years later. The lure of a vehicle with air conditioning was just too strong.

  • avatar
    Johnster

    dadude53 : @Johnster :The auxillary heater supplied by either Eberspaecher in Germany or Steward Warner in the US and installed by the VW dealer was a gas powered heater that was located in the front trunk compartement.It was connected via a separate fuel pump to the tank of the vehicle and the exhaust fumes left the heater through the left front wheel well.The hot air was blown into the passenger compartement through another opening in the front foot well.It was controlled through a timer, just like todays units, that allowed preheating the passenger compartement.
    See;http://www.thesamba.com/vw/archives/manuals/bn2_installation_12_1976/bug1.jpg

    Thanks, for the explanation. A couple of more questions. How did you turn it on? Did it have a separate electric starter? A pilot light?

    • 0 avatar
      joeaverage

      The gas heater had a spark plug believe it or not. You turned on the timer (crank it around with the knob and tick-tick-tick) and the spark plug would fire the fuel. Scary in concept but they worked well I am told.

  • avatar
    cstoc


    This “feature” only showed that there was no ventilation system. Other cars, even then, had exhaust vents so that air would flow into the car when the front vents were opened. Another car with no exhaust vents was the Ford Pinto. My cousin had one and you could open the front air vents and feel no air until you cracked a window. I don’t remember that anybody thought that was a sign of build quality.

  • avatar
    dadude53

    @Johnster :
    Auxillary heater:How did you turn it on? Did it have a separate electric starter? A pilot light?

    A simple push/pull switch operated a pilot light and supplied current to the blower motor.The fresh air blower supplied heating air and the impeller combustion air.The fuel pump supplied metered fuel to the combustion chamber. The combustion air was preheated by a glow plug and ignited by a spark plug.An ignition coil provided the higher voltage.The combusted gases flew through the heat exchanger thus heating up the thermoswitch which turned after about 45s the glow plug off. From there on the combustion process continued to run on its own( assisted by the high voltage ignition)
    That`s pretty much it.

  • avatar
    Andy D

    Great article, David. I was raised in a bug family. My father bought a 54 in 1957 when the train to Greenbush stopped running. I got my license driving a 65 bus. I drove bugs exclusively for nearly 20 yrs. My wife was one of the last people to make it down 128 during the blizzard of 78. She was driving a 66 Bug.
    I drove a bug 25 miles on a flat front tire, it handled just fine.

  • avatar
    rtz

    The air cooled nature has always appealed to me for the simplicity of it and the reduced maintenance. In real life though; how maintenance intensive are these cars? Who drove one for years or decades?

    • 0 avatar
      joeaverage

      Maintenance intensive? After you had done the maintenance a few times it isn’t a big deal. The first time I did the whole list it took me two weeks to get the valve adjustment done correctly. It took 20 mins to do the valves after that.
      Every 3K miles I adjusted the valves, tweaked the carb, and checked the cables. I oiled the hinges and adjusted the manual adjusting brakes. The whole thing took about an hour. Checked the front wheel bearings for tightness too. Kept my eyes open for things like rust or e-brake cables falling apart or whatever. Was easy to do. Prob wouldn’t have been good if I was living up north and didn’t have a winter garage to do this stuff in.
      As time went by I’ve gathered up two of alot of parts making repairs even easier. If the carb begins acting up I pull the good one off the shelf and simply swap it. The dirty carb gets rebuilt or cleaned when I get a chance and then put back on the shelf. Same with things like starters and alternators.
      The Beetle engines need attention somewhere along the way towards 75K miles for a valve job. Maybe later. The engines last maybe 125K miles and then they need a simple rebuild. If you have really good quality parts you’ll get more miles than discount auto parts store parts. I’ve seen really cheap parts wear out in 30K miles. I bought a beetle with a cheap rebuilt engine and it lasted 30K miles before a rod started knocking – first at the wrist pin and later at the bottom end. Can’t blame VW for this – these are parts that have been rebuilt to varying standards many time by now or they are purely aftermarket parts.
      There are so VW celebrities. Gene Berg was a 1960s racer that supposedly built the best. His engines lasted over 100K even racing. He’s passed on by his sons are still selling parts. Jake Raby is a current engine builder for whom quality is important and he too can build a hi-po engine that lasts. There are others that are good but there are many, many more than build stuff that fits your low budget first and your expectations to last second. You figure if the engine is going to last 30K then and if you keep your toys a couple of years, the engine is going to still be okay when you sell the car. It’s the next owner that will have to deal with the cheap engine you purchased.
      John Muir wrote “How to Keep Your VW Alive for the Compleat Idiot”. That book paired with the factory Bentley publishers manual and some basic tools can take you through any problems and rebuilds. Is a wodnerful book for a newbie to learn to wrench with.

