Volkswagen Beetle review: pre-war to all-time German car

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Classic VW Beetle Review

Although initially, ‘Volkswagen Beetle’ was considered as the pre-war German ‘people’s car’, till the late seventies, it’s still the world best seller and cult classic. 

Volkswagen Beetle built its reputation slowly, with character and dependability being strong selling points. Few cars inspire such fanatical devotion from their owners as the Beetle either. Only the Mini can match it for longevity in a shape still recognisable as the original. Anything but conservative, the Beetle turned being quite unlike anything else on the planet into a positive.

Volkswagen BeetleThe automotive phenomenon of the 20th century, in its prime the Beetle sold to more people, in more countries, than any other car.

During the 1960s and 1970s, production was more than a million a year, while the Beetle passed the longstanding record of the Ford Model T – 15,007,033 – in 1972. By June 1992, the Beetle had raised the world record for production of a single model to 21 million.

VITAL STATISTICS

Engine 1192cc/4-cyl/OHV
Power [email protected]
Torque 65lb [email protected]
Top speed 72mph
0-60mph 30 seconds
Fuel consumption 32 mpg
Gearbox 4-speed manual

WHAT TO LOOK FOR

BODYWORK & CHASSIS

Before you touch the car, cast an eye carefully over it. Do the doors shut properly? Do all the panels fit correctly? Door gaps should be an even 5mm all round. Uneven gaps could be due to botched pillar repairs or worn hinges. Ideally you want to see a nice clean curve on the wing beading – poor repairs show up in kinks and waviness. Open the door and squeeze the heater channel, in effect the inner sill. If there’s any give, then walk away – find a better car. The panel runs all the way from the rear arches to up alongside the front footwells and is almost impossible to repair properly in sections. You have to do the whole thing, and with so much attached to it, that’s a big job. Three days cutting and welding per side isn’t uncommon.

Roof gutter seams are also very important. If they are starting to come apart or bulge with corrosion, don’t get involved – you’ll never get it right again. It’s quite common, usually starting near the top of the screen pillars. At the back of the car, examine the body mounts. An easy way of telling if there is a problem is to look how close the tailpipes are to the valance cut-outs. There should be a good two fingers’ vertical clearance. If the body mounts collapse, they may even be touching the valance itself.

You might also discover rust in the engine bay, in the triangular plates between the engine and inner wings. Check the rear bumper mounts too, not just for rust either, as repair panels are often slightly out of shape. A clue to problems here is missing bumper iron rubber grommets – they won’t fit if there’s any misalignment, so often get left off. These little things give a feel for how well – or not – a car has been looked after.

Axles rust from the inside out and you’ll often find rot or repairs at the extremities. Don’t underestimate it – strength is rather important here. Try to find a rough road on the test drive and listen for rattles and clonks. In 1966 cars changed from linkpin to balljoint front suspension – uprating earlier cars is a possibility worth considering. On 1972-1974 MacPherson strut-equipped Beetle 1303s, steering boxes tend to wear badly and are costly to replace. UJs aren’t cheap either, so beware of any play in the system.

ENGINE

Volkswagen Beetle engines are well known for their distinctive sound, so a general clacking is perfectly normal. Check carefully for evidence of oil leaks. There will normally be a certain amount from the rocker cover gaskets, which are fairly simple to replace. Much more serious are any from the flywheel area when the engine is running, or around the front pulley. Look for oil having sprayed up on the underside of the engine lid, or for that area being suspiciously clean. Any of these leaks can spell a major rebuild. Due to the engine’s layout, oil naturally seeps into the combustion chambers, so a cloud of smoke on cold-start up isn’t unusual.

Volkswagen Beetle

Provided it clears when running, there’s no problem.

RUNNING GEAR

During a test drive, accelerate hard in second gear, then lift off. If it jumps out of gear the selector is knackered. Try the same thing in third. That aside, gearboxes are very strong and will usually last the life of the car. A rattling gearstick generally means just a broken bush in the linkage, which is a simple fix.

INTERIOR AND ELECTRICS

Prior to August 1967, all Beetles had a six-volt electrical system. Many will already have been converted to twelve-volts, as kit’s fairly easy to do and well worthwhile. All parts can be transferred over from later cars. Most of all though, ensure the loom hasn’t been mucked around with too much.

Early Beetles have body-coloured metal dashboards, while later Volkswagen Beetle cars and 1303s have plastic ones, that can crack badly. Check the heater controls either side of the handbrake work correctly. They should be neither too stiff or too slack – the former could mean they have been disconnected.

VERDICT

If it’s a daily driver you’re after, late models ride and drive better – that fact is inescapable. That said, earlier cars are widely regarded as being more attractive to look at. It all depends on your personal circumstances. The ultimate compromise has to be a 1967 model year (built from August 1966) 1500. This still enjoys the early body shape, complete with sloping front wings, but benefits greatly from the Type 3 engine and many other running gear improvements. If you’re looking to make a splash, top pose value has to come from a Karmann Cabriolet variant.

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