Volkswagen Beetle

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Volkswagen Beetle

1945 - 1977
Flat 4.
1131-1584 cc
25-50 bhp
4 spd. man
Top Speed:
80-135 km/h
Number Built:
3 star
Volkswagen Beetle
Reviewed by Unique Cars and Parts
Our Rating: 3


The car that needs little introduction, Adolf Hitler's dream of building a low-cost car for the masses has proved to be a huge hit for decades and boasts over 21 million sales. Sitting at a restaurant table in Munich in the summer of 1932, Hitler designed the prototype for what would become the immensely successful Beetle design for Volkswagen (literally, the "car of the people").

In an era where only the most economic elite possessed cars, Hitler believed that all people should be able to own a car and additionally thought that a smart design could allow for reliability, enjoyment, and vacation travel. The name given to the car in 1938 was Kraft durch Freude (KdF-Wagen, literally "strength through joy car"). Hitler gave his design to the head of Daimler-Benz, Jakob Werlin, and stressed its importance. "Take it with you and speak with people who understand more about it than I do. But don't forget it. I want to hear from you soon, about the technical details."

The job of designing "the peoples car" went to Ferdinand Porsche - who came up with a rear-engined, air-cooled design. Because of the war very few Volkswagens were actually produced prior to 1939, and production did not continue until 1945, then as a 1100cc model with non-syncro gearbox, cable brakes and very little chrome. It is interesting to note, however, that Adolf Hitler himself owned a Volkswagen that he kept at the Berghof, using it to travel to the "tea house" during inclement weather.

The Great Hitler Swindle

- an excerpt from The Rise and Fall Of The Third Reich
by William L. Shirer

One particular swindle perpetrated by Hitler on the German workers ... had to do with the Volkswagen (the "People's Car") - a brainstorm of the Fuehrer himself. Every German, or at least every German workman, he said, should own an automobile - just as in the United States. Heretofore in this country where there was only one motorcar for every fifty persons (compared to one for every five in America) the workman had used a bicycle or public transportation to get about.

Now Hitler decreed that a car should be built for him to sell for only 990 marks - US$396 at the then official rate of exchange. He himself, it was said, took a hand in the actual designing of the car, which was done under the supervision of the Austrian automobile engineer Dr. Ferdinand Porsche. Since private industry could not turn out a car for 990 marks, Hitler ordered the State to build it and placed the Labor Front in charge of the project.

Dr. Ley's organisation promptly set out in 1938 to build at Fallersleben, near Braunschweig "the biggest automobile factory in the world", with a capacity for turning out a million and a half cars a year - "more than Ford", the Nazi propogandists said. The Labor Front advanced fifty million marks in capital. But that was not the main financing. Dr. Ley's ingenious plan was that the workers themselves should furnish the capital by means of what became known as a "pay-before-you-get-it" installment plan - five marks a week, or if a worker thought he could afford it, ten or fifteen marks a week.

When 750 marks had been paid in, the buyer received an order number entitling him to a car as soon as it could be turned out. Alas for the worker, not a single car was ever turned out for any customer during the Third Reich. Tens of millions of marks were paid in by the German wage earners, not a pfenning of which was ever to be refunded. By the time the war started the Volkswagen factory turned to the manufacture of goods more useful to the Army.

The Post War Beetle

Growing in size from 1131cc to 1200cc through the 1950's, the range expanded with the attractive Karmann Ghia sports models and a cabriolet with a pram-like hood. As other vehicles became faster and more powerful, the beetle too had larger engines installed (1300 and 1500 models) throughout the 60's. Buyers did however start to tire of the Beetles noisy and slow characteristics, and German made beetles began to decline after VW introduced the front-engined Golf in 1974. While European production finally ceased in 1977, the humble Beatle is today somewhat of a 'cult' car, and "split-window" models from the early 50's, as well as Karmann Ghiaand Cabriolet models can command high prices.

But it was to be a full 70 years after Adolf Hitler's government introduced Germans to a two-door passenger car that production was finally to come to a halt. Competition from newer compacts and a Mexican government decision to phase out two-door taxis led Volkswagen to shut down its only remaining "bug" production line at its plant in Puebla, 65 miles southeast of Mexico City in July 2003.

