One of things that never ceases to amaze me about Eugene is just how many old VW Beetles are still in daily driver use. One day I was running an errand, and I swear I counted eight or nine, parked or in traffic. And that’s just in the course of maybe forty-five minutes or less. I should really document them all, before they disappear. Never mind; they’ll never disappear. This is a forty-three year old car designed eighty years ago still being used as a daily driver, and I’ll bet there will still be some being used that way when the design is a hundred years old.
I’ve got Beetles on the brain, as I’m in the midst reading Karl Ludvigsen’s excellent book “Battle for the Beetle”, which covers the years from the start of the project through the rise of VW in the 1950s, including Ford’s clear interest in merging VW with its German operations, which only didn’t happen because the Ford exec in charge never really followed through. Now that would have changed history.
There’s a lot of detail that I hadn’t read before; the VW story is an amazing one, and I never tire of it. Hitler set out to build the first true European mass-produced car (1 million per year), at a time when the whole German auto industry was producing 127,000 cars per year. He wanted VW to follow Henry Ford’s footsteps; a bold and brazen undertaking, which was only delayed by the war, and then came back from a near-death to take the world by storm. And today VW is much bigger than Ford.
And looking at this shot, I see we have all of the global Big Three represented. And in a rather representative manner, at that. The Beetle spearheaded the import invasion in the US and launched VW into the big leagues. The Lexus represents Japan’s remarkable ability to co-opt the American premium market. And GM is making the lion’s share of its profits with trucks.
Now that’s a driver. Aside from harsher climate, one of the hurdles to having a CC as a daily driver here is insurance. When I had my 63 beetle on the road my regular insurance company basically told me no thank you, so I had to get classic car insurance which has use and storage restrictions. What a nuisance.
State Farm gladly sells me regular full coverage on the ’69 Karmann Ghia.
I insured my ’91 Vanagon through them. My agent raised an eyebrow when I asked for collision coverage on the 25 year old van with clattering lifters and all sorts of groans, squeaks, and odd smells that just pulled in to his lot. He actually was trying to talk me out of it until he did a quick check on the comparable to other similar vehicles and was like “Ohhhh…. OK yeah lets do that”. VW’s retain their value for years like none other. They depreciate quickly but will hit the price floor equally as fast and in good condition will stay there for years. Unless you own a MkIV Passat you poor sorry bastard. Nobody wants to deal with oil sludge problems and Audi-level maintenance costs on that beast when you could have a real luxury badge of the same vintage for only a little more or something a hell of a lot more reliable or at least cheaper to repair for a similar price.
i have not read anything to support this but i can imagine that hitler or any leader for that matter knows that a robust manufacturing sector translates quite well to military needs during a time of war or crisis.
he probably also saw an opportunity for germany, which was dirt poor due to reparations after ww1, to increase its economy by simple, basic transportation to all of western europe.
For Hitler, the Volkswagen was a win, win, win:
1. It gave the average German something to dream about, a dream that he could still (eventually) afford. This was also incredibly good public relations.
2. It was a wonderful excuse to build a plant that could turn out lots of units, be the civilian cars, jeeps, or whatever else the Wehrmacht needed.
3. It was another opportunity to cut the unemployment figures down a couple of more points.
Biggest fly in the ointment is that Germany ended up in war in 1939, not 1943 like Hitler had originally planned.
Like everyone of my generation I owned an old VW at one point in my life, and put a quarter of a zillion miles on it. I can only estimate since the odometer had long since packed up by the time I got it, but the car probably ran -at least- 250,000 miles during its life. It was 11 years old when I got it, and 16 years old when I sold it and I know it was in use for at least 4 more years before I lost track of it. To give a visual image of how many mile it ran the metal around the butterfly valve on the carburator finally wore out and I had to replace the carb. The big virtue of the VW was that not so much that it was reliable, but more importantly, that it was infinitely repairable. I used to say that ‘ there is nothing on a VW you can’t repair for a hundred dollars, but there is no limit on the number of things to be repaired’. Still, things generally wore out rather than broke, so it was hard to complain much. I really came to respect that car, and to like it despite its many shortcomings, like a heater system that would melt plastic if it was put on the floor of the back seat area but which couldn’t melt snow on the floor of the front seat area let alone defog a windshield.
Would I buy one today? Probably not, but I would think about it for a while before saying no.
I think that this is about my favorite period of Beetle manufacture. I like the larger taillights, that style of steel wheels and hubcaps and everything about it just seems “right” to me. Also, the engine is enough to “keep up” in town. And I really love the roof rack!
