By on March 9, 2011

Volkswagen might feel pretty confident now, but things seemed much scarier for the boys from Wolfsburg back in 1973; the company had milked just about every last drop from the air-cooled/rear-drive platform that had looked so futuristic when they ripped it off from Hans Ledwinka nearly four decades earlier and the verdict was still out on the new generation of water-cooled VWs. American car buyers could still buy the Type 4 in 1973, and so Car & Track felt compelled to review it.

It’s impossible to sugarcoat it: the Volkswagen 412 was a dismal failure in the North American marketplace. Zombie-movie-grade body rot problems, chronic overheating difficulties, engine power smogged down to 5 horsepower (well, OK, 76 HP), and scary handling all contributed to low sales, and we don’t even need to bring VW’s early Malaise Era Japanese competition in this discussion, do we? I’ve seen exactly one Type 4 on the street in the last few years, which makes this earnest review by C&T all the more interesting, as we contemplate Volkswagen’s future. Check out the 412’s behavior in the test track’s off-camber turn! Aiiieee!

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40 Comments on “Now A Beetle Owner Has Something To Graduate To: 1973 Volkswagen 412 Road Test...”

  • avatar

    Best quote: “Berlin beauty”.  Off-camber handling = yikes.

  • avatar

    20 MPG — were they that bad?

  • avatar

    Definitely the old days of car reviews: If you have to say something bad about a tested car, follow it up immediately with something good – preferably in the same breath, and hoping that the good comment makes the bad comment less noticeable.  Mustn’t piss off the manufacturers.

  • avatar

    Yes the were that bad on milage. My neighbor had a ’68 in the early 80s that he could never get to break 25mpg. His ’72 Gran Torino could get 19 doing the same thing and overheat just as badly in the Texas summer heat.

  • avatar

    The handling was awful even by 1973 standards. And zero-to-sixty in 11.3 seconds? Horrible, but not as horrible as zero-to-sixty in 11.6 seconds— the best that could be coaxed out of the ballsiest 1982 Pontiac Trans Am that GM built.

    • 0 avatar

      but not as horrible as zero-to-sixty in 11.6 seconds— the best that could be coaxed out of the ballsiest 1982 Pontiac Trans Am that GM built.

      You are wrong. No top spec Trans Am was ever that slow.
      Here is a test showing the “mighty” Crossfire Trans Am could rattle off a 8.89 0-60. 1982 Pontiac Trans Am Motortrend Road Test. Even the ’82 Trans Am with the 305 4-bbl had a 0-60 of 10.5.
      The Turbo Trans Am of ’80 and ’81 had a 0-60 of between 8 and 10 depending on how the engine felt that day.

    • 0 avatar

      @ajl…….Thanks for researching the facts.

  • avatar

    Truly an execrable car. I believe that this is the model that killed VW’s reputaion in the states. ( My dad says that no,the Rabbit was the one that did them in). When I heard the announcer say that this was a good looking car I almost plotzed. No, its a terrible looking car. It looks like what the commies would have built if they had not been assembling the Trabant.
    My brother had one of these. It was a land yacht- A deep blue hole that he poured money into. I can’t even begin to list all of the things that went wrong with the car. He finally gave up trying to keep it on the road after it started catching fire about once a week and the VeeDub dealer told him that there wasn’t a lot he could do once the warranty expired.
    I will refuse to even consider a VW to this day.

    • 0 avatar

      I realize I am very late to this party, but since I actually worked on one of these in a VW dealership, I can add a couple of home truths to this.

      I also owned two Rabbits, a carbed 76 with sway bars and some intake/exhaust improvements, and an 82 diesel Rabbit. And no, the Rabbit did not kill VW…some people thought that the name was too cutesy-poo, but it was some solid engineering, except for a couple of minor design flaws that could cause water to spill on the floor from A/C condensation collecting, and one that could block fuel flow via sludge on a screen inside the tank. Nasty to find and fix, but the cars ran great once fixed.

      Now the 4xx series was a whole ‘nother story. Battery under the driver’s seat, which had a metal frame and spring underside. Guess what happened whenever you hit a bump?

      And when an air conditioning belt became worn, it took a great air conditioning mechanic close to fifteen hours to change it, including a very difficult engine pull and transmission lowering. The job only paid eleven and half hours, and was the only job he didn’t beat flat rate by a good margin.