Sturt Griffith's Road Test

A name synonymous with quality automotive journalism in the 1950s was Sturt Griffith. He would take all cars on offer in any particular year, then drive it over a punishing course to determine what was good, and bad, with a particular car. Obviously his yardstick was the best on offer in any particular year - and something we do not have the benefit of today. While we make every endeavour to judge a car on its contemporaries, sometimes it is very difficult. We refer to many of his road tests in compiling our own, but for the record, the Volkswagen Beetle review below remains as told in 1957.

Very occasionally a designer produces a car which continues basically unchanged for many years. Such a case was the Citroen Light Fifteen, which enjoyed popularity throughout the world for some 20 years. Now the Volkswagen is within an ace of the Citroen record. The VW was demonstrated to the world in 1939, and today it approaches the zenith of its popularity, rather than falling into a decline. It is significant that both of these cars were unorthodox. Their virtues did not spring from this fact alone, but from two particularly sound designs which had little in common with the usual run of cars of their day. Either of these classic examples should provide ample encouragement for those who one day will liberate us from the bonds of conventionality, in the form of long outmoded and now inefficient chassis designs.

The VW is, of course, an unusual ear. It is not my object to add to the controversy which has long persisted as to why it has good or bad features. Rather shall I record my observations on its actual behaviour on a road test. This car has personality, principally based upon the qualities of its quick steering, its eager cornering, it superb riding on bad roads and its foolproof gear change. I think that only in its rather over-enthusiastic cornering on wet roads is it open to criticism. The skilled and experiencec driver will enjoy this characteristic, whereas the novice must approach it with care until it is understood and mastered.

On the Road

The cornering characteristics of the VW change far more noticeably than do those of the conventional car. from the light load to the full load condition. The difference should be noticed and remembered by new owners, until the behaviour of the car is anticipated instinctively. All of this may sound difficult or involved. It is really nothing to be concerned about, but I am genuinely of the opinion that a new owner should give intelligent thought to the driving of the VW. They will be a better driver of this, or of any other car, by so doing. Perhaps the enjoyment resulting from skilful driving of the VW makes an important contribution to the popularity of the car. The actual road performance of the VVV is dominated by its very high gearing in top.

Perhaps the enjoyment resulting from skilful driving of the VW makes an important contribution to the popularity of the car. The actual road performance of the VW is dominated by its very high gearing in top. This is quite the highest top gear fitted in a small car. Its purpose is to clearly keep down engine revs when touring in flattish country, to allow full throttle driving for indefinite periods, and to economise on fuel. Inevitably, such a high top gear brings with it poor hill climbing and acceleration in that ratio.

There are some features of the VW which will cause adverse comment. No one enjoys the whine in third gear, particularly as this ratio must be used a great deal. The absence of any form of front floor ventilation is regrettable as, in spite of a rear engine, road heat can engender slightly uncomfortable conditions in mid-summer. Leg room is restricted in the rear compartments, the rear windows of which do not open. The gears used, and speeds recorded, on the test hills were:
  • LAPSTONE (average grade 1 in 16, maximum 1 in 13): Top gear at 40-53-38-41 mph.
  • BODINGTON (average grade 1 in Hi): Top gear, with third for the last 200 yards, at 50-30-36 mph.
  • LETT RIVER (1 in 12, maximum 1 in 8+): Third gear in a consistent climb at 40-31-41 mph.
  • SCENIC HILL (1 in 10, maximum 1 in 8): Third gear at 50-25-28 mph.
  • MOUNT TOMAH (1 in 12, maximum 1 in 9): After a start in top, a lively climb in third, at 50-35-42 mph
  • KURRAJONG, WEST (1 in 12.5): Top and third gears in equal proportions, at 50-40-43 mph.
Overall top gearing yields a road speed of 20 mph at 1,000 engine revs. The power loaded weight ratio is 41.1 bhp per ton. with a load of 3 cwt. Owing to its high top gear, the VW has an effortless cruising speed around 65 mph in flattish country. It is however, much affected by hills and winding roads, when third gear will frequently be used. There is never any need to consider the engine in top gear, for it manifestly cannot be over-speeded. The car can be driven at full throttle for as long as the owner desires. At the other end of the scale, the VW is not happy in top gear at low speeds, and particular drivers will change down generally below about 35 mph. if prompt response is required.

