Curbside Classic: 1978 Volkswagen 1303 Cabriolet – Air-Cooled And Breezy

CC is a funny place. All this time, all this wealth of knowledge, all this energy and those litres of Internet ink spent on this website to discuss the VW Beetle, yet it seems that no proper long-form post has been written about the late-model “Super Beetle” Cabriolet. It’s a significant milestone in the Beetle story, as it was the very last Type 1 variant made in Germany, and the last to be sold officially by VW in several countries. So here we go for the open-air bug’s grand finale!

The Beetle famously outlasted all forecasts and was built for decades all over the world, ending up in Mexico in 2003 with an unequalled tally of over 21.5 million units made. This includes a small fraction of drop-tops, the most common by far being the official Karmann-built four-seaters: VW sold 331,847 Type 1 Cabriolets, of which over 160,000 were of the later 1302/1303 (a.k.a Super Beetle, for North American readers) variety, a few of which evidently made their way to Japan in period blood-orange garb.

The Type 1 saloon was sold in most Western European countries until MY 1978 and left the North American range in 1977, but the Cabrio kept the flame alive for a couple of extra years in those markets, because even back then, the bug was impossible to exterminate from the collective consciousness. Apparently, Karmann had planned to quit making the Beetle drop-top by the summer of 1979, but word had spread that the Cabriolet’s time was up and there was a mighty rush of last-minute orders, pushing production by a few days into January 1980.

In the ‘80s and ‘90s, Brazilian or Mexican Beetle saloons could be obtained in certain European markets – and I know for a fact that some were exported to Japan as well. The complete history of the Beetle’s presence on the Japanese market is still kind of murky to me, but some aspects are becoming clearer the longer I live here.

One aspect is the peculiar nature of European cars in Japanese-spec, especially those from the ‘70s and ’80s. This VW Cabriolet was most probably sold here new because it features a tell-tale mix of Euro- and US-spec, plus some local peculiarities: the Euro bumpers combined with the US-spec single-exhaust (i.e. catalytic converter) engine would be odd anywhere but here.

As far as purely Japanese oddities are concerned, these turn signal repeaters are present on all of the Mexican Beetles I see here. I initially thought all 1302/1303 Cabriolets were made with the fender-mounted items that most late Beetles have, but a bit of web image sleuthing proved me wrong. Some do and some don’t – and it seems the Cabriolets bound for Japan had their turn signals in the bumper, coupled with these repeaters.

Looks pretty good, really. The late-model fender turn signals are a bit too clunky. I find these clean fenders a lot more attractive. On the other hand, it makes the Super Beetle “fat nose” look even more conspicuous…

If this is the very same 1.6 litre flat-4 as the one they put in US-bound Super Beetles, that would make this a 48hp machine. By 1978, that was pretty pathetic given the displacement, truth be told. But the Beetle gets a break, because it’s not and never was about performance.

It was always about the delights of open-air motoring. Since the very start, back in the KdF-Wagen days, the range was planned to include a fully-fledged convertible, alongside the Standard Limousine and the deluxe sunroof version. All three were famously present at the Wolfsburg factory foundation stone-laying ceremony in 1938, where the range was unveiled, but only the standard saloon production was initiated by 1939. According to some sources though, around a dozen KdFs identical to the one pictured above were made by the coachbuilder Autenrieth circa 1938-40, but events quickly made this version (and most of the Beetle’s non-military applications) rather moot.

After the war, VW rose from the ashes and became one of the unlikeliest lead characters in the German economic miracle. It was soon time for the Cabriolet to be enthroned at the apex of the range. The Karmann four-seater was pretty much a re-hash of the pre-war prototypes and became the Type 1 Cabriolet per se starting in 1949 (1951 shown above). Other coachbuilders also practiced their art on the Beetle – Beutler, Drews, Hebmüller and many more – in the late ‘40s and ‘50s, but Karmann was the outfit that took it to the industrial level the model deserved.

Sure, the convertible top was ludicrously massive when folded down. That was the usual way for German cars in the ‘40s and it remained that way will the end (1977 factory photo above), but it fit the car’s antiquated looks pretty well. The rest of the Beetle seems to have changed a lot more over the years than the convertible top…

The vivid colours they used on Super Beetles were really something else. It’s funny how a very early Beetle looks perfect in black or any dark colour, but would seem wrong in white, yellow or pea green. But the ‘70s Beetles took to those colours pretty well. The exact hue this Cabrio is sporting is, as far as I can tell, “Mars red” – literally out of this world.

The navy blue wheels are a puzzling choice, but it kind of works. And everything is so pristine that one cannot help but stand there and admire.

Not crazy about the aftermarket wheel, but those seat covers are sheer perfection! The fact that this is a left-hand drive car doesn’t mean it wasn’t sold here as new: blue-collar conveyances such as Transporters were usually sold with RHD, but this is actually a prestige vehicle – which makes the snob-appeal of the LHD almost irresistible for the local clientele.

The back seat of a VW Beetle is never a fun place to be, but I suppose if the roof come down, that might improve the situation pretty significantly.

Whoever owns this car has a thing for cool stickers and plaques – and not the usual “JAF” or “Tokyo Dinseyland.” The period-perfect stickers inside the car are great, but there are some serious enameled collector’s items on display on the engine cover.

The amount of effort VW spent on transforming the Beetle into the Super Beetle is, retrospectively, a bit of a waste, surely. I’m not counting the EFI and catalytic converter – those were mandated by certain markets, so they were the price of doing business in the ‘70s. But the rest of the changes, gradual though they were, were extensive: new nose, new front suspension, bigger front trunk, big curved windscreen, chunky “elephant foot” taillights, the completely (and most unfortunately) revamped dash… All that and the car barely made it to the end of the decade.

Volkswagen were wise to keep the Cabriolet on the job for a few extra innings. They and Karmann rode that fuel-injected flat-4 all the way to the bank, and rightly so. Maybe they put this particular car in the vault while they were at it and it only recently made it outdoors again, where a Cabriolet clearly belongs.


Related posts:


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

CC Outtake: 1971 VW Cabriolet – Can I Take It Hiking?, by PN

Curbside Classic: 1956 Rometsch Beeskow – Coach-Built VW, by PN

Cohort Classic: VW Hebmüller Cabriolet – A Genuine Heb Or A Fake?, by PN

QOTD – Tell Me About This 1963 VW 1200 (Beetle) Cabriolet, by Roger Carr