The one quality of the Bug that strikes me now is its inefficiency. Poor gas mileage for a small car, and remarkably poor usage of ‘footprint’. Compare it to anything, and the Bug comes off last. American cars of the same design vintage? The Model A was 5 inches shorter than the bug, even with bumpers, and considerably roomier inside. Modern rear-engine cars? Renault R8 was shorter and roomier and superior in every way. Modern front-engine cars of similar length? Not even worth the comparison.
That’s because it was a product of the streamlined era. And the state of the art in terms of aerodynamics then was very different than later on. The VW is drastically more aerodynamic than a Model A; the original Beetle could cruise at 60 mph on 22.5 hp, and get almost 40 mpg doing it. A Model A could only dream about that; in fact, the Model A would be lucky to get 20 mpg; the old Fords back then were not very economical.
The tear-drop streamlined shape was not space efficient, from a modern perspective. But for 1938, the VW was perfectly adequate in that regard, with room for four adults, and a couple of large suitcases (behind the rear seat). Consider: the Model A had no enclosed luggage space at all. Trunks didn’t become common until the mid-late 30s.
The Beetle was not really less roomy inside than a Model A; certainly not so in the front seat. The A is very narrow and cozy. The A’s back seat is probably a bit better in terms of leg room, but it too is narrower than the VW’s.
The VW was consider extremely advanced in every respect at the time, including its space efficiency, and especially so considering its low price. It was not a penalty box like many of the other attempts at building low-cost motoring back then.
The VW’s gas mileage was always excellent-to-good, until more modern cars surpassed it. A VW 1200 always gave 32 mpg, and more, if driven a bit less than full-out. Yes, the later Beetles with the 1600 and smog controls dropped thta down to about 25 mpg; not great, but not terrible, for the times either. Fuel efficiency has come a long way.
Cars like the R8 were simple more modern boxy designs; a box is inevitably roomier than a teardrop shape. Yes, space efficiency and fuel efficiency have come a long way in 80 years.
I remember taking my two boys on a Cub Scout camping trip in my ’64. As Cubmaster, in addition to our gear, I had all the food for the group, plus tents and other supplies.
A couple dads at a neighboring campsite actually stopped to watch us unload – said we looked like the clown car at the circus ’cause we kept hauling stuff out of the car.
While I love driving the Model A, I’d have to refuse one if it had to be my DD. On the other hand, I had a ’64 Beetle as a DD for six years – in Atlanta, GA traffic, no less. Got 28-30 mpg, and “If the fan belt breaks, we use a rubber band!”
I have to wonder whether there are more ‘survivor’ air-cooled Beetles on the road today than any of their contemporaries when compared by model/year…
The Beetle certainly wasn’t the ‘perfect car,’ but it was enough of a ‘right thing’ that it was produced (almost) continually for 65 years. There are a lot of “more efficient” cars out there that can’t boast a production run one tenth that long.
Around here VW bugs are vastly out numbered by Morris minors but they always were VWs were quite expensive new here for what you got but there are survivors the flat going around Hawkes Bay suits them.
Even 30 years after the original design, in the 60’s and early 70’s when I had three Beetles (60 and 63 1200s and a 69 1500) during high school and college, I never considered the little car inefficient. I’m 6 1+ and I and my friends rode comfortably in the car, and you could cram a lot of stuff in the trunk, luggage hold behind the rear seat, and elsewhere when limiting passengers (moved between apartments and dorms many times in those years). And the car was a joy to park in tight apartment and dorm parking lots and garages.
Mileage was pretty good for the time though I’m sure some of the 144/manual Falcons did as well and provided a lot more space – but they sure weren’t fun to drive as were the Beetles. The 1200 engine was definitely a punishment in terms of acceleration; when I bought a new 69, the 1500 engine seemed like a rocket ship by comparison and definitely made the car safer to drive, IMO.
Context is everything and by the mid-70’s the Beetle was no longer efficient or competitive in comparison with what was coming from Japan.
I agree with you. The bug is more nostalgia than practicality.
Never really got the bug, if you excuse the pun…..
Remember the Woody Allen movie “Sleeper”. That VW Bug started right up-after 200 years. Wonder if that was a “product placement” or a real testiment to that car.
And who can forget the “Orgasmatron”? I have a close female friend who could use one; my arms get tired 🙂
o_O Maybe TMI for a car site…
I hope the Beetle will be on the road at least as long as I will be. I take comfort in seeing that familiar face, even if I’m not driving one anymore. You basically change the oil, adjust the valves, and off you go. I have to admit that once the German parts wore out, the replacements sourced from elsewhere in the world were inferior, leading to replacing the same thing over and over and over, like tailpipes and solenoids. But still, a great car you can keep going forever if you want to…
They’ll always be fondly remembered by The Faithful .
