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Volkswagen Beetle

Bug's Life Published: 3rd May 2011 - 0 Comments - Be the first, contribute now!

Fast Facts

  • Best model: Convertibles or early models
  • Worst model: The 1970s 1302/3 (strangely)
  • Budget buy: A good, original 1302/3
  • OK for unleaded?: Runs fi ne without an additive
  • Will it fit in the garage? (mm): (mm): L4079 x W 1539
  • Spares situation: Quirky but usually no real problems
  • Club support: As good as you will fi nd
  • Appreciating asset?: In the main yes
  • Good buy or good-bye?: If nothing else it’s a cheap but cool classic
Engines are rugged and simple to maintain. Easy to uprate also Engines are rugged and simple to maintain. Easy to uprate also
Interiors never luxurious even later cars Interiors never luxurious even later cars
Looks changed little over decades. Looks changed little over decades.
Sturdy bumpers, but mounting points rot as do inner wings, bonnets & boot lids . Sturdy bumpers, but mounting points rot as do inner wings, bonnets & boot lids .
Rust around light clusters common - bigger on later 1302/03 cars Rust around light clusters common - bigger on later 1302/03 cars
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Everybody knows the Beetle - the original Volkswagen (People’s Car) after which the company was named. An automotive icon that’s eternally cool, but is it your sort of classic?

Pros & Cons

Style, character, history, ruggedness, back up, cabrios
Moderate dynamics, over priced cabrios, many tart ups around
£1500 - 10,000

It’s the ‘Poor Man’s Porsche’ with a similar air-cooled, rear-mounted boxer engine and trans axle driving the rear wheels. Until recently it held the record for the biggest production run (21,529,464) and the longest, having been produced continuously from wartime until just a few years ago. As ever, VW Beetles make timeless practical classics that never seem to go out of fashion and thanks to Volkswagen’s shrewd marketing policy from the outset, spare parts have never been a problem. The number of independent specialists mean repairs and servicing are similarly sleepeasy, and there’s a massive fan base both here and in the US, where it became a hippie icon.

History

The Porsche 911 owes a lot to this family car

The Beetle (original name: Strength Through Joy Car) was part of Hitler’s vision for the Germany of the future. Commissioned by the Führer in the 1930s to provide economical family transport for his planned network of autobahns, it was designed by Dr Ferdinand Porsche, borrowing aspects from various other projects he had been associated with. But the specially built factory was turned over to producing armaments and military vehicles before many Beetles could be produced. Bombed to pieces during the fi ghting, it was taken over by the British military and production gradually restored suffi ciently to turn out crudely built Beetles as essential transport. Inspected by Ford and Humber, among others, the project was dismissed as worthless.

However, under British management, production was ratcheted up until a viable company could be handed back to German control in 1949. The rest is history and, ironically, contributed in no small way to the subsequent demise of our own car industry… From the start of German management, a convertible Beetle was offered, production being contracted to coachbuilders Karmann. The ragtop was the last model to get the axe, two years after German production had ended in January 1978.

