Curbside Classic: 1977 VW Beetle – The Fuel Injected End Of The Road For The Beetle

The Beetle’s decline in the US was fast and brutal. In 1973, 350k Beetles and Super Beetles still found loving homes. In 1977, the last year for the Beetle sedan, it was a mere 12,090. That makes the ’77 a rare find nowadays. I found this one obviously very well loved and pampered, in the driveway of one of the nicer houses of this rather tony neighborhood. Someone really has a soft spot for the final Love Bug. It’s in like-new condition; did someone buy it in 1977 and stash it away because they knew it was a historic item? It rather looks that way.

Somewhat ironically, in the middle of the Malaise Era, this Beetle is also the most powerful one ever built, thanks to its fuel injection. At least the Beetle didn’t exit with its tail between its twin tail pipes; in fact there were no more twin tail pipes, thanks to a catalytic converter.

Imports of VWs to the US started in 1949, with exactly two units. Ben Pon, VW’s importer for the Netherlands and the father of the Type 2 (Transporter), was the one who brought those first two Beetles to New York. And he did not meet with success; he unloaded one for $800 to settle his hotel bill, and apparently sold the other one, as there’s no record of him driving it back to the Netherlands.

The next year, Max Hoffman, America’s leading import kingpin, took on the VW and sold all of 157. That’s quite an explosive growth rate, actually. But things flattened out after that; in 1953, 1,139 were sold. Undoubtedly Hoffman had more profitable fish to fry.

But in 1954, things took a big turn, as VW created its own US imports, sales and service organization, Volkswagen of America (VWoA). It was headed by a dynamo, Will van de Kamp. And that year, sales already jumped to 8,086.

In 1955, the Volkswagen phenomenon took hold. It’s hard to put one’s finger on just what caused it, but suddenly it was the hot new thing. Sales quadrupled from 1954, to 32,662. And that’s just the Beetle; bus sales started kicking in too.

From there it was onward and upwards. We covered Tom McCahill’s glowing test of a ’56 here, just last year.

And since I already covered the Beetle’s rise in the US here in my 1957 VW CC, I’ll leave off on that subject for now.

But here’s the graphic representation of the Beetle’s rise and fall in the US.  And as can be seen, the fall was quite a bit steeper than the rise. Mount Volkswagen’s cliff is steep and treacherous.

Fortunately the Rabbit (Golf) arrived in 1975 to give VWoA a bit of a reprieve from the free-fall, and although total Volkswagen sales would level off, but at a much lower level than they had been at their peak in 1970. Quite a few (smart) VW dealers became Toyota dealers.

The Beetle’s venerable air-cooled boxer first designed in the mid 1930’s just couldn’t meet the ever-tightening US emission regulations with a carburetor, so in 1975, the US version of the Beetle got fuel injection. The rest of the world would putter along with the carb, although late model Mexican Beetles eventually got FI too.

Of course VW had been a pioneer in mass-market fuel injection, as starting in 1968 all US-bound Type 3s (Squareback, Fastback) had fuel injection, and subsequently FI was used on some other VW lines. But never the Beetle, until 1975. And somewhat ironically, the Rabbit didn’t get FI until 1977, so in 1975 and 1976, the Beetle had one last trump card to play.

Power increased to 48 net hp, which was up from the ’74’s 46 hp, and as high as any Beetle ever sold in the US. And of course it ran decidedly better, with crisp transitions and none of the common maladies associated with carbs during that era. Of course that was still way down on the Rabbit; by 1977, the Rabbit hit its stride, with its larger 1588 FI four now making 78 hp, and now fully living up to its name. A test we reprinted here of 1975 economy cars had the Rabbit making the hop to 60 in 12.7 sec, and the Beetle crawling to that speed in 18.1 seconds, with the 1/4 mile coming along in 20.7 seconds. Those numbers are remarkably similar to what essentially all US Beetles did over the years, as their increased power also generally came along with a bit more weight and lower (higher numerical) gearing. It’s hard to get a Beetle to hurry, unless you take certain measures.

But there was a price to be paid for the Beetle’s FI: the rear cargo/luggage area behind the rear seat was now taken up (at least in part) by the FI ECU. I was unable to find out whether the rest of the area back there is usable or not, but there’s clearly a cover over it unlike in the past.

Let’s take a closer look at this particular Beetle. It has a beautiful silver metallic paint job.

I was intrigued by the dealer sticker below the license plate. I only found one reference to it, at the VW site

They had a few items from Delta there, including this fine post card image from the 1960s. There’s now a “Volkswagen La Crosse”, but it seems to have moved on to more prosaic quarters. So if that dealer sticker is original, then this Beetle really does seem to be some sort of pristine time capsule.

The interior certainly looks showroom fresh. Too bad I didn’t look in the other side and get the mileage off the odometer.

It’s nice to know that one representative of the mere 12,090 Beetle sedans sold in the US in 1977 is in such good hands.

Postscript: The VW Super Beetle Cabrio, built by Karmann, was sold in the US for two more years (1978 & 1979). The last German beetle sedan rolled off the lines in January 1978. After that, Brazil and Mexico continued, with the Mexican Beetle ending its long run in 2003, after 21,529,464 Beetles built worldwide.