The Volkswagen Beetle

Cars

An Elegy

My sister was delivered by VW Beetle. Or at least, a German midwife, who happened to live up the street from us. Her identity is for me completely merged with that car. And that’s the thing about the VW Beetle. There is humanity.

Superstars, Outlaws and specials
Volkswagen Beetle: Evolution
The Beetle of Destiny
Volkswagen Beetle: Gallery

It was September 1974. I was six years old, my little sister was around two. We were at home with our heavily pregnant mum when she went into rapid labour. I can remember her standing by the window in the hallway, phone receiver in one hand. She was leaning on the other, breathing heavily. She must have called the midwife. Then my dad. Then her dad. Granddad was the first to show (in his light green, sun-roofed Mk2 Ford Cortina; but that’s another story). I was hysterical when I saw him. Mum had gone upstairs and I could hear her groans and grandad’s panicked admonishments. I must have been screaming my head off because this mild man, my hero, ran downstairs and slapped me in the face to shake me from my meltdown. Soon, Dad appeared (Dark Blue VW Variant) and legged it upstairs. That’s when we went outside on the front step and, like the winged chariot of a calming Teutonic angel, the little Beetle chuntered to a halt outside our house. The midwife, in period blue twinset uniform complete with the little hat, emerged unflustered from the driver’s seat, carrying a small black leather holdall. Walking past me she said ‘Hello Darling’ in that heavily accented English and scooted through the open front door and up the stairs. Within a few minutes, my sister was in the world. And the German midwife still lives on our old street. And she still drives the white Beetle.

 

If cars were ever really meant to be vehicles for the masses: affordable, reliable, practical and fun – then the Volkswagen was always the quintessence of that idea. Henry Ford may have mastered the industrialisation process but his productions were all the way up until the 1930s still the preserve of the well-off. Especially in Europe. The Beetle represented a step-change in the accessibility of motoring. It changed everything. It brought the freedom of the road to the masses.

 

The whole idea of a people’s car is rooted in that very 20th-century idea of the empowered rank-and-file. And no institution disseminated the notion more powerfully than the Nazi regime headed up by Hitler and his henchmen. The construction of the new autobahns in Germany during the thirties may have been conduits for this new economic boom – but the sinister nature of the project – of a dominant mobile economy to invade, dominate and enslave – was front and centre. That the VW Beetle emerged as a symbol of everyman empowerment from such dark, twisted roots – and became one of the most widely distributed and biggest-selling cars of the 20th century, is a strange irony.

And how did this happen? Two things timing, and simplicity, The stratospheric acceleration of mid-century industry and the media that sold its projects meant that cars could be produced quicker than ever before and their image could be sold to more and more people with increased sophistication. And at exactly the same time the basic principle of straightforward mechanical utility of design and purpose was realised. This meant that this car really was all the things it was meant to be – and for the same reason that in the course of its evolution the image of the Beetle was transformed from base-level empowerer – stodgy, utilitarian and stern – to whimsical symbol of fun, freedom and quirk.

 

The midwife’s white Beetle was looking a bit tired the last time I was up our old street. It must have been a year ago. The corner of East London where we lived has yet to be gentrified, as is so much of the city around us. The merged CAD-led design elements of contemporary motoring characterise the kerb sides. The odd hybrid and Electric Vehicle sits outside the smarter terraces on the street all curved and compact. I’ll drive over there this evening, hoping to see the white Beetle holding court.

 

 

Superstars, Outlaws and Specials

 

The VW Beetle platform has given us some of the coolest, outlandish and totemic one-offs in the history of car culture. They have starred on the big screen, in the desert and on the beaches of the planet – and have often become totems in their own right. Here are a fistful of our favourites.

 

The ‘Thomas Crown’ Manx Meyers Dune Buggy

This little red beastie is instantly recognisable to many of you as the other star of Steve McQueen’s super cool thriller of 1968, The Thomas Crown Affair. In our favourite sequence the king of cool himself rags the sled to within an inch of its life in the most stylish way imaginable, while a frosty Faye Dunaway sits sphinx-like and stoic in shades and a headscarf. McQueen specced out the Manx Meyer bug with the help of custom house Con Ferr, with whom he had built cars before he was cast in the film. They stuffed a Chevy Corvair engine in the buggy, which, when combined with a stripped-back fibreglass body, extra-wide rubber and tricked out running gear, made this a beachgoing projectile for the ages. If you have six or seven figures gathering dust somewhere, you’ll get the chance to bid in Bonhams’s forthcoming Amelia Island Auction. A real slice of Beetle and Hollywood history, this.

Pics Courtesy Bonhams

 

VW Type 181 Beach Thing

The Type 181 was originally based on a military vehicle supplied all over the world, It was built on the underpinnings of a Type 1 Beetle, but utilised a  floor pan from a Karmann Ghia. It came with options of the 1500 or 1600 CC engine and was shipped to the German, Belgian and Dutch forces when it began production in 1969. It was available in Civvy street after 1971, when it began production in Mexico. This immaculate little example comes complete with a ‘riviera’ style upholstery and looks good enough to eat – like an ice cream at the beach. These have the edge over your Mini Moke/Citroen Mehari leisure runabout we think – and are sturdy,  and more reliable than the competition. You just need the sunny beachside lifestyle to go with it.

