Review: Used Car Classic: VW Beetle

David C. Holzman
by David C. Holzman
review used car classic vw beetle

Unlike the New Beetle, an impractical fashion statement of a car, the (Real) Beetle eschewed style for utility. The ads of my youth played that up relentlessly, amusingly, logically. The Beetle was cheap. It was a cinch to fix. Fender-bender? Just undo several bolts, pop the old one off, put a new one on. The car was so tightly constructed that you had to open a window to close the door. Heck, the Beetle was so tight it could float. “If Senator Kennedy had been driving a VW, he’d be President today,” the National Lampoon opined.

Like the Smart and unlike the land barges of the classic car era, the Beetle was so light that the steering was surprisingly responsive, When a Washington Post editorial on the New Beetle dissed the original’s lack of oomph, I wrote in a published LTE that “The car is so light that its low horsepower would have been plenty adequate to leave my parents’ six-cylinder ’57 Chevy wagon in the dust.” I knew that because I’d taken a spin in a ‘63 Beetle about five years earlier, and also once in the late ‘60s.

But I was wrong. Recently, John MacDonald let me drive his ’65 on behalf of TTAC. It had a bad case of the slows. Granted, he AND his friend came along for the ride, and our combined mass, an estimated 400-450 lbs, trimmed the weight to horsepower ratio of the 1675 lb Beetle from a barely acceptable 42 lbs/hp empty to a pathetic 52.5 lbs/hp. (For comparison, in a 4-cyl Accord, each HP pulls around 20 lbs.)

But maybe MacDonald’s 43-year-old car was simply showing its age. I decided I needed to do due diligence. Peter Cook, an official with the Bay State VW Owners’ Club, let me pilot his ‘58.

Cook has owned the car for about ten years. He drives only about 1,000 miles a year, and doesn’t– wouldn’t –use it for a daily driver. But he once drove it about four hours from his home near Boston to Norwalk, CT. He reckons the Big gets around 35 mpg. The odo says 92k, and Cook says it’s turned-over either once or twice. Each of the car’s 36 horses pushes 44.7 lbs of Wolfsburg icon. It was reportedly in good tune. We took a spin.

There wasn’t much difference between the two Beetles. Both cars’ steering felt distinctly heavier than I remembered, leading me to suspect that steering the parental ‘57 Chevy must have felt like churning molasses (I last drove that car during the Johnson Administration). Moreover, there was play. Lots of it. But what did I expect for ball and nut?

Most surprising was the way both cars seemed to resist turning as if the camber was set for straight ahead, with a vengeance. As I steered, I could almost hear each car complaining, “do we really hafta turn? Do we really hafta turn? What’s the matter with going straight?” And I could swear that as I cornered that I could feel the frame flexing under the centripetal force.

But then the famous oversteer would kick in–frighteningly in MacDonald’s ‘65, at speeds as low as 15-20 mph. Suddenly I could understand how my friend Polly Matzinger, an immunologist who has changed scientific understanding of how the immune system works, who was a wild woman in her youth, had managed to flip Beetles on three occasions.

As I applied the brakes, in my mind’s eye I could see myself trying to slow my childhood go-kart, feeling the impotence of the little wooden lever pressing down upon the rim of the solid rubber wheel.

The one thing I really liked in both cars was the snick-snick of the shifter. But if you want to get the effect, don’t hold the knob. Hold the middle of the stem, because the smaller leverage allows greater sensitivity to the synchros. (I do this in my Accord.)

My inner child protests this mostly unflattering review. At six or seven, I had loved riding in the little way-back of the Dorfmans’ VW. The cozily-carpeted hidey hole was a kid’s dream. In contrast, the way-back in the parental ’57 Chevy was too cold and hard and expansive to be the least bit cozy.

But for the driver, the Beetle is spartan, and the lack of space between your head and the windshield makes one feel exceptionally vulnerable. I’m glad not to have accompanied Cook to Norwalk.

Before my test drives, I was appalled to find that Richard Porter rates the Beetle 5th worst of 50 in his humorous book, Crap Cars, calling it “…slow… noisy… and uncomfortable.” But now I understand, wistfully, because I love the philosophy behind the Beetle, and I can’t think of a car that better deserves to be displayed in the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York City. The Beetle has more artistic integrity than almost anything else on the road, and until they put those little vents behind the rear windows, in ‘68, the execution was almost flawless.

The lesson of this story is that they don’t make ‘em like they used to, and part of that is good, and part of that is sad.

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2 of 111 comments
  • DRJJJ DRJJJ on Oct 07, 2013

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

  • Fuckyou Fuckyou on Feb 11, 2014

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

  • Theflyersfan As a kid, a neighbor had one of these full-sized conversion vans with the TV and wet bar in the back. And it was so cool to go in - as a kid it was, driving it had to be terror at times with blind spots, iffy power and brakes, and the feeling that you're hauling your living room with you! Kids of the 1970s and 1980s had this experience. Afterwards with minivans and then CUV everything, not so much.And I'm crushed that a 1977 van doesn't have some kind of mural on the sides. Coyote howling at the moon, American flag, Confederate flag, bright stripes, something! You can't have a 1970's era van with plain sides! At least a "Don't Laugh. Your daughter's in here" bumper sticker on the back. I always get a Gacy or Bundy vibe with these vans...
  • Jeff S In the EV market Tesla is not a niche player it is the major player. According to the latest data of the California-based vehicle valuation and automotive research company  Kelley Blue Book, Tesla has the lion’s share with 75 percent market share in  the electric vehicle market in the first three months of 2022.Tesla has dominated the electric vehicle market for years in the United States. The electric vehicles manufactured by Tesla accounted for 79 percent of the new electric vehicles registered in the United States in 2020 and 69,95 percent in 2021. The decrease in the market share in 2021 might be explained by backlogs and the global chip shortage, but the company is ramping up its sales and has already increased its market share to 75 percent in the first quarter of the year. According to Kelley Blue Book, the top 10 EVs sold in the US in the first quarter of 2022 are;[list=1][*]Tesla Model Y[/*][*]Tesla Model 3[/*][*]Ford Mustang Mach-E[/*][*]Tesla Model X[/*][*]Hyundai Ioniq 5[/*][*]Kia EV6[/*][*]Tesla Model S[/*][*]Nissan Leaf[/*][*]Kia Niro[/*][*]Audi e-Tron[/*][/list=1]Tesla has delivered 310,048 vehicles in the first quarter of 2022, another first-quarter record. The success of Tesla is proven once again as the company has three electric cars in the top 10 most selling electric vehicles in the United States, while no other manufacturer has even two different models on the list.Tesla leads all others, selling slightly over 936,000 units in 2021. This gave the company a market share of nearly 14%.Mar 30, 2022
  • Jeff S I did not know Plymouth had a full size van prior to the mini vans. I did know about the Plymouth pickups and the Trail Duster.
  • Arthur Dailey When I grew tired of the T-Bird trying to kill me by refusing to start at the most inconvenient times/places, I replaced it with a '79 fullsized Dodge (Sportsman) van. Similar to this but with a different grille and rectangular headlights. The 4 'captains' chairs in my van were pretty much identical to the ones in this van. Mine certainly was not as nicely finished inside. And it was a handful to drive in snow/ice. One thing that strikes me about this van is that although a conversion it does not seem to have the requisite dark tint on the windows.
  • Jeff S I am not a fan of Tesla and they were niche vehicles but it seems that they have become more common. I doubt if I get an EV that it would be a Tesla. The electrical grid will have to be expanded because people over the long run are not going to accept the excuse of the grid can't handle people charging their EVs.