By on November 26, 2009

revolutionized the whole industry

Invasive species can impart devastating effects when the indigenous species haven’t evolved the proper defenses. Two Beetles stowed away on a ship bound for the US in 1949. There wasn’t anything remarkable about them that would suggest their future impact on revolutionizing the largest automobile market in the world. But like a pair of termites, they multiplied and steadily chewed their way through the framework of an industry that thought itself invincible. Eventually, the Bugs got forced out by other small foreign critters, but when the hollowed-out Fortress Detroit finally crashed into smithereens, the Beetles’ teeth marks could be seen everywhere.

GIs who had been exposed to the quirks and pleasures of European cars during WW II developed an appetite for exotic automotive pets. A free-for-all import market boomed during the early fifties. Everything on the automotive menu from Abarth to Zundapp was on offer. VW was just another obscure brand amongst dozens fighting for its share of the world’s biggest market. It was not totally unlike the Chinese market of recent times.

small window, big appetite to succeedBut a turning point came in 1955. It suddenly became painfully obvious to many early import buyers that while three and four year-old VW’s were still happily putting along, their DKWs, Hillmans, Simcas, Lloyds and dozens of other exotic foreigners were dying. Or at least the functional equivalent: sitting for weeks in their fly-by-night dealers’ one-bay garages awaiting parts supposedly on a tramp freighter somewhere in the Atlantic. The VW design was already almost twenty years old, and well de-bugged in the fields of combat. Material and build quality were superb. A sudden and immediate VW tidal shift was underway.

American are faddists, and sometimes our enthusiasm for a new group-identify slips all the way into cultism. Mid-fifties Beetle drivers waved religiously to each other. That degree of auto-reinforcement has happened twice since: the early days of the Honda Civic and the Prius. Civic drivers still waved; early Prius adopters just subtly smirked.

Like many cultists, pioneering VW adopters blissfully ignored all the shortcomings: no trunk to speak of, a cramped back seat, tippy handling at the limit, and as much power on tap as heat on a cold morning. But subtle annual improvements was all it took to keep them smiling and waving. Here’s a vintage ad explaining just how one of them came into being: (YouTube).

Behind that cheerful veneer of fadism was a solid wall of practicality. There was no cheaper way to drive, given the Beetle’s thrift, reliability, durability and resale. Demand suddenly exploded in 1955, and VW struggled to keep up.

CC 16 018 800But Volkswagen had a plan. Their ads were lying; they were thinking very big, not small. Because demand suddenly far outstripped supply, VW coerced (“you vill do it ziss way”) dealers to do three key things if they wanted to see any more cars: sell the little buggers at full price, invest in state of the art showrooms and facilities, and hire competent staff. A no-haggle price and a nice dealership experience: sound familiar? Not to Americans at the time. Most of the dealers complied happily, all the way to the bank. The rest became Renault dealers. The VW gold rush was underway.

VW offered Americans the total non-Detroit experience, from the first step into the new, clean dealership. Pleasant, knowledgeable sales reps awaited (your check). No negotiating. Well-trained mechanics. Full parts inventory. It was a highly profitable, well run enterprise. OR ELSE! And one that Toyota was taking careful notes on as it shipped its first pair of Toyopests abroad.

But the driving experience was most un-Detroit of all. Thirty six (30 net) horsepower, about the same as a well-fed riding mower today, engendered patience. What it delivered, it did so rock-steady: Thirty-two miles per gallon, always. Top speed: sixty-eight, exactly. If that was down a mile or two, on level ground, you knew it was time for a tune-up. And it would happily run wide-open at sixty-eight for a good 100k miles straight. And then you swapped in a rebuilt engine – in forty-five minutes.

36 hp (30 net) at your beckoningVW sales increased like the national debt: by the mid sixties, a half million a year were being snapped up at full MSRP. We were making Germany the envy of the rest of Europe, and shattering Detroit’s hegemony of the market. That story has been told on these pages all to well. The real threat to the US in the fifties wasn’t Communism; it was the industrious little Bugs munching away in the walls of our biggest industry.

Have we given due credit to the Beetles revolutionary ways? And can we spend the little time remaining indulging in deep-rooted VW nostalgia? Thanks.

The small-window Beetles hold a very special place from my pre-earliest days. Old-timers here may remember that my auto-biographical journey began here with these words “My first memories are of the womb…” Well, who says you can’t crawl back into the womb? I just did, in this lovely ’57 small-window sedan. It was wonderful too; just as I remembered, if perhaps a bit more cramped. But that round enveloping familiarity and sense of security was still intact. My surrogate mother, the car.

I hadn’t sat, or curled up in the fetal position in an old VW for way too long. But having spent years behind the wheel of several of them, it was all so familiar. The narrow but tall body fits my physiognomy just fine, sitting up in the front anyway. The smaller ’57 windshield means a little more neck craning for lights. But everything else was just as I remembered.

so familiarThe VW Beetle changed me forever. I think small. I appreciate a well-built and efficient machine. I don’t like to waste money on expensive things that depreciate quickly. And it seems like more and more Americans are thinking along the same lines. Is the VW’s revolutionary influence still at work?

Get the latest TTAC e-Newsletter!

82 Comments on “Curbside Classic: Five Revolutionary Cars – No. 2 – 1957 Volkswagen 1200...”


  • avatar
    Canucknucklehead

    A really well written article, I truly enjoyed it. Thanks!
    Everybody has a Bug memory. In university, my buddy and I had a shady used car business. My dad had a shop so we bought cars, fixed them up and flogged them, all without a licence, of course! Most of what we did was VW stuff because they were so easy to fix and had good sale prices. In those days, we concentrated on German Rabbits, 1977-80, the diesels being the most popular.
     
    My buddy came across a 1967 Type 1 Beetle, repainted in candy apple red. It was in good shape and we knew we could get a good price for it. Anyway, I used it as my driver to give it exposure. I hated it. Das Bug was cramped, noisy, cold, underpowered and handled like a roller skate missing a wheel . But it didn’t matter. People loved the car. Strangers stopped and told me their Bug stories. Chicks flocked to me. I detested driving the thing but everyone who saw it loved it!
    Eventually I sold it for $3300, like twice its original sticker and I never missed it!

  • avatar
    Rday

    I had several VW’s and  they were quite unique vehicles. Love the Vanagon Camper most of all. Wish it had a watercooled engine and AC. Saw one this weekend and it brought back many memories.

  • avatar
    50merc

    Fine article, Paul. My Beetle’s previous owner made his living with a bulldozer, and I think he treated the VW the same way. The steering gear and engine were shot but the body and interior still looked nice. And unknown to me, the car had been sitting under a shade tree for a few years. Falling leaves had dropped into the vents under the rear window.  Those vents, VW owners recall, provided air to cool the engine. Some of the warmed air went on to heat the cabin.
    A friend installed a replacement engine from a wrecked Bug, and as the sun set I hit the highway for home. Those leaves were well dried out, and once the engine warmed up little burning embers began coming out the defroster outlets under the windshield. My wife, who was following behind in our Chevy, was startled to see sparks floating about my head.

  • avatar

    No car guy is complete without a personal Bug story. Mine was very fun to drive and very easy to roll.

    • 0 avatar
      Jerry Sutherland

      I can attest to the rollover part of the Bug experience-nothing can reinforce where VW located the battery better than sitting in the back seat during and after a 20 mile per hour lazy roll in a slightly inclined ditch.
      You find out pretty fast when the car is on its roof the seat come loose and the battery ends up in your lap.
       