      Can you imagine paying for eleven hours of labor to get a belt changed? What where the engineers thinking? Or did they design the car without bothering to consult any engineers?

      Word spread rapidly in our medium sized Florida town, and I think the dealer only sold about five or six before sales dried up completely. They couldn’t give them away, as the word got out quickly about repair frequency and cost.

      They even had to take at least one back, because it was sold to a long time loyal customer, who absolutely refused to drive it, once it started spitting sparks at every speed bump and pot hole.

      And he was less than impressed with the high tech, German engineering solution: put a piece of quarter inch plywood, cut to size, under the seat, on top of the battery and under the seat springs.

      As you might have guessed, it stopped the sparking, but didn’t do anything for battery post life.

      The car was DOA before it came off the assembly line.

      Type 3’s were unpopular, because their “electronic brain” sat inside a rear fender, and were prone to failure. And a replacement part cost what seemed like a lot in the seventies, over a hundred dollars.

      Then the Type 4’s were hyped as the improved version of the Type 3’s, but you just saw where that led to.

      Couple that with the New Beetle in 72, which was notorious for serious front end wobble, which somehow managed to avoid being called a death wobble at the time, and the most avid sauerkraut and bratwurst eating German fan in the world was beginning to look at those new Toyotas, that seemed to deliver what VW was only promising.

      The rest, as has been said, was history.

      In fact, if it weren’t for the VW busses, the Type 2’s, dealers were hardly selling anything for a few years.

      Personally, I jumped ship after a couple of years early in my career, spent another two or three years working on older Beetles and Vans at an independent VW shop, and then went back to engineering school. Can’t imagine what would have happened if I had tried to continue making a living as a VW mechanic.

      Lo, how the mighty had fallen.

  • avatar

    The handling of that car was definitely dangerous, but maybe on par with the standards of the time.
    The music was great :-)

    • 0 avatar

      The model brings sad memories… I knew a couple who got killed, first the husband and baby, then, a month and a half later, the wife, in two of these 412s…

  • avatar
    bumpy ii

    I once spent a rainy weekend watching all those early ’70s car reviews. Until then I didn’t fully fathom just how horrible those cars were when new: it was like the 100 Cars of Sodom. I had to redeem my soul by watching the Motorweek review of the 1990 Integra.

  • avatar

    Is the tag line “a beetle owner has something to graduate to” a reference to Dustin Hoffman’s 1966 VW ad?

  • avatar

    I had my father’s hand-me-down 412 wagon in high school in the early eighties.   Yeah, it sure was weird looking.   We must of had one of the good ones, because ours never seemed to have more maintenance issues than any other car at the time.  Sure it had some rust, but all those 8-10 year old Dusters, Darts, Novas and Torinos my buddies were driving had some nasty rust.    All of those cars were lacking in many ways by today’s standards.   I seem to also remember that the 412 had much better seats and more accurate steering than the other cars of the time.

  • avatar
    Kevin Jaeger

    I learned to drive in a 1973 type 3.  They were much better than these 411/412s.  The type 3 was certainly underpowered but it got better fuel economy, was durable and I seem to recall it handled pretty well on the rural roads I drove.  It certainly handled well compared to the typical Detroit iron of the day.

  • avatar

    He said that the lean in the slalom was hardly noticeable…quite the observant fellow.  Ha!

    • 0 avatar
      Kevin Jaeger

      Well, in fairness that would have to be compared to other small or midsize cars of the era.  The typical Detroit barge had soft springs and wallowed pretty badly.  These things certainly didn’t handle like BMWs of the time, though.

  • avatar

    VW’s failed attempt at trying to build their first family car. A Renault 16 was so much better.

  • avatar

    Ha ha!  I love the “braking tests” with all four totally locked up!  Did these guys have no skills whatsoever?

    • 0 avatar

      Pre ABS, that was the fastest way to stop; seriously! All the braking tests were done with mostly or fully-locked wheels. And the 412 did very well, with little or no pulling to the sides or fade.
      Only in curves, wet or other slippery conditions did one “pump” to avoid lock-up; otherwise, in straight line braking, it was “stand on the brakes” and say a Hail Mary.