The car pulls best around 40 mph in top gear, where its maximum torque of 56 lb-ft- is developed. Free use must be made of the gearbox to obtain good acceleration in the town driving ranges. For best results, second gear should be used up to 30 m.p.h,. third gear up to. 40 mph, and top gear over that speed. The engine is. however, smooth (if leisurely) from 25 mph in top gear. Times for acceleration are; Third gear: 20-40 mph, 8.5 seconds: 30-50 mph 9.8seconds, Top gear: 20-40 mph. 4.8 seconds, 30-50 mph. 15.9 seconds. The VW corners quite eagerly and at moderate speeds it shows no unusual tendencies at all. If, however, the car is cornered hard, say on greasy roads, the slip angle of the rear wheels increases noticeably and gives the car an over-steering tendency.

In other words, the car must then be steered out of the corner rather than into it. This characteristic occurs more pronouncedly without rear-seat passengers, for .when the car is fully laden its cornering is virtually normal. Again, this over-steering tendency is pleasant when one learns to handle it. It makes cornering very easy, light and quick. Without the rear seat loaded, the rear wheels tend to slide rather readily, but they can be controlled without difficulty. Riding is really excellent on rough roads, and the suspension is particularly well suited to country work. With a light load on average bitumen roads, the suspension will be regarded as a trifle firm.

The worm-and-sector steering gear has not a great deal of self-centring action, nor quite as much "feel" as is common today. It is light in action, but on the test car was inclined to stick slightly on small movements from the straight ahead. Only 2.5 turns are required from lock to lock, so that the steering is pleasantly quick. It was also free from any bad reaction over the roughest roads. The turning circle is quite large for the size of the car, at 36ft. Pedal pressures were somewhat higher than is found in many modern light cars, but results were satisfactory. The brakes proved themselves to be quite free from fade and their action was at all times even. Brake lining area is 80.6 sq. in. The handbrake is of the pull-up type, at the driver's left hand. It stopped the car quite readily down a gradient of 1 in 8.

1938 KDF Wagen

1952 VW Beetle

1952 VW Beetle

1953 VW Beetle

1968 VW Beetle

1973 VW Beetle

Behind the Wheel

The arrangement of controls for the driver is quite satisfactory, but one must remember that this is a small car. The individual driver's seat is comfortable and is adjustable for both leg length and squab inclination. The steering column is heavily raked, the wheel is in a pleasingly low position, and forward vision is good. The rear window is high (over the engine), and has not the area now. generally found. The driver's window requires 3 1/8 turns of its winder. The single instrument is a speedometer directly before the driver. Small warning lights are provided for other units. The pedals are set rather high and their spacing is none too great. The central floor gearshift is good, in spite of a rather long movement. The synchromesh is second to none in the world, and allows instantaneous changes between any of the three top ratios.

Access to the ancillaries of the rear engine is particularly good. However, tappets must be adjusted from beneath, and it is usual to remove the engine in order to effect decarbonisation. The VW is based upon a platform chassis built around a tubular backbone, and independently supported b\ trailing arms and torsion bars at each corner. The engine drives forward to a differential and an all-indirect gearbox, the main ratios of which are: top 3.6, third 5.4 and second gear 8.3 to 1. Engine bore and stroke are 77 by 64 mm, compression ratio is low at 6.6 to 1. and specific power output is only moderate at 29.4 bhp per litre. The engine is cooled by a fan, the exhaust from which is used as a very efficient heater and demister. A great deal has been done to reduce fan noise, and it is now virtually silent except for a slight hum around 55 to 60 mph

The two wide doors give easy access to the front seats, the squabs of which incline forward to permit access to the rear compartment. The front individual seats are 19iin wide and the rear bench seat is 51 in across. Both are comfortable with rubber over springs, and covering is of synthetic material. The rear seat may be folded or removed quite quickly to convert the rear compartment into a carrying space. Leg and head room are good in front, but space in the rear compartment is severely limited. A heating and demisting system is provided, but there is no means of delivering cold air to the floor. The front windows are fitted with ventilating panels, but the rear windows are fixed. The "safety circle" in the windscreen, before the driver, has been restored in the current model. Luggage accommodation is confined to space behind the rear seat, and under the front bonnet, in which latter compartment the spare wheel and petrol tank are also carried. The total luggage accommodation is approximately 7 cu. ft.

The 1958 Series II Beetle

After its 1945 introduction the Beetle had become popular in every country where it was exported and sold - and was hailed as a post-war phenomenon. In Australia in particular the small German car achieved outstanding success. It was so popular that Volkswagen, wisely, did not want to mess too much with the formula. Instead VW introduced a new model with sensible body changes which enhanced the driving comfort and safety angles, while retaining its simple, efficient and functional appearance, and in turn its high re-sale value.

