So much has been written about the VW Beetle that it’s a bit daunting every time I take it up. But like the moth to the flame, I can’t stay away, especially when I’m handed the keys to one, that’s painted purple, no less. My goal was not so much to wallow in nostalgia, having racked up lots of wanderlust miles in two of these back in the early seventies. I wanted to know how it felt to drive this old. Memories are not always reliable, but more significantly, our standards and expectations have changed vastly since 1938 or 1969.
More specifically: Could a car designed 85 year ago still be a viable daily driver?
There’s a good reason for the VW’s longevity, and why I pose that question. What other car that came to fruition in 1938 could even be considered as a daily driver in 2021? Of course there are those rare folks who will decide to drive a Model A or such for a year or so, but the compromises are inevitably substantial. Yes, the VW benefited from a steady stream of improvements over its lifetime. But if it hadn’t been for its intrinsically advanced design, that undoubtedly would never have been the case; the VW was resuscitated in 1945 because it was such a viable design.
What were those key features that made it so ahead of its time, and kept it competitive for decades to come? Four wheel independent suspension was a key one. A light semi-unitized body with good aerodynamics and room for four adults.
Perhaps most importantly, a lightweight air-cooled boxer four that was oversquare, with its bore significantly larger than its stroke. This was very unusual for the times, and it’s what allowed the VW engine to have low wear, smooth running, and made it suitable for many more decades of use and further development. Try to find another engine from 1938 that had such a short stroke (in relation it its bore), short connecting rods and modern combustion chambers, all key factors that made it so suitable for use in 1969 or 2021.
Enough of the history, but the VW’s brilliant design, engineering and execution in 1938 are the only reason I’m about to get in one and drive it like an ordinary car. Which was very much not the case when I drove a 1936 Plymouth.
This 1969 VW belongs to Katie, a former tenant and now a neighbor. It was given to her last year by her uncle and cousin, who jointly restored it. Presumably they had their fun with it and were ready to move on, with Katie the beneficiary. She was a bit apprehensive at first, as she’s very much not a “car person”, and thought about selling it. But its charms have changed her attitude, and now she’s an enthusiastic owner and drives it regularly, although she does also have a Ford Escape hybrid. I’ve been enjoying seeing and hearing it come down our street. And I finally took up her offer to drive it.
It’s mostly stock, although it might possibly have 1600cc instead of the original 1500. It had an aftermarket higher-flow carb, but that was a bit problematic (stalling out in corners and such) and her mechanic replaced it with a stock Solex unit. It has the original single port heads, and when new, was rated at 53 gross hp @4200rpm; more accurately 44 DIN net PS, a fairly close equivalent of SAE net hp ratings. So…44 real hp.
That’s more than my 1200s made, as well as my brother’s 1300 which I took over for a while. Compared to these smaller engines, this is a torquer, making only a few more hp than the higher-revving 1300 but significantly more torque (78 ft.lbs @2600 rpm).
The only mechanical modification are front disc brakes, presumably from a K-G, but I’m not sure. I image there’s plenty of aftermarket ones too. Obviously the wheels are not original, as well as other cosmetic items.
The interior has an aftermarket wheel, seat covers, and nicely done plywood door cards. Katie was a bit apologetic about the seat not going back any further. No worries; I spent untold hours in these, often 10,12 or even 16 hours at a stretch. I’m tall and narrow, like the VW, and I always fit in just fine.
Sure enough; the muscle memory is instantly awakened, and it feels eminently familiar. The sensation of the dash being in your lap, closer and higher than in modern cars, may be disconcerting to the unacquainted, but I’m right at home, in a good way. The key thing is that the seats are high up, and there’s gobs of headroom to spare. That’s much more important to me than width, of which there obviously isn’t much. The VW was designed for the typical lean bodies of 1938, or 1969.
The engine started almost instantly, resulting in that familiar putt-putt idle, a consequence of the timing of the exhaust pulses in a flat four. Subarus all have it too, in a more muted way.
The aftermarket piston shift knob was the only fly in the ointment, at least so far. Cold and hard-edged; not exactly what a hand wants to feel when reaching for the shifter. I may need to buy her something a bit more comfortable. The gear pattern was a bit wider and the throws a bit longer than I had remembered. No wonder quick-shift kits were so popular.
I shoved it into first and let out the clutch, which engaged very positively and smoothly. The steering wheel instantly let it be known that it was connected to the front wheels via a direct mechanical connection. Sure, it’s a wee bit heavy compared to the power steering we’re all so used to, but it quickly lightens up under way.
There’s some resistance in the steering when initiating a turn. It’s a combination of it being manual as well as the geometry, and it has the presumably desired affect of creating initial understeer. It felt a bit heavier than I remembered; was that faulty memory or something about this car, or did the earlier VWs steer a bit lighter?
The key difference between the VW’s steering and the Armstrong steering in my F100 is that once under way, especially at speed, the Ford’s steering is shockingly dead and vague, with lots of good old American play. Yes, it’s better since I replaced some bushings, but one can still turn the wheel almost a quarter turn while doing 60 with minimal effect. Not so on the VW.
