Although the VW Beetle had been sold in the US since 1949, when exactly two were imported, its sales were modest for the first six years. During the early 50s, there were many imports on tap, but the British were dominant. The Austin A40 was the best selling import during those years, along with a number of other British sedans and sports cars.
But there was a very abrupt change in 1955. VW sales suddenly exploded, and the Beetle became the hot new thing, like the Honda Civic in 1973 and the Tesla M3 in 2018. VW owners felt themselves to be part of a new more enlightened club, and waved to each other. Of course, 1955 was just the very beginning that would see the Beetle’s steady growth to its peak in 1970, when almost half a million were sold.
Tom McCahill was the dominant auto tester of the times, and his influence was huge. McCahill had tested the VW twice before, and had proclaimed the VW as his favorite small import. No doubt his influence harped in no small measure to propel the VW to its new success.
In McCahill’s inimitable style, he lays out the case for the VW. And he rightly points out its ability to become unstable at high speed corners on rough and potted roads.
Actually, McCahill’s VW exceeded the factory specs for top speed, which was 68 mph for the 36hp VW. perhaps his Beetle had some of those high compression pistons he mentions in the article. He also noted a different camshaft number; did he have his engine taken apart? In principle, the ’56 and ’55 engines were supposed to be identical.
The stats may sound a bit absurd form our modern perspective, but the new-for 1955 36 gross hp/ 30net hp 1192cc engine yielded performance that was actually quite decent for the times. The 0-60 time of 26.3 seconds was hampered by the need to shift into fourth at 57mph, but its more important 0-50 time of 15.1 seconds was actually quite good. in 1955, the great majority of American cars still had six cylinder engines that generally were not happy with speeds above 55-60 or so. So the VW, with its top and cruising speed of 72mph was quite capable of keeping up with the traffic of its time.
McCahill makes his case convincingly. And America agreed, and for many years to come, VWs were perpetually sold out, like Hondas in the 1980s. This made VW dealers highly profitable, and wisely, Volkswagen of NA made them reinvest those profits into beautiful new dealerships with excellent service. The VW was a fantastic money-making machine for all involved, while it lasted.
Thanks for posting this. Uncle Tom McCahill was quite the entertaining writer, a man of his time. Yet he had the wisdom and the writing skill to warn the over-enthusiastic about the behavior of rear-engined swing axles, without taking the verve out of the story.
Yep, not sure why swing axles were ok in a Beetle, but they were an abomination in the Corvair. :0
I’m sure someone will tell me how off base I am. 🙂
They were problematic on the Beetle, but I suppose it was more pronounced in the Corvair due to greater rear weight bias, two-and-a-half to three times the horsepower, and a general expectation that a Corvair would drive and handle much like any other Chevrolet.
Yes; the Corvair’s engine weighed proportionately more, and because it was a six, it stuck out further. The percentage of weight on the rear is quite critical.
I don’t recall VW dealers or VW itself telling customers to be on the lookout for tricky handling characteristics in their Beetles, or that it would handle any differently than any other small car.
McCahill basically brushes off concerns over the handling in the same manner that Corvair apologists do – “If really you know how to drive, it shouldn’t be a problem.”
Interesting that McCahill never mentions the very good build quality and fit-and-finish, which was a real selling point for VW as Detroit workmanship deteriorated in the mid-1950s.
Owners, gas stations and even tire shops were more likely to ignore the recommended tire pressures for an ‘merican Chevy than an import like VW. I wonder how many early Corvairs were inflated to 24psi all around.
notinuse, off base you are not. Many Prewar and every Postwar Mercedes Benz up to 1972 had them, too. And every Porsche until 1973. There’s a reason the word ‘swing axle’ is usually preceded by the adjective ‘dreaded.’ It was invented and patented by one Edmund Rumpler in 1903, and while it saved a lot of space, it was prone to “jacking” on suspension unloading (or rebound), causing positive camber changes on both sides, resulting in “snap oversteer,” which, in extreme cases, could overturn the car. With a VW, you didn’t have enough power to provoke this reaction, but with a Corvair, Porsche or Mercedes, the answer to a slide was to power through it, not lift, which is counter-intuitive. In 1972, driving south on CA. Rte.1 between Russian River and Point Reyes, our ’63 220S sedan taught me that lesson about five seconds too late, and only the lone manzanita tree on the right shoulder for three miles prevented us from plunging into the Pacific.
Both the Corvair and the Dauphine had >60% rear weight distribution. I’m guessing VW’s was 55% or so.
I had a ‘63 VW Beetle as my first car. So loved driving it to school and around town with my buddies. It was crushed by a Chrysler Córdoba (very long story) while parked near an intersection.
Recently looked to buy an early (6 volt) Beetle, but the going rate is north of $20k.😱😱😱😱
My first car was also a ’63 Bug. Paid $500 for it, my earnings from working all summer. It was great!
Even I once harbored a desire to become a VW owner. The urge passed and I never followed up. Now, as 3SA notes above, atsa lotta money for a car like the basic old bug.