  • avatar
    ruckover

    I owned three of these, and I loved the things. They were cheap enough for me to drive and afford grad school, and they were slow enough that I could drive the snot out of them and no one noticed. While I agree with all the comments about the lack of heat (and I lived in Michigan and Wisconsin), they were amazingly good in the snow. What little weight they had was over the drive wheels, and the front wheels were free to do what God wants front wheels to do–steer. In winter, I could even imagine myself a real driver by using snow induced oversteer to play boy-racer. The real drawback to winter driving was having to reach through the driver’s side window to reach around and rub a clear spot on the windshield. I often felt as if I was driving while looking through a periscope.

  • avatar
    Johnster

    Thanks for lesson on how the gas heater worked, dadude53!

  • avatar
    dadude53

    @rtz:
    Aside from other watercooled vehicles our family always had a selection of 911′s(aircooled) and VW’s over the past 40 years.The last new VW we purchased was a 2003 last edition Bug Sedan.In comparison and in retrospect I can say that the aircooled engines need far less maintenance than their watercooled companions.
    Simply due to the fact that they have less components.To continue with the VW, as long as the engine has oil and receives fuel it will basically run.
    Depending on the year of the engine you need to adjust the valves every 10k miles,change oil every 3k miles.Spark plugs and points every 25k miles-assuming the ignition timing is checked every 10k miles.The latest Digifant injection engines require even less as they already have hydro-lifters and full electronic ignition.

    Again it is a vast difference if you bought a new one or as posted so many times here, old heaps that have been worked on by an indefinite number of people.Not the skilled or properly self trainer person is the problem, it’s the morons that think they can do it all and brag about how they set the ignition timing simply by listening to the change of rpm when they rotated the distributor on a running engine.

    So if you get one today, look for an original well kept and maintained vehicle.Pay the extra Dollars and you will end up with a fine trouble free set of wheels that will keep you motoring for years to come.

  • avatar

    Some of the comments about how you could drive hell out of the thing without endangering everyone else on the road remind me of my ’77 Corolla 1.2 liter. I was always flooring it, but no-one noticed. I joked about getting a license plate that would say either “redlinin” or “bad fun.” There was a twisty-windy road that bridged a creek about 4 times in a high end part of DC near downtown, and I would try to launch the thing on those arched bridges, and occasionally caught just a little bit of air. I could easily squeeze in and out of DC traffic, and I remember one date complementing my driving abilities as I did. Nor did I scare any passengers, until I got the ’93 Saturn SL2 5-speed. Then I did scare people until I learned to ask them to ask me to drive “momly” if I was scaring them.

  • avatar
    Mark MacInnis

    Part of the charm of owning one of these machines was finding a guru, who knew, and would teach the neophyte, the finer points of Beetle care and maintenance. These guys could always be found, and a more cantankerously lovable, more irascible set of rogues, you would never encounter. These guys were fonts of wisdom about the Bug, but also, because the cars themselves had a sort of Zen quality about them, these guys could usually also be counted on for practical knowledge about life, liberty, the joys of the simple things in life, etc. while simultaneously explaining valve adjustments, oil changes, etc. Most had good smoke, too, if you are receiving my drift.

