VW, which had made small incremental changes to the Beetle its hallmark, amped up its tortoise-pace significantly starting in 1965. That year brought much larger glass areas all-round. 1966 ushered in a whopping 25% increase in hp, thanks to the livelier and higher-revving 50 hp 1300 engine. One might have assumed that the 1300 would stick around for a few years, but no, for 1967 VW not only increased the engine to 1500 cc and gave it higher (lower numerical) gearing but also made a fairly significant change in its rear suspension, widening its track, softening the torsion bars’ spring rate, and adding a transverse spring, very similar to what Chevrolet did to the 1964 Corvair’s rear swing axle suspension.
The results were the biggest single change ever to the feel, ride and handling of the VW to date. The first time I drove one, I was almost shocked: the bump in torque and change in gearing made it feel more like…an American car! Engine noise was more muted, and shift points came later. I remember driving a friend’s 1500 and suddenly realizing that I was still in third gear on the freeway! That would never have happened in my 1200s or my brother’s 1300. And the rear suspension changes now induced more understeer, making it feel more…American!
Presumably that was the objective. I had mixed feelings about it.
I know; objectively the 1967 and up Beetles were “better” in terms of their softer ride, more stable handling and reduced engine speeds. It made for a more relaxed driving experience. But that’s not what I was looking for so much, and I had decidedly mixed feelings about it. I liked the tighter gearing of the 1200/1300s, which made the 1300 the sportiest Beetle ever, and my big bore 1350 (formerly 1200) could be made to hustle through the twisties and such at surprising speeds. And I liked its oversteer, which made zipping through curves effortless, with just a nudge of the wheel in the direction of the turn at the beginning, and then unwinding it back to the middle, or even a bit of reverse lock as oversteer made itself felt.
Oversteer has a bad name and reputation, unfortunately. But if you’re friends with it, it’s lovely; kind of like riding a bike; you don’t so much turn the handlebars as just lean into the curve a bit. The pre-’67 VWs were like that too.
Yes, it kept you on your toes, but then for me that was the whole joy of driving. Who wanted a duller, quieter, understeering VW? Not me!
The 1500 had very different torque and power curves than the 1300, which made its 50 hp at 4600 rpm whereas the 1500 made its 53 hp at 4200 rpm. The 1500’s torque bump was nice, but the change in gearing meant that the 1500 wasn’t all that faster than the 1300, only 0.3 seconds faster in the 1/4 mile. That difference could easily be made up by driving technique, meaning that I had no problem keeping up with a 1500 in my brother’s 1300, and my 1350 was still faster, thanks to keeping it at maximum tune.
But I was clearly not the driver VW was thinking about in making these changes. It was now a more relaxed and pleasant daily driver and commuter-mobile for the overwhelming majority of American VW buyers.