I love reading these old reviews, and Tom’s are the best.
Didn’t we all harbor Beetle desires at one time or another? I sure did. I probably still do.
Count me in. Surprised DougD hasn’t prodded me (again!). They’re retirement projects at this point.
I think we all did at one time. I know I did. Up until I dated a girl in high school who had a 1969 Beetle (in 1978). Very little is as miserable as a neglected, rusted out Beetle in an Ohio winter. Ugh.
I _know_ I still do
Find it hard to believe the Austin A40 was a best selling import ! Even as a child I could see they were pretty miserable.
Is there anything you can buy new today that offers this basic level of transportation, funky styling, performance and fun factor? Nope.
A Mitsubishi Mirage comes close for basic transportation, styling, and performance. “Fun” is pretty subjective.
The Fiat 500, especially now that they are all turbocharged.
Yes! The 500e is even more fun: more torque, lower center of gravity.
Darn, didn’t think of that one! I drove a 2015 500 as a loaner while my Charger was in the shop two years ago. I was very impressed with it’s charms ( easy to park, retro styling, and build quality) and thought I’d see more on the road. Nothing like the take rate of a Bug though.
I am sure that this review helped sales take off but I believe what really made the difference was that by 1955 VW had won the durability and reliability contest by a mile. The other European imports just could not compete on quality. And with more an more people saying that Volkswagens were “so much fun” and “just adorable”, the cult really gained momentum.
Early VWs could do 65 in 4th, but trying to hit 57 in 3rd was not just begging for trouble, it was DEMANDING trouble.
Valves starting to float = Ready to poke a hole in a piston.
Heater and defroster for free = Worth just what you pay for them.
Can’t overheat = Can’t heat the interior. Overheating the engine was easy.
I have a ‘59 with a 36hp engine. With everything like it’s supposed to be, it is not prone to overheating. I’ve driven it, 300 miles, in July, from central Alabama to the Florida panhandle. Temps in the mid 90’s and it ran cool and didn’t skip a beat. I was overheating but my little 36er was happy as could be.
Defrost does suck, but I’ve always liked Beetle heat. Maybe in northern climates it wasn’t great but my winters are usually in the 30s-40s.
It was designed to be driven flat out and that’s how I drive it. It even hits 75-76mph at times on flat ground.
This. I DD’d my ’64 in Atlanta, Georgia “rush hour” traffic for six years and never had any overheating issues. After installing a fresh 40hp with new heater hoses, it actually had a modicum of heat in the winter, although I still kept an ice scraper handy for the inside of the windshield. I laughed at stuck 4x4s in every Georgia ice storm. Made a 12+ hour trip to Peoria, IL from Atlanta, and it did fine, other than going up the TN mountains.
That said, it’s a high-maintenance vehicle compared to anything from the past 25 years or so. Not because it was unreliable, just because that’s the way cars were back in the ’60s. Valve adjustments every 2K miles, etc..
I had two VWs, a ’63 and ’64; a stale air and fresh air. The heaters weren’t really all that bad, and I had these in Iowa. The critical key issue was to make sure you cracked the vent window open just a hair. if you didn’t, the VW’s airtight body kept warm air from coming in. I’m always surprised at how many folks didn’t know that. It makes a very significant difference.
As to overheating the engine, if one didn’t lug it on hills, there was no problem. Engine overheating happened only if folks damaged the tin and seals around the engine, which many did. That sucked up hot air from the cylinder heads into the blower. Properly maintained, it was hard to overheat a VW.
But folks just love to throw out these old chestnuts about VWs.
I just sold my neighbor’s ’65. I’d been driving it once a week or so for the past few years just to keep the battery charged. I was pleasantly surprised about how well the heater and defroster worked. I actually had to put that little heat lever down in 40°F weather. It blew a lot of fairly hot air. She bought it new and it spent its life in Colorado which is probably why. It had zero rust.
The Clarkson of his day based on his lack of political correctness, but a good review all the same. Car magazines aren’t this rich in terms of the writing style anymore.
Of course, once Jim McMichael got to Florida after 25 hours straight driving in his test car, he couldn’t move for 3 days afterwards!
I had a ’62 as my first car, the heater was as reported, ie. non existent. It was also the first car my buddy ever drove, albeit before he got his license so it was in a parking lot.
I loved the comment about 12,168 dog biscuits too! Great read, and very entertaining.
I used to drive 1000 miles straight through in my VW. My body didn’t have much of an issue with that, especially after I swapped in ’66 front seats, which had a better seat back contour and more lumbar support.
It often makes me wonder where life would have taken me, had dad not turned down Volkswagen of America’s offer to open a dealership in Indiana, PA in 1966, after he left the Chevrolet dealership.
Let’s see: He would have had the dealership, with no competition for about a 45 mile radius (Johnstown and Pittsburgh) in a picturesque, well-off Pennsylvania small town dominated by Indiana State College, just as the Sixties were taking off in our part of the state.
