Curbside Classic: 1971 Small Cars Comparison: Number 5 - VW Super Beetle

Paul Niedermeyer
by Paul Niedermeyer

Curbside Classics takes you back to 1971 for a virtual comparison test of six small cars, based (and partly borrowed) from a C/D test.

If you were going to a speed-dating event, and were thirty-three years older than all the “competition”, you might be forgiven for wanting some quick cosmetic surgery. But if the result was a reverse Michael Jackson, you’d damn well better hope that your “experience” and “build,” and other timeless qualities are still in demand. Otherwise, your days finding willing partners/buyers are numbered, like this 1971 VW Super Beetle.

By 1970 or so, the Beetle was in terminal decline in Europe and the US. In the Old Country, modern FWD cars like the Fiat 128, the Simca 1100, and the Austin 1100 were light years ahead of the VW in terms of space efficiency, driving dynamics, visibility, and fuel economy.

In the US, the Corolla, Datsun 1200, and the Opel Kadett were nipping at the Beetle’s heels, despite their conventional RWD. But Americans always placed more emphasis on reliability than innovation; the Austin 1100/America had already struck out, and the Simca and Fiat 128 were as yet unproven but highly suspect in that department.

In addition to the new FWD competition in Europe, GM and Ford were known to be developing all-new “killer” small cars for 1971. VW was under the gun. But this was during Wolfsburg’s long performance anxiety period. They’d known for years, even decades that eventually they’d have to replace the Beetle. And despite endless home-brew and Porsche-designed prototypes, all they could come up with was this 1971 Super Beetle, sporting a new front end. Well, Viagra hadn’t been invented yet.

A new front end, period. I guess you could call it one-third of a new car, but then it looks so much like the old one, most people can’t tell the difference. Why bother?

The new MacPherson front suspension and bulbous hood doubled the size of the front luggage compartment from ridiculously small to only somewhat ridiculously small. But hey, the turning circle got a hair smaller. That’s about the extent of it. But for VW purists, the timeless balance and symmetry of Edwin Kommenda’s timeless 1938 design was ruined by the collagen-injected nose. Fortunately, the big noses were only a temporary fad; after 1975, the old one came back until the Beetle’s ultimate if protracted demise.

In terms of dynamic qualities, the Beetle reached a zenith in 1971. Power was up to sixty (gross) horsepower from the 1600cc air cooled boxer thanks to new dual port heads. Zero to sixty now came in sixteen seconds, almost unheard of for a Beetle. That still made it the slowest in this comparison, but only just slightly so, against most of the competition. Economy was down to a disappointing 24 mpg.

The first time I drove one of these and got on the freeway, I was almost a mile down the road before I realized I was still in third gear! The gearing was so much lower with the larger engines; my 40hp Beetle topped out at about forty-five in third gear. Made for quieter cruising too, but the drop in mileage was unacceptable. The 40hp Beetle was the Prius of its time, and a 25% drop in efficiency was a stain on the Beetle’s economy car rep.

The rear suspension had lost its swing axles a couple years earlier. In fact, the Super Beetle now had the same suspension design front and rear as the Porsche 911. As per C/D: “the transients are very quick and the tail wags like a loaded station wagon, but the Beetle no longer feels like it will roll over and play dead if you corner a bit too hard…”

Europeans even got the front disc treatment. But even with the US-spec drum brakes, it had the second best 70-0 panic stop, at 200 feet, one of the benefits of the rear engine. Not to mention the unparalleled traction.

But the interior was as narrow and cramped as 1938, and the heater . . . oh wait, it now had a two-speed electric fan to push the tepid air somewhat faster. Why did you think VW got away with making the Beetle for thirty more years only in balmy Brazil and Mexico?

The Beetle’s decline started earlier and was more rapid in Europe. In the US, VW still moved some 350k units in 1970. The Beetle was (still barely) riding the momentum of its major assets: tank-like build quality, reliability, excellent dealer network and service, and popular sentiment. It was the flower Bug, an icon of a whole generation. But like for lots of sacred cows in 1971, change was in the air, blowing straight-on from the (far) east. Volkswagens don’t like headwinds.

Unsurprisingly, the VW’s build quality is what most impressed the C/D editors too: “The whole car feels as solid as a Supreme Court decision, first-rate materials are used throughout and it is all fastened together as if it was meant to stay that way for several dozen years”. How about three dozen and two, and still going strong?

It didn’t take an oracle to come up with that prophecy. But the outcome is all too obvious to me in the hunt for photographic stand-ins for our six competitors. While I was lucky to find one example of most of them, there are more old Beetles in Eugene than I can shake a camera at. In fact, I’m well on my way to having a complete year-by-year collection, starting with about 1959 or so.

This Super Beetle caught my eye with its fetching red rims and dull-black re-spray. When I think 1971, all I can see in my mind’s eye are bright yellow, green and orange VW’s, and those are not just flashbacks. This oxidized black almost looks like primer, and I like it, in a grudging sort of way. That’s because I’m a purist when it comes to VW’s. Give me an oval-window ’57 with a vintage Oskra twin-carb set up, Porsche slotted wheels, and a little negative camber dialed into the rear wheels, and I’m good to go. And hold the cosmetic surgery.

Paul Niedermeyer
Paul Niedermeyer

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  • Jose carlos Jose carlos on Jul 18, 2009

    Great article, as this series is. And many memories that go over a quarter of a century. I had a ’61 as my first set of wheels, bought cheaply in 1981 during college. At the time they were still abundant and used to be “the first car” for many of us with a fresh driving license. Great time with it, though minor issues were coming: brakes, electrical, carburetor, you name. But the car had been abused and was holding together by wires. But any problem was easily traced and most of times solved on the spot. A set of pliers, wire, can of gas, tape. And also a blanket for heating. At the time the heating system was a simple heat exchanger with the exhaust gases and a couple of cable operated butterfly valves. When rusty (a certain thing) fumes would go straight into the passenger area. Also very recommendable were a couple of holes on the platform in order to keep water level inside at the lowest possible level. And always short on gasoline. But the sense of freedom of going anywhere was unmatched. A decade later I bought a ’65 1200cc which I still keep. It is restored up to a very good standard and turns heads around. From time to time, while driving, I feel I am back in my twenties. Like a pair of 501’s they are timeless.

  • Marky S. Marky S. on Aug 13, 2020

    Very informative article here! Minor spelling correction here: mentioned in paragraph 5 here, the man's name is Erwin Komenda. He worked in Ferdinand Porsche's design team, which also included Karl Rabe. Komenda was essentially Porsche’s chief engineer in charge of body structure design. Fun read and wonderful photos!

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