  • avatar
    Sinistermisterman

    I never really understood why so many enthusiasts are drawn towards the old ‘Vee-Dubs’, with their severely basic mechanics and quirkily designed vehicles.
    But then one day when I was taking a 16v 1.25L engine out of my Ford Fiesta, cursing the fact that some pillock had designed the engine to be so damn flimsy whilst crushing my hand between the block and the air conditioning compressor (there isn’t much room under the bonnet of a Ford Fiesta) it suddenly hit me.
    These ‘Vee-Dubs’ are hassel free motoring. Bullet proof engines, good gas mileage and easy to fix. That’s why people love them. They may not be the fastest or best handling vehicle on the road, they were design to be well engineered and were designed for PEOPLE.

  • avatar
    Bill Wade

    Ah, the fond memories of carrying an ice scraper to scrape the ice off the INSIDE of the windshield while driving around.  Of course I could drive around all the other snowbound cars while half freezing to death but was it worth it?

  • avatar
    kurtamaxxguy

    My VW Bug experience’s the 70′s SuperBeetle with the semiautomatic 2 speed transmission which meant agonizing acceleration on freeway ramps.  PA winters challenged the heater as defrosting windshields took forever.  Super Beetles had a rudimentary fan ventilation system which made our summers just bearable.  Still, this VW, first with independent rear suspension and front struts,  was pleasant to drive on temperate days and got far better mileage than the Pontiacs’ in my parents garage.  It drove OK on snow despite lack of snow tires or limited slip diff.
    However,  VW reliability was becoming iffy (steering gear, front struts wore out quickly), and VW dealers were then picking up sloppy service habits.  All this and need to enter freeways without being run over led to the Super Bug’s trade in.
    But VW cemented in my mind the concept of cars whose goals are to provide transportation.

  • avatar
    JohnRyder

    An exceptionally well written article, about an exceptional car.

    Well done, sir.

         JR 

  • avatar
    Zarba

    In the early 60′s, in York, PA, my father droved VW Beetles in his sales job.  He traveled all over PA, MD, NJ, and W VA. 

    At the time,  he had 4 children in parochial schools and couldn’t afford to buy a big car ( He also couldn’t afford the gas).

    He swore by those Beetles, and especially loved their performance in the snow. He always bragged that  he never got stranded in his Bug.  He also leved the gas mileage na dthe fact that they were so well engineered. The build quality of a 60′s Beetle was nothing short of astonishing.

    I remember his ’61 with the cloth sunroof.  I could stand up in the back seat through the roof.  Cool.

    As the kids grew up, they all had Beetles as first cars.  Our father figured they  were the perfect  car for a teenager: Slow, reliable, and economical.  My siblings beat those poor Beetles like bad dogs, but they never stopped running.

    As the article said, at worst you just pulled the motor and replaced it.  It really is a couple hours.

    I came along later, so my first car was a ’63 Nova.  But Bugs never go away.  My sister’s first new car was a stripper (not even a radio) 1973 Beetle.  $1,995. She sold it to my oldest brother, and when he was ready for his first new car (a Honda Accord, hmmm…), he gave it to me.  At this point (1983) it was at 120K miles,  and needed a rebuild.  So we rebuilt the motor, and I drove it for another 100K, before rebuilding it yet again. 

    It was retired in 1990 with 250K+ miles. 

    I sold it a few years later.  On the day I sold it, the battery died.  When I put the replacement in, I stepped through the floor behind the passenger seat.  One real estate sign later, the new owner was happily motoring away.  I later ran into him a the mall, and he said he replaced the floors, drove it another 75,000 miles,and sold it to a Mexican immigrant who needed a cheap car, somewhere about 1998.

    Somewhere out there that Beetle is probably still putting along.

    I once got a ticket in Mississippi for 75 in a 55.  The cop asked me how fast I though I was going. “The manual says it’ll only do 81.”  He said the radar read 83.  “Well, I WAS going downhill…”  He laughed and said he’d only write it up for 75, since nobody would believe that a Beetle could go over 80.

    One bone to pick:  The heat exchangers that gave you warm air were prone to rust.  Most owners never bothered to replace them, then complained about the lack of heat.  I replaced mine, and on the next trip, the hot air melted the plastic speaker grille of a radio I had out on the floor behind my seat. 

  • avatar
    Monty

    ’74 Sun Bug, in the classic bronze colour. Coolest car I’ve ever owned. Absolutely useless in the winter on the Canadian prairies. Mine had a gas heater, which cut into the gas mileage so badly that it was like driving a full size truck with a ten gallon gas tank. It wasn’t uncommon, for the one winter I owned it, to put gas in it two or three times a week.

    The canvas sunroof made up for all that when the warm weather came, though. Oh man, that car was fun during warm weather. Top speed of 67 or 68 MPH, and passing on the highway was an exercise in patience, but those friggin Beetles went forever at top speed.

    Good times, good times.

  • avatar
    Kendahl

    My first two cars were Beetles, a ’62 and a ’68.
     
    The ’62 had 40 hp. Gas mileage was 33 mpg. Top speed was rated at 72 mph, but mine would do 80 all day. Hills were something else. I often had to drop to 3rd gear and crawl up at 40 mph. The car was a stripper. Not even a gas gauge. There was a handle below the dashboard. When the car started to run out of gas, you turned the handle and got about another gallon to use finding a gas station. Of course, if you had forgotten to reset the handle from the last time, you started walking. The car lasted me 100k miles with an engine rebuild at 60k after it broke a valve. At the end, it leaked a quart of oil every 100 miles and idled on three cylinders, but top speed and gas mileage remained the same. After I traded it in on the ’68, I saw it on the dealer’s lot advertised as a “mechanic’s special”.
     
    The ’68 was a little fancier. It had a gas gauge, chrome trim around the windows and an auxiliary gas heater. Power was up to 53 bhp and top speed to 90 mph. Downshifting was necessary only for the steepest hills. I spent an outrageous amount of money replacing the stock bias ply tires with Michelin XAS radials rated for 130 mph. Later on, I added a camber compensator to keep the outside rear wheel from tucking under in a corner, heavier front anti-roll bar, heavy duty shocks, shift shortener, bundle of snakes exhaust and dual Hella driving lights mounted on the front bumper. Compared to a stock ’68, mine drove very nicely. One of the things I learned to do with it was 180 degree spins on gravel roads.

  • avatar
    Gardiner Westbound

    I owned a ’58 Volks, the first year with the large rear window. I really liked it, but looking back I can’t for the life of me figure out why. They were neither as durable nor economical as the advertising of the day or legend has it. Sure you got your 38 mpg (Imperial) but the kingpins soon seized up, a $125 repair and a fortune when the whole car cost $1,195 brand new, and the engine required a $500 overhaul at 62,500 miles (100,000 km).
     
    They hardly ever got stuck in snow, not because of the rear engine, but because the full floor pan tobogganed over drifts, the skinny rear tires flailing like paddle wheels. Failing that it was easy to pop it in 1st gear, let out the clutch, jump out, hand push it, and jump back in. The lack of a competent heater meant there was more frost on the inside window glass than outside, but you were too cold to notice because you kept the windows down during winter. By the third year the exhaust fumes from the rusted out heat exchangers would gas you dead. I could insert a politically incorrect but historically accurate reference here, but I’ll skip it. They were not such a good car to get into an accident. There was nothing much out front, the windshield was a only few inches from your beak, seat belts and airbags hadn’t been thought of, and there were no crash standards.
     
