Curbside Classic: 1969 Volkswagen 1600 Type 3 Fastback – Fast In Name Only

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The Type 3 is a polarizing car, and it was so from its very beginning in the summer of 1961. Reaction to it largely depended on one’s relationship to the Beetle: for those that thought of the Beetle as a slow poor-man’s Porsche 356 (and many did in the fifties), the Type 3 narrowed the gap substantially: an affordable Porsche sedan. Buyers who bought a Beetle because it was cool or just cheap, but came to hate its many shortcomings and would really rather have had a Mustang or a Cutlass, the Type 3 was totally wasted on them. It was still all Volkswagen under its thick-gauge skin.

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The Type 3 VW first appeared in the traditional notchback sedan format. It was  a highly anticipated car in Europe, as the whole continent watched and waited to see how and when Volkswagen would finally address the obvious shortcomings of the then 25 year old Beetle. Germans were quickly becoming more affluent, and the rest of the industry rightfully targeted their growing purchasing power with mid-level cars like the Borgward Isabella, the BMW 1500/1800, and of course the ever popular mid level Opels and German Fords. VW was late to the party, and everyone was in a high state of anticipation.

The VW 1500, as it was called, was decidedly a mixed bag. One could rightfully say it was nothing more than a Beetle wrapped in a stylish new dress: it rode on the same wheelbase and somewhat wider platform frame mighty similar to the Beetle. Yes, the track was widened at the rear (as was the Beetle’s a few years later), but the front suspension was fundamentally the same, and the engine was classic VW: the same basic case, with bigger bore cylinders, a longer stroke, as well as a re-arranged cooling system where the fan was on the back end of the crankshaft (pancake), allowing a drastic reduction in the engine’s height.

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For those that were expecting VW to do something actually new, like FWD, water cooling, a roomy body or a modern high-rpm OHC engine were sorely disappointed, and had to wait over a decade until the Audi-based Passat came along. A whole slew of the Beetle’s biggest shortcomings were not improved, or not enough so: the heater was still inadequate, handling on long fast sweepers invariably induced oversteer, and rear seat egress and leg room was still subpar. How hard would it have been for VW to lengthen the platform by four inches, add rear doors, and make it a legitimate sedan capable of carrying four adults in comfort?

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(In Brazil, VW did make a four door version of the Type 3, but still on the same wheelbase, so rear leg room wasn’t any better either.)

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The answer is obvious: the Type 3 was initially built right alongside the Type 1 (Beetle) in Wolfsburg, and it was cheaper and more expedient to make it a “Super Beetle” rather than a truly new car, or even just a slightly longer one. It largely solved the problem in Europe where Beetle fatigue set in much sooner than in the US. That also explains why VW didn’t import Type 3s to the US until 1966, even though the rest of the world was worthy of them since 1962.

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That’s not to say there wasn’t a busy gray market importing Type 3s from Germany to the US. Even VW dealers were doing it, to keep their loyal customers happy looking for an upgrade, although the price was stiff: about $3,000 ($21k adjusted) in 1964, when a US Beetle was going for $1595. Quite a premium for better visibility, more trunk room and twenty-five horsepower. When the Type 3s where finally imported by VW, that premium dropped substantially: this 1969 listed at $2295, vs. $1799 for a ’69 Beetle.

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I happen to have an April 1964 Car and Driver in my lap, which devotes the bulk of the issue analyzing why VW wasn’t importing the Type 3, and the ins and outs of gray imports. Production constraints was one of them, since VW was building a huge new factory in Emden, where Type 3 production was eventually moved to from Wolfsburg. And as long as the Beetle was still red hot in the US, VW didn’t feel any particular need to supplant it. Another theory was that VW at the time was anxious about the huge success of the Beetle, and the impact it had on the US industry and the trade imbalance with Germany. Since gray market imports where technically “used cars”, they didn’t add to the swelling official VW sales numbers, and so VWoA did little to impede them.