The most obvious change was to the front and rear windscreens. The front was increased by 17 percent thanks largely to slimmer pillars, while the rear was increased a whopping 45 percent. There was a flatter registration plate "pocket", shorter grooves for air-cooling of the engine compartment, a new air-cleaner, duct and tubes to carry rain water clear of the engine compartment, faster windscreen wipers which swept a greater area (actual wiper blade speed was increased by 50 percent.), more comfortable front seats, a flat accelerator pedal, two-tone plastic interior trim, redesigned facia panel which included provision for a radio speaker, a 50 per cent, larger glove box and a new throw-out mechanism on the clutch which cut down on actual foot pressure required to operate the unit. The overall performance of the car was fractionally better. The rear end of the car was improved and helped give a "fastback" appearance.

Road testers noted that the adjustable front seats seemed to mould round the body more than on older models and helped to reduce fatigue on long trips - something very important in Australia. The improvements to clutch and accelerator pedals made driving the car easier and heel and toe gear changes were now relatively easy. Another small change not listed in the specification sheets was to the rear vision mirror and sun visor. The mirror was slightly larger and the base plate more strongly cast.

The riding and cornering characteristics of the Series II Beetle were unchanged. The ride was inclined to be taut at low speeds but smoothed out over 30 mph The all-independent suspension by transverse torsion bars took all surfaces in its stride while the traction obtained by having the engine over the rear wheels made this a car which could go practically anywhere. The oversteer characteristic remained, pronounced on wet roads where a greater amount of care needed be exercised by the driver than if they were driving a normal front-engined car. Owners soon discoverred the "wiping" cornering technique the best, that is, by deliberately causing small rear end breakaways entering and rounding a corner and correcting them before a large slide develops.

The body roll was slight and there was very little noise from the tyres when these exercises were adopted. Over pot-holed roads, much more common in the late 1950s and early 1960s, even at speed the inexperienced driver would find it hard to bottom the suspension - and even under these conditions the steering would remain light, positive and shock free - unheard of for an economy car from the era. One of the more common complaints from owners of the first Beetle's was that in the rear seat there was a higher noise level than in "conventional" cars. This was definitely true - and the Series II did little to address the issue. But at least the back seats were reasonably comfortable. Under the front bonnet there was room for one large suitcase, but not much else. The spare wheel is easily accessible and the petrol tank filler simple to get at. The performance of the Series II Beetle remained virtually unchanged - but then so to did the price, at least here in Australia.

The 1967 Beetle

The Beetle underwent significant changes for the 1967 model. While the car appeared similar to earlier models, much of the drivetrain was noticeably upgraded. Some of the changes included a larger-displacement engine for the second year in a row. Horsepower had been increased to 37 kW (50 hp) the previous year, and for 1967 it was increased even more, to 40 kW (54 hp). On U.S. models, the output of the generator was increased from 180 to 360 watts, and upgraded from a 6-volt to a 12-volt system. The clutch disc also increased in size, and changes were made to the flywheel, braking system, and rear axle. New standard equipment included two-speed windscreen wipers, reversing lights, a driver's armrest on the door, locking buttons on the doors, and a passenger's side exterior mirror.

The 1967 model weighed 840 kg (1,900 lb), which was a typical weight for a European car at this time. That same year, in accord with the newly enacted U.S. Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 108, the clear glass headlamp covers were deleted; the headlamps were brought forward to the leading edge of the front fenders, and the sealed-beam units were exposed and surrounded by chrome bezels. For the 1968 model year, Beetles sold outside North America received the same more upright and forward headlamp placement, but with replaceable-bulb headlamps compliant with ECE regulations rather than the U.S. sealed beams.

The Automatic Beetle

The automatic Beetle was a totally new car. There was almost nothing in the 1500 automatic that can be interchanged with the 1300. Even the wheels and body panels were different. At A$2128 it also represented good value. It obviously retained the familiar Beetle profile, but evolution had given the shape bigger windows, new lights back and front, new high bumpers and outside fuel filler. Many of the changes were made to conform with US Government safety specifications. The automatic transmission was similar to the Sportomatic box that went into Porsches; the VW's auto was a three speed gearbox linked to the engine by a Borg-Warner torque converter that provided a maximum reduction of 2.1 to 1. You could maintain full control over the box by simply moving it around like a normal three-speeder, except that a micro-switch in the lever actuated the automatic servo clutch disengagement. If you wanted to be lazy you could select top or second and the torque converter would do the rest with sufficient multiplication for lively performance. For normal driving it was easy enough to change manually, but around town it was better to leave the lever in second or top positions.