Images Courtesy Bonhams

 

Paul Newman’s Super Sleeper

Steve McQueen didn’t have the monopoly of the auto obsession. Paul Newman was similarly inclined. After coming across a red 1963 Beetle Cabriolet while shooting a commercial for VW in the late sixties, he decided to snag the car and turn it into what has been called a ‘covert corvette killer’. The lump recruited for the task was a 351 ci V8 Ford mounted in the central-rear area behind the front seats – and according to most sources, the transaxle five-speed gearbox and many of the transmission and running gear elements were full IndyCar Spec. This bug became legend in California hot rod circles and was known as the ultimate sleeper – able to see off pretty much anything that challenged it. The story goes that Newman donated the car to a Californian college with a well known automotive programme. When asked why, he said ‘My attorney and my insurance agent said I had to, before I killed myself!’ 

 

The White Prince

While this is a factory car, we think you’ll agree it’s kind of a special Cabriolet Beetle. The whitewalls on white steels and those dome hubcaps underline the brilliant paintwork and contrast with the black ragtop and interior. This art direction really highlights the simple beauty of the Karmann design. There are all the added luxuries offered on the Cabriolet over the Saloon model, including map pockets and height-adjustable rearview mirror, and there’s a simple sense of cool, calm style about the way the monochrome presence articulates with the Type 1 lines. But the Karmann design was all about structural integrity as well as aesthetics – and there are a surprising amount of these cars around when you consider their age. We think the mid-fifties Type 1 Cabrio are one of the most desirable of these cars. You’ve got the twin chrome pipes, the ovoid rear end and the kind of mid-century steeze that in any other marque will cost you six figures. And this near seventy-year-old beauty recently sold at Bonhams for a little under 27 Grand. Them’s bang for bucks.

 

The Desert Mouse

At the risk of overdoing the Desert Sled aspects of the tricked out Beetle, we wanted to end with this gorgeously rugged rendition of a mid-seventies bug specced out and angry enough for the beautifully irresponsible motorsport of Baja Racing.

According to Hemmings, who advertised the sled for sale recently, the Desert Mouse is a 1974 Beetle built by a couple of fellahs reportedly called Siggy Pflum and Fred Althaus – with a view to taking part in Baja 1000 race – in which nutters of various hues thrash across a thousand miles of the rocky terrain of the Baja California. According to sources under that familiar skin (which is actually rendered in fibreglass) is a chrome-moly tube frame. The running gear is Porsche RS60 and the discs come from a Porsche 911. Those are forged allow Fuchs and the whole issue is powered by a 2 Litre VW Type 4 engine hopped up to120 BHP.

There are a whole swathe of Baja monikered Beetles out there – but if there’s a tastier, meaner-looking and more desirable one out there, we’d love to see it.

Volkswagen: Evolution

Volkswagen reckons that ‘the people’s car’ and Darwin’s theory of natural selection didn’t apply to one another. Don’t believe the hype. In fact, with the car’s subtle shifts through mid-century culture – the Beetle’s evolution resembled closely the incremental developments in the natural world.

This totemic car kept pace with the requirements of the market in which it thrived – but how it was perceived shifted quicker than the mechanical and design evolutions that came into the industry. The fact that many of the major shifts in the Beetle’s design came under the skin is a factor – but aesthetic shifts in the world around it account for the morphing of the Beetle’s image.

What was conceived of as the essential base level workhorse of utility was transformed in people’s mind into all that was quirky, frivolous and fun. It became, in other words, the exact opposite of what it was conceived to be. All the while the car remained, from a layman’s perspective, recognisably and perceptibly the same. There’s a lesson in there somewhere – and it’s the reason for the Beetle’s status as an enduring classic of 20th-century design.

 

1930s

Ferdinand Porsche had developed a number of prototypes for what would become the Volkswagen Type 1 (aka the Kåfer or Beetle) to fulfil German dictator Adolf Hitler’s dream of a car for the Reich’s masses. There was a state-sponsored credit scheme, which would provide a car with everything a modern family was thought to need. There was the rear-situated air-cooled boxer engine cowled in that bug-like rear end. There was the flat front screen and below that a forward-mounted luggage area. Under the skin, there was independent suspension all round. The engine and four-speed transmission was made of light alloy and inside was a simple, painted metal layout with adjustable front seats and fold-down rear bench for two.

1940s

Mass production of civilian Beetles did not begin again until after the war, after various British and other manufacturers declined to take over production in one of the original workshops in Wolfsburg. Nevertheless, the occupying British Army ordered 20,000 cars from the original factory, and by 1947 some 1000 cars were being produced per month. Wilhelm Karmann pitched VW management with his custom chopped Beetle Cabriolet in 1948 and the design visionary was given permission to factory produce a rag-top version of the Beetle in his factory in Osnabrück. The early Cabrio was a sophisticated design, with strengthening steel beams, insulated liners and safety glass. The whole issue was targeted at a more upmarket crowd than the Sedan, with little touches like ashtrays, map-pockets and vanity mirrors.

