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Volkswagen Beetle

Published: 31st May 2011 - 0 Comments - Be the first, contribute now!

Volkswagen Beetle
Volkswagen Beetle
Volkswagen Beetle
Volkswagen Beetle
Volkswagen Beetle
Volkswagen Beetle
Volkswagen Beetle
Volkswagen Beetle
Volkswagen Beetle

Buyer Beware

  • Kinks in the wing beading suggest poor repairs to the metal below.
  • Replacing the sills (known on a Beetle as the heater channels) is a very slow job. Cover sills welded between the door posts are seriously bad news.
  • Gutters rust and swell and are hard to repair invisibly. Check particularly above the front screen.
  • If you can’t get two fingers between the exhaust tailpipes and the rear valence, then body mounts may have collapsed.
  • Spare wheel wells rot out. Check also the inner wings, sills and battery tray under and behind the rear seat.
  • Axles rot from the inside through the lower extremities, and need careful prodding.
  • Oil leaks from the rocker covers are not serious, but leaks from front or rear of engine spell trouble.
  • Cars that are missing cooling tinware or effective sealing around the engine will be liable to overheating problems.
  • A puff of smoke on start-up is okay, so long as a running engine is clean living.
  • Gearboxes are long-lived, but jumping out of second or third on the overrun indicates that the end is near.
  • Cars with 6v electrics can be converted to 12v easily enough. Many cars have been retrofitted with the 1.6 engine too, and few interiors are unmodified. Whether these are regarded as improvements or vandalism will be a personal decision.
  • Make sure you know what you are buying as there are few unmolested cars left. Late cars made to look early and early cars on late floor pans are some of the things to check.

Fast Facts

  • Driving: 3/5

    Hardly fast but cruises well; handling antiquated

  • Usability: 5/5

    Probably one of the most practical classics around

  • Maintaining: 4/5

    Beautiful quality and specialist back up outweigh quirkiness

  • Owning: 5/5

    Easy-peasy – one of the most dependable cars ever made

  • Value: 4/5

    Good usually but overpriced covertibles need watching

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Volkswagen's Beetle made a virtue out of being different. It was cheap and basic, but designed and put together with meticulous attention to detail. Those qualities made it the world's best selling car ever, and now it is probably the most usable real world classic you can own. Simon Goldsworthy explains

Nobody can deny that the Volkswagen Beetle was a phenomenal success, but putting your finger on the exact reasons why is not simple. The original pre-war design brief for a car that was affordable to buy and run on modest means, could carry two adults and three children at 60mph (all day on the new autobahns) and return over 30mpg was laudable enough, but hardly revolutionary - a similar desire to provide transport for the masses had previously brought success to many manufacturers throughout the world, most spectacularly to Henry Ford with his Model T. Yet by 1972 Volkswagen’s Beetle had outsold the Tin Lizzie and was well on its way to an astonishing total of 21,529,464 million units worldwide before production finally ended with the last Mexican Beetle in 2003.

Which model to buy?

To the uninitiated, one Beetle looks pretty much like another but to list all the changes here would require a 200 page supplement. As a brief overview of the main changes, the central rear rib was removed from the back window in 1953 to produce the oval model. Split screen cars are priced for serious collectors only while those with an oval rear window are not far behind. Values have dropped a bit in recent years, but they are still too pricey (and in standard trim too slow and basic) for most of us to consider for regular use. The oval window was replaced in 1957, the rear glass now being curved and 95 per cent bigger with the front gaining 17 per cent. More distinctive window changes in 1964 meant slimmer pillars and a slight curve on the front screen (which was also 28mm higher). The next major changes were in 1967 for the ‘68 model year with the introduction of upright headlamps, larger bumpers and shorter bonnet and engine lid. The sloping headlamp cars ooze period charm, but were saddled with weedy six volt electrics. Conversion to 12 volts is not difficult, but the 1500 produced between 1966 and 1970 has not only the more powerful electrics as standard, but also a 44hp engine and front discs for an all-round performance hike. The 1300 that was introduced in 1965 with a 40hp 1285cc engine also came with 12 volt electrics from 1967 and, from 1972, was available with the option of a 1.6-litre engine, rather confusingly called the 1300S in most markets but re-badged in the UK as GT. The black sheep of the Beetle family is the 1302 built from 1970-72 with its re-engineered front suspension built around MacPherson struts (and was also used in the Porsche 924). Today this is perhaps the cheapest way into Beetle ownership and, if you don’t mind a soulless black vinyl dash instead of the previous painted metal and the lack of Beetle purity, is actually a better car to drive, especially if you find a 1302S whose 1600 engine and disc brakes is better able to cope with an increase of 50kg in weight over the 1300. You get a bigger boot too.

The final dalliance with MacPherson struts was thepregnant looking 1303 of 1972-75, essentially a 1302 with the windscreen moved further forward and given a marked curve, large elephant-feet rear lights and a re-designed plastic dash. In 1303S form this developed 50hp from its 1.6-litre engine, the downside being that using this performance can see economy sinking to a staggering 20mpg. From 1978, Beetle production finished in Germany and cars were imported instead from Mexico. These carried the shorter torsion-bar front end and struggled initially with just the 34hp engine. The Mexican Beetles grew to 1.6-litres in 1985, with fuel injected being added to the mix in 1992. These were used primarily to cope with tightening emissions legislation, so power is still well within the chassis’ capability. On the plus side, these late imports have invariably been enthusiastowned from new and skipped the impoverished student-owner stage that most older cars will usually have gone through.

