Curbside Classic: 1966 VW 1300 – The Best Beetle Of Them All; Or At Least The Sportiest

(first posted 11/28/2011, revised 6/6/2015)    Trying to maintain some objectivity about significant cars from one’s younger years is difficult. Yes, the Beetle is practically my alter-ego; my oldest memories ever were made in one. I’ve written up several, trying to stick to the historical facts  as much as possible: the Beetle’s emergence out of the ashes of WW2 was covered in the 1946 CC. In the 1957 CC, we focused on Volkswagen’s amazing growth in the US during the 1950s. The 1971 CC reflected the decline of the Beetle.

In between those years, the Beetle had its glory years, selling close to half-million per year to eager American buyers. The 1966 VW 1300 has a number of unique qualities that alone make it a worthy topic. But then there’s also the personal experience: my brother owned a white ’66 1300 for a number of years, and it played an important role in my appreciation of that particular car and model year, as well as the choice of my future cars. So when I say “The Best Beetle Of Them All”, it could be applied both subjectively and objectively. I’m going to swing for a double; you be the judge.

Which one to start with? Facts always trump fiction memories, right? To talk about the unique qualities of the ’66 to someone not familiar with the subtle but often significant annual evolution of the Beetle is obviously a deep dive into the VW arcane. I’ll try to keep it simple; that’s the VW way, right?

The VW’s air-cooled boxer four went through numerous steps in its evolution, in order to keep the Beetle up with ever-faster traffic. The original specs as fleshed out on a napkin over lunch by Porsche and Hitler called for a top speed of 100 kmh (62 mph) for Germany’s new Autobahn. 100 kmh was a big deal at the time. That required some 22 (DIN/net) hp.

CC 109 011 800

The original 1938 KdF Wagen had a 985 cc engine to generate the required power at some 2900 rpm, with a 5.8 to 1 compression ratio; don’t ask how long it took to get to that speed. But once it get there, it could do it for hours on end, as long as no hills got in the way.

VW 1949 Life

The postwar Beetle adopted the slightly larger 1100cc engine developed for the military Kübelwagen, which made 25 (DIN/net) hp, or 30 in the old US gross rating. That’s what powered the Beetles up until the 1954 model year, when the bigger 1200cc engine arrived. Rated at 36 (gross) 30 (DIN/net) hp, the Beetle now had a top speed of exactly 68 mph. And in 1961, the power of the 1200 was bumped to 40/34 hp, and top speed went to 72 mph. During the Beetle’s ascendency, the 36 and 40 hp 1200 was the only game in town, except for the twin-carb tuners or those that just dropped a Porsche engine into one.

Keep in mind that the VW was a popular car with the import/sports car set. Paul Newman cut his teeth on a VW1200, and later drove a Porsche-powered convertible (above). That is exactly how I’d like my next Beetle, thank you! I saw that picture forty-five years ago, and it’s never lost its effect.

VW 1955 racing

Those in the know knew a budget Porsche when they saw one. And its ability to get to races, avoid a DNF, and drive home again was appreciated; even if you weren’t actually racing it.

Driven properly (flat out), the VW 1200 could keep up with American traffic, mostly. But the mid sixties were the golden years of the horsepower wars, and VW finally relented.

The 1966 1300 had by far the biggest one-time jump in power, a whopping 25%, from 40/34 hp (gross/net), to 50! (44 net) Wow; ten additional ponies; we couldn’t believe it. That was suddenly good for a solid 80-82 mph top speed. And acceleration was dramatically improved. 0 – 50 now came in only 14.5 seconds, and 0-60 in about 22. In today’s standards, that’s laughable. But it was quite close to what a 1960 Falcon did, with twice the engine (2.4 L) and almost twice the horsepower (90). Another way to look at it was that the new 1300 had the exact same horsepower that the Porsche 356 1300 did just about a decade earlier.

OK, before you VW fans jump on me and point out that the very next year, the 1500 motor was introduced with 53 hp, and by 1970, the 1600 twin port hit the power zenith with 60 hp, here’s the key difference: gearing, and engine tuning. The 1300 used the 1200’s lower (higher numerical) axle gearing, but the engine had a big jump in peak power rpm, from 3900 (1200) to 4600 (1300).

VW 1967 ad

The 1500/1600s all used a substantially taller final gearing, and these motors were tuned for torque, and reverted to a lower peak power rpm. The 1500/1600s were great for lazy American drivers, but with its tighter gearing and rev-happier motor, the 1300 could still accelerate about as fast, if not faster. It was the only VW engine tuned for higer rpm and a sportier power band, and had the gearing to take advantage of it. That meant a bit more noise at speed, but the lively feel of the 1300 was unique to all Beetles ever built.