    • 0 avatar

      Locking the wheels gives much worse results than carefully modulating them, that’s why learning how to brake efficiently was so important in the pre-abs days.
      On gravel or in deep snow it’s a different thing, locking the brakes stops a car much faster than any other method, even ABS.

    • 0 avatar

      In a straight line, yes. Locked wheels give the shortest stops.  Straight line only, since you lose steering control with all 4 tires sliding.
      Straight line braking is where a rear engined car shines.  The weight transfer cancels out the rear weight bias, and you have straight and even 4 wheel slides.  Typical front heavy Detroit cars of the time would be fishtailing like crazy.

  • avatar

    Wow, that handling is scary.
    However, 11.3, 0-60 for the day was not horrible…Sciroccos from a few years later were not much quicker.
    As fo rust, most cars didn’t hold up. The worst were Fords. My neighbor’s 1970 Torino had gaping holes after 3 Buffalo winters

  • avatar

    Just my imagination, or was the car smoking?  No, not talking about the tire smoke.
    Braking from 60 mph takes almost 200’??  If memory serves me right, a 67 chevelle with drum brakes, according to Motor Trend, only took 165′  And a 1965 Grand Prix with drums all the way around was right around 200.
    Of course neither of those rides get close to 20 mpg, but at least they were respectable comfortable gorgeous cars.
    Oh how times have changed.  Back in the day, most people thought there was something wrong with you if you drove anything but a domestic.   Now, it’s almost the opposite on the coasts.
    What an odd looking quarky car.   Then again, most of the domestics in 73 were pretty gawd awful too.

  • avatar

    I’m actually fairly impressed how well the 412 acquitted itself in this test. It did quite well in the slalom, excellently in the braking, better then I expected in the 0-60, and really, except for that nasty high-speed off-camber curve, it did quite well in the rest of the handling test.
    Look up one of their tests of a big Ford or such of the same vintage, and you’ll really see some horrific wallowing and braking.
    The 412 had issues (reliability) but it’s dynamic qualities were not that bad for the times. Basically a Porsche 912 wagon.

  • avatar

    0-100km/h in 11.3 seconds? That was sports car territory in 1970s Europe, and much quicker than many cars sold nowadays here. With the gas prices soaring and engines shrinking, that old VW will seem lightning fast.

  • avatar

    You are wrong. No top spec Trans Am was ever that slow.
    Here is a test showing the “mighty” Crossfire Trans Am could rattle off a 8.89 0-60. 1982 Pontiac Trans Am Motortrend Road Test. Even the ’82 Trans Am with the 305 4-bbl had a 0-60 of 10.5.
    The Turbo Trans Am of ’80 and ’81 had a 0-60 of between 8 and 10 depending on how the engine felt that day.

    I stand corrected. My figures came from a lament in a late-1981 or early 1982 issue of Car and Driver by one of their scribes, to the effect of (ie: almost verbatim) “There’s something wrong when the ballsiest 4-speed manual Trans Am takes 11.6 seconds to reach 60 mph, but the Datsun (Nissan) Stanza can do it in 11.3.” (and yes, I’ve searched for a copy online).

    Numbers like those tend to stick very firmly in a 19-year-old mind, so the quote at least is accurate. I’m not sure if this writer was considering the Crossfire version when he made this observation or not, but the carbureted 305 V8 produced 150 hp on a good day vs. the Crossfire’s 165. Coupled with the rather tall gearing of the day (not to mention discrepancies from one rag to the next in their data collection) the 11.6 figure certainly sounds plausible.

    Still, when a Japanese econobox can put up acceleration numbers— while returning over 30 miles per (US) gallon— in the same ballpark as a supposed “muscle car” something has to be done.

    • 0 avatar

      Still, when a Japanese econobox can put up acceleration numbers— while returning over 30 miles per (US) gallon— in the same ballpark as a supposed “muscle car” something has to be done.

      That’s where the LSx swap comes in.  Too bad the other shortcomings can’t be so easily fixed.
      Unnoticeable body lean and VW quality…well I do recall reading some old magazines in a library back in the day and there was a story on a VW product  and several of the buyers indicated that they ended up in a VW after seeing serious assembly lapses in Detroit built products…remember in the early 70s the plant managers were given bonuses for high output; nobody cared about poor assembly with the exception of John Delorean…and the author ended the article with the sentence “…is anybody in Detroit listening?…”  It is interesting to note that the poor assembly was preventable.  Any of us on this site who actually worked on cars of this era recall the slotted connections and the ability to align the parts before final tightening made good assembly possible…just look at any cars of this era at a car show and you will see perfect alignment.  Fast forward to today and body assembly is no longer an issue with robotic assembly and workers who have more respect and flexibility.