Unfortunately, he turned it down. Because he couldn’t see selling cars for the ‘same people who were trying to kill me at Cassino 22 years earlier’. Yes, he could hold a grudge. He also couldn’t understand how the neighboring Jews could bring themselves to drive Mercedes-Benz’s (bought from the nearest dealership in Indiana, PA – gives you an idea about the wealth of the area).
Pops had a 71. Have I mentioned that it was totaled by a German Shepherd? Dealership couldn’t fix the after collision steering shimmy so dad decided that was it. Never did any maintenance but add oil until he traded it in on a 78 LeSabre which is another tragedy. But dad was not a hands on car type of guy.
I leapfrogged the whole bug deal and found an old 911 before stupid prices. Some people think only pricks drive Porsches and you know, they are mostly correct. I detest waving at other P-drivers and am generally enough of a future curmudgeon to say I like the cars and engineering behind them more than the people who own them!
I recall many of my parents generation who were WW II vets or grew up during that era that refused to consider a German, and later, a Japanese car. Their kids seemed to care not one bit and bought them in droves.
There had been a small Nash dealer in my city that was foundering after that brand folded. He struggled, went through a bankruptcy, and tried to eke out a living selling used cars. Then, in the late ‘60’s he secured the first area dealership on something called a Toyota. Fast forward, his wealth grew to well over $100 million and his family now has dealerships all,over the state.
My worst automotive experiences have been with air cooled VWs. Once involving seizing a stinky air heater Transporter from overheating. It ran fine for years without the heater boxes but put them back on out of desperation and it turns to crap. At least it started when it cooled off. Equally miserable in the summer with those bitty sliding windows. Crap brakes, crap electrics and horrifically underpowered even empty. Any load and you were the cause of a 3 mile backup on the freeway. Miserable vehicles, I will not touch one with a stolen you know what at the end of a 10 foot stick.
Tom McCahill was to auto writers what Dizzy Dean was to sportscasters, one of a kind and always entertaining.
The game being played on the field and the game being described by Ol’ Diz might have had numerous differences but Dean was smart enough to know that entertaining people was his bread and butter. Tom McCahill was very similar, the facts were there if you knew where to look for them but first and foremost he wanted you to appreciate his writing style.
I grew up and still live in the Ohio River valley where summer temperatures are routinely in the mid to high nineties, with occasional days over 100 degrees. VW Beetles were very common in my high school and college days and I don’t ever remember anyone having trouble with overheating. I’m sure it could happen but I suspect that a Beetle with overheating issues probably had something amiss with the cooling fan.
Does anyone else remember how many VWs you would see with broken heater hoses–those fragile ones that went from the fan shroud to the heater?
I remember seeing a ton like that and always wondered if that would bleed off enough cooling air to ruin an engine, although most of them were still-running examples.
My folks bought their first VW in 1955. Mom said kids would point and laugh at them. My dad gave her grief for years for denting all four of the protruding hubcaps while parallel parking. It may have been a common problem. VW wisely went to a flatter design in the Sixties.
I have never driven or ridden in a Beetle. The closest thing was literally a “Thing”, sometime in the 70s, I must’ve been around 5. I don’t remember whose it was, or why I was in it, I just remember thinking how weird this car is and who are these people and why am I here? I think my mother was there. That tells you a little something about my childhood, too, I suppose.
I have powerful Hate for air cooled engines in cars meant for daily all season use. They just are not practical for below zero temps or for triple digit temps. In fair weather race cars and sportscars they are ok. I drove a VW beetle for a few years. Except for its snow capability and handy size it was a useless vehicle because of its air cooled motor.
I had some use of a 55 Beetle when at highschool it had the single tailpipe 60 mph indicated could be achieved eventually but you needed at lot of flat road or a downhill to do it, 55 mph was the speed limit back then so you could have got a speeding ticket in it if you were lucky, but you could out drive the lights at town speeds.
My Dad was once ticketed in a 36 HP Karmann Ghia, so anything is possible!
We had a couple of Beetles. Dad bought a 75 Standard as a restoration project and I bought a 78 Cabrio that was going to spruce up when an great deal on an 87 Cabriolet with just 20k miles popped up the next spring.
The heat does work…IF you make sure all of the piping is sealed. We replaced most of the old ducting with PVC replacement parts and it worked pretty well (it would singe the hair of your ankles anyway). The 1600cc dual port was good for 60 HP, and with the Bosch 009 distributor upgrade and glasspack exhaust, made for a machine that could actually cruise at 80 MPH on the highway. It was a fun-to-drive experience that can’t be replicated anywhere else. The car was painted a bright orangish-red and with the tall roofline, could easily be found in even large parking lots!
One morning when the temp was -13F, I had to go to an 8:30 AM engineering class, and even though the car sat in our unheated barn all night, it started right up and I was happy I didn’t have to worry about a water pump freezing up or anything of the sort.