I rarely got below 30 MPG’s in any Beetle I ever owned , 25 / 36 and roaring twin port 53 HP versions , all were very easy on gas .
The were also very good in the snow and rain .
These still survive like cockroaches in Los Angeles, along with ’80s Toyota trucks and W123 Mercedes diesels. I would imagine only Mexico City having more VW Beetles because they were produced there into the 21st Century.
Well, for me it’s all anecdotal, but I was about to say that I don’t see nearly as many Beetles around LA anymore (perhaps at least not on the West Side) as aging Baby Boomers stop driving them. The interesting thing is that I do see more of the early models – late 50’s and early 60’s – than I do of the later ones, and these are usually restored or refurbished to a significant degree. Always a joy to see a nice one though I personally would never drive an old Beetle in today’s traffic as distracted drivers in LA are a menace and better structure, air bags, good performance and handling, are your best protection against them.
You see tons of them in the South Bay/Harbor/Long Beach areas. I understand why the trendy Westside wouldnt have many. The argument that I see on this site that no one is safe in an old car has some validity, but its a personal choice. What about a modern motorcycle, “city” car or motorized bicycle?
When I first arrived in South Central Los Angeles in late 2012 from the Southern Tier of New York for 6 weeks of work I was AMAZED by all the old vehicles especially all the gosh damn Beetles! Sometimes I would see nearly a dozen a day, it was such an amazing experience
The great thing about the Beetle was that if you didn’t like the teardrop shape, the underpinnings were available in some nifty variations; the Karmann-Ghia’s steady ascendancy with collectors and fans (especially the pre – ’73 models) is proof of this trend, certainly. And the Subaru swap has many adherents, and for good reason.
But I’m partial to the Type 3 – I made my first cross-country trip in a ’66 Squareback, (1600 Variant) and I DD’d a Notchback in L.A. in the early 80’s. That car was bone stock, never let me down, and established my admiration for the basic goodness of the package (even if the pedals were still offset and it still had a swing axle at the rear). It was easy to drive quickly (not fast) if you learned to anticipate and use what you had at hand to your best advantage, especially in the cut-and-thrust of L.A. traffic. Lessons learned.
I’ve read that the Notchback wasn’t imported to the U.S., so mine may have been an import. I never had a problem registering it with the CA. DMV. Sometimes these cars are available overseas, I’ve found several good-looking cars on the net, and of course, Squarebacks and Fastbacks were imported, so they can be more easily found. Either way, and you know who you are if you remember this, as John Cameron Swayze used to say about Timex watches, ‘It takes a licking and keeps on ticking.”
Another great story, Paul. Thanks.
Notchbacks were mostly imported from Canada, or through other gray-market importers in the first few years (1962 – 1965) before the Type III was officially imported to the US. VW simply didn’t have the capacity to build enough Type IIIs for the US until they opened their second big plant in Emden.
Was the type III Karman Ghia officially imported into the US? I have seen a few over the years but not many. Thank you for the story.
Nope. Europeans were getting tired of the Type I and VW was under pressure to replace them for years there. Hence the Type III, including that K-G. But Americans were still falling in love more and more, and VW didn’t see any reason to take any risks, especially when they didn’t have the volume to distribute enoughType IIIs to the US. Why bother, when folks were lined up to buy the Beetle; and the Type I KG was selling reasonably well enough.
But quite a few found their way to the US anyway.
I also made two “cross country” (north to south and then west) moves in my ’71 Fastback. During these trips I used to calculate the gas consumption and it averaged 31 mpg. With two trunks and the back seat you could cram a lot of stuff into those cars. Same goes for our ’65 Squareback variant S. The one thing I really liked about the ’71 was the 12 volt electrics. That along with the fuel injection made life much easier. Our ’65 with the 6 volt electrics would never start when there was the slightest hint of humidity or cold. Which was not ideal in NYC.
Now a days I want a pre ’67 convertible in red with tan colored top. Off course I’ll have to upgrade the electrics to 12 volts and swap the engine for a 1600 with dual port heads.
Yesterday was a beautiful day here and I took my old Volvo for a Sunday drive into the country. Much to my surprise I saw a large stash of Beetles ranging from the 60s to the 70s. The place had a high fence with an iron gate but fortunately there was a phone number. Today I called and talked to the owner he invited me over to see if there was anything I may want. Is this the CC effect?