The original production Beetle, with its small,‘split’ rear window, cable brakes, six-volt electrics,crash ‘box and fl at four 1131cc engine developing a heady 24bhp, was built until 1953 when the window became a single oval pane. Engine capacity increased to 1192 cc (the 30bhp 1200) in 1954 with the window again increasing in size to the more familiar, larger rectangle in 1957. Export models gained an extra four brake for 1960 while owners enjoyed the luxury of a horses fuel gauge for 1962! In 1964 windows were made slightly bigger, during 1965/66 the 1285cc and 1493cc engined versions (the 40bhp 1300 and 44bhp 1500) appeared respectively. Electrics finally became 12V from 1967, when the sloped-back headlights changed to vertical (some 1200s remained six volt up to 1970). At this time a semi-automatic ‘Stick Shift’ version of the 1300/1500 was introduced, but these remain rare. From 1970 a body style with a broader, more bulbous front end (pregnant look!) and larger engine (the ‘Super Beetle’) was produced to increase luggage space, the 50hp, 1600-engined 1302S proving rather thirsty. A wraparound windscreen and more modern fascia were incorporated into this body version in 1972 (the 1303 and 1303S, with 1300 and 1600 engine respectively), a convertible version of this becoming available the following year. Originally suspension was torsion bars all round, with rear trailing arms and swing-axles. Earlier Beetle front axles had king pins and link pins, with a switch to lower-maintenance ball joints in the mid-60s. All 02/03 model Beetles have MacPherson strut front suspension and a double-jointed rear axle. Throughout these changes, the original-style Beetle with fl at screen, torsion bars and swingaxles was always available. When European production of the saloon ended in 1978 (and the convertible in 1980) it was the original-shape, fl at-screen Beetle saloon that continued to be imported from VW’s Mexico plant. There were some build quality issues, and RHD was no longer catered for, though specialist importers got around the problems in various ways, the Beetle’s UK conversions being the most professional. Offi cial imports to Europe ceased in 1985 (known as ‘50 year’ cars), but Mexican-built cars continued to be available as grey imports, with all production fi nally ending in 2003. That précis of major changes leaves out an awful lot of detail! In between are many small modifi cations that will be encountered according to the year of car being looked at. The only way to make sense of these is to have the services of an expert or acquire one of the many books detailing the Beetle’s history - Haynes publish several, or try Veloce’s Essential Buyers Guide to the car - good value, informative softbacks that cost under a tenner and represents money well spent.

Driving

A Beetle makes an ideal starter classic. Despite its unusual confi guration and far-sighted design, it’s actually comfortable to travel long distances in, and there’s reasonable space for four, with fi ve at a pinch.Gearshift is pleasantly light and positive despite the long operating rod to the rear, the brakes (drums all round or disc/drum) are normally reassuring, and the pull-up handbrake feels positive too. Despite the large (15”) wheels and lack of any assistance, the steering is pleasantly light when on the move, though it can be a struggle for parking. It’s the handling that most novices comment on fi rst, though. Rear swingaxles mean treating bends with respect at higher speeds if you want to stay out of the weeds! Go in too fast - worse still, panic and brake in the corner - and the inner wheel can jack up without warning, causing terminal oversteer. It sounds frightening, but sensible driving and anticipation should mean you never encounter it, plus it stands you in good stead if you ever trade up to an old Porsche 356 or 911. Back-seat passengers help weight distribution, and double-jointed rear axle cars are generally much better handlers anyway. Suspension is surprisingly good, though better with some weight on board. The light front end can mean some bounciness, and locking-up front wheels under braking - some owners carry a paving slab or similar in the front boot as ballast. Acceleration was never the Beetle’s strongest suit. The understressed, low-revving engine and high gearing make for stately progress irrespective of engine size, but the car can be wound up to respectable speeds and, in its heyday, would easily hold its own on the new-fangled motorways (until you encountered a gradient!). According to Autocar test fi gures, the 1200 struggles to 60mph in around 28 seconds and barely breaks the national speed limit. The 1300 is some four seconds to the good, although top speed is still just 75mph (although all Beetles are famed for their fl at out cruising abilities). The 1.6 1303 is only as quick as a base Ford Escort or Vauxhall Viva. Interestingly, according to Autocar’s road tests, fuel economy on all cars hovered around the 30mpg mark. It’s a car which has inbuilt refi nement rather than a luxury look. In front of you is the rudimentary fascia, probably metal, with its single dial - a speedo which, depending on year, may incorporate a fuel gauge (otherwise it’s an old car with merely a reserve tap for emergencies!). The steering wheel is big and rather upright, while the clutch and brake pedals sprout from the fl oor and pivot at the bottom. The organ-type, cable throttle pedal can get jerky, and the required angle of your foot can be tiring on a long drive. Heating is by exhaust-warmed air via heat exchangers (which can leak on older cars, allowing dangerous fumes into the cabin). There’s no auxiliary blower fan, so the airfl ow is pitiful and windows mist up easily. However, good old swivelling quarter-lights permit easy ventilation. Tiny wipers leave screen corners uncleared, so visibility in bad weather isn’t the best, while earlier cars had unreliable pneumatic washers.

