Curbside Classic: 1968 Volkswagen Automatic Stickshift · Chrysler’s Fluid Drive Returns In The Safer Käfer

Birnbaum 1 900

first posted 22 May 2013

I’m walking to the the subway on a lovely May day, and a glimmer of chrome on powder blue in the distance hits me. It’s a Bug, all right—a 1968—but what’s all that script on its rear deck? Could it be…?


Yes, the (in)famous VW Automatic Stickshift, known casually as ‘Autostick’. And boy, is this a lovely example. And that utterly mod Stickshift script? Very groovy, man!

The Bug never had a fully automatic transmission. For some odd reason, ’68 VW decided they needed something to improve their line while remaining (I’m guessing) in line with the “No major changes, except for improvements” policy in effect at the tail end of the Heinz Nordhoff era.

Although the classic Käfer had arguably reached its zenith by 1966, the 1967 offered a few further improvements, in the progressive-refinement tradition: 12-volt electrics, backup lights, a rear antisway bar, a wider track, and the 1500 engine. Sadly, however, the latter was coupled to gearing that lessened the lively feel of the 1300 cars.

But unlike most of VW’s major mechanical changes, the automatic stickshift wasn’t bulletproof. It could be very reliable if it was properly maintained; it wasn’t a set-it-and-forget-it system. While it didn’t majorly tarnish the VW reputation, it didn’t live up to the standards set by previous transmissions, nor was it as forgiving of poor maintenance. And it certainly didn’t enhance the performance of the slug-bug.

vw autostick ad

So why did it get out the door? Here’s my bet: Though Nordhoff—the driving force behind VW becoming a global phenomenon—was still in command at least on paper, he was pretty much out of the picture by mid-’67, due to the illness that would kill him less than a year later. In my opinion, the not-so-positive changes that occurred in post-’67 VWs might not have slipped through if he hadn’t been sick—maybe a situation similar to the downsized ’62 Chryslers?

Were the engineers trying to prove something once Nordhoff’s departure was sealed? Was it like Paul McCartney pushing the Beatles to carry on in the wake of losing Brian Epstein? Does that make the Autostick VW’s “Magical Mystery Tour”?

I digress.

I’ll guess that ostensibly, VW’s main reasoning was to deal with the increasing stop-and-go of American freeway traffic while maintaining market share among the other small cars with automatics. No matter why, they came up with this semi-auto, which was introduced in the U.S in ’68 and continued all the way to ’76 with only minor changes.

It’s a pretty simple affair, really: a two-piece shifter with an internal contact actuates an automatically-engaging clutch when pressure is applied to the shifter itself; the three-speed transmission (essentially the VW four-speed manual minus first gear) is coupled to the engine by means of a torque converter, eliminating the need for a clutch pedal or a shift into neutral at idle. The torque converter took the place of first gear; L-1-2 were the same as a three-pedal VW’s standard 2-3-4. In fact, remembering my friend Kate’s ‘73 Autostick that we tooled around with in high school, I believe you could pretty much leave it in first (equivalent to third gear) most of the time you were in town. When it ran, that was. Sure did look pretty, though.

Didn’t Chrysler have something like that in the ‘40s and early ‘50s? Fluid Drive?

Yes, there was an earlier technology using a fluid coupling in place of a standard flywheel on a manual transmission. Many say the Fluid Drive system was quite reliable, as it eliminated much in the way of mechanical wear among drivetrain components.

But it was not a true semi-automatic. “Fluid Drive” referred simply to the coupling, not to the transmission. You could (and many did) get a three-on-the-tree with Fluid Drive, but you could also order it with the two-range, two-speed M-6 semi-automatic, which basically allowed for one up or down shift within each range, for a total of four speeds, requiring manual clutching only between ranges.