I like the type 3s too. I learned to drive in a 71 Squareback. They’re more useful than the bug, if not as cute. With the ability to add more weight in back they were even better in snow . When my dad traded his 67 bus for the Squareback, he said it was like driving a sports car in comparison. Like the ad said, “If your bug is too small and your box is too big , how about the one in between ? “
I’ve seen this one
What the beetle was about was design, the US was never really interested in design and innovation which is why so many posters here entirely miss the point.
Americans still don’t understand why you need a car that does 40mpg?
Great writing as usual Paul. I really enjoyed “Battle for the Beetle” too.
I have always admired the Bug for it’s purposeful simplicity. It was a Model T that took advantage of 20 years of engineering and aerodynamic advancement. It is no accident that these outnumber every one of its class worldwide today.
Fair number of Beetles surviving around here, though the older VWs that are really common in my neck of the woods are Vanagons and Rabbit Pickups. Nonetheless there’s a very nice ’73 that lives a block away from me (and parks on the street nightly) and also a very well-kept orange Super that’s about four blocks away. And I spotted a squareback last night, though from afar.
If you stop and think, even though there are a fair number of old cars around here, the only makes that would even have a chance at challenging VW would be Ford (thanks only to the fact that there are so many late 60’s to late 70’s F100/150 about) and Volvo (240 mostly). And I think for total number of “80’s and earlier drivers” VW would have them handily beat.
There was a post yesterday on an investing board that I read about automakers programming engine sounds into the sound systems of new cars, so your new ride seems to sound the way the driver thinks it should sound, and one of the companies using this system is VW.
My response was “so a new $30,000 Beetle ragtop with their latest science twincam, turbocharged, intercooled wonder sounds like a 45 year old bug? I’m in!”
There is something appealing about the sound of a bug, the combination of puttering exhaust, whirring mechanicals and twittering cooling fins that I like…..like the sounds in this video.
Isn’t Ford one of the guilty ones, piping in V8 sounds with their 2015 F-150 Ecoboost models?
Hondas such as the 12 CRV have some engine noise permeate into the cabin which is nice even though Consumer Reports keeps knocking Honda for having noisy vehicles. Even the 12 Odyssey I drove had a nice growl if I gunned it.
Here’s the article
The sound of your car’s engine might just be a lie
Auto manufacturers including BMW, Volkswagen, Toyota, Porsche and Ford are all in on the deception, working hard to make sure the synthesized versions truly sound like the old car engines. Ford even polled their consumers on which sounds to implement,
Interesting. Sounds like it could be piped outside also.
Their mention of the hybrids at the end rings true. Last Friday night, I was walking down Michigan Avenue in Chicago. 60% of the traffic was taxi based, nearly all of them hybrids. Crossing a side street, a few cabs rolled up to a stop and there was an unsettling quiet to them despite my knowing their engines would shut off. It was a weird experience.
Wow! My first car was a red VW Bug. However, I was three and it was about 8″ long with flowers on the doors. The joys of the early ’70s. I’m told I had great fun running it off the coffee table.
It’s sad that I cannot remember the last time I saw one on the road. I’ve always had a soft spot for them, even if I’ve never driven one.
What?? We shall correct that on the day of the Great CC 1963 Car Meetup.
I am so glad there are so many older and old cars including Bugs on the West Coast because it is such a treat since I grew up in the Southern Tier. I still enjoy seeing these vehicles including the Bugs, but having been over here nearly 2.5 years I have gotten somewhat used to the sight of older or old metal and I have to make sure I do not get too complacent. I still like hearing Bugs driving down the street and they sound like an energetic Germanic weed whacker to me. Even the horn of a Bug sounds cool, I want one for my vehicle. Is the blue/grey bleeding through on this Bug Primer?
When I drove my spiffy new 2014 Jetta wagon home for the first time last year, when I hit the lock button on the remote, the confirmation toot from the horn sounded exactly like a 50 year old bug. I started laffing. VeeDub’s latest science, and it sounds like a bug. Some time later, I pressed the horn button on the wheel and was rewarded with a horn blast of power and richness that I haven’t had in decades. It’s just the lock toot that gives tribute to the bug.
I’ll have to check out “Battle for the Beetle”. You might also enjoy “Small Wonder” by Walter Henry Nelson.
I think I read “Small Wonder” as a kid. Fascinating history.
