Vintage Review: Tom McCahill Wrings Out the 1956 VW – And Explains Why It was Suddenly So Popular

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.


More on the VW’s invasion of America in this 1957 VW CC