As usual in the sexist Mad Men era, the system was marketed to women as a godsend for those frazzled by constant shifting. And to the men in their lives, by eliminating both the women’s wear and tear on the mechanicals and their propensity to scuff their delicate heels due to clutching(!). What a load of manure! Yeesh, this makes me sick:

As the son of a tough mama who changed insurance companies when her adjuster snidely asked why a 60-year-old-woman would need a sports car when she registered her new Mazdaspeed3, I find the thought of women finding it too complicated to learn how to shift a manual abhorrent. My mom is one hell of a leadfoot, and makes me, with my admittedly Milano-style city driving, look like an aged Floridian driving their Buick “Sunset Edition” Regal to the Publix at 15 mph with the left blinker on for two miles. It’s hard to believe the level of sexism that was once attached to selling conveniences like clutchless shifting.


Contrast that with Doyle Dane Bernbach’s classic 1968 ad for the Autostick, which has no mention of women, or of anything besides the utility of the device—in fact, it shows a middle-aged white guy driving the Bug. Honestly, that’s pretty progressive for what could have easily been marketed as yet another ‘for her’ product, still the mainstream in ads in 1968 (it was also marketed at women; see ‘Lady Bug’ ad further up -ed.)

So the VW idea was very similar to a three-speed Chrysler equipped with Fluid Drive, except that the vacuum-controlled clutch was actuated by hand via a 12-volt solenoid when pressure was put on the shifter, engaging a contact plate, so don’t rest your hand on the shifter. You also couldn’t start it in gear, as you could with the Chrysler M6 allowed. Reportedly, you could push-start a VW with Autostick if you had to.

While Autostick is not as fast-shifting as a standard VW four-speed, it works well. However, it can’t rev quite as high, and the torque converter tends to kill any of the horsepower gains offered by the stock 1500 that was introduced in 1967 (53 bhp and 78 lb·ft). 0-55 in 25 seconds; that’s 1960 territory.

One of my high school teachers had the same model; year, and color car (minus the extra chrome badging), which she bought new. She loved it and actually offered to sell it to me when she bought a Civic after her husband passed. I liked it, but didn’t want the expense of another car (I had my crumbling ’66 Galaxie ‘vert, which my mother derisively referred to as “the planter”, since it spent so much time gathering moss in the driveway when it wasn’t blowing starter motors and rocker arms). At the time, I remember thinking how lame the Autostick was, and that if it were a four-speed I would have bought it.

Now I regret that decision; my teacher’s Bug was rust-free and had been local since new, maintained by the now-defunct Essex Sports Cars, in Maplewood, New Jersey—one of the first VW dealerships in the region.


Even the interior is exactly the same. Shoot, it’s entirely possible that this is the same Bug; who knows? Sigh.

So what’s it like to drive one of these?  Much the same as a normal Bug, except that you can’t really power-shift it, and you definitely need to watch the pressure you put into the shifter.  It’s also pointless to do any serious modding with an Autostick, since it’s a relatively unloved transmission and doesn’t take well to revving. Any engine will fit it, but if you’re going to drop the engine, you might as well run the few extra lines and put in a nice new 4-speed, right? It’s only a hundred bucks more than a rebuilt Autostick.

I couldn’t get a clear shot of it, but sitting proudly in the middle of the floor is a HUGE brake pedal that is just as wide as the standard setup; I’m assuming this allowed utilizing some of the same linkage and other parts from the standard three-pedal job to save a lil’ scratch, but then why not just use one common pedal arm and make the pad smaller? It’s odd. Best seen here, in the manual:

Reverse is still locked out, but it’s in the traditional first-gear position instead of the usual VW dogleg.

VW later inserted a Park position in the normal reverse area; reverse was still where first would normally be, and I assume there was still a lockout there.

I’ll speculate that there were more than a few instances of someone used to the standard VW shift position accidentally putting the Autostick into reverse while thinking it was first. It would certainly explain why I don’t see many of these with the script still intact; they all were probably taken out when the driver backed into a ’70 Pontiac or something else with a Bunkie beak.