The VW Beetle, or bug, is one of my favorite cars of all time. I have owned 3 of them. Believe it or not, of all the cars I wish I could still buy brand new, the beetle is on the top of the list. I did my best to try and find a way to import one from Mexico when they were still being made there in the late ’90s. The humble beetle was the most unpretentious car ever made, yet could be turned into almost anything, from a flatbed truck to a Baja Bug to a drag racer capable of running in the 8 second range, using the VW design engine. It looked cool, was fun to drive, made the perfect transportation car, it was easy to work on, parts were cheap, and the list of aftermarket parts and accessories was endless.
Gotta be careful with the Mexican Beetles though ~ I bought an ’82 and managed to get California license tags for it but in time , they came a’lookin’ for it and if they’d caught it , they’da _crushed_ it so I skipped it back into Mexico where it sold in 15 minutes .
I still miss that car , built to run wide open as long as you wanted over bad roads on low quality gasoline….
Good heater & comfy re designed seats too .
First car I owned was a 66 Beetle in 1972 that was in the family since new. Sadly I had it less than a year when my 16 year old inexperience caused the car to be totaled. I had installed later model lap/shoulder belts (the mounting points were there under screw in plugs) and also had installed 71 highback seats. I slammed into the belt so hard my glasses flew into the windshield and broke them and cracked the windshield. Other then belt bruises, I was OK. Later I owned a couple of 66 Fastbacks at different times, and it was smoother riding, more powerful especially when the twin carbs were in sync and quieter by far with the windows rolled up, and the front disc brakes were a nice touch. The 2 trunk setup was fun to show to other people. Downside was the 6 volt system, the headlights seemed plenty bright but even in Southern California cold starts were iffy with the slow turning starter. Another advantage was if the generator belt broke the car would run until the battery died without over heating since the fan was bolted to the crankshaft. The rubber bellows that connected the fan cooling air intake to the body had to be kept in good condition, I saw many burn up their engines because this replacement was ignored. I once left a can of silicone spray on the floor and it rolled next to the rear heater outlet and got so hot it blew the top of the can off. The pop was so loud I stopped and walked around the car looking for a blown tire, finally I noticed a funny smell and found the hot can missing it’s top on the floor. Lucky it was only silicone spray, paint or WD 40 would have made a real mess, the silicone just vaporized. The Type 3 did seem to be more unstable in cross wind then the Beetle but overall really was a nice improvement over the Type 1.
I know I don’t think I really need to comment here, most know my Volkswagen experience.
I was surprised a few years ago when I pressed my ’59, 6 volt, 36hp Beetle into daily service. I was surprised at how well it did it. I’d like better brakes (which I’m going to do) but it did it’s job and wasn’t really any hassle once I got used to the typical old car/old VW stuff like coughing in the cold carburetors and lack of defrost.
I’ve had it off of the road for a while due to me working so much I haven’t had time to mess with it but I’ll have it going again in the near future and I’m planning on driving it back and forth to work again. There’s nothing like that sunrise drive with the sunroof slid back and the putter of those four cylinders behind you.
“I was surprised a few years ago when I pressed my ’59, 6 volt, 36hp Beetle into daily service. I was surprised at how well it did it. I’d like better brakes (which I’m going to do) ”
They raced 36hp Beetles in the mountains and never had any issues whatsoever with the stock brakes so mayhap yours need routine service or adjusting…
Two easy tips : first , try installing a ’65/’66 (only) master cylinder , it’s like giving it a booster .
If that’s not enough (doubtful) the ’65 ~ ’67 brakes are a direct bolt on up grade that gives lager surface area .
The Bug is one car that looks great with patina. And a roof rack. And if you can find one with a good rust free body and pan, the rest is easily and cheaply replaced. Both the engine and transmission are super light, and can be easily picked up by one person. If I were willing to give up one of my cars, I would have another bug.
I drove my 67 bug to work everyday (Vw dealer) for years. Now I drive my 97 Jetta everyday.
There are a lot of bugs in Portland, as well as a lot of other older cars and trucks. I haven’t been through Eugene in quite a while, as I like to avoid CA. I go to Portland about 4 times a year, I have a sister and brother in law living up there. I’ve been going through Nevada and Idaho, and into Oregon from the east.
One of the biggest issues with bugs, and in fact all air cooled VWs, is rust. All three of the bugs I owned had some rust, under the back seat where the battery goes, and in the heater channels. I had one, a 1972, that the heater channels were so badly rusted on that I had to weld a strip of metal to it to have something to bolt the running boards to.
I wish someone would start reproducing bodies and pans for those old bugs. Pretty much everything else is readily available.