One feels every little change in the surface of the pavement as well as any change in the car’s attitude. There’s very substantial feedback; more than I remembered. It’s fairly quick and accurate, although not quite up to rack-and-pinion standards. I found myself driving with both hands on the wheel; not because I had to, but it’s just so much more engaging than modern power steering. One wants to feel that feedback, preferably with both hands. And that fine polished wood rim makes that experience even more appealing.
Even with the higher (lower numerical) gearing of the 1500 compared to the 1200/1300, first gear doesn’t last long. It’s low, for a good reason: to be able to get under way even on the steepest grades and with a full load. It’s also what contributed to the VW’s remarkable off-pavement abilities; I never had to turn back once on the steep jeep mining roads of Colorado.
Second provides a nice bit of thrust to get up to speed, as air resistance is not yet a factor. And third makes a very versatile gear for around town.
I did notice that I was shifting at a higher indicated speeds than the little red lines suggested. They seemed a bit low; sure enough, they’re still the same recommended shift points as for the 1200, which had lower gearing; VW couldn’t be bothered to change them. The shift speeds for maximum acceleration are actually 25, 45 and 65 mph; I didn’t take it that high.
The VW engine lets you know when it’s time to shift: its revs start to flatten as it hits its rather low power peak. It’s quite different than in a modern engine, which will just keep screaming higher and higher, if pushed hard and long enough.
Acceleration is perfectly adequate in normal city driving. Obviously, the rate of acceleration starts to slow down noticeably above 55-60 or so, depending on factors like if there’s any grade in the road. I took the Beetle on my favorite stretch of nearby driving road, out Lorane Highway to King Estates Winery and back; some 40 miles or so round trip. It’s a perfect country road/highway, with varying terrain ranging from some moderately tight curvy segments, fast sweepers, hills, some decent straights, and everything in between.
Although this ’69 has the double-jointed semi-trailing arm rear suspension, it still oversteers, by the very nature of its rear engine configuration. Not as much as the older swing-axle ones, especially the pre-’67 versions with the narrow original track, but yes, it’s still there. Each briskly taken curve starts with some understeer, meaning it takes a bit of effort to initiate the turn. Then the steering noticeably lightens as the Beetle enters a neutral phase. And that gives way to the sensation that the rear end is becoming increasingly interested in playing a more active role in the dynamics of the moment. Nothing abrupt at all; just a gentle transition to quite mild oversteer.
I drove fairly briskly, taking the curves at 15-20 mph faster than the posted recommended speed. But I was not pushing it hard, for obvious reasons. And the road was still wet in parts, from an earlier shower. The VW always felt totally secure, solid and predictable. And not just in the curves; this particular Beetle felt like it was a youngster, with its legendary solidity on full display. No creaks, groans, floppiness or any other sign of age. It felt like it was almost new, which in a sense it was.
On the straights, I touched 75 a couple of time; that’s still well below its nominal top speed of 82. Given its gearing, 75 equates to a calculated 3787 rpm, so no little insects were harmed, by a long shot. VW engines were designed from the get-go to run flat out all day on the autobahn. What other car designed in 1938 can say that? There even I passed a pickup on a straight.
It felt stable and comfortable at speed, in a 1970-ish way, if not quite in a 21st century way. I used to roll along at that speed all day long in my old VWs, my size 13 foot using the fully depressed little accelerator as a foot rest; the simplest form of cruise control.
The ride is a bit analogue to the steering: it’s not really hard or overly firm, but one does feel even minor changes in the pavement. Part of that is its light weight, a mere 1742 lbs. That was one of the VW’s most advanced aspects back in 1938; thanks to the use of the various “creases” in the body, which were not stylistic affectations but a brand new technology at the time; the large panels could be made out of thinner steel and still be plenty strong.
I didn’t have much use for the brakes, but they felt top-notch. Without power assist, like the steering, there’s more feedback, which makes them very pleasant to use.
What dates the VW the most, outside of its basic body proportions and the lack of power assists, is the noise from its engine. It may have been a bit worse due to the lack of a back seat, but it’s always there, by nature of the engine being air-cooled and with a blower to boot. It was never going to be quiet, and that factor is probably one of the more significant ones to consider in answering the question I posed at the beginning. It’s obviously not ideal for long freeway trips.
But then I rarely use my xB on long trips anymore; it’s mostly short runs around town and up into the mountains for hiking or mushroom hunting. The VW would feel right at home on those gravel forest roads. So I’ve answered the question: yes, an old VW would work for me as a daily driver. It nips and tucks in traffic without any compromises, affords a genuine vintage (no power assists) feel, and most importantly, feels rock solid, even if it is light.
This is all theoretical; I’m not planning to replace my xB with an air cooled Beetle. Like so many other what-if scenarios, it’s one I’ve played out in my head a number of times. Now that I’ve driven this Beetle, I’m more impressed than ever in its ability to still be a viable daily driver.