Prices

Used Beetles have always been good value and lasted well, but the reputation tended to outlast the car. Given the vast spread of ages and models, pricing any Beetle is tricky and open to negotiation. A basket case can go for £50 but will never repay the cost of restoration. As we so often advise, go for the best you can fi nd (subject to our caveats alongside): good, well cared for Beetles are still out there, and the sheer numbers produced mean little rarity effect (yet) on price. The actual model doesn’t affect price much, either, except for genuine limited editions like the World Champion Beetle (commemorating passing the Ford Model-T production record in 1972) where you can double normal prices. Expect to pay from £1500 for any good runner, increasing with general condition up to around £5-6K for a real minter. £2500-£3500 will buy you a respectable daily driver. Late Mexican-built cars are good value at between £4-8000 according to year. Convertibles are a special case. No really good one will cost under £6000, and they alldemand care in buying.

Beetle reborn?

Forget the BMW MINI and the newly announced Fiat 500, the car which really started the retro craze was the launch of the new Beetle at the tail end of the last century. But can you compare this re-bodied Golf with Dr. Porsche’s masterpiece as a classic? After running one we reckon yes, to a degree. Okay, so it’s a completely different animal to the original and yes the engine (and drive) is in the wrong place, but while the two cars have different characters, the flavour essentially remains the same. There’s still that defi nite Beetle look, functional aura and presence on the road but the remake also boasts more refinement and versatility together wi th much pe r k i e r performance from a wide range of engines which even includes a lusty 1.9-litre diesel and a scorching 150bhp 1.8 Turbo taken from the Golf Gti. For the enthusiast who needs a modern for sleep easy ever yday use but wants to be different, it’s hard to ignore the ‘new’ Golf. Our well equipped 1.6 Luna test car (0-60mph, 11.6 seconds/37.7mpg) cost a not unreasonable £12,500, but you can now pick up the fi rst of the 2.0-litre left hand drive versions, which VW shipped in early to satisfy demand, for around £3000 in the classifi eds or around a grand more for the nicer official RHD cars. If you want a good convertible then expect to pay around £8500 still. We enjoyed ourselves a lot with the modern Beetle - far more than we expected. If only it wasn’t so - well - girly…

