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Volkswagen Beetle

Published: 28th Jun 2011 - 0 Comments - Be the first, contribute now!

Volkswagen Beetle

Then & Now

It was the USA that took the Beetle to heart. The drag racers saw the attraction (get it, traction) of the Bugas a real plus-point and soon started to make it go – funny fuels included – with a whole range of bolt-on goodies. The biggest supplier was EMPI who produced a whole range of engine, suspension and braking upgrades. Speedwell was the UK importer of EMPI, the camber compensator for the rear swing axles being on of the best sellers. Crane camshafts and Judson superchargers were also well known fi t in the VW hop-up biz. Cartune was another top name in UK tuning circles along with Autocavan. EMPI still exists but you’ll have to go to its US website ( to order parts. VW Speedshop ( is a leading UK concern that specialises on high-power engines, whilst at Street Style and Power ( you can get Remtec parts and engines rom South Africa. Also check out Karmann Konnection ( and VW Heritage( Of course, check out the autojumbles, especially at specialist VW events and something will turn up!

Volkswagen Beetle
Volkswagen Beetle
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Which classics still have the potential to get up and go today? Paul Davies remembers the cars, the people… and how to make a classic hot car!

We mean the original of course not the Golf-based retro car of recent years! Over 21 million genuine Beetles sold all over the world, there’s got to be something right about the air-cooled Vee Dub. Conceived in the late 1930’s by Ferdinand Porsche with help from You Know Who, but fi rst produced in any quantity in 1946, it became a worldwide success in double-quick time. In concept it was very basic, but it wasn’t long before the hot-rodders of the world began to stretch the limits. The Beetle was always going to be just transport, but even so the attributes of a Panzer-like toughness and the excellent traction of the engine at the back were recognised early on. Really, it just lacked one thing – power. It really was motoring in its crudest form. The low-revving engine was air-cooled, made of alloy to save weight, and mounted at the rear to obviate the need for an expensive and space-hogging prop shaft. Suspension was by Dr Porsche’s patented torsion bars, independent at the front, swing axles at the back, and the brakes were drums. The Beetle went rallying in the sixties and seventies with reasonable success. Up front was the VW Salzburg team, owned by Louise Piech (who just happened to be Dr Porsche’s daughter) and Waldegard, Singh, Warmbold, and Kallstrom were the famous names. The Safari Rally in Kenya particularly suited the car, with outright wins in 1954 and ’57. In the UK the late Griff Griffi ths was the man who took things to extremes, his autocross car had a Porsche 912 engine in the
rear (it fi ts easy-ish). Top club rallyman in the Beetle was Peter Noad, who became quite a tuning guru through his books and articles in Cars and Car Conversions. People did lots of unmentionable things to Beetles, and at the same time the factory steadily made things better: bigger capacity engines, coil spring/strut front suspension (1971) and disc front brakes and revised rear suspension (1976) were the big changes. In the end (just like the Porsche 911) the manufacturer prematurely thought it was time to replace it with something more modern. The Type 3 1500 of 1961 was lacklustre, and VW 411 of 1968 a disaster, and people kept on clamouring for the Beetle and it wasn’t until 2003 that VW fi nally said enough is enough!.

Get One Now

Only way to get more power is to big up the Beetle

So many made, they’re still out there to buy at reasonable cost. You can pick up a fairly decent car for £2000; really good ones come in at around £5k, top-notch twice that fi gure. It depends on age – the earlier the car the more it will cost you. Many ‘Cal Look’ (de-chromed, lowered suspension) modifi ed cars are on the market if that’s your taste.

Hotting One Up

The fl at-four engine, based around a split crankcase manufactured from magnesium with a short three bearing crankshaft, was designed to fi t in the tail of the VW, and the extensive use of alloys made it light. Air-cooling simplifi ed the whole design, and further helped keep weight down. The engine fi rst came alive (!) when it went to 1192cc in the early ‘50’s, and from then on regular capacity upgrades moved through 1285cc, to 1493cc and then, fi nally, 1584cc. And that’s the fi rst trick to improve VW power – increase the capacity. Which means a complete enginere-build, but if the car you’ve come across is high on mileage that’s not such a bad thing anyway. Why not take the opportunity to add come cubic capacity? Each piston runs in a separate barrel, which locates into the crankcase. Although the design of the casing has changed little since the 1930’s, later (1200/40bhp) ones are the best because they have two revised oil pressure relief valves and larger oil galleries. Any high power engine should be built up using a new crankcase. The forged crankshaft is strong enough for most road stages of tune, except that it doesnot have counterweights, and so is not balanced well enough for (relatively) high revs. An essential modifi cation for anyone contemplating anything over 5000 rpm is to fi t a crank that has had counterweights welded to the webs and then been re-balanced. At the same time, the crank needs to be modifi ed to accept an eight-dowel fi xing for the fl ywheel instead of four-dowel. Both standard fl at top pistons and rods are of good quality and will stand power increases to around 100bhp, anyone building a fast road engine should reckon on fi tting a new set, which only cost about £80. Whilst it is possible to carr y out performance modifi cations on smaller engines, the design makes it simple to increase capacity and so any tuner should real l y consider a 1584cc (1600) unit as the starting point. Fitting new barrels and pistons (always as a matched set) and crankshaft depending upon the original engine effect capacity change. To upgrade the 1200 to 1300, the crank is changed from a 64mm throw to 69mm throw (retaining 77mm pistons and barrels) whilst to make a 1600 motor 85.5mm pistonsand barrels are fi tted to the 69mm crank. The 85.5mm bore should be considered the maximum for standard barrels. But you can go a lot further with specialist cranks and piston/barrel sets. Without mods the magnesium case will accept cranks up to 76mm throw, but it is possible to go up to 84mm with the necessary internal modifi cations. Here are a few fi gures to play with: Standard (1300/1500/1600) crank with over-size pistons/barrels

