Curbside Classic: 1971 VW Super Beetle: 1971 Small Car Comparison No. 5

Curbside Classics takes you back to 1971 for a virtual comparison test of six small cars, based (and partly borrowed) from a C/D test. This piece tries to give a balanced  account of the Beetle’s strengths and weaknesses in its sunset years. First posted here in 2011.

If you were going to a speed-dating event, and were thirty-three years older than all the “competition”, you might be forgiven for wanting some quick cosmetic surgery. But if the result was a reverse Michael Jackson, you’d damn well better hope that your “experience”, “build,” and other timeless qualities are still in demand; otherwise, like this 1971 VW Super Beetle, your days of finding willing partners/buyers are numbered.

By 1970 or so, the Beetle was in terminal decline in both Europe and the U.S. In the Old Country, modern FWD cars like the Fiat 128, Simca 1100 and Austin 1100 were light years ahead of the VW in terms of space efficiency, driving dynamics, visibility and fuel economy.

In the US., the Corolla, Datsun 1200 and Opel Kadett were nipping at the Beetle’s heels, despite their conventional RWD.  But Americans always placed more emphasis on reliability than innovation: the Austin 1100/America had already struck out, and the Simca and Fiat 128 were as yet unproven, but highly suspect, in that department.

In addition to the new FWD competition in Europe, GM and Ford were known to be developing all-new “killer” small cars for 1971. VW was under the gun at the very time of Wolfsburg’s long performance-anxiety period. They’d known for years, even decades, that eventually they’d have to replace the Beetle. And despite endless home-brew and Porsche-designed prototypes, all they could come up with was this 1971 Super Beetle, sporting a new front end. Well, Viagra hadn’t been invented yet.

A new front end, period. I guess you could call it one-third of a new car, but then it looks so much like the old one that most people can’t tell the difference. Why bother?

The new MacPherson front suspension and bulbous hood doubled the size of the front luggage compartment from ridiculously small, to only somewhat ridiculously small. But hey, the turning circle got a hair smaller. And beginning with the 1973 model, the windshield was not only much larger, but now curved. And that’s about the extent of it. For VW purists, however, the timeless balance and symmetry of Edwin Kommenda’s ageless 1938 design had been ruined by the collagen-injected nose. Fortunately, the big noses were only a temporary fad; after 1975, the old one came back until the Beetle’s ultimate, if protracted, demise. The Super Beetle was a short-lived phenomenon.

In terms of dynamic qualities, the Beetle reached its zenith in 1971. Power was up to sixty (gross) horsepower from the 1,600 cc air-cooled boxer, thanks to new dual-port heads. Zero-to-sixty now came in sixteen seconds, almost unheard of for a Beetle. That still made it the slowest in this comparison with most of the competition, but only slightly so. Fuel economy was down to a disappointing 24 mpg.

The first time I drove one of these later 1600s on the freeway, I was almost a mile down the road before I realized I was still in third gear! The gearing was so much lower with the larger engines; my 40 hp Beetle topped out at about forty-five in third gear. Of course, that also made for quieter cruising, but the drop in mileage was unacceptable. The 40 hp Beetle was the Prius of its time, and this 25% drop in efficiency was a stain on the Beetle’s economy-car rep.

The rear suspension had lost its swing axles a couple years earlier. In fact, the Super Beetle now had the same suspension design, front and rear, as the Porsche 911. As per C/D: “the transients are very quick and the tail wags like a loaded station wagon, but the Beetle no longer feels like it will roll over and play dead if you corner a bit too hard…”

Europeans even got the front-disc treatment. But even with the U.S.-spec drum brakes, it turned in the second-best 70-0 panic stop, at 200 feet–one benefit of having a rear-engine (not to mention the unparalleled traction).

But the interior was as narrow and cramped as 1938, and the heater . . . oh wait, it now had a two-speed electric fan to push the tepid air somewhat faster. Why did you think VW got away with making the Beetle for thirty more years only in balmy Brazil and Mexico?

In Europe, where buyers were being tempted away by more modern offerings, the Beetle’s decline started earlier and was more rapid. In the U.S., VW still moved some 350,000 units in 1970. The Beetle was still (but barely) riding the momentum of its major assets: tank-like build quality, reliability, excellent dealer network and service, and popular sentiment. It was the flower Bug, an icon for a whole generation. But like for lots of sacred cows in 1971, change was in the air, blowing straight-on from the (far) east. Volkswagens don’t like headwinds.

Not surprisingly, the VW’s build quality is what most impressed the C/D editors: “Despite the Beetle’s 1938 infirmities, it has quality of a kind none of the competitors can match. The whole car feels as solid as a Supreme Court decision, first-rate materials are used throughout and it is all fastened together as if it was meant to stay that way for several dozen years. You can almost like it for that alone. But not quite”. How about three-and-a-half dozen, and still going strong?

It didn’t take an oracle to come up with that prophecy. But to me, the outcome became all too obvious in the hunt for photographic stand-ins for our six competitors. While I was lucky to find one example of most of them, there are more old Beetles in Eugene than I can shake a camera at. In fact, I’m well on my way to having a complete year-by-year collection, starting around 1959 or so.

CC 109 026 800

This Super Beetle caught my eye with its fetching red rims and matte-black respray. When I think 1971, all I can see in my mind’s eye are bright yellow, green and orange VWs, and not just in flashbacks. But I like this color combo, in a grudging sort of way. And of course, matte-black paint and red wheels were originally used on the very first-ever VW, like the 1946 CC. That’s because I’m a purist when it comes to VWs. Give me an oval-window ’57 with a vintage Okrasa twin-carb setup, Porsche slotted wheels, a little negative camber dialed into the rear wheels, and I’m good to go. And hold the cosmetic surgery.

It should not come as a surprise that the Toyota Corolla ranked ahead of the VW in this comparison. It was mostly held back by its weak 1,200 cc engine, which was supplanted by a much more powerful 1600 within a couple of years. But the die was cast: Americans had discovered that Toyota and other Japanese brands offered more comfort, performance, style, room and features, all at a terrific price point. And even though they might not have had the Beetle’s bank-vault construction, their quality was good, and still rising.

Within a few years, the Beetle was gone from the American marketplace, replaced by the Golf/Rabbit, which was dynamically superb but quality-challenged. VW had done a somersault–one that upended its virtual hegemony in the import market.

1971 Comparison car #1 (winner)

1971 Comparison car #2

1971 Comparison car #3

1971 Comparison car #4

1971 Comparison car #6