Curbside Classic Fastback Week: 1969 Volkswagen 1600 Type 3 Fastback

Paul Niedermeyer
by Paul Niedermeyer
curbside classic fastback week 1969 volkswagen 1600 type 3 fastback

Two fastbacks found in one week; now there’s something to be thankful for (not that I don’t have plenty already). The Packard Clipper Super and this Volkswagen Type 3 may not seem to share anything other than their tapering hind ends, but there is one other quality that they both have in common, and it makes the VW worthy to share the podium with it:

Quality. Packard was famous for their passion in perfecting and refining the highest quality cars in the first half of the 20th Century. It’s easy to forget, but taking a good look at this VW reminded me how the workmanship and material quality on these cars is absolutely superb. That alone ignited a little brief flame of lust for it, which I hadn’t ever quite felt before. It also helps explain why folks were willing to pay a premium price at the time for a car which still suffered from many of the Beetle’s shortcomings.

The Type 3 is a very polarizing car, and it was so from its very beginning in the summer of 1961. Reaction to it largely depended on one’s relationship to the Beetle: for those that thought of the Beetle as a slow poor man’s Porsche 356 (and many did in the fifties), the Type 3 narrowed the gap substantially: an affordable Porsche sedan. Buyers who bought a Beetle because it was cool or just cheap, but came to hate its many shortcomings and would really rather have had a Mustang or a Cutlass, the Type 3 was totally wasted on them. It was still all Volkswagen under its thick-gauge skin.

The Type 3 VW first appeared in the traditional notchback sedan format. It was a highly anticipated car in Europe, as the whole continent watched and waited to see how and when Volkswagen would address the obvious shortcomings of the then 25 year old Beetle. Germans were quickly becoming more affluent, and the rest of the industry rightfully targeted their growing purchasing power with mid-level cars like the Borgward Isabella, the BMW 1500/1800, and of course the ever popular mid level Opels and German Fords. VW was late to the party, and everyone was in a high state of anticipation.

The VW 1500, as it was called, was decidedly a mixed bag. One could rightfully say it was nothing more than a Beetle wrapped in a stylish new dress: it rode on the same wheelbase and platform frame mighty similar to the Beetle. Yes, the track was widened at the rear (as was the Beetle’s a few years later), but the front suspension was fundamentally the same, and the engine was classic VW: the same basic case, with bigger bore cylinders, a longer stroke, as well as a re-arranged cooling system where the fan was on the back end of the crankshaft (pancake), allowing a drastic reduction in the engine’s height.

For those that were expecting VW to do something actually new, like FWD, water cooling, a roomy body or a modern high-rpm OHC engine were sorely disappointed, and had to wait over a decade until the Audi-based Passat came along. A whole slew of the Beetle’s biggest shortcomings were not improved, or not enough so: the heater was still inadequate, handling on long fast sweepers invariably induced oversteer, and rear seat egress and leg room was still subpar. How hard would it have been for VW to lengthen the platform by four inches, add rear doors, and make it a legitimate sedan capable of carrying four adults in comfort?

(In Brazil, VW did make a four door version of the Type 3, but still on the same wheelbase, so rear leg room wasn’t any better either.)

The answer is obvious: the Type 3 was initially built right alongside the Type 1 (Beetle) in Wolfsburg, and it was cheaper and more expedient to make it a “Super Beetle” rather than a truly new car, or even just a slightly longer one. It largely solved the problem in Europe where Beetle fatigue set in much sooner than in the US. That also explains why VW didn’t import Type 3s to the US until 1966, even though the rest of the world was worthy of them since 1962.

That’s not to say there wasn’t a busy gray market importing Type 3s from Germany to the US. Even VW dealers were doing it, to keep their loyal customers happy looking for an upgrade, although the price was stiff: about $3,000 ($21k adjusted) in 1964, when a US Beetle was going for $1595. Quite a premium for better visibility, more trunk room and twenty-five horsepower. When the Type 3s where finally imported by VW, that premium dropped substantially: this 1969 listed at $2295, vs. $1799 for a ’69 Beetle.