That issue of C/D also tested a 1500 S (65 hp twin carb) Notchback, and put its finger on its pros and cons. It certainly was nippier than the 40 hp Beetle, especially in the first two gears. And it could hit alofty 88 mph, eventually. But 0-60 took still eighteen seconds, glacially slow for today’s standards. They loved the superb visibility instead of sitting in a cave. And the build quality, down to every little piece of heavily chromed interior trim, was absolutely world class. But it still handled like a Beetle, jacking up on its rear swing axles on fast curves. The revised trailing arm rear suspension was still a few years away.

By 1966, the Emden plant was in full swing and Americans were finally worthy of Type 3s, even though they were already looking pretty out of date by then. But the notchback sedan was supplanted by this new fastback body style (the notchback was never officially imported, and went out of production in 1970), along with the very versatile Variant wagon (Squareback). Was VW influenced by the resurgence of  fastbacks in the US during the mid-sixties? The Barracuda and Mustang fastback ignited a new fad for the swoopy tails, and soon all of Detroit got in the act. It seems kind of ironic that ultra-conservative VW would fall for such a fad.

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But there were some compensations, including a rear trunk somewhat bigger than the notchback. Combined with the front trunk,

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the Fastback was a bit of a Swiss Army knife, and made good use of the low and flat pancake motor, as a young Dustin Hoffman points out in this famous “where’s the engine?” ad for the Fastback:

Presumably, he got the job because his short stature makes the Fastback look larger than life; an old Detroit ad trick.

Undoubtedly, the Squareback was even more practical: it offered a front trunk in addition to a tall rear cargo area. It deserves its own CC, so we’ll honor it then. But let’s talk about one of the more remarkable features that both Type 3s came with starting in 1968: electronic fuel injection.

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This was a very big deal at the time. Sure, the much more expensive Mercedes could be had with Einspritzer, but these were pricey mechanical units. The Bosch D-Jetronic was the mother of all modern electronic fuel injection systems, employing a vacuum sensor in the intake manifold to measure air mass, as well as several other sensors to determine temperature, engine speed and a few other parameters. An analog ECU made all the requisite calculations. And it worked like a charm: easy starting, no stalling, stumbling or flat spots. The same basic characteristics that were going to make fuel injection the next big thing in Detroit in the late fifties on luxury and performance cars was now standard, on a Volkswagen. And it would take over two more decades before proper port injection finally became common on American cars.

Ironically, Bosch’s Jetronic system was based heavily on the Bendix FI system patents, which was briefly optional on some American cars in the late fifties before teething problems and high prices quickly had Detroit spending the money on taller fins instead.

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VW did give the Type 3 a nose job in 1970, pushing it forward and squaring it off to increase the trunk space as well as improve safety a wee bit, presumably. I’ve had one of the later ones in the can for ages (lower in photo above), but I prefer the original, and I’m glad I held out. They’re getting pretty hard to find anymore too.

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This particular car, which its brand new owner proudly showed off to me, was a one-owner car that was obviously well kept, including a long period of little use. He was thrilled to find it in a newspaper ad (what’s that?). And it still runs like a sewing machine with its fuel injection intact. Sadly, or foolishly, many Type 3 owners tore out the Bosch and replaced it with a retrograde twin carb set-up, being intimidated by repairing it. In reality, these are quite rugged and fairly simple to fix, at least for someone inducted into the school of Jetronic.

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The Fastback was a bit of an oddity: was it supposed to be sporty, or luxurious, or just a high-priced VW? Its appeal and sales were undoubtedly to those upgrading from a Beetle; it’s hard to imagine someone trading in a Cutlass for one. But for some, its familiar qualities, and just the quality of a Volkswagen were a habit hard to break, except with a Mercedes perhaps. And even today, its Germanic charms are seductive, but it would have to be without the automatic, thank you, even if it is spelled out in letters of such obvious high quality.