    Alone among early car importers only Volkswagen and Mercedes Benz built strong, closely supervised national dealer and parts networks. Former storm troopers are very good at supervision, though they all said they came from Austria! There were persistent reports of VW factory representatives buying up scrapped VWs creating an enduring and largely undeserved reliability myth and, not incidentally, keeping cheap used parts off the market. Ironically, the obsolete “Beetle” almost destroyed Volkswagen when its popularity abruptly declined without a viable successor.

  • avatar
    Daniel J. Stern

    The VW design was already almost twenty years old, and well de-bugged
    Naw, that didn’t happen til ’79 in the USA and ’04 in Mexico! (sorry, couldn’t resist…)
    The aero-headlamp pre-’68 units look the nicest to my eye.
    As for maintenance, yes, it’s just that simple, but watch yer fingers!

  • avatar
    Lorenzo

    I’ve driven a couple bugs but never owned one. My first exposure was when a friend of my college-age older sister bought one new for something like $1260 and let my sister borrow it a few times.  The first time I rode in it, my sister pulled over quickly when it stumbled, and turned a handle under the dash to release an auxiliary tank into the regular fuel tank. There was no fuel tank – you ran it until it died and dumped the other tank to get to a gas station. In 1963! The only gauge was the speedometer.
     
    After about a year, my sister came home with a bit of extra money. The speedometer  had broken, and the needle spun around as fast as the car was going, and would stop at a random speed when the car stopped. My sister and three other college girls would bet on a number, and periodically stop, in the middle of the road, even on the freeway, to see who won.
     
    Never get in a car driven by a college girl.

  • avatar
    peekay

    Love the CC series, Paul.  As I was born in ’52, most of the cars you write about are a solid part of my history as well.  Two Beetle stories…
    1. Our family had a ’58 Beetle in the early 60′s.  When I was 12, our family (dad, mom, three kids- 12,6 and infant) went on a week-long camping holiday… with two other adult friends visiting from England.  All 7 of us in the Beetle.  With tent, sleeping bags, camp cots, cooking gear, and all paraphernalia hauled along behind in a small utility trailer.  We covered a couple thousand miles.   My dad would say the beetle had an unlimited capacity to hold stuff if you packed it right.  I think that trip was the proof.
    2. In 1972 I lived in a high-rise residence at University.  My room looked out over a large parking lot.  Occasionally, to avoid studying, I’d count the VW’s in the lot, and it was always at least 25% of the cars… sometimes 35%.  I guess now Toyotas might be as common.
    Keep the great CC write-ups coming!
     

  • avatar
    baabthesaab

    My beetle was a ’68. Black with red like your subject. It had a 1.5 L, 53 hp engine, which, contrary to a previous post, gave a top speed of 78 mph, advertised and actual – but only in the summer! An ambient air temperature less than 55 F. caused rapidly diminished power, and winter top speed was in the 60 – 65 range. I recall downshifting on Interstate 81 through central NY to keep it over the 40 mph posted minimum on hills.
    The defroster was a rag, but I remember one day when the heater worked very well! I was traveling the autoroute from Montreal to Ottawa in March 1973. I had a bag of canned sodas on the floor behind the driver’s seat, having forgotten the heat duct there. I kept hearing popping sounds, and, on arrival, I found all the cans bloated and empty!
    Beetles were slow, but reliable, and great fun to drive. Oh, and if there were a category for acceleration from 0 – 10 mph, they were tops!
    Many of you recall that a popular college stunt of the era was to see how many kids could fit in one. I had a sign, borrowed from an elevator, taped to the inside left rear side window “Capacity 14 – Do not overload”

  • avatar
    Oregon Sage

    …. I just had the strange realization that I have never driven an original, air-cooled Beetle.  I rode in the back of my aunt’s baby blue Bug as an 8 year old, a friend in Southern California used to take me to lunch in her convertible back in the 80′s and my 36 year old step daughter owns one now.
    Given the ubiquity of the Bug and the sheer number of vehicles I have owned and driven over the last 35 years this bit of trivial seems statistically improbable.

  • avatar
    Syke

    This brings back two memories:
     
    1.  After my father left the Chevrolet dealership in 1965, he was approached by VoA to see if he was interested in taking on a new Volkswagen dealership in a college town about twenty miles from our home.  After giving it a lot of thought, he decided that he just couldn’t feel right about selling a foreign car, and especially one from the same bunch of guys who were trying to kill him twenty years earlier.  With that also died my father’s dreams of seeing me going into the car business with him.
     
    2.  Three years later, I’m a freshman at college, still the complete car nut (sports cars) and a guy living down the hall had a de-cambered and slightly hopped up ’63.  He loved to rally, and was looking for a navigator.  Of such things are friendships made.

  • avatar
    Martin Schwoerer

    Being German,  and a child of the 1970s, I never took a likening to the VW. Why should we be interested in an ass-engined Nazi car?, is what me and my cohort more or less thought. So we flocked to the R4 Renault and the 2CV Citroen. Some were won over in later years, re: Generation Golf, but others never looked back. I am one of the others.

  • avatar
    Damage

    I just have to dispute some of the comments here that Beetles weren’t good in snow. When I was a teenager, my family had a house in the snow belt east of Cleveland. These were the pre-global warming late ’70s-early ’80s, when we had epic winters several years in a row. Our house sat at the top of a long, hilly driveway. With a foot of snow on the ground, my mother’s Beetle plowed up the drive like a champion. The combination of the rear engine and the rearward weight shift from going uphill made it unstoppable. On the other hand, at the first sign of snow, my father’s full-size Pontiacs were as useless as tits on a boarhog. Of course, the Beetle’s floorboards practically fizzed in Cleveland road salt, but that’s another story.

  • avatar
    Dr Lemming

    Good article, and glad to see you point out the revolutionary nature of the VW Beetle.  In so many ways it was the antithesis of the typical Detroit fare of the post-war period.  That the car sold so well for so many years underlines that all those Detroit bean counters, marketeers and designers didn’t have anywhere near a handle on the American public’s needs as they thought they did.  Grosse Point myopia indeed.
    My dad had a 1961 Beetle.  When our family of four went on a trip we all were very aware of the car’s limitations.  We leaned forward when going up hill.  The vent windows quickly were opened when the cross winds whipped up.  My dad went through three engines before replacing the VW after seven years of daily L.A. driving (an hour each way to work).  Nevertheless, I liked that car much better than our befinned 1957 Ford Fairlane.  The Beetle had a simple, solid quality to its design.  Even the lack of a gas gauge was endearing.
    I didn’t often see other VW owners wave — perhaps the car was too popular by the 1960s.
    PS:  I keep on reading that Prius owners smirk.  I live in a Prius-infested college town and I’ve yet to see that smirk.  Either I’m not paying attention or auto pundits doth caricature it too much.

    • 0 avatar
      Paul Niedermeyer

      I was referring to the very early adopters, almost ten years ago. It’s long over by now, and it may have been a projection. But I do know that early Prius adopters were clannish, if not a bit fanatical Nothing wrong with that.

  • avatar
    porschespeed

    If Kennedy had been driving a VW, he’d be president.

  • avatar
    RogerB34

    True:  Engineering, build, reliability, price.
    That was our Bug, a Detroit killer.
    65 – 69 our family of 4 car.  Gas $5 per month.
    Purchased a 64 picked up Paris and used for 5 months EU.
    Admired by Fr. for its quality.