The automatic Beetle was smooth, silent and top was high enough to give reasonable open road cruising. However, the driver and front seat passenger needed to be careful not to knock the gearlever accidentally, as it instantly disengaged the drive train with the possibility of violent over-revving. Because the automatic transmission had different physical dimensions from the manual's, VW found it necessary to alter the back suspension set-up. This completely changed the Beetle's handling. The halfshafts, instead of coming straight from the gearbox casing, were angled back to the outboard assemblies. The shafts were jointed at both ends with sliding-ball universal - the lot was located with trailing arms. This no-camber-change back suspension did won ders for road manners. Oversteering was a thing of the past.

Torsion bars were still the suspension medium, but now the back was softer with substantial benefits in riding qualities. The engineers also modified the front suspension, using ball joints which extended lube intervals to 6000 miles. Disc front brakes and a split-circuit hydraulic system updated the Beetle's stopping to match US requirements and the additional performance. Although not servo-assisted, pedal pressure was light and stopping power good. The cabin was also updated. The steering wheel was the same shape but had a collapsible column section - It was secured with plastic rivets that gave way under impact, dropping down rather than spearing up.

Minor controls were flat and flexible, door handles recessed, winder knobs flexible and the fresh air/heater system was vastly improved. Window area was up by 25 percent for improved visibility. Screen washers were standard and the wipers had two speeds. Headroom front and rear was marginally better, with the seats being mounted slightly lower. The front squabs locked and had manual releases high up on the squab sides. Noise levels were lower than in any previous VW. The single carburetted 1493cc flat four was still under-stressed, running on a 7.5 to 1 compression ratio for 53 horsepower (gross) at 4200 rpm with 78 ft/lb at 2000 rpm. A quick starter hot or cold, the engine used an automatic choke. The twelve-volt electrics introduced in 1967 made the lighting much better, with less glare. The bumpers were higher, bonnet catch had safety lock, fuel filler was now external. But more importantly, the Beetle in automatic guise was still fun to drive and lost none of the cars character.

The SuperBug

With the introduction of the Super-Bug in 1971, VW showed it was capable of building a Beetle that held a respectable amount of luggage and, finally, seemed able to solve the sideways shift in anything above a slight breeze. And, of course, there was still that superb Volkswagen finish that can't be faulted. The new deeply curved windscreen was a good six inches ahead of the dash, now thickly padded and looking good. For the driver at least, the effect was less claustrophobic. That was a pretty big step for Volkswagens - since the first prototypes in the early thirties, Beetle drivers had to suffer that "enclosed" feeling.

The dash itself was made more aesthetically pleasing than the old Spartan affair. Gone were the protruding knobs and bare metal, replaced by thick padding, matt black vinyl and piano accordion switches. It was a completely different effect that had never been seen before on a Beetle. The same could be said for the instruments. Even the glove box was a vast improvement on previous models. The '73 Super Bug's glove box had no less than three compartments - a large horizontal compartment and two smaller ones underneath. And it was lined with brushed nylon, adding to the overall well-finished effect.

But there were still some faults. For instance, the demisting controls were still mounted at floor level at each side of the car. It was a small lever, difficult to reach unless you were good with your toes. The fresh air outlets were re-located, but were hardly an improvement – but at least they did their job properly. In the 1972 model there was a fresh air outlet in front of the driver that gave out about the same amount of air as a very slow leaking tyre. For 1973 Volkswagen incorporated two fresh air outlets mounted in the centre of the dash. They were infinitely adjustable in a horizontal plane, but could not be directed above rib level. Despite this defect, the booster fan (another 1973 addition) did its work well and was a vast improvement for the Super Bug.

Wiper-washer controls and hi-low beam-indicator controls remained the same - the stalks on either side of the steering column – and they were effective. The wipers themselves were adjusted to wipe a greater area of glass and clean right to the right-hand side of the windscreen. Another small modification made in 1973 was the introduction of new, thicker rubbers on the gearbox mountings, which helped keep noise down. The other main alteration to the 1973 model was the re-designed tail lights. They were arguably the biggest tail-lights (incorporating backing lights and indicators) then seen on a car this size.
1949 VW Beetle

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