I was thrilled to catch this early Type 3 in Jakarta, Indonesia – almost half a world away from Wolfsburg. Why? Three reasons (of course): 1. It’s mathematically two whole Types better than the Type 1 and numbers never lie; 2. It belonged to a friend of mine so I could really photograph it – not to mention ride in it – to my heart’s content; and 3. it would be an occasion to delve into VW’s flat-4 era. What’s not to like?
This car belongs to my buddy Luwi, whom I have mentioned more in a couple of previous posts. I met him when we moved to Myanmar five years ago. Last year, he went back to his native Jakarta and we returned to Bangkok. (Though neither of us is Thai, Mrs T87 and I met there seven years ago). Visiting Luwi’s hometown and exploring a few corners of the vast archipelago a few months ago, he showed me his pet project, this slightly modified 1964 Volkswagen Type 3.
I’ve said it before: 99.9% of cars look better when they are original. But there are degrees in customization, and there are many cars that do benefit from a little tinkering or modern technology. This Notchback Type 3 is (in my personal and most humble opinion, of course) just about as much custom I can take in one sitting. But it still looks like a mid-‘60s VW 1500. it’s not dragging its knuckles on the floor with silly-sized wheels, nor is it painted some improbable colour and / or otherwise deformed, chopped or fuzzy-diced to a pulp.
I’m sure most of you know more about the Type 3 than I do, but just in case, here’s a quickie historical recap. A number of stabs at a slightly bigger and more modern VW were made throughout the ‘50s. Porsche collaborated with Volkswagen on several of these, but there were also a number of independent attempts from various corners – including the likes of Karmann or Wendler, but also the prolific Italian carrozzerie, as seen above (and in more depth in this excellent post).
The Karmann-Ghia (Type 14) brought a touch of ‘50s glamour to the range, but the 1200cc flat-4 was just too weak to power a larger, more family-sized saloon that VW needed to broaden their range. The flat-4 also wasn’t using its layout’s full potential. The solution: the “pancake” 1500cc flat-4, producing 44 HP (DIN). A larger, yet flatter and very compact (18 inches tall!) engine, it provided a lot more torque and a little more HP. It also enabled VW to develop a wagon variant – inherently uncommon in rear-engined vehicles. A spiced-up 53 HP “S” version of the pancake appeared in 1963.
A smoother 1600cc (65 HP gross / 52 HP DIN) engine, 12-volt electrics and front disc brakes arrived in late 1965, just after the introduction of the Fastback (auf Deutsch: Fließheck, but better known as the TL or Traurige Lösung, for some reason). Also for some reason, the 1.5 litre base model, known thus far as “1500 N,” was renamed “1600 A” while keeping the 1500cc engine. At this point, VW felt they enough production capacity to officially start shipping Type 3s to the States. In 1968, the already ageing Type 3 got the new “independent” suspension and two novel optional extras: automatic transmission and Bosch electronic fuel injection. The Type 4 also appeared, knocking the Type 3 off its pedestal as the newest and biggest VW. It was downhill from there.
It was a rather pathetic twilight, as befell so many other models in their time. And especially around this time. With the tawdry ‘70s came a few obligatory (but self-inflicted) enhancements and various unsolicited touches here and there. Emissions were progressively stifled, which affected performance. And she said she’d much rather you take her in the Type 2, if you catch her drift.
But back to the subject at hand. In the early years, when Notchbacks ruled the Earth, the Type 3’s up-to-date styling was perhaps as important as its technical specs and much improved interior space. It looked like a completely new car – something that had already faded away, as these things tend to do, by the time our feature car was made. The Beetle platform was modified slightly, including a new front suspension and a wider rear track, but the old Type 1’s swing axle and wheelbase we kept as-were, at least initially.
The Type 3 was a rousing success – on average, a quarter million units of these were made every year from 1964 to 1971. But it was also a technological cul-de-sac that VW only managed to overcome via the takeovers of DKW and NSU later in the decade. The huge export-driven success the Type 1 and its direct descendants in the ‘50s and ‘60s blinded Wolfsburg to the 30-year-old VW design’s limits. The resultant Type 4 was a Type too far and bombed; two years later the hastily rebadged K70 propelled VW, kicking and screaming, into FWD / water-cooled / straight-4 orthodoxy. They couldn’t make the leap in-house, but had more than enough clout and cash to buy out more technologically-advanced competitors to get there in the end.