I happen to have an April 1964 Car and Driver in my lap, which devotes the bulk of the issue analyzing why VW wasn’t importing the Type 3, and the ins and outs of gray imports. Production constraints was one of them, since VW was building a huge new factory in Emden, where Type 3 production was eventually moved to from Wolfsburg. And as long as the Beetle was still red hot in the US, VW didn’t feel any particular need to supplant it. Another theory was that VW at the time was anxious about the huge success of the Beetle, and the impact it had on the US industry and the trade imbalance with Germany. Since gray market imports where technically “used cars”, they didn’t add to the swelling official VW sales numbers, and so VWoA did little to impede them.

That issue of C/D also tested a 1500 S (65 hp twin carb) Notchback, and put its finger on its pros and cons. It certainly was nippier than the 40 hp Beetle, especially in the first two gears. And it could hit alofty 88 mph, eventually. But 0-60 took still eighteen seconds, glacially slow for today’s standards. They loved the superb visibility instead of sitting in a cave. And the build quality, down to every little piece of heavily chromed interior trim, was absolutely world class. But it still handled like a Beetle, jacking up on its rear swing axles on fast curves. The revised trailing arm rear suspension was still a few years away.

By 1966, the Emden plant was in full swing and Americans were finally worthy of Type 3s, even though they were already looking pretty out of date by then. But the notchback sedan was replaced by this new fastback body style, along with the very versatile Variant wagon (Squareback). Was VW influenced by the resurgence of fastbacks in the US during the mid-sixties? The Barracuda and Mustang fastback ignited a new fad for the swoopy tails, and soon all of Detroit got in the act. It seems kind of ironic that ultra-conservative VW would fall for such a fad.

But there were some compensations, including a rear trunk somewhat bigger than the notchback. Combined with the front trunk,

the Fastback was a bit of a Swiss Army knife, and made good use of the low and flat pancake motor, as a young Dustin Hoffman points out in this famous “where’s the engine?” ad for the Fastback:

Presumably, he got the job because his short stature makes the Fastback look larger than life; an old Detroit ad trick.

Undoubtedly, the Squareback was even more practical: it offered a front trunk in addition to a tall rear cargo area. It deserves its own CC, so we’ll honor it then. But let’s talk about one of the more remarkable features that both Type 3s came with starting in 1968: electronic fuel injection.

This was a very big deal at the time. Sure, the much more expensive Mercedes could be had with Einspritzer, but these were pricey mechanical units. The Bosch D-Jetronic was the mother of all modern electronic fuel injection systems, employing a vacuum sensor in the intake manifold to measure air mass, as well as several other sensors to determine temperature, engine speed and a few other parameters. An analog ECU made all the requisite calculations. And it worked like a charm: easy starting, no stalling, stumbling or flat spots. The same basic characteristics that were going to make fuel injection the next big thing in Detroit in the late fifties on luxury and performance cars was now standard, on a Volkswagen. And it would take over two more decades before proper port injection finally became common on American cars.

Ironically, Bosch’s Jetronic system was based heavily on the Bendix FI system patents, which was briefly optional on some American cars in the late fifties before teething problems and high prices quickly had Detroit spending the money on taller fins instead.

VW did give the Type 3 a nose job in 1970, pushing it forward and squaring it off to increase the trunk space as well as improve safety a wee bit, presumably. I’ve had one of the later ones in the can for ages (lower in photo above), but I prefer the original, and I’m glad I held out. They’re getting pretty hard to find anymore too.

This particular car, which its brand new owner proudly showed off to me, was a one-owner car that was obviously well kept, including a long period of little use. He was thrilled to find it in a newspaper ad (what’s that?). And it still runs like a sewing machine with its fuel injection intact. Sadly, or foolishly, many Type 3 owners tore out the Bosch and replaced it with a retrograde twin carb set-up, being intimidated by repairing it. In reality, these are quite rugged and fairly simple to fix, at least for someone inducted into the school of Jetronic.

The Fastback was a bit of an oddity: was it supposed to be sporty, or luxurious, or just a high-priced VW? Its appeal and sales were undoubtedly to those upgrading from a Beetle; it’s hard to imagine someone trading in a Cutlass for one. But for some, its familiar qualities, and just the quality of a Volkswagen were a habit hard to break, except with a Mercedes perhaps. And even today, its Germanic charms are seductive, but it would have to be without the automatic, thank you, even if it is spelled out in letters of such obvious high quality.