  • avatar
    baabthesaab

    @damage. Beetles were wonderful in snow! They went everywhere you needed to go on ice or snow. They didn’t steer, and they didn’t stop (no weight in front), but they went. My first insight into the value of 4 snow tires. But a touch on the brake pedal negated even those, and straight ahead you went.
    As you said, they were unstoppable – even on purpose.

  • avatar
    gimmeamanual

    Paul,
    With regards to waving deal, Jeeps, Vettes, and motorcycles still do it.

  • avatar
    Dynamic88

    Nice article.  The part that really caught my interest was selling them at full price.   I suppose even at MSRP they seemed like a bargain.

  • avatar
    jimble

    The Beetle fits your face? (Look up “physiognomy” in a dictionary.)
    As popular as the Beetle was, I’m not sure that it had all that much impact on the American auto industry. Unlike the Civic it didn’t inspire many imitators (except perhaps the ill-fated Corvair). And I suspect that it didn’t compete directly against Detroit iron in many people’s minds. You either wanted a regular car or you wanted a Beetle. It wasn’t until the Japanese cars of the 70′s that Americans saw imports as real replacements for the Detroit cars they were used to.

    • 0 avatar
      Paul Niedermeyer

      From the dictionary: The term physiognomy can also refer to the general appearance of a person, object or terrain, without reference to its implied characteristics.

  • avatar
    rocketrodeo

    Was recently thinking that I haven’t seen many Beetles lately; these days they’re pretty rare anywhere it snows in a serious way. Then, last week, I saw one burning in the Applebee’s parking lot. Perhaps not quite as good as we remember them.

    • 0 avatar
      John Horner

      Northern California is still well stocked with original bugs. The salt worm doesn’t live here, which is part of why I do :).

    • 0 avatar
      Vega

      O rly? Official US import stopped 32 years ago. How many pre-1977 Civics do you still see on the road in areas with extensive use of road salt?
      And the fire? The fuel line – carburettor connection deteriorates with the decades, fuel spills on the hot engine, fire. If you do just a bare minimum of maintenance on your car, this shouldn’t happen.

    • 0 avatar
      agiguere

      I see these all the time here in Mass

  • avatar
    John Horner

    I understand the whole bug-love thing, but it never got to me. I do, however, have memories of climbing in that cubby behind the rear seat as a 3-4 year old! Now I shudder to think of my parent’s complete lack of concern for my well being should we have gotten in a wreck. Back then, such thoughts were simply put out-of-mind and never spoken of. My oldest sister is nearly 10 years my senior, and I wasn’t long grown out of cubby-size when she hit a tree in that same bug and nearly lost her life. Crash worthiness was not in the bug’s design brief.
    Intellectually I understand the role of the bug in history, but I don’t miss them and have never wanted one.
     

  • avatar
    jpcavanaugh

    My wife’s father ran a VW repair shop, and she grew up in a family that had multiple bugs, fastbacks, squarebacks and Karmann Ghias in the driveway for years, up into the 80s.
    One feature i have not seen mentioned here was the windshield washer – to spray fluid on the windshield, the VW system was to use the air in the spare tire to provide the pressure.  Ingenious, really, in a Henry Ford kind of way.  As a result, my wife had it drilled into her from an early age to NOT USE THE WINDSHIELD WASHER unless you REALLY HAVE TO!  To this day, my wife can go for YEARS on a tankful of washer fluid in her car.
    My parents were among those smitten by foreign cars in the 50s.  At one time, probably about 1958 or so, they had both a Karmann Ghia and a Ford Anglia.  The Ghia is remembered fondly, the Anglia is not.  Then Kids started coming, so they must have decided that it was time to grow up and start buying Oldsmobiles.

    • 0 avatar
      John Horner

      The spare tire driven ww washer may have been an ingenious bit of cost cutting, but in practice it stunk. The ww washer often didn’t work very well and the spare tire often ended up flat. Besides, who wants to add air to the spare tire as a routine weekly maintenance item? The bug was and is vastly overrated.
       

    • 0 avatar
      Bruce from DC

      Wait, guys.  The air connection between the spare and the washer fluid reservoir had a pressure-sensitive valve that prevented the air from flowing out of the tire once it reached the intended tire pressure.  So that you couldn’t “flat” your spare washing the windshield.  The windshield washer would only work so long as your spare was over-inflated.
      Perhaps this gadget wasn’t working correctly in your cars; but it worked fine in my ’68 Karmann Ghia.

  • avatar
    baabthesaab

    I don’t know how to indent and indicate a reply, but, as to that windshield washer, it did use the air pressure of the spare tire, but it needed a minimum of 26 psi to spray, in order to not deflate the tire. I would inflate the tire to 36, giving me 10 psi worth of windshield washer. 26 was the recommended pressure for the rear wheels. Front tires were 16, I believe.

    • 0 avatar
      Damage

      My greatest memory of that system was that it never worked as advertised. Supposedly, a check valve in the line is calibrated so as not to let the tire pressure go too low. My 914 has the same setup and it doesn’t work right in that car, either. The jets never spray and the system just piddles washer fluid all over your legs.

  • avatar
    dastanley

    Born in ’66, I have many fond memories of VW bugs, busses, and Karman Ghias.  Oh, and I rode around back in high school in a friend’s squareback with early fuel injection.  My father owned an early Karman Ghia, but I don’t remember it – only photos.  I had 3 friends with bugs, my cousin drove a modified – dune buggy bug.  A friend drove an orange and white VW bus.  Those early air cooled VWs were everywhere in the 60s and 70s.  By the 80s, they started dying off.  Now, I hardly see any at all.

  • avatar
    dastanley

    Oh yeah, and a neighbor down the street had an orange convertible VW Thing.  That car was a trip – especially when one could take the doors, trunk, and hood off , fold down the windshield and drive around in a frame/shell.

  • avatar
    Gottleib

    Very good article I enjoyed it.  To me the enduring quality of the VW Bug was its purity of design.  Its form and function were completely harmonious and consistent with its purpose, nothing more and nothing less.  In terms of successful automobile design I consider the Model T Ford and the VW Bug as being the two most successful and influential engineering solutions for personal transporation in the 2oth century.   Everything else is just a variation on a theme.
    In my lifetime I owned three bugs.   A 1967 purchased new when in college and sold when I bought my Datsun 240Z when in the Air Force.  A 1954 VWBug purchased in Germany during the 1974 oil embargo that I used to replace the Porsche 911 I sent home before I killed myself on the Autobahn.  And a 1962 VW Bug that I purchased in 1982 with the intent of restoring it and later abandoned when our second child came along.

  • avatar
    The_Mase

    Is it funny or sad that 32 MPG was pretty huge for the time, and more than fifty years later, that is still about the top end of what a decent domestic car can get?

  • avatar
    twotone

    It was “Toyopet”, not “Toyopest” (unless the misspelling was intentional).
    Twotone
     

  • avatar
    obbop

    18 one-hundred dollar bills the agreed-upon out-the-door price for the 1965 basic Bug without radio at the Walnut Creek California VW dealer.

    I think it was the old man’s first new car.

    All the other firemen teased him about it.

    Many were WW2 vets, as he was.

    The European Theater vets teased the most.

    The Pacific Theater vets were more forgiving and admired the simplicity of the thing.

    It handled the work commute commendably and lack of heating ability was little problem in an area without snow or ice or blizzards or a rare day or night of temps much below 32, even on the coldest winter nights.

