Original VW Bus Turns 60 (Hint: NOT Mph)

Martin Schwoerer
by Martin Schwoerer

Over the weekend, sixty thousand Bug-eyed enthusiasts [sic] partied in Hanover, Germany to celebrate the 60th birthday of the Volkswagen Bus. On view: over 5000 examples of the underpowered, side wind-prone, crashhappy vehicle that would change the way people used– and experienced — the road. Der Spiegel dutifully reports that the Bus has been the preferred vehicle for postal workers, policemen, camping enthusiasts, suicidals and, of course, members of the "Flower Power" generation. It's latest claim to fame: a featured cast member of "Little Miss Sunshine." To [dog] mark the occasion, the two surviving members of The Who performed "The Magic Bus," "My Generation" and "Going Mobile". They ignored suggestions that they should also play "The Seeker" (inspired by the Bus' steering), "Squeeze Box" (seating comfort) "Substitute (car)" and "5:15" (referring to the Bus' 0-60 acceleration).

Martin Schwoerer
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  • OldandSlow OldandSlow on Oct 09, 2007
    It makes two yearly runs to Colorado and a semiannual run to Key West with a lot of PM in between. Home base is Austin, TX - At 60 to 65 mph on an open highway, I'm good to go between 5 and 6 hundred miles a day. It's noisy, windy and slow in the summer. An optional oil temp gauge is a must, a CHT gauge is even better. In the winter below freezing you can run 65 to 70 all day long, but do dress accordingly. - At minus 12 F, I've measure indoor temps in the 40's before. It's a shame that no car maker has seen fit build another Swiss army knife on wheels and fit it with a manual transmission.
  • OldandSlow OldandSlow on Oct 09, 2007

    Nader's Center for Auto Safety 1972 publication "Small on Safety" pretty much panned small cars in general, but singled out the VW Beetle in particular. The thrust of the argument was, by virtue of their light weight and cramped interior designs, small cars were unable to protect occupants in a collision with larger cars.

  • Unohugh Unohugh on Oct 09, 2007

    "The reason Nader's book on VW got much less attention than the later proven false acusations against the GM Corvair was because of the anti-America company bias of the press. This self hatred put the Nazi inpired, outrageous unsafe VW engineering ahead of home grown innovation." I agree. That had a lot to do with it. I've never understood the Hate America First point of view. But, having owned and destroyed three VW Beetles in high school, I'll have to say they are tough little cars. They are also cute and universally adored. Sorta like nobody minds you killing a snake, but try killing a baby seal.

  • Joeaverage Joeaverage on Oct 16, 2007

    I have a '78 VW Westfalia with a Corvair implant and a '65 Beetle witha 2.0 Type IV (think Porsche 914 engine delivering 45-50 extra HP over the original VW engine). They were never safe - either of them - in America. In Europe though both were safe vehicles. I had the '65 and a '73 Super Beetle when I lived in Italy and both cars had a size advantage over many of the cars these VW's shared the roads with. My mother begged me to sell the Beetle when she found out I had bought one until I picked them up at the Rome airport. It was much larger and stouter than the Fiat 500, the Citroen 2CV, and the Mini. By modern standards though - in America - neither are very safe. No heavy engine block and padded dash to protect the passengers in a head on collision. In the bus there is a padded steel dash with a couple stamped steel heat ducts but basically the front of the vehicle only 12 inches from your knees and is only 1 sheet of sheet metal. If you luck out and strike a vehicle however with the bumper then you'll likely come out okay - as long as that other vehicle is a car. There are pictures of the early Vanagon slaughtering a Volvo in a head on collision. The Vanagon rode up and over the Volvo's bumper and obliterated that car. On the flip side there is a YouTube video that shows a Vanagon double cab pickup hitting some sort of barrier with a heavy cargo in its bed. I can't tell if it is a raised barrier - like the side of a semi-trailer, or a concerte wall but the cab disappears in the crash. That said I don't think that a standard pickup would have done much better. I have seen a Dodge carrying a forklift battery rearend a car lightly. The battery was in the cab with the driver. He was lucky. The bus and Beetle both had sad fuel systems like most of the cars of their era. The problem with the bus was that if there was an engine fire and the fuel line ruptured the whole tank would gravity feed the fire. Should have been a fuel line cutoff like the Fords had in the 80's. The Beetle had a steel bulkhead between the passengers and its gasktank BUT the glovebox and the instruments penatrated this bulkhead and neither would stop a sloshing liquid. And placing a gasoline fired heater above the gas tank? No thanks. Remember that the Ford Model 'A' has a similar arrangement in the 30's. Several cars and trucks including my '49 Chevy had the gas tank inside the cab! In a bad rear ender I was told by a former Ford engineer that the bed would be forced forward into the rear of the cab, squeeze the tank, the seam along the top of the tank could rupture and the force would squeeze the contents of the tank and spray the interior of the cab with gasoline. 1 spark and you were dead (don't foget all those dash electrics bouncing around in the crash). My '66 Mustang had a rear facing gas cap/neck and ina bad crash the tank or neck could have been crushed spewing gasoline into the passenger compartment through the rear seat - it did not have a solid barrier. The VWs were prob about average for their eras. The give the Beetle some credit the gas tank was behind the front suspension and the spare tire was in front of that so in a crash, it would have take alot of steel deforming before the tank would have been in danger. The bus gas tank was VERY well protected from being crushed in an accident - but the batteries (2 in case of a camper) where right behind the tail lights so there would have been alot of potential for sparking in a bad rear ender. Stout bumper stucture though. I drove my Super from the south of Italy to the north. Mid-30s gas mileage and absolutely reliable. Noisy though... The clutch did give up near Pisa and I did a clutch job in a parking lot. OLD clutch. When we went to the mountains to ski my Beetle always went, never got stuck. Along for the trip was often a Tempo, a Cavalier, and a BMW 320. The Beetle was the most reliable in the bunch. And the slowest with a 1200cc 40HP engine. The Beetle had an excellent heater when everything was in top shape. Unfortunately any leaks in the system would render the heater useless. Mine got careful attention (took 5 mins to check). It would roast your sneakers off in any weather and any speed. This was unfortunate in July but I learned to remove the plastic heater tubs in the summer. 5 mins job. Even the bus had a good heater when it was new. My '78 had double walled exhaust pipes to keep the heat in the pipes but this would rot away leaving the exhaust system intact but the heater exposed to the cold. 1 have ridden in 1 bus with an effective heater. It worked well but like the Beetle required some regular attention. MOST of the old VWs I have bought and worked on for friends were missing a significant number of engine parts. People would get sloppy and leave off some of the heater or cooling tin and figure that since it still ran it was no big deal. In the end they sacrificed durability but even missing these parts they often ran for decades. The smell of exhaust would be in the heater, they might decreased heater output, and they might be more prone to overheat. I have heard it called the previous owner syndrome - previous owner was too lazy, poor, or ignorant to fix things the right way. I really miss the simplicity of those cars. They did require attention more than a modern car and there is no doubt the modern car is better in everyway but those old cars were to me satisfying to maintain and drive. Lots of crossed fingers and dirty fingernails... I hope some day we see the return of the simple car. I know there is no going backwards on emissions and prob no way to go backwards on assembly techniques which made these cars so simple but I do miss them. I need to go home and work on mine... (Pair of barn queens)