Of course, 1968 was a seriously evolutionary year for the VW. People tend to deride the styling of ’68-up models; I understand why. I do love the ’68, though; in its pre-Super-Beetle, torsion bar-suspension form, it’s to me a not-so-bad evolution of the original design. Look at it without the updated styling cues and it’s any standard Bug from ’58 up (aside from the cowl vents, of course).

The curve of the front end contrasts nicely with the blade bumpers introduced for ’68. Some will call me a heretic, but I find this front end treatment to be, in a certain sense, truer to the original European design than the looped overriders of the pre-’68 ‘export’ (read: Dumb Americans need lotsa chrome) bumpers.


Of course, that year the bumper height was raised a little bit, too.


Compare it to my friend Mike Keller’s awesome ’54 Oval, though his has a European-style front bumper. (That’s my 1989 E30 in the background, at a house concert in Illinois.)

The Autostick-equipped Bug sported other evolutionary devices as well. It was the first Beetle with double-jointed rear axles; the rest of the line would adopt them over swing axles in 1969.  Strangely, though, the rear sway bar introduced on the ’67 1500 was deleted on the Autostick model.


An external gas filler cap was also introduced this year; now, that’s progress! At a gas stop, no longer would you risk spilling Ethyl all over your American Touristers!


I like the tombstone taillights a lot.


I also like that the interior still screams “1967”, with the flat, body-colored dash only slightly trimmed with vinyl. The 1968 did have a collapsible steering column. Also introduced this year was cowl-based fresh-air ventilation; you can see the vent knob below the radio delete plate. And wait, radio delete? In 1968? So, the owner paid for the upgrade to an Autostick but opted to leave out the radio. Weird. I guess hanging onto the grabhandle in tight turns is more than enough entertainment (and this definitely isn’t my teacher’s former car; she had a Becker AM/FM, I think).

Take a look at the dash of a ’67 for comparison: You can see that, aside from the vinyl and glove box lock, the only real difference is the integrated gas gauge/speedo. And while the ignition switch had been moved to the column, a locking ignition switch wouldn’t come until ’69.


The current owner has upgraded with a cupholder.


I was shocked to see what appears to be an original accessory luggage holder on top; it looks like it’s been there since new. I also couldn’t believe the overall original condition of the car. It is incredibly well-kept; however, it has obviously been well-loved and used.


Also new for ’68 was the trigger-type door handle, whose design is mighty clean, and safer as well. VW would continue using this basic design (albeit squared-off and black-finished) until the early ’90s.


The back seat of a Bug is not a bad place to be, with enough room under the dash that even a 6-footer can squirrel the front seat up the track enough to let another 6-footer sit reasonably comfortably. There’s actually more room in the back of an “old” (real) Beetle than there was in the returned-to-VW-under-the-lemon-law-due-to-incredible-electrical-problems 2009 New Beetle my mom had for a brief time. 


As opposed to this package shelf on top of the rear luggage compartment behind the folding back seat (which in our example houses a set of cheap speakers; I guess there must be a radio hidden somewhere), I really prefer the open rear luggage compartment of earlier Bugs.


For comparison, here’s a not-so-great pic of my pal Mike’s backseat. In Mike’s ’54, the back seat is a great place to be. There’s a nice bit of room (and a sweet lil’ chrome ashtray for your zigarren). Of course, in the days before seat belts, you could get away with a lot more, and in either model, one’s head is a little too close to the back window for comfort. Does anyone know how the rear seat placement changed over time? It looks to be further back on the ’54. I do know from experience with both cars that it certainly feels more spacious in the Oval than in a ’68-up. Hmm.

I was lucky enough to see and hear this Beetle drive away; I attempted, less than successfully, to film it with my iPhone. So let’s all just imagine the pea-shooter sounds of a powder-blue Autostick Bug sloshing its way into the mean streets of NYC on a sunny day, shall we? As a consolation, might as well go for a lil’ drive in the country.