A 1966 Popular Science comparison of the 1300 against the Opel Kadett and Simca 1000 gives the VW the nod on the acceleration tests. Now that didn’t happen often. Of course, the VW’s oversteering tendencies were duly noted, but what else was new? Admittedly, the wider rear track (1967) and a double-jointed rear axle (1969) that came along later resolved that to substantial extents. But for Beetle purists, the ugly big bumpers, padded interior, and smog controls made these later Beetles lesser in their/my eyes. It was hard enough getting used to the much bigger glass area that came along in 1965.

So hopefully, I’ve inundated you with enough facts about the 1300’s unique and estimable place in VW history. Now for the memories. Actually, I’m going to some facts here too, because they have a lot to do with understanding the Beetle’s popularity at the time.

VW 1966 ad used

My older brother’s failed experiment with a 1957 MGA ended with it being hauled off to the junk yard. Something drastically different was called for. It arrived in the winter of 1968 in the form of a white ’66 1300, acquired for the not insignificant price of $900 ($5700 adjusted) from a private seller. Given that it had cost $1585 new, that was a hefty 57% of its original rice, for a three year old car. Based on this ad, my brother got a good deal, as the official Used Car Guide had it at $1155, and much higher than US-Built compacts and intermediates, like that Buick Special and Olds F-85. The VW had by far the highest residual of any three-year old car in America then.

But it was well worth it. To start with, it looked like new; everywhere. The VW Beetle may have had shortcomings that its detractors will readily point out, but the quality of its materials and construction ain’t gonna be one of them. It was built like a German ziegelscheisshaus. The contrast to the 1965 Opel Kadett my father decided to get rid of after three years was startling. The Kadett’s paper-thin doors actually bent outwards at the top at highway speeds, opening up a gap you could see light through. The VeeDubs doors were like a bank vault’s in comparison. That pretty much went for the whole car.

I made many happy memories in “Oscar”, especially the summer of 1972 when my brother left it in my hands while he hitchhiked around Europe. Let’s just say I made several runs up and down the East Coast that summer, chasing girls who were on their summer vacations at various beach towns. Never mind some back roads “races” with cars that had several times the horsepower. Even if I lost, the effort was well worth it. I was a bit embarrassed by how much the odometer had moved forward in just one summer. Not that the VW minded, and thankfully, neither did my brother.

That car ran flawlessly for a number of years, accumulating significant mileage. He finally sold it to a girl we both knew in Iowa City. It was 1973, and as I remember it, he sold it for not much less than what he paid for it, or something very close to that. His ownership costs for those four years were peanuts, depreciation being the biggest determinant of the total cost of driving. By then, it was eight years old, and pushing 100k miles. And except for a new clutch I helped him put in for the new buyer, it was still in very rude health. With a bit of spit and polish, that indestructible VW enamel paint still looked as deep as a well. His cost of driving it those years: very little indeed. It was a lesson that I took to heart.

I borrowed it from the new owner a couple of times, including possibly the hairiest drive ever, to Madison WI and back, in a winter ice-rain storm. The old narrow 1920s era highway was built with curbs, a practice that was long ago abandoned. These curbs were unlike today’s, in that they had a rounded cross-section at the bottom and top. Anyway, coming back at night, in that ice-rain storm, I repeatedly used that curb like the bumpers on a bowling alley, especially on curves. If it hadn’t been for them, and perhaps the VW’s large 15″ wheels, I would have ended up in the ditch several times, not like that’s possible. Maybe that’s why they were built them like that in the first place? But it’s indelible memories like that that not only make you appreciate the car you’re driving, perhaps beyond what it deserves.

VWs were the Toyotas of their time, which explains a lot. No, they weren’t perfect, and the engines didn’t last as long as cars do now. A properly maintained factory Beetle engine was good for about 100-125k miles or so. Swapping in a rebuilt engine was a very quick job done without any major lifts or hoists, in a couple of hours. The quality of the rebuilt engine made all the difference. If you were doing it for the first time, on your kitchen table, trying to make sense of the directions in John Muir’s “How To Keep Your Volkswagen Alive”, and using cheap parts, you might be lucky to get 25 to 40k miles out of it or so. Not everyone was cut out for that.

This ’66 has been around campus for a couple of years, and needless to say, always makes me want to check what decade it currently is; it takes me back instantly. It’s got a few dings on the fenders, but as we all know, VW fenders are easily replaced with a few bolts. Other than that, it looks to be ready for another half century. Just needs some polish to make that perlweiss paint glisten again.

How to keep your Volkswagen alive A manual of Step by Step Procedures for the complete Idiot by John Muir Stanta Fe, New Mexico, 1971

Speaking of John Muir, his favorite VW ever was also the ’66. In his esteemed words: “The 1966 Beetle is my personal favorite. The 1300 engine was powerful, frugal on gas, and could wail at high RPM all day if asked. This is an excellent collectable that can double as a daily driver, strong and well constructed”. I should have just started with that, and called it good. Sometimes less is more, like the VW.