Vintage R&T Road Test: 1968 VW 1500 Automatic – Where’s The “Automatic Stickshift”?

Before I jump into the commentary on this review, it’s worth noting that this car was identified as a “VW Automatic”, and the badge on the rear engine lid reads “VW Automatic”. That’s rather peculiar, as the actual version sold here starting in 1968 was called “VW Automatic Stickshift” and it said so on the engine lids and all the advertising, etc. So VWoA must have made a last-minute decision to change that, and I can see why, as it wasn’t a true automatic. Well, one could start out in top gear, but that was very sloooow, and could heat up the torque converter.

Leaving that aside, the decision to create and add this option was of course an interesting one, as it was clearly intended for American drivers, as two-pedal driving was becoming ever more common. Frankly, I would have recommended that they just install the true three-speed automatic available on the Type 3 (Squareback/Fastback).

Having driven one of these, a former GF’s car, I can add my two cents.

Essentially this was a regular VW manual four speed with the first gear eliminated teamed up with a Saxomat automatic clutch and a torque converter. The clutch was operated by a microswitch on the shift lever; just touching it disengaged the clutch, which was normally done when changing between the three gears available. Unfortunately, I had/have a habit of resting my hand on the shift lever, which resulted in sudden de-clutching while under way, on a lovely trip from Portland out to the Oregon Coast in the fall of 1977. Quite annoying…even R&T noted that issue.


The recommended procedure was to start in 2nd gear (third, in the former four speed), and use 1st (formerly 2nd) only for steep hills and such. Acceleration was a bit leisurely that way, so I tended to start in 1st. But frankly, I would have much preferred to just drive a non-automatic stickshift.

But it did work well enough, and the low-speed nature of the VW engine worked quite well in this type of setup. But R&T asks the same question: why didn’t VW just use the fully automatic they already had, and which was a quite good and efficient unit. On the other hand, R&T points out that this semi-automatic was better in certain regards compared the very sluggish-shifting BW 35, so commonly used on European cars with an automatic.

FWIW, their acceleration numbers (0-60, 1/4 mile, both in 22 seconds) is almost identical to what R&T got for the ’67 1500 they tested the previous year, but then C&D got their ’67 1500 down to 17.4 seconds for the 0-60, so driving style was a factor.

The Automatic Stickshift was the first Beetle to be delivered with the new semi-trailing arm IRS, which was tamer in the back end of the wing axles, although by then that system had been improved by a wider track and anti-camber spring. The regular Beetle still came with that in ’68; starting in ’69 it too got the new IRS.


Otherwise, changes to the ’68 were they usual grab-bag of annual VW changes, although the new bumpers were pretty significant, both visually as well as in effectiveness.

Obviously the Beetle was getting very long in tooth; sales had already been falling in Europe, and they would start to do so after two more years in the US. But R&T wondered if it might go on forever. How about a bit over thirty years more?


Related reading:
Curbside Classic: 1968 Volkswagen Automatic Stickshift – Chrysler’s Fluid Drive Returns In The Safer Käfer