    Used by myself later as I rumbled alongside the hemis and 440s and 454s and hopped up small blocks of all sizes upon Modesto’s McHenry Avenue, the follower of the 9th and 10th streets cruising area of the “Where were you in ’62″ movie (AMerican Grafitti).

    Never could prove it but I may have been the possessor of the slowest car on the strip but the two bucks for an entire weekend’s cruising, even with the 40 mile round-trip to reach Modesto, left more moolah for brewskis and herbiage and with the addition of flower-shaped bathtub non-slip adhesive decals my coolness factor was at an acceptable level.

    • 0 avatar
      55vw

      As my name implies I had (just sold it two weeks ago to pay for my new garage) a 55 VW.  Solid no rust survivor, 35k miles, a true time capsule.  Although 36hp doesnt seem like alot, the car weighed 1700lbs so it moved well.  Had no trouble going 70mph on the highway, as long as there wasnt a hill.  Only took a half our to pull the motor.  Excellent little car.

  • avatar
    davey49

    Never a VW driver, ridden in a few in my youth. Family owned several in the 70s before their mass switch to Volvo.
    It was always the sound of a Beetle I loved, often my toy cars didn’t go “vroom” but went “diddadiddadiddadidda”
    I was always a bit envious of families/people that had Campmobiles, figured they just traveled the country/world

  • avatar
    Andy D

    My father chased the Luftwaffe across  Europe in a Dodge weapons carrier listening to  their radios .   When  the local  train stopped  running  into Boston in  the  mid-50s, he  bought  a  used  54 Bug to commute  the  30  miles.  He and  mother drove  bugs  until  1995 . In  MA  that  was no  minor  feat.   I drove   bugs  for 20  yrs  myself.  People of today  wouldn’t  abide with  the bug’s spartan appointments and  lack  of  safety.   I liked them because I could  work on them.   They were  a blast to drive  too.

  • avatar
    FromBrazil

    Ah! The Beetle…Horrid little car!! You see, my prespective is much different from many of yours. When I came into car-driving age (down here 18) these little buggers were still in production and neither I nor any of my friends would have liked to be caught dead in one.  God knew who bought these things.

    As 18 approached, my friends and I would heatedly discuss the merits of the used cars we’d probably be getting. Chevy Chevettes (really 1st and 2nd generation Opel Kadets), Fiat 147s, VW Gols or older and bigger Chevy Opalas (aka as greatly modified Opel Rekfords) were also included. For the luckier ones (more $$$) Ford Escorts, VW Voyages were highly esteemed.

    Old Bugs and the latter-day Brazilian sheetmetal job on a Bug chassi, the VW Brasilia, were possibilities, too, but everyone just shuddered at the thought of being given one of these. They just wouldn’t do and our parents wouldn’t impose on us the humiliation now would they?

    So, coming from this perspective, I leaped for joy and great disbelief when my father handed me the keys to his just one year old Fiat Uno Top w/ the 1.5 ethanol engine good for around 76 hp. I lucked out.

    Of course, the Uno and in fact many like it since, embody the Beetle thing. In a more modern and appealing package. With goodies like AC, power everything and whatnot. Many, in most of the world outside the great USA, still drive cars just like the Beetle. Simple, small-engined, frugal, but more reliable, less maintenance intensive and on the whole more enjoyable.

    So yeah, I grudgingly give the Beetle the respect it deserves. My beef is that this car somehow made it into the 90s in my home country and VW just shoved it down our willing (?) throats. When much better things were out there. I mean, nowadays my daily driver is a Fiat Palio 1.0, totally flex fuel (gasoline and ethanol), a whopping 65hp, that I’ve driven for 30k trouble-free miles. That I’ve just gone on a 300 mile round trip, at an average speed of at least 75 mph (yes it does slow down on hills, and ya should see the hills in my home state of Minas Gerais!) for 3 straight hours each way, with an outside temperature of 32 degrees Celsius (sorry don’t really know what’s that in Farenheit), averaged 32 mpg on a tank filled 50-50 with gasoline and ethanol (w just gas it’d probably have reached 38mpg, easy), AC on all the time, doing curves like no Beetle ever dreamed.

    So, in a sense I still drive a Beetle. Albeit a much improved one.

    As always, great write up Mr. Niedermeyer!

  • avatar
    FromBrazil

    I’ve just re-read my post and I’d like to give you all another little tidbit of info. What I call gasoline is only “remotely”  related to what you all call gasoline. In Brazil, gasoline takes on a whopping 30% of its content as ethanol. Keep this in mind before derinding the little Fiat’s fuel performance. At the speeds I travelled (on the trip I related), and with a simple little 1.0 L engine, with no valve timing or anything, with 100% real gasoline I’d have easily topped 42 mpg (and if I was doing “official” measurements, no AC, respecting speed limits, it would have reached easily the 50 mpg). What’s amazing is that these little cars, w/ such simple tech and a small displacement that’ll go all day at extra legal speed limits, though they do tap out at about 88mph and are happier at the most at 80, and though they’ll reach a top speed of 98mph, are larger and more practical than a smart, not to mention a, say , Tata Nano, and though smaller and less complex, beat out the Prius in absolute mileage. So, yeah, they’re small, they teach you patience and all, but what a wonder of modern engineering!

  • avatar

    Very nice CC, so loaded with nostalgia. Here’s what I wrote after driving a pair of old Beetles, around a year ago: http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/review-used-car-classic-vw-beetle/

  • avatar
    Russycle

    My dad had a VW convertible when he got married in 1960.  He was late for his own wedding because it broke down on Pacific Coast Highway on his way to the church.  Like John H, I still remember riding in the little cubby behind the back seat.  But with a growing family, the VW had to go.  Too bad, wish it had stayed in the family.
    Couple decades later, my brother’s college buddy was driving around the country in his bug and he stayed with us for a couple days…which turned into a couple weeks when the car died.  He rebuilt the engine in our driveway and went on his way, he may still be driving that thing.
     

  • avatar
    fincar1

    The old man bought a new red VW in 1961. Paid around 1600, drove it two years. It averaged 32 mpg and never got less than 27. One set of brakes, one set of tires, oil changes. Traded it plus $1000 for a new 63. My red VW was a new 67. We enjoyed it quite a bit, and it got almost as good gas mileage. When it was nearly two years old, I t-boned a ’49 Plymouth sedan whose geezer driver made a left turn across my path. After I got it back from the body shop it collected water on the floor every time it rained, so I traded it for a 1960 220S sedan. Now there was a Wagen.
    I see that the pictured VW has lived in Oregon a long time; its 8A-prefix plates would have been issued in 1956 or 1957. They have a weird way of fading; the blue background paint fades right off the aluminum plates, but the yellow foreground paint holds up a lot better.

  • avatar
    joeaverage


    I worked on a HS buddy’s early 70s Beetle ‘vert once. I had these two buddies who inherited their parents’ cars – one a cherry ’65 Mustang they bought new. The other was a nice Beetle ‘vert the other fellow’s parents bought new. I drove a well – WELL – worn ’66 Mustang I bought myself. 20 years old when I bought it. First car. I treated my car like it was a Rolls-Royce. They trashed their’s and both went to the junkyards I’m sure.
     
    Anyhow I got stationed in Italy for three years a long time ago and replaced my first Italian car there (Autobianchi A122E 900cc 5-speed) with a ’72 Super Beetle. My mother worried b/c she said the Beetle was so small. Actually it was LARGER than many of the cars found on Italian roads then. Later I moved backwards to a ’65 Beetle. I liked the looks better but missed the suspension refinements of the Super.
     
