Vintage R&T and The Motor Road Tests: 1954 Volkswagen – Already 16 Years Old And Just Getting Going

As you all know, I have a very deep affection for the Volkswagen. One of the many things that interest me is how it was seen and evaluated at various times in its long life. That varied; here in the US, its common image is of a cute but out-of-date car that had an anti-establishment bent and sold more on its reputation for reliability and popularity rather than any particular technical or performance qualities. That was not the case in 1954, when the VW was just bursting on the scene in the US, and a big part of its exploding popularity was because it was deemed to be “sporty”, even if its absolute performance was not exactly overwhelming. But then that could be said for some other cars back then that had a sporty reputation.

The VW’s quick and light steering, low center of gravity and four wheel independent suspension made it fun to drive briskly, especially if one had mastered its oversteer tendencies and used that to increase the fun factor. Road and Track tested three VWs, privately owned, two of them sporting minor modifications.

For a different perspective, there’s also a very thorough review of a ’54 VW in The Motor, a stalwart British publication. They had some interesting things to say; among other things, they lauded “the effective heater and demister”.

R&T starts with asking why the VW has such a strong appeal to the sports car owner, or ex-owner with a family. One of the ways that question was answered was via a 300 mile “race” of the three tested cars, one a stock ’54, one a ’54 with bigger carburetor jets and dual exhaust outlets,  and the third a ’53 with the smaller 1100 cc engine but modified with McAfee 7.5:1 pistons and also the dual exhausts. Over the course of three miles driven flat out, the bigger-engine ’54s gained all of a car length over the modified ’53. But that high-compression ’53 did clearly win the economy part of the competition, averaging 38.7 mpg. This was of course between two to three times the mileage American cars delivered at the time.

As to top speed, everyone was fooled, thinking that they were crossing the perfectly flat roads at 70-75 mph, as indicated. The owners all swore that they had seen 80 mph, on gentle downgrades. But the true measured top speed for all of them turned out to be 65 mph, which is very close to the 68 mph that VW claimed for the 36 hp 1200.

R&T points out the reality that I and other ambitious 36 & 40 hp VW drivers all learned early on: they were capable of covering distance pretty effectively, despite the modest power and top speed, for two reasons: third gear was pretty tall, with a top speed of 59 mph, so not-too steep grades could be conquered at a decent clip. And once the summit was reached, the VW would happily run at 80, which corresponded to a bit less than 4,000 rpm. And of course momentum had to be maximized too. I used to surprise other drivers (and myself) at how well I could keep up in the Appalachians and Rockies, as long as my Beetle was in good tune. And yes, this was genuine fun; downright sporting, wringing out every possible drop of speed out of the Beetle.

The reality is that the Beetle’s 0-60 time of 39 seconds had very little impact on its ability to make good time and for the driver to have a good time.

The VW’s suspension was praised for being both comfortable but without any tendency to wallow. The 2.6 turn lock-to-lock steering was very much in sports car territory, and was of course both light and accurate. A delight, compared to what American cars offered in that regard.

Of course there was the oversteer, deemed its only significant deficit. R&T points out that not only would the great majority of typical American drivers never encounter it, and knowledgeable drivers knew how to exploit it, by getting through curves quickly by just using the throttle (and counter-steering) as a very effective method.


R&T ends with calling the VW a “best buy”, and notes that it is the only small import suited to American driving styles, with lots of high speed highway travel. The VW’s short stroke engine was unusual for its time, and it was designed for just that, to be driven flat-out on the autobahn. That was Hitler’s demand; ironically that is the single biggest factor that made the Beetle successful in the US.



On to the British take on the ’54 VW, which was not exactly a common import there at the time. But the VW did become a decent seller there too, as its many positive qualities found appreciative buyers. The Motor points out the same key factor: that the VW motor is designed for flat-out highway driving, very much unlike British cars of the time.


The Motor also notes that the “willingness of the unit”  and the good handling “give the car a distinct enthusiast appeal”.  The same general comment is made about the VW’s handling, with if being considered “outstanding” until the rather sudden oversteer kicks in. But again, this is deemed rather unlikely to be experienced by most drivers, and the capable ones will know to use it to their advantage.

The Motor points out that the VW has “a very effective heating and demisting system”; they must have rear the owner’s manual that says to open the vent window a crack in order to maximize the heat flow from the engine’s blower.