  • avatar

    Mark MacInnis,

    Do you know if any of these guys are still around? I’d love to interview them. Contact me at motorlegends@aol.com. Thanks! DAvid

  • avatar
    RogerB34

    Excellent car 50′s and 60′s but now dead. RIP

  • avatar
    FromBrazil

    Sorry to be so late so I guess almost no one will see this, but it’s an interesting take. Here in Brazil when I was 18 years old (about 20 years ago), Beetles were still in production. They were taxi cabs, old aunts had them. In short, they were still very much a part of life. And of course there were a plethora of used ones to be had. So as the magical 18 arrived, most likely candidates of cars for my friends and I were used Chevy Chevettes (like the ones that became Kadettes in Europe – 1 st generation), VW Brasilias and Beetles and Fiat 147s (in Europe 127), all out of production for a few years, so cheap for us (or our parents) to buy. Of course some were more fortunate, but these cars were the ones that had us talking for hours on their relative merits and problems. In short, had us dreaming. New cars were too expensive and older ones were too trouble prone.

    Long story short, none, absolutely none of my friends dreamed of a Beetle. A Beetle would have benn the leat fashionable, the worst to get girls, and would easily be the slowest and, generally, the biggest letdown. If given as a present would be taken with a smile of course, but not, absolutely not, enjoyed. Beetles were for poor old men who knew no better!

    Thankfully, none of us got a Beetle. I even lucked out as I was handed down my Dad’s Fiat Uno 1.5 ethanol (a dream car confronted with the quartet mentioned above). So, Beetle, neh, never meant anything for me.

  • avatar

    The original Mini was capable of lift-throttle oversteer if you were really driving like a maniac. (So are a fair number of 80s and 90s European hot hatches, for that matter, a trait that’s being systematically exterminated.)

    The Mini was a highly entertaining car. Even a Cooper S wasn’t particularly fast, but it had a kind of banzai spirit that was a lot of fun. It was like the friend you had when you were a kid who would talk you into mischief. A friend of mine had an early-60s example with a later, bored-out 1304 engine — she called it Emmett. Emmett was well-suited to hell-for-leather driving, but, like all early Minis, it suffered the dilemma of having been built by Englishmen. It overheated in traffic (typical; the side-mounted radiator doesn’t get enough air at low speeds), and a wide variety of interesting pieces fell off at inconvenient times. On one memorable occasion, that included the steering rack, which she did not find amusing. I told her, “There’s an old saying: If you give an Englishman a piece of metal, he will do something foolish with it.” She wasn’t amused by that, either.

  • avatar
    joeveto3

    I’ll never understand comparing yesterday’s cars to today’s, as if they could ever satisfy today’s expectations.

    Just the same…

    I recently purchased a 72 bug and kept it for a few months. I found it to be, for the most part, very easy to work on, and a blast to drive. Driving a car flat out, but still well within the law, is tremendous fun. And I loved the car’s simplicity, what could possibly go wrong?

    What the eBay seller did not disclose in his ad, is what led to the blue Beetle’s elimination from my life – cancerous rust that could only be addressed by a full body off — something I would not undertake. I actually smiled as the wrecker hauled the rotting carcass from my property.

    I looked to purchase another Beetle, but ultimately, the heater channel issue and the crappy heating that goes along with it, changed my mind. If you live in the southwest, I believe the Beetle could be a fun car. But anywhere else, the car will disolve in front of you, after it leaves you cold.

  • avatar
    joeveto3

    Best of all, the simplicity of driving the bug teaches you that you don’t have to go fast to have fun. So many cars now are so good at going fast, that you have to drive at excessive speeds just to enjoy them. They are too good for their own good. In the bug, you won’t win many races due to the lack of hp, but its hard not to have fun driving it.

    Very well put.

  • avatar
    Nicodemus

    @Argentia “It overheated in traffic (typical; the side-mounted radiator doesn’t get enough air at low speeds)”

    This typically only occurs on Minis when poorly trained mechanics install the fan blade back to front. Mini fans push air from under the bonnet (hood) to the wheel well. The can be and frequently are reversed.