    In the end I put the ’65 body on a ’69 chassis which got me the IRS rear suspension and a more refined version of the torsion bar front suspension that my ’65 Beetle came with. The car was no longer going to be a factory original so I decided to make it what I wanted and I grafted in the oval rear window and a cloth sunroof from a pair of 50s donor cars. Interior is stock (yes, I still have this car) but with Golf front seats and eventually a/c will be hidden under the dash. Stock radio too. The goal was to have the stock look + wheels but stock vintage. Wheels are 944 Porsche Turbo hiding four wheel disc brakes. Sway bars. VW Bus Type IV (think similar to the 914) engine, dual carbs, 911 style cooling, custom exhaust exiting in the stock locations, etc. I’ll put in a Berg-5 transmission or adapt a Porsche 901 five speed. Same low gear and the Ghia 3.88 R&P/top gear with a closer split in between those two gears.
     
    Everything was done to make the car more functional – and to improve it’s drivability. So far so good.
     
    As for engine swap times – a buddy and I shared a spare engine. We could swap it in or out of our cars in under 30 mins in a driveway. Sometimes easier to swap the engine while we did basic R&R on our own engines. We could take a junkyard engine – replace all the gaskets and seals, rebuild the carb, remove the cooling and clean everything, clean out the intake heater pipe, reseal the heaters for the interior, and all that. We could get good engines that would last many miles for cheap. Then a head stud might let go or something might wear out like main bearings and we’d drive on the spare engine while we readied another stock donor engine.
     
    Another myth was poor heating – At least with the mid-60s and newer Beetles of the “fresh-aire” era – they make good heat down to about 25F if EVERYTHING was in good condition. It did not take much of an air leak to lose a lot of heat capacity. The other problem is coasting down long hills. Even with the full thermostat system in place (usually the first thing left out by shadetree mechanics) – a long coast down from the mountains after snow skiing or sight-seeing could result in an exhaust system that cooled off and provided no heat until we got to a point where I started putting my foot on the gas a little more often. Our ’78 VW Westfalia (bus) even makes good heat IF everything is present. A friend’s AZ original bus made great heat until the outer layer of one portion of the exhaust pipe rusted away causing the gases inside to cool rapidly in cold weather.
     
    My Beetle would be making heat iin just a few minutes even at idle. I’d walk up, pump the gas a couple times with the pedal and the car would idle perfectly. We’d open the trunk to change shoes and jackets after snow skiing. In that amount of time we’d climb in and the carb fast idle would just be backing off and the heater would be working well.
     
    Of course come summer the heater might still be pushing hot air into car so we’d disconnect the main hoses under the car. The vent windows and shape of the car made it easy to stay reasonably cool without a/c. Only at autostrada speeds did I wish for a/c.
     
    Yes they are noisy little boogers. I’m adding a lot of sound proofing to mine. My friend with the AZ bus has done a good job and her camper is as quiet as some modern vehicles.
     
    I still really enjoy the basic transportation of a car like an aircooled VWs or cars from that era – or older.

  • avatar
    rudiger

    The VW Beetle story is fascinating, not because the car was all that great (for the time, it was merely just competent), but in how a large measure of its success is due to the masterful way VW was able to market it (Doyle Dane Bernbach’s ads were absolute genius).

    In fact, the earlier poster that made the comment about ‘Kennedy in a VW’ may have been referring to the (in)famous National Lampoon parody ad which had a photo of Ted Kennedy waving from the sunroof of a Beetle in water with the original ad’s caption: ‘And it floats, too’…

    Incidently, 1st gen Miata owners used to ‘wave’ at each other by flipping the headlight doors.

  • avatar
    blowfish

    By the third year the exhaust fumes from the rusted out heat exchangers would gas you dead. I could insert a politically incorrect but historically accurate reference here,
    My friend mentioned ” Fuhrer’s revenge”
    Even with good heat exchanger is hard to keep the exhaust fume away from mixing into the hot air. I had a 69 back in the 80′s. My buddy bought her for $650 a couple of yrs ago, I bought her for 400 or so. By the end of summer I decided to drive her across Canada to Toronto from Van. It was a 1 week trip fun. The floor board on driver side had hole, when it rained my feet were practically swimming in a fish pond.
    My other friend cut a piece of Plywood to be bolted in the front panel under the bumper to act as a spoiler/air dam. Lo & behold that air dam does produce the ground effect, it does hold the car down very well. With Radial tires, suddenly the car transformed into a mini Porsche.  I kept her for a couple of yrs in TO, when I bought a 80 Civic I got 400 out of her. To average TO kid that car was a collector’s item as car that vintage would have been all rusted in East coast.
    What would most Porsche owner say when their Porsche no go? ” I wish it was a Vee Dub.”
     
    Rumoured King of Cool Steve Mcqueen has a Bug with a Porsche engine in it.
     
    I have had a couple of VW during the early 70′s too, they all bring back pleasant memories.
     
     

  • avatar
    babylon519


    My VW Beetle was a ’69, so I called it Woodstock. Toga white, with red cloth interior and chrome trim around the windows. Originally it was my grandmother’s car after a spate of Studebakers; my mother inherited it in ’74 and I paid her $500 for it in ’76.
     
    In my opinion, this was the safest car on the road (at least until the pair of Volvos I drove afterward). The day I turned 16, I got my beginner’s licence and almost immediately got sideswiped on a bend in the road by a Toyota that couldn’t hold its own in the snow. Just dents and scrapes on the VW, and a birthday bummer for me. That summer, I was roaring through the countryside with a buddy close behind and was turning left onto a gravel road; buddy didn’t see the blinker, and tried to pass me. He ended up driving over top of the left rear fender. We stopped, ripped the fender off, found a pole to bend the bumper away from the tire, and carried on with the gravel run. My insurance guy had the nerve to suggest we were road racing. In a VW? Truth is, I never lost a road race in that car. In our small town, the wealthy family had two boys my age – one had a black trans am and the other’s was white. If they were leading the way, they could not lose me; if I was leading, I could lose them. You could feel the road intimately in the VW, and you could keep that 1600 dual-port wound out for the whole ride. Man those were fun days!
     
    But back to safety. The second spring I had my bug, a few of us were off-roading at midnight when we all had to pee. We stopped at the top of an embankment, left the car running (for light) and jumped out. While we were all preoccupied with our business, Woodstock started to roll over the lip of the bank; two of us “dropped” what we were doing and ran to hold the car. It held up – for a second or two – and we took our weight off it. Instantly, it started going, and all I could do was watch as the little white bug jostled and bounced down a 40-foot bank. It came to a sudden stop against a pair of trees – in the swamp. Lights on, engine running. Later, the tow-truck operator wanted to know what the hell we were doing on his property! I fixed the damage to the front fenders and headlights, and banged out the hood all for very little money.
     
    On another adventure, I missed the stop sign at a T in the road and kinda smashed into the curb on the other side. It bent the front wheel in about 20 degrees, but I drove it like that for months until I could afford to have it fixed.
     
    In all of these experiences in my bug, I never had a feeling of being unsafe. This car was solid and airtight even after all the battering I put it through.
     