Piston Crank Capacity

90.5mm 69mm 1776cc; 1600 pistons/barrels with long-throw crank 85.5mm 76mm 1745cc; Over-size pistons/barrels and long-throw crank 90.5mm 76mm 1955cc 94.0mm 76mm 2109cc; 94.0mm 82mm 2276cc; 94.0mm 84mm 2332cc

Obviously if over-size barrels are used, machining work is needed to enlarge the cutoutsin the crankcase to fi t them in and the same goes for the head. If you’re not planning taking the engine out, you should look at ditching the standard restrictive Solex carburettor for something more interesting. A single dual choke Weber 28/36 or Minnow Fish used to be the best easy bolt-on for a 20 per centpower hike, but both are (sadly) now longer available (check ebay and autojumbles). These days opt for either a pair of single choke, or twin choke, Solexes or a pair of Weber 40 IDFs. On cleaned up heads and with a free-fl ow exhaust these should take a 1600cc engine to around 75bhp. Beyond the twin Webers, and the exhaust system, you’ll be looking at a camshaft change (engine rebuild again) or at least going for high ratio rockers which have the effect of increasing valve lift whilst maintaining
a fl exible profi le. Getting the spark right is an essential part of VW tuning, and the Bosch ‘009’ distributor is a favourite fi tting along with a contactless ignition system such as Ignitor, Lumenition or Mallory. So what can all this give you? A twin Weber engine, plus 90.5mm barrels (1776cc), fast road cam, freeflow exhaust, and 009 dizzy, should be good for 100bhp. With head mods (9.5:1 compression ratio) and a big bore exhaust on top you’ll be knocking on 125bhp, and if you stretch the capacity to 1914cc 135bhp should be in sight. After that you’re into turbocharging, which means injection throttle bodies and an engine management system. Bear n mond that you’ll also need to looking at cooling the engine the more you hot it up as well.

Handling The Power

On the handling front it makes sense to lower the car – easier with torsion bar models but meaning spring replacement for 1302 and 1303 versions – and combine this with wider wheels. Perhaps too, a stiffer front anti-roll bar and also one atthe rear. On the wheel front, the steel and alloy options appear endless. Swing axle cars do suffer from rear wheel tuck-under in fast, tight, cornering. Just like a Triumph Herald! You can convert to the later independent rear set-up, but for early cars the simplest improvement is to dial in some negative camber and fi t an aftermarket camber compensator. Go for uprated dampers all round as well. Brakes? If you’re at all serious, either start with a car with front discs or invest in one of several conversions that are on the market – you can even get a rear disc set up. And so it goes on. You can do oh so much to the humble Beetle. Which explains why driving a well-sorted Bug produces that big wide grin I mentioned!

How Did It Drive?

Slowly is the answer! Unless you had at least a pair of single choke Solex carbs and a free-fl ow exhaust, you can reckon that progress was going to be excruciatingly pedestrian. You also needed that trick exhaust to get rid of the rattling sound of the fl at four. Unlike a Porsche, which improves in sound as engine speed rises, the VW exhaust note never got better because, honestly, you could never rev it high enough. In the handling department, the Beetle was very little better. On radial tyres (cross plies were standard fi t for years) it was better, but steering was heavy and slow – and the only reason the swing axle rear didn’t break away was because you were never going fast enough. Drum brakes all round on early models were only just up to the job and faded fast – I know this because we nearly pranged the back of a Lancia in son’ s 1200 downhill on a classic rally in Holland a few years back! So, if it was really that bad, why do we still believe in the Beetle? In stock trim it’s so quirky you just have to love it – hop it up and the grin spreads from one side of the face to the other!

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