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  • Terrieann Terrieann on Sep 21, 2012

    My first car was a red orange 1971 VW Fastback. I never got over that car! I now drive an orange 1972 Fastback. Me and this car are together till death do us part. (My death, not hers. lol)

  • Bill mcgee Bill mcgee on Aug 10, 2013

    I used my earnings from a summer job to buy a 1970 Squareback in 1974 . It was far from trouble free , but I never had any problems with the fuel injection , tho IIRC the little connectors for the injectors occasionally loosened , requiring nothing more than a turn of the screw driver . Due to the F.I. system , it actually got slightly better gas mileage than the Beetle .At the time VW mechanics as well as Type I fans derided the Bosch system and many mechanics would automatically blame everything on the injection system and many owners switched to the dual carbs . As Williampenney says the cramped engine was often difficult to work on . At the time I was a D.I.Y.er and recall many skinned knuckles and remember many times on the ground looking up at the engine to fix I forget what . It was much roomier than the Beetle and if I folded the back seat down it was big enough for me to sleep in of course I'm a 5' 5" little guy . Sometimes wish I'd kept it . One plus the Type 3 had was the wide availability of parts , from the dealer or the junkyard , a big advantage over those kooky Japanese cars back in the mid- seventies .

  • Nrd515 I bought an '88 S10 Blazer with the 4.3. We had it 4 years and put just about 48K on it with a bunch of trips to Nebraska and S. Dakota to see relatives. It had a couple of minor issues when new, a piece of trim fell off the first day, and it had a seriously big oil leak soon after we got it. The amazinly tiny starter failed at about 40K, it was fixed under some sort of secret warranty and we got a new Silverado as a loaner. Other than that, and a couple of tires that blew when I ran over some junk on the road, it was a rock. I hated the dash instrumentation, and being built like a gorilla, it was about an inch and a half too narrow for my giant shoulders, but it drove fine, and was my second most trouble free vehicle ever, only beaten by my '82 K5 Blazer, which had zero issues for nearly 50K miles. We sold the S10 to a friend, who had it over 20 years and over 400,000 miles on the original short block! It had a couple of transmissions, a couple of valve jobs, a rear end rebuild at 300K, was stolen and vandalized twice, cut open like a tin can when a diabetic truck driver passed out(We were all impressed at the lack of rust inside the rear quarters at almost 10 years old, and it just went on and on. Ziebart did a good job on that Blazer. All three of his sons learned to drive in it, and it was only sent to the boneyard when the area above the windshield had rusted to the point it was like taking a shower when it rained. He now has a Jeep that he's put a ton of money into. He says he misses the S10's reliablity a lot these days, the Jeep is in the shop a lot.
  • Jeff S Most densely populated areas have emission testing and removing catalytic converters and altering pollution devices will cause your vehicle to fail emission testing which could effect renewing license plates. In less populated areas where emission testing is not done there would probably not be any legal consequences and the converter could either be removed or gutted both without having to buy specific parts for bypassing emissions. Tampering with emission systems would make it harder to resell a vehicle but if you plan on keeping the vehicle and literally running it till the wheels fall off there is not much that can be done if there is no emission testing. I did have a cat removed on a car long before mandatory emission testing and it did get better mpgs and it ran better. Also had a cat gutted on my S-10 which was close to 20 years old which increased performance and efficiency but that was in a state that did not require emission testing just that reformulated gas be sold during the Summer months. I would probably not do it again because after market converters are not that expensive on older S-10s compared to many of the newer vehicles. On newer vehicles it can effect other systems that are related to the operating and the running of the vehicle. A little harder to defeat pollution devices on newer vehicles with all the systems run by microprocessors but if someone wants to do it they can. This law could be addressing the modified diesels that are made into coal rollers just as much as the gasoline powered vehicles with cats. You probably will still be able to buy equipment that would modify the performance of a vehicles as long as the emission equipment is not altered.
  • ToolGuy I wonder if Vin Diesel requires DEF.(Does he have issues with Sulfur in concentrations above 15ppm?)
  • ToolGuy Presented for discussion: https://xroads.virginia.edu/~Hyper2/thoreau/civil.html
  • Kevin Ford can do what it's always done. Offer buyouts to retirement age employees, and transfers to operating facilities to those who aren't retirement age. Plus, the transition to electric isn't going to be a finger snap one time event. It's going to occur over a few model years. What's a more interesting question is: Where will today's youth find jobs in the auto industry given the lower employment levels?
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