Used Volkswagen Beetle review: 1945-1996
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The humble Beetle was able to do something Adolf Hitler couldn’t, it conquered the world. The Beetle was Hitler’s idea to give his people a cheap and cheerful car, but by the time it went out of production in the 1990s more of them had been built than any other car, the Ford Model T included, in history. While it was conceived as an affordable car for the masses, and served that purpose very well, it also became an icon.
In the 1950s it was admired for its toughness in winning a number of Round Australia trials that tested the ultimate durability of cars of the day, in the 1960s it became a very visible symbol of the peace movement. All along it was highly regarded for its reliability and frugality. It was basic transport delivered in an endearing package.
The VW Beetle, while conceived by Hitler in the 1930s, was designed by Dr. Ferdinand Porsche, one of the most gifted automotive designers of all times. Porsche responded to Hitler’s brief by designing one of the simplest, most efficient cars that has ever put rubber to road. It had to be cheap and cheerful if the public was to be able to afford it.
Remember it was conceived in a time when cars were still out of the reach of most people, the VW was to be Hitler’s gift to his people. It was to put the German people on wheels much like the Model T Ford did for Americans, and many other people, in the early part of the 20th century.
Porsche’s design was based on a simple platform chassis, at one end of which was a rudimentary torsion bar independent suspension, while at the other end was an engine and gearbox with a swing axle independent suspension which also featured torsion bar springing.
The engine was an air-cooled overhead valve flat four-cylinder engine of a capacity of 1.1 litres, although this would steadily increase over the years. The engine’s output was a modest 19 kW in the first instance, and while this would increase with the passage of time it was always quite modest. Porsche linked the engine to a four-speed manual gearbox, which was slung from the rear of the engine and would contribute to the Beetle’s reputation for being an awkward handling vehicle, at least in the early years.
Most drivers of the time were more accustomed to cars powered by an engine at the front and driven through the rear wheels, a combination generally conducive to safe understeer, that’s when the front wheels want to steer a wider arc than the rear wheels and the car tends to run wide, and many were caught out by the Beetle’s habit of oversteering when the driver lifted their foot of the gas pedal while cornering.
Stories are legend of Beetles flipping over or spinning off the road after drivers were surprised by this less than endearing habit. Once it became known and drivers were aware of it, and knew how to combat it, it was less of a concern.
The Beetle’s body is perhaps the most endearing part of the car. It looks cute, even today when it’s still one of the most recognised cars on the road, but more importantly to Porsche it was also aerodynamically efficient. With just 19 kW on tap aerodynamic efficiency was important when one of Hitler’s demands was that the Beetle be capable of returning 8.1 L/100 km while capable of a top speed of 100 km/h.
Inside, the Beetle was equally austere with few frills to make life on the road comfortable. There was a basic heating system with heated air from the engine compartment directed into the cabin through ducts in the floor, but little else.
On the road the Beetle had quite good performance for the time, and it improved over the years as more power was extracted from the engine, it was economical, and there was a characteristic rattle from the engine.
IN THE SHOP
The great thing about the Beetle is that maintenance is relatively easy for a novice or home mechanic, and it makes a great vehicle on which to learn the basics of automotive mechanics if you’re so inclined. Parts are generally available from VW specialists who can also provide expert advice and servicing if you don’t feel inclined to do your own work.
Like all old cars condition is the key thing to consider before purchase. A car in run down condition, particularly in the body, will cost a small fortune to refurbish and won’t be worth the cost of investment when you come to sell it. On the other hand if you buy a car in good general condition that doesn’t require much work to bring it up to good roadworthy condition it won’t put a strain on the budget and your final investment shouldn’t exceed the value of the car on the used car market.
Check for rust in the doors and the rear quarter panels, and look for signs of water leakage from the windshield, which suggests rust around the windscreen flange. Also check the floors, front and rear, for rust, and lift the rear seat as water can accumulate there and lead to rust in the floor.
Mechanically the Beetle is a fairly simple package and fun to work on. Look for vague steering, which could indicate wear in the front-end, steering gear, or shot shockers. The engine is quite robust and hard to kill, but look for oil leaks and the condition of the oil to reassure yourself it’s been serviced. Likewise the gearbox has a reputation for being indestructible, but check to make sure it doesn’t jump out of gear and gears can be selected without baulking. If either of those problems are noticed, the gearbox needs attention.
IN A CRASH
The Beetle was built before the advent of things like airbags and other safety systems fitted to modern cars, so you have to rely on the body structure itself to protect you in a crash. It’s quite a sturdy little car so there’s reasonable crash protection. Carefully inspect any seat belts that might be fitted and replace them if they show signs of wear.
Twenty-year-old Jessica Begovic has owned her 1968 VW Beetle 1500 since she was 16 and has spent quite a bit of money on it renewing the exhaust, brakes. door and rear window seals, repairing some oil leaks and repainting it. Even though it is older than most other cars on the road, lacks the performance of a modern car, the engine sounds like a lawn mower in the back seat, it doesn’t have air-conditioning, and the ride isn’t very smooth she loves her car and wouldn't trade it for anything. Overall she says it is a reliable, if not cramped and quirky little car, with tons more character and personality than anything put on the road since.
• Cute styling
• Modest performance
• Great fuel economy
• Admirable reliability
• Body rust
THE BOTTOM LINE
Great classic car that is still capable of being driven daily.
|Year||Price From||Price To|
Range and Specs
|1200 Deluxe||1.2L, Leaded, 4 SP MAN||$1,710 – 2,530||1960 Volkswagen Beetle 1960 1200 Deluxe Pricing and Specs|
Lowest price, based on third party pricing data