  • avatar

    In a parking space, the Type 4 occupied the same foot print as a second generation Type 2 VW Bus and had nearly the same curbed weight.
    It was the first VW with coil springs all around versus the usual torsion bars front and rear. My thoughts: the older torsion bars were more robust even though the ate up space in the front luggage compartment.
    The engine was all new and an improvement over the old Type 1 design – which in its original 1939 configuration was designed for a Potemkin vehicle that would sell for $600 USD / ℛℳ1000 Deutsche Recihsmarks. The older Beetle engine was an inexpensive design – that didn’t have camshaft bearing installed until 1964.
    I don’t buy into the myth that original Beetle was ripped it off from Hans Ledwinka.  I’ll give him credit for the first use of a center tube – back bone chassis – and yes, an air-cooled flat four.
    The drive-train and other mechanical of the first KdF Beetle were developed by Jack Raby working for Porsche over a four  year period to meet the $600 price mark for the entire car.  Rather than a ripoff, it was a competing design that followed Tatra’s entry. The Germans stressed cost savings in every way possible.
    Ludwinka never realized a car that the average worker could afford, but neither did Porsche and Raby – even with the largess of millions of Nazi ℛℳ courtesy of the Deutsche volk.  The KdF Beetle was essentially a Potemkin village.  I’ll bet that more Typ 82 Kommandeurwagen were produced prior to 1946 than KdF Beetles.
    Tatra built the first flat four air-cooled engine – but it wasn’t inexpensive to mass produce. Take note that it was a 1.8L.
    Jack Raby’s team in Germany had to do it within an unrealistic budget and came up with a bare bones, four-stroke, air-cooled design which utilized four camshaft lobes to operate eight valves on a flat four cylinder layout.  That basic engine design, best suited for use as a 1.1 to 1.3L, was the total antithesis of what VW is doing today.  It was a minimalist engine that was easy to build.
    That is the beauty of the original VW – but by the 1960’s even with a stretch to 1.5 and 1.6L – it was woefully behind the curve by the time the Type 4 was designed.  Unfortunately, this where VW catches up to Tatra – the Type 4 was more expensive to build and overweight when compared to the original Type 1.
    Let me note that both Raby and Porsche worked with Ledwinka at Steyr Puch during the early 1920’s, before it merged with Austro-Daimler in 1934.  All of which is owned by Magna today.

    • 0 avatar

      Karl Rabe, not Jack Raby, and he didn’t actually work *with* Ledwinka at Steyr — Ledwinka was there 1917-1921, Rabe 1927-1931 and Porsche 1929-1931.  But I agree that there was a lot of cross-pollination of ideas, though I don’t see a direct “rip-off,” either.

  • avatar

    I think most of you are being too hard on the 412.  I bought a slightly used 2 door 412 in 1974 when I lived in Columbus, OH.  I wanted a Rabbit but the dealer wouldn’t negotiate.  He had the 412 on the lot for much less and so we did the deal.  I loved that car!  Compared to other cars in the early 70s it handled well, got reasonable gas mileage and was great in the snow on all season radials.  The one thing that made the car better than most was it had Bosch CIS fuel injection.  Those who remember carburetors will understand.  I don’t recall any major problems during the 70K + miles I owned it.

    My love afair with the 412 ended when I was transferred to Texas.  I don’t think VW ever offered A/C on the car and it was almost undriveable in the summer there (for me).  I traded it in on a used Pinto (don’t ask).

    • 0 avatar

      They stopped offering A/C because it took over a day and a half to change an air conditioning belt, which led to some pretty irate customers when that happened out of warranty. I know because I was bending wrenches for a dealer when a customer got one of those eleven and half hour flat rate belt changes.

      And the service adviser tried to sell it on the grounds that it was a bargain because it actually took their air conditioning mechanic closer to fifteen hours.

      Talk about marketing skills.