The Notchback was never officially exported to the US, but it certainly made it to Java and many Asia-Pacific countries in the ‘60s. It remains the least-common (yet longest-lived) of the three variants. The more modern-looking and spacious Fastback was preferred on global markets as well, as the above powder blue 1966 car Luwi photographed in Jakarta can attest. I’ve seen a couple in Bangkok as well.
There was one Type 3 that beat the Notchback in terms of scarcity: the Karmann-Ghia Type 34 coupé. In my view, it’s probably the best-looking production Beetle derivative of them all, except if we include the Porsche 356 in that category. Just under 43,000 were made from 1962 to 1969, which is about one-tenth of the Type 14 – and around 2000 survive. Rare, but not impossible to find. Just like the model-specific parts, one hopes.
True unicorns include the dozen or so Type 3 convertibles (also made by Karmann) for a mooted production run that was aborted just as it was getting launched. The same fate befell the Type 34 convertible, which was nixed after 16 units had been made, but briefly graced the VW stand at the 1961 Frankfurt and Paris Motor Shows nonetheless.
But I digress. Let’s ease back into our black Notchback, among Jakarta’s dozens of diseased rivers, lakes, canals and open sewers, oozing everywhere in the permanent equatorial heat, coupled with nigh-permanent and copious exhaust fumes and dengue-carrying mosquitoes. Our feature car’s custom-made sunroof, coupled with the addition of an under-dash A/C unit, are a valiant attempt at making this ‘60s European compact more livable in the a place like the Big Durian, as some call the Indonesian capital. This car also has a bored-out 1.7 litre flat-4, which I forgot to take a picture of. It’s still a work in progress, as these things tend to be – not to mention the car’s owner having been away in Myanmar for six years, which kind of slowed down the whole affair. And no, that just looks like an automatic transmission – it is, as it always was, a 4-speed manual.
Type 3s are always going to be bit harder to care for than Types 1 and 2, which went on forever, though they’re not exactly rare, either. Type 3 production stopped after 1973; over 2.5 million were made, of which roughly half were Squarebacks. Not counted are the thousands that were made in Australia from 1963 to 1973, though I’m guessing most of those would have had domestic (and perhaps Kiwi) owners, not Indonesians. Also not counted are the fairly similar (but not really related) “Brazilian Type 3” derivatives, which continued through to 1982. Still, the Type 3 was a one-decade wonder. Compare that to the careers of the Beetle and the Transporter! This relatively ephemeral nature also means anything like badges, chromes, model-specific interior features and bodywork is necessarily a bit harder to come by, especially so far from the factory.
But no problems in terms of running gear; Indonesia has plenty of air-cooled enthusiasts and specialists. The Beetle is just as iconic and easy to run there as it is anywhere else. On the larger islands such as Java, Sumatra or Bali, one is just as likely to see a flat-4 VW as any other crowded spot on Earth, I suppose. There was a throng of Things full of sunburnt tourists going around Bali, for instance, which was unexpected.
Owning and/or restoring a classic car in Indonesia is no picnic. As previously stated, Jakarta is a tough place to drive in, as it the rest of the densely populated Island of Java. With 140 million people squeezed into an area the size of North Carolina or Greece, the road network is completely and constantly saturated. Like Bangkok, it sprawls over a huge flat area of wetlands slowly sinking below sea level, so flooding is a recurrent issue. Add the climate, pests and molds that attack your car from all sides, as well as the unavailability of insurance for cars over ten years old, and you get an idea of the difficulties classic car owners face there.
And yet some folks remain passionate enough to look past these challenges and inject some variety into the (otherwise rather dull) Javanese automotive scene. Thanks to Luwi, this fine Notchback is back on the prowl. That gorgeous blue Fastback, though – doesn’t it need a home too?
Curbside Classic: 1969 VW Type 3 Fastback – In Good Company, By Actually Mike