  • avatar
    blowfish

    But the car was a terrifying experience to drive. It had a top speed of about 67 mph. At that time, trucks could legally do 70 on the freeway. When they blew past you, which they did all the time, the aerodynamic wake would push the Bug about 3 feet to the side. They didn’t handle very well, but they did not have the power to get into real trouble.

    We had the same problem of get pushed away from the truck, especially worse in the Praire Canada.
    Later on in 80 I bought one for the summer coming home to Van from school in Toronto. I have a fnd who cut a piece of plywood to mount it under the front bumper, it became an Air Dam, ground effect. Lo & Behold driving across Trans Canada Autobahn was nothing, it create a small vacuum under the front wheel, the traction was exceptional. Onetime we drove on 401 pinned the speedo too at 90 MPH i am sure is not correct.

    Also bought one of those elec fan from JC Whitney 2nd hand, it gave continous air so it doesnt fog up during winter. The air rely from the engine fan was too intermittent u get lots during throttle but soon as u stopped on red light the hot air died.
    None the less it deliver the goods for any needy students at the time.
    Told my fnd the heater box does leak exhaust every so often, I think in the end I had it welded together. My fnd reply as Fuhrer’s revenge.

  • avatar
    gibbleth

    My dad owned several Beetles. While he runs to the Mercedes line of thought, the Beetle was a good car for African and Pakistani roads, where six able-bodied men could lift the body off the frame. The saying in Africa was that a Mercedes was worth three Beetles in terms of longevity, and they were priced accordingly.

    My only other experience with a Beetle was in shop in highschool where some enterprising idiot had installed a Porsche engine in a Beetle and blown a head. The car drove in on the other three cylinders leaking oil like crazy.

    The shop supervisor and I took the cooling shroud off the engine without removing the engine. After about eight hours of work, with the very last piece off, some Beetle nut mentioned the fact that the engine comes right out, shroud and all, and then the shroud is very easy to take off. Kinda like Subaru, another Boxer, the Beetle ends up being something that drives normal car guys to distraction.

    And yes, I have fond memories of the padded area behind the seats, but much fonder memories of the back end of an Estate Wagon (when my parents moved back to MI) with the rear seats folded down where I could play with my Hot Wheels in all that space.

  • avatar
    yoman

    I have owned VW’s all my life, and the damn car is simple! I have read many posts complaining about the heater and how it didn’t work.. Seriously, are you fuckin lazy?? You cant fix a simple VW beetle, take it to a shop, jack it up and replace the heater tubes, buy an auxiliary heater and add a plug-in to your v-dub. What the article failed to mention was how many different styles of vw bugs there are, IE.. old school lowered with white walls, raked with a hopped up motor… The paint,wheels, and ride height contribute greatly to a beetles looks. Here’s what your parents VW looked like http://webpageselling.com/images/1970_VW_BUG_002.jpg

    the vw’s I drive look like this
    http://images.thesamba.com/vw/classifieds/pix/2720543.jpg

  • avatar

    As to the “oversteer” it is merely that with the different center off mass, the car handles differently from what someone used to a front engine car is expecting.  The classic beetle is not a modern car.  It doesn’t have power steering or power brakes, so of course it feels heavy to someone who is used to them.

  • avatar
    DRJJJ

    Older VWs are death traps folks-very unsafe (structurally and engine fires)! Lost a close friend in one!

  • avatar
    fuckyou

    Really what car besides a vw beetle blows hot air out 30 second after you start it! Anyone that is saying the heater doesn’t work lives in a salt the road (rusted out heater channels) or the hoses are or hole riddled or flat disconnected. My mother in law once got mad at me because she left her wallet too close to the front floor vent and on a trip it wrinkled up the outside and melted her credit cards LOL. That happened on my old 69. My 76 Super Beetle uses the fuel injection heat exchangers (all four exhausts are routed thru the two exchangers da!! twice the heat. In addition to that a two speed fan is installed on the car factoty.


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