What To Look For

  • The long production life means there are now many sad, neglected and very rusty cars around. Crazes for various custom styles over the years, such as the ‘Cal Look’ has meant many being butchered, with suspension often lowered by dodgy methods. Try and fi nd a straight, unmolested example as a starting point.
  • With later cars, beware iffy left-to-right hand conversions: not everybody does these properly. Those from reputable importers like Beetles UK are good, but inevitably use some non-standard components.
  • Rust is now the biggest problem. Wings bolt on, so forget them. Body and fl oorpan are separate, so a new chassis isn’t out of the question - even sections are available – but do you want the hassle and expense? Check under mats, under rear seat cushion (where the battery causes corrosion) and around inner wheel arches and base of all body pillars. Side sills (incorporating heater channels) are a common problem area – a proper fi x involves unbolting the body, so bodgers simply fi t new sections by welding them to the fl oorpan.
  • Other worry areas are the torsion bar tube end attachment points, MacPherson strut tops on 1303 models (the least liked or least restored Beetle by the way), light cluster regions (especially post ’68 cars), valance panels and the roof if a sunroof is fi tted.
  • Check in the front compartment for damp, rust and front impact damage. Are the bumper hangers sound? Remove spare wheel and check inside the well - it’s a common rust spot. Are the jack and tools present? Try the jack in both body points - carefully - they’ll often prove too weak to lift the car!
  • Tatty trim or chrome, broken lights etc are not a problem, neither are worn mechanical items like dampers. Tatty running boards don’t matter unless they hide rotten sills. Everything for at least post-’60s cars is readily available and not too pricey from the independents like German Swedish & French, while some earlier stuff can usually be sourced from specialists. Some later parts can be retro-fi tted, but with early cars you’re into diffi cult territory, so take expert advice.
  • The heat exchangers that act as the heater should not be under estimated; faulty ones can kill due to exhaust fumes leaking into the cockpit. Have them checked by an expert if you are unsure.
  • Assume recorded mileage is wrong unless you have real proof - Beetles are too easily clocked! An engine that sounds like an asthmatic lawnmower is normal! Warm it up - rattly tappets and black, treacle-like oil suggest poor maintenance (3000-mile intervals) while a badly worn motor makes the usual noises from mains etc.
  • Check crankcase for serious oil leaks suggesting blown seals or a cracked crankcase, and beware of misfi res, which can mean a burnt-out exhaust valve - not uncommon. Broken valve springs are not unknown either. Happily the engine isn’t diffi cult to get in/out, and replacements are readily available. Beetles run happily on unleaded. It’s air cooled but they can still overheat! Look for broken fi ns and vanes - and see if the thermostat has been removed.
  • Air leaks around the manifolds aren’t unknown especially on post ’71 inlets causing a weak mixture and uneven running. On earlier engines the pre-heat pipe can rust through or become blocked with carbon. On twin port head, check the rubber connections for deterioration.
  • Transmissions are usually robust and just need the usual checks, but the rare semiautomatic needs a special check. It’s a three-speeder where the clutch is actuated as you move the gear lever care of a servo operated clutch - or you can leave it in top and it acts like a fully auto. Faults include leaking torque converters and slipping clutches. Parts are becoming hard to fi nd now and repairs are specialist and costly.
  • Slack steering can mean a new box - or just ball joints. If possible, check play at steering wheel before movement shows in drop-arm – if excessive (more than an inch of slack), it’s the box - is there any adjustment left?
  • Check brakes for pulling, grabbing, noises, and visually - front calipers frequently seize on neglected cars and a look at the disc will probably reveal this. A car sagging to one side could mean broken torsion bars.
  • Suspensions differ over the years. On pre ‘66 cars king pins were used and lack of greasing causes seizure. The torsion bar set up is usually okay; check ride height and watch for listing. Dampers could be worn out too.
  • It wasn’t until the late ‘60s that Beetles gained 12 volt electrics. Earlier cars may have been upgraded as it’s defi nitely worthwhile. Six volts can mean bad staring and miserable lighting performance.
  • Convertibles are specialist territory now, so unless you’re confi dent get an expert inspection. They suffer worse from rust and restoration can be prohibitive. Many cars offered are from the drier US states, but with little history, and often accident damage.
  • The massive specialist aftermarket support for Beetles means that repairs are very easy and inexpensive, making the VW one of the smartest starter classic buys around

Three Of A Kind

Morris Minor
Morris Minor
The British Beetle matches the German for character, frugality, and practicality and beats it on versatility due to a more expansive range and ease of driving. Always high on value, but there are a lot of manky Moggies around at the lower end of the price ladder
Triumph Herald
Triumph Herald
Like the VW it’s made on a chassis, had a tail happy nature and was a quality car in its day. Good spread of models with excellent support although lacks the coolness of the German – if that matters. As the Triumph has never caught on, value for money is there for the taking.
VW Beetle
VW Beetle
We’re talking the reborn 1990s model built upon a Golf Mk3 platform. Style is similar and there’s a good following of these cars too. The sheer fun factor may be lacking but for the price of a top original, you can buy a nice modern that is more usable and could be a future classic bet.

Verdict

If you’re after a starter classic that’s been around for ages yet is still a ‘modern’ in many ways, the VW Beetle has few rivals. It’s an acquired taste for sure, especially to drive, but it’s economical to buy and own with a great spares and club back up. The People’s Car is as classless today as it was when launched and few cheap classics are as trendy or cool to be seen in.



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