  • avatar

    I linked to the video at You Tube and there are lots of other Car & Track vids of car tests from the same era.  Watch the review of the 69 Impala with the 396.  That is one scary handling and stopping car!  It looked extremely unsafe, sluggish, and unpleasant to drive, how the hell were they so popular?  That one was the worst of the lot so far.

  • avatar

    I am a rare 412 victim.  Yes, my family owned one when I was growing up – I even took my driver’s test on the darned thing.  Let me start by saying there’s NO WAY that beast did 0-60 in 11 seconds.  It was so slow it was dangerous on the freeway.  One spent a lot of time with the gas pedal literally floored trying to invoke the automatic’s kick-down switch, which you could feel click under your foot.

    And direction stability was, shall we say, dicey.  Cross wind?  Slow down.  The car’s only virtue was its front trunk in addition to the rear cargo area. Oh, yeah, it was also great in snow, and we skied a lot. I think this is why my father liked it so much – of course, he had a Porsche and mother had to drive the cursed 412.  Worst feature: humiliation before your friends.  I had a deep yearning at the time for a Mercury Colony Park like my uncle had.

  • avatar

    I dare say the 411/412 is a pretty cool car, and I too am impressed by how well it did in the road test.

    For those who think that motoring enthusiasm begins with a 1990s or newer Toyonda, I can see what this fails to impress.

    For those who actually like interesting cars, this one has some pretty neat features…cool!

  • avatar

    For those who think that motoring enthusiasm begins with a 1990s or newer Toyonda…

    I can’t speak for all who choose to make Toyotas, Hondas or Hyundais their daily driver, but those cars certainly don’t have a monopoly on “plain/ boring/ bland” , which btw seems to be the biggest complaint from those biased against them. The same could certainly be said about Malibus, Fusions and Calibers.

    The best thing about most Toyondas is that while they are not particularly outstanding in any category they strike a very good balance of the ones that count for the vast majority of us: dependability, quality, durability, fuel efficiency, handling, resale value and performance.

    I realize there are more exciting cars around: Ferarri, Porsche, Aston Martin, Viper, Corvette. And I could probably afford to finance one of the lower-end ones. But that kind of money to me is best spent on aquiring rental properties and besides, the ones I’ve driven didn’t provide the necessary five-to-ten-fold performance advantage to justify the five-to-ten-fold price vs. that of say, a Mazda MX5 or Mustang GT.

    If I want a rare and fun toy to play with on weekends I can pick up a pristine 85 RX7-GSL-SE or a post-79 Fiat X1/9 for under 8 grand. True, the RX7 at that age is no longer reliable, and the Fiat never was. But they’re no more UN-reliable than a post-90 Mercedes, Ferrari, Jaguar or Chrysler. Acceleration may not be outstanding (a shade under 8 seconds to 60 mph for the 7 and over 11 seconds for the X1/9), but both are a blast to drive. And there would be no payments to make.

  • avatar

    I took a photo of a 411 while vacationing in Oregon. Thought it looked pretty cool:

  • avatar

    “Body lean is hardly noticable.” LOL!! Maybe if your BAC is .25 and you’re talking on your cell phone. Watching this scared me, seriously.

  • avatar
    bill mcgee

    A friend had an uncle who was a Volkswagen dealer in Green Bay who sold him one of these- actually a 1974 412 wagon, kind of a nice red color with a beige interior . As I recall the car was less than impressive. I was driving a 70 Squareback also red also a POS at the time so comparing the two was interesting.The friend at the time had a house in Morelos, Mexico and also owned an early 60s Ford piukup. At the time- maybe now too for all I know-Americans living in Mexico had to drive their U.S. registered vehicles back to the U.S. every months so the friend enlisted me to drive one of them back to Austin where the friend had a house.Well things went alright until the 412 broke down on the Reforma, the main street in Mexico City . A lot of would be mechanics started coming around under the impression that it was a Brasilia , a V.W. model produced in Mexico and Brazil which did look like a junior edition of the 412.We got the damn thing going- luckily this was maybe 1979 when Mexico City was a little smaller and drove it to Austin . It was slow, possibly even slower than my Squareback which unlike the 412 had a stick, but was like a Squareback but 1/4 bigger and handled even crappier somehow. But we took turns driving and I would say it was comfortable and I was able to stretch out and sleep with a bit more room than in my car.And the wierd front trunk was a bit bigger and shaped more like a Corvair’s front trunk.

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