    My second bug was a $100 special that five of us shelled out $20 apiece for. We made it into a dune buggy and, when the other guys lost interest in it a year later, I got out the torches and started cutting it apart. The result – seven years and one university degree later – was a three-wheeled motorcycle that was all VeeDub from the torsion bars back. I had it licensed in 1990, and it’s still my summer toy to this day.

  • avatar
    dadude53

    Safe? Define safety for me. Which car during the beetle’s time was safe? Would you call a ’57 Porsche 356 of any body style safe?
    The Beetle during it’s time on the US roads met all the applicable standards as soon as they became effective.

    • 0 avatar
      Daniel J. Stern

      Nope, I would not call a ’57 Porsche 356 safe, though I’m not sure what that has to do with anything. As for safety standards compliance: sure, but y’know what they call the guy who graduates last in his medical school class? “Doctor”.  Likewise, every Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard allows a large range of safety performance, and vehicles that just barely meet the minimum requirements are just as legal as those greatly exceeding them. A vehicle that complies with all applicable Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards is not necessarily “safe” (for whatever definition we wish to use), it’s merely compliant.

  • avatar
    Bruce from DC

    My first car was a ’68 Karmann Ghia, which I promptly hopped up with a Hurst shifter (a wonder!) a tachometer, and oil temperature (270 degrees was about right) and oil pressure gauges.  On the engine, I removed the stock intake manifold and replaced it with one designed for the Holley 2-bbl “bug spray” carb and replaced the vacuum advance distributor with a mechanical advance distributor, added an external oil cooler and filter, some Michelin X radials all around and was good to go!
    The only issue was that the size of the air intake vents allowed an inadequate amount of air into the engine compartment, so I used a set of extension bolts to raise the forward edge of the engine compartment cover about 3 inches above the hinges, allowing lots of air to come in.  The only problem this created was severe carburetor icing during certain combinations  of temperature and humidity.  With the stock carb jetting, it got a righteous 32 mpg at 75 mph, but running lean made the engine hot.  A little richer jetting brought the mileage down to the high 20s, but the engine ran cooler and throttle response was better.
    With a lower center of gravity than the Beetle, the Karmann Ghia  did not have frightening handling characteristics (although, with some effort, I suppose it could be made to swap ends; but would right side up).
    In short, this car was just about as satisfying as some of the contemporary 4-cylinder English sports cars of the era, and a hell of a lot more reliable.  Moreover, in the summer, with the engine’s heat in the back, it was much more comfortable to drive than those cars and did not threaten to overheat in traffic.  As far as winter goes, in this moderate climate, the heater/defroster was perfectly adequate and did provide hot air almost instantly from a cold start.
    Obviously, it was not the safest thing on the road in the way of occupant protection.  And, having the fuel tank above the driver and shotgun passenger’s legs (behind the front wheels) was a little scary.
    But it was reliable, easy to repair and fun.  That makes it a good car, in my book.

  • avatar
    dadude53

    @Daniel Stern
    The simple point is that NO vehicle based on todays standards was safe at that time.
    The Porsch was just an example.How do you know the Beetle just met the minimal safety requirements?During a ’64 roll over test is faired best overall. Pick the Corvair as an example. That vehicle had to be pulled from the market because of major handling concerns. If the Beetle was last in its “class” how could it possibly pass the Corvair and stay in the market?
    During it’s time on US roads the Beetle was more subject to testing and re-testing than any other car( Arthur Railton in “The Beetle”).

  • avatar
    info@carsinpedia.com

    Their is new book out by the Dutch author Paul Schilperoord which delves into the origin of the Beetle. According to the book, the ideas that Ferdinand Porsche promoted for the car were originally those Josef Ganz.
    http://carsinpedia.com/car_day_archive_details.php?id=412

  • avatar
    ExtraO

    I haven’t read any of the other comments here yet to see what others may say about the supposed reliablity of the VW’s available in the US in the 1950′s, but I can offer the following:
    My father was one of the americans bitten buy the VW marketing effort back then.  We were a family with 6 kids, so a beetle wasn’t ever a serious consideration for us, out of necessity, he went with a 1959 full-dress Kombi (microbus, as they used to call them) with that same 36 bhp motor, purchased at South Import Motors in Chicago, one of maybe two or three VW dealers in the Chicago area at that time. And indeed we did wave at other VW drivers for the first year or so.
    As a kid, at the beginning I almost always got up very early on those occasional Saturday mornings to go with him, as his oldest son, when he’d drive it into the city (we were in a distant suburb) for it’s scheduled service calls. That got old fairly quickly as it also entailed sitting around for a seemingly endless 4 – 6 hours in an uncomfortable waiting room chair.  Especially bad in the winter as it seemed that no allowance was made for heating the customer area.  Back to the car…
    I remember thinking even as a ten year old that I didn’t know where they were getting those heavily loaded VW’s that they showed crossing the Sahara and other inhospitable places in their ads, only that they sure weren’t selling any on the Chicago south side,  as our Kombi went through 4 (count ‘em, 4) engine re-builds by the time it racked up 35,000 miles.  I don’t remember what the specific failures were (other than that the car always seemed to come back from servicing with grease smudges on the upholstery), but I do remember the stress it provoked when it would just all of a sudden fall on it’s sword, or valve stem or whatever and leave us stranded and in urgent need of a spare $500 cash.
    After the last re-build, Dad came to his senses for a while and dumped the VW.  We were all in favor of it, tho’ it was a little sad.  I remember seeing it for the last time, looking forlorn, a promise unfulfilled.  We’d all been “enthusiasts” at first.  That’s what VW owners called themselves back then, “enthusiasts”.  The immediate reaction was strong; we ended up with some Detroit machinery with double the number of cylinders and 10 times the bhp.
    He weakened again after a time and bought a superbeetle, but that also went through a couple of engines in 3 or 4 years.  And that finally cured him for good.  Never owned another VW.  Being very young at the time I soon forgot many of the tiring details, and when I was in the army and need a set of wheels, I thought I’d found a deal in a re-engined Kombi (53 hp sedan motor) that was considerably peppier than my father’s car.  I thought the additional power was the answer to the overstressed little motor in the ’59.  I got re-educated over the next several months.  Dropped way more than a PFC could easily afford on replacing all the wiring – in a 6 year old chassis!!  Damn thing left the wife & I stranded in the dark of night coming down out of the Rockies west of Denver.  A month or two later after leaving the Army it holed two pistons outside of Lincoln, Neb. on a trip to Chicago on the afternoon of the day it had received a dealer tune-up.  The day before the tune-up it had snapped a rocker arm shaft on the open road at cruise (55mph).  I sold the remains of that German P.O.S. for $20 and we got on a Greyhound to get to our destination.  You couldn’t pay me enough to own another Volkswagen.
     