Behind the wheel?

To the uninitiated one Beetle looks pretty much like another

The Beetle’s unconventional shape suggests that the interior is going to be cramped and claustrophobic, but nothing is further from the truth. The glass area was progressively enlarged through production and, in combination with the high seating position, means that visibility on post-1965 cars in particular is very good all round. The feeling of space is enhanced by the high roofline (if you wear a hat in the Beetle, it doesn’t have to be a flat cap) and the flat floor. There is a small central tunnel, but this is of very modest proportions and you can move from one side of the car to the other with ease. Rear seat passenger are not forgotten either, with six-footers finding enough headroom (although they will have to do without the hat). The pedals are offset to the left, but not nearly as badly as in some compact cars and the fact barely intrudes into your driving consciousness. It can take longer to get used to their floor-hinged nature and the requirement for more of a full-leg movement than a simple pivot of the ankle. Like many rear-engined vehicles (and this even includes a 911 to a certain extent), there is a lack of finesse about the controls with a slightly detached feel encouraging an all-or-nothing approach to footwork. A whole industry has grown up around the Beetle and there are tuning options to suit all tastes and wallets. But even in standard form, a 1970s model isperfectly adequate once you adapt to its style. Low ratios on first, second and third gears make the most of initial acceleration, but the a high fourth slows progress and knocks the 0-60mph time the wrong side of 20 seconds. Well beyond 20 seconds on the less powerful models. The flip side is, of course, that once up to high speed the VW Beetle will cruise quite happily at the legal limit all day.

The gearchange can be slightly rubbery, but should provide enough feel to avoid being labelled ‘vague’. There is remarkably little body roll and the big wheels ride the bumps with ease, though the whole package stops short of becoming harsh. A bit of weight in the front luggage compartment (or a full tank of fuel) can help dampen out a tendency to oversteer if pushed too hard through the bends, though the improved rear axle of the 1302/1303 is better in this respect. On all cars, the infamous Beetle engine note does make its way into the cabin when you are pressing on, but this is far less noticeable than you might expect - when cruising, the Beetle seems to defy the laws of physics and outrun the sound waves emanating from behind. This only reinforces a lack of wind noise that is astonishing in such an old design, and perhaps brings home one of the secrets to its success: the Beetle may be simple in the extreme, but whatever goes into it is pure quality. The minimal switchgear moves with a quality feel, the interior fittings feel like they can withstand anything you can throw at them and a decent car has that solidly-engineered quality that gets you planning world tours with nothing more than a spare pint of oil in the boot. Which, now we come to think about it, is no bad thing given that storage is not exactly the Beetle’s strong point. The front boot is useful enough so long aseverything is packed in small bags to make the most of the limited depth, and there is another decent space behind the rear seat. On later cars this is even covered over to provide extra security, but versatility never threatens to come close to that of even the most poorly designed hatchback.

The Daily Option?

Even in standard form a 1970s model is perfectly adequate once you adapt to its style

The Beetle was designed as practical daily transport. Its reliability is legendary, and starting a Beetle after it has been sitting under a pile of snow for weeks should take no more than one short burst on the starter. The steering is light thanks to the rear weight bias so the lack of power steering is barely noticeable, and even the drum brakes have a reassuring firmness if set up properly. No Beetle is exactly frugal with the fuel, but at least it doesn’t demand a premium grade. It will also run happily on unleaded, although some people reckon this will cause the valve guides to wear more quickly. A decent heater was never one of the model’s strong points. Rust can eat its way through the heat exchangers and also the channels that bring the hot air into the cabin (carbon monoxide infiltrating the cockpit then becomes worry), but if you are looking at a car for daily use then you would expect to buy one that is in good condition.

Ease of ownership

The Beetle scores highly in the ease-of-ownership stakes on many counts. For one thing it is a quality item, so things don’t have a habit of falling off in your hands. And when something does become timeexpired, there is a network of specialists supplying the parts you need at prices that may seem hard to believe: how does £20 for a steel wing or a full set of 1300cc barrels and pistons for just £112 grab you? The engine is a simple and strong design, and servicing requirements for the car are modest, particularly on cars with the ball joint front axle introduced with the 1300. For some jobs you will need tools not found in your average toolbox, but nothing that is beyond the capabilities of your local Machine Mart or even hardware store.



Dr Ferdinand Porsche's Type 32 proposal for NSU is developed into the state funded Beetle. Prototypes tested in 1936, but barely 200 cars have been produced by the outbreak of WW2.


Major Ivan Hurst of the British army spearheads the resumption of production. In 1948 Heinrich Nordhoff is put in charge, and the following year ownership is handed back to the Germans.


Volkswagen becomes the world's fourth largest producer of passenger cars, trailing only the American big three. The one millionth Beetle is produced on August 5th.


The Beetle becomes officially the best selling car of all time, passing the Model T's total of 15,007,033 on February 17, 1972.


The last German-built Beetle rolls out of the Emden plant in January, but stock from Mexico had already been imported the previous month.


Official VW imports of the Mexican Beetles end. Independents are encouraged to give it a go particularly with the arrival of fuel injection in 1992, and continue right up to the end of production in 2005.

We Reckon...

If this is your first taste of air-cooled VW motoring, give yourself a few days to adjust and you'll soon appreciate how addictive it can actually become. The cars are a rare combination of quirkiness and practicality, the build quality is a revelation and fellow owners are as diverse as they are friendly. Along with a Morris Minor the Beetle is quite possibly the most practical classic of them all.

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