     
     
     
     
     
     
     

  • avatar
    ExtraO

    I haven’t read any of the other comments here yet to see what others may say about the supposed reliablity of the VW’s available in the US in the 1950′s, but I can offer the following:
    My father was one of the americans bitten buy the VW marketing effort back then.  We were a family with 6 kids, so a beetle wasn’t ever a serious consideration for us, out of necessity, he went with a 1959 full-dress Kombi (microbus, as they used to call them) with that same 36 bhp motor, purchased at South Import Motors in Chicago, one of maybe two or three VW dealers in the Chicago area at that time. And indeed we did wave at other VW drivers for the first year or so.
    As a kid, at the beginning I almost always got up very early on those occasional Saturday mornings to go with him, as his oldest son, when he’d drive it into the city (we were in a distant suburb) for it’s scheduled service calls. That got old fairly quickly as it also entailed sitting around for a seemingly endless 4 – 6 hours in an uncomfortable waiting room chair.  Especially bad in the winter as it seemed that no allowance was made for heating the customer area.  Back to the car…
    I remember thinking even as a ten year old that I didn’t know where they were getting those heavily loaded VW’s that they showed crossing the Sahara and other inhospitable places in their ads, only that they sure weren’t selling any on the Chicago south side,  as our Kombi went through 4 (count ‘em, 4) engine re-builds by the time it racked up 35,000 miles.  I don’t remember what the specific failures were (other than that the car always seemed to come back from servicing with grease smudges on the upholstery), but I do remember the stress it provoked when it would just all of a sudden fall on it’s sword, or valve stem or whatever and leave us stranded and in urgent need of a spare $500 cash. 
    After the last re-build, Dad came to his senses for a while and dumped the VW.  We were all in favor of it, tho’ it was a little sad.  I remember seeing it for the last time, looking forlorn, a promise unfulfilled.  We’d all been “enthusiasts” at first.  That’s what VW owners called themselves back then, “enthusiasts”.  The immediate reaction was strong; we ended up with some Detroit machinery with double the number of cylinders and 10 times the bhp.
    He weakened again after a time and bought a superbeetle, but that also went through a couple of engines in 3 or 4 years.  And that finally cured him for good.  Never owned another VW.  Being very young at the time I soon forgot many of the tiring details, and when I was in the army and need a set of wheels, I thought I’d found a deal in a re-engined Kombi (53 hp sedan motor) that was considerably peppier than my father’s car.  I thought the additional power was the answer to the overstressed little motor in the ’59.  I got re-educated over the next several months.   Dropped way more than a PFC could easily afford on replacing all the wiring – in a 6 year old chassis!!  Damn thing left the wife & I stranded in the dark of night coming down out of the Rockies west of Denver.  A month or two later after leaving the Army it holed two pistons outside of Lincoln, Neb. on a trip to Chicago on the afternoon of the day it had received a dealer tune-up.  The day before the tune-up it had snapped a rocker arm shaft on the open road at cruise (55mph).  I sold the remains of that German POS for $20 and we got on a Greyhound to get to our destination.  You couldn’t pay me enough to own another Volkswagen.

  • avatar
    TAP

    Our family  of 5 drove a ’62 green bug from Baltimore to Miami and back twice during the sixties, with luggage rack on top. Every couple of hours had to stop and shove it back up, as it would slowly slide  rearward as we went.
    In 1970, my cousin and I drove a ’66 bus across the country, somehow. Guess I’m a glutton for punishment, but it was a great adventure.

  • avatar
    venator

    There was nothing revolutionary about a 1957 Beetle, in fact, one could argue that as early as upon its introduction for the 1940 model year it was already using run-of-the-mill Central European technology. A number of  Czechoslovakian, Austrian and German cars were far more advanced than the Beetle 5 or more years before its debut!

    • 0 avatar

      Also, Tatra sued VW, claiming the Beetle was a direct knockoff of Hans Ledwinka’s Tatra T97. VW finally settled out of court in the early sixties.

    • 0 avatar
      dadude53

      Off course the Beetle already was outdated in 1938 when it had it’s official debut.Where are all the Steyr’s, Tatra’s , Opel’s that you obviously are referring to today.How many single model cars did those companies build again? How many companies were  build upon the success of their models?

  • avatar

    I think it’s important to append to this that the Beetle also hurt VW badly in the late sixties and early seventies. Although the Beetle was selling very well in America, in Europe, it was obviously dated and not such a cult object. VW really struggled to find a post-Beetle future — the Type 3 and Type 4, even with fuel injection and front discs, were pretty lackluster compared to newer FWD rivals, and they didn’t sell that well. VW’s first water-cooled FWD car, the K70 (actually engineered by NSU, which VW bought in 1969), was a commercial failure. Rudolf Leiding finally authorized the Golf and Scirocco, but they were so expensive that in 1974, the year they were introduced, VW lost something like 400 million marks ($155 million then, close to $700 million now). It was a pretty brutal paradigm shift.

    • 0 avatar
      dadude53

      It also is important to understand that the watercooled sucessor history was kicked off by Kurt Lotz and not Leiding in form of the Polo and Passat, both rebadged Audis.
      And before someone might think that Audi safed VW, remember that when VW bought Audi in the ’60s their automotive lineup mostly consisted of rebadged DKW’s that sold poorly (thats why Daimler got rid of them in the first place)and it it was the Beetle that saved Audi by being manufactured in Ingolstadt thus keeping Audis mainplant open and  in service and people employed.

  • avatar

    Kurt Lotz did recognize the need for FWD, water-cooled cars, hence the K70, but he was also still pursuing the Porsche-designed, mid-engine, air-cooled EA266, which probably would have been a commercial dead end.

  • avatar
    dadude53

    Just to straighten things out here. The K70 was entirely a NSU design. VW had absolutely nothing to do with it other than when they bought NSU in ’69 they inherited the vehcile and actually cancelled it as it was seen as a direct competititor to the new Audi 100. They even cancelled the vehicle’s indtroduction at the ’69 Geneva show but revised their descision due to heavy protests from potentional customers as NSU already had anounced the introduction.By the way in contrary to the NSU Ro80 where “Ro” stands for “rotary engine”, the “K” in the K70 meant “Kolben” for piston. This is how NSU differentiated both vehciles.

  • avatar
    joeaverage

    As much as I like the looks of the early Beetles and buses – I really prefer the “refinement” of the later models. I have driven many of the different models and what character it lacked my Super Beetle drove pretty nicely and was absolutely reliable.
    I started driving a bone stock ’65 Beetle 15+ years ago that eventually “evolved” with a ’69 chassis, disc brakes all the way around and one of the ’78 Type IV engines. To me this is the combination of parts bin components that VW should have been selling. Drives smoothly, handles better with the balljoint front and IRS rear, and ~85+ HP and more torque to cope with modern traffic. LB/HP is more reasonable than it sounds.
    Our ’78 Westfalia got a 2.7L ~110HP Corvair motor and a higher gear ratio. Again better suited to modern traffic than a 67HP four cylinder Type IV and a gear ratio meant for 55 mph speed limits.
    Both cars have been reliable for me for many years. They need much more maintenance than a modern car and we try not to compare them to modern vehicles. Got to consider them in context – their orgins and era.
    We do think they are safe vehicles b/c we know how vulnerable we are when we take off on a trip in one. Same effect as riding a motorcycle! LOL! (but safer than a motorcycle!)
    I think the various automaker marketing departments have made too much out of safety. We do not need to ride around in armor plated tanks. Safer than a vintage car is good but I’m not looking for something that weighs 6,000 lbs in case I run into a locomotive.mBoth of my VWs have needed some fuel system upgrades. Fuel lines without clamps ain’t good enough. I’m working towards solenoids to shutoff gas flow at the gas tank at the flip of a switch (or via an inertia switch from an early 90s Ford) .


Back to TopLeave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Subscribe without commenting

Recent Comments

New Car Research

Get a Free Dealer Quote

Staff

  • Authors

  • Brendan McAleer, Canada
  • Marcelo De Vasconcellos, Brazil
  • Matthias Gasnier, Australia
  • Tycho de Feyter, China
  • W. Christian 'Mental' Ward, Abu Dhabi
  • Mark Stevenson, Canada
  • Faisal Ali Khan, India