1950s

As Germany’s post-war economic miracle gathered pace, sales of the Beetle leapt. A plethora of technical changes were introduced. There were new brakes and fabric sunroofs.  The split rear screen became a single oval – though now sought after models from the fifties known as ‘Zwitter’ Beetles retained the rear split with newer vent windows and chrome trim. New brake lights were a visible development, and cylinder bore was increased to 1200cc. This is turn led to an increase in engine output to 30HP. Those now familiar twin chrome tailpipes arrived in the middle of the decade, and by the end of the fifties the larger, rectangular rear window replaced that curvy oval.

1960s

At the start of this dizzying decade, an increase in compression ratio gave the car 25% more power and torque. An automatic choke was introduced as well as flashing light indicators – and the gearbox was synchromeshed throughout the range. Later in the decade things like fuel gauges a compressed air driven windscreen wiper. In the middle of the decade, body panels were altered significantly and windows were larger; that flat windscreen now came with a slight curve, making the 1965 model look much more modern, fluid and hip. Bigger engines came too, a 1300 and then in 1967 a 1500cc, which came with discs on the front brakes (though in the US model, these were not standard). It was in ‘67 also that those US-specific ‘towel rails’ over the rear bumpers made a showing. The following year bigger bumpers and tweaked headlamp placements come along, and the gear shifting was improved by shortening the stick and placing it slightly to aft. For the first time, a three-speed automatic gearbox was introduced.

1970s:

The seventies for the Beetle was all about expansion. Engines went up to an optional 1600cc (which increased output to 60HP), windows became even larger and the ‘elephant foot’ rear lights were introduced. New regulations in the US required 5mph bumpers all round. Indicators were shifted to the fenders, and emissions standards necessitated Bosch L-Jetronic fuel injection. This, in turn, led to the loss of the twin tailpipes in favour of a single offset number. The last German-made Beetles were put together in 1978 at Emden. From the late seventies, after which the plant in Puebla, Mexico became the primary production facility. Though production continued in places as diverse as Brazil, Nigeria etc: the rapid development of tech and a taste for the flashy an excess were a death knell for the classic Beetle. Few car designs would ever leave such a lasting legacy.

 

 

The Beetle of Destiny

 

Spencer Pritchard leaves and breathes VW. And for him, Beetles oxygenate the blood more powerfully than anything else.

 

“There’s something about the Beetle’s simplicity, something about how fun they look, that just draws me in,” the thirty-year-old Bristolian mechanic, garage owner and customiser tells me on a watery-lit West Country morning. “When I was a kid, my cousin rocked up outside my house in an amazing 1955 Beetle with the oval rear window. As soon as I saw it, I knew I had to have one.”

 

Half a lifetime later, Spencer owns his own oval window. In fact, that car is just part of a fleet of VWs – one that encompasses everything from a bay window campervan, a Beetle based ‘Sand Rail’, a Karmann Gypsy Type 25 on hydraulics – and even a Type 25 pickup converted to an office space. “I started fixing up a 1303 when was fifteen years old,” he says. “I passed my driving test on the same day that first Beetle passed its MOT. I’d spent two years restoring it with my own hands, so that was a pretty special moment for me. It ended up bright pink…but that’s the sort of thing you do when you’re a teenager!”

This car – a more sober and subtly stylish car dating from 1967 – holds a very special place in Spencer’s heart.  “I’ll never, ever sell it”, he says. “The car was sitting on the forecourt of the garage when I dropped off that first car for an MOT. I spoke to the lady who owned it right away, but she didn’t want to sell it. I tried her again about five years later with the same result. Then a couple of years ago I went to Newquay and bumped a woman, who saw the tattoo on my arm and told me that she had a Beetle ‘feeling quite sorry for itself.’ As it turned out, she was the same woman who owned the car – it was a mad coincidence. But she still didn’t want to sell it. A couple of years later she called me up and told me that she was retiring and that she wanted me to have the car…”

The thing about Spencer’s ‘Beetle of destiny’ is its unmolested state. Spencer narrowed and lowered the car, and has plans to fit a Renault Turbo engine in the rear as well as 17-inch wheels and discs.  It was resprayed sometime in the late seventies, but that was just a really light blow, so the original paintwork is more or less intact. “I’m going to have the interior restored back to factory spec”, he says, “but I’m going to keep the paintwork as it is.”  Where the car was stored for years, the front was butting up to a generator, which was emitting an oily exhaust onto the bonnet. “There’s a nice little patina there. I kind of like it…” And that thing that looks like a rusted Jetsons-era ramjet engine attached to the side? It’s a very simple analogue aircon unit that utilises hay and crushed ice. Strange. Quirky. Cool.

And that’s the most curious trait of the ‘people’s car’. It’s the subtle things that make it so special. The flaws become the things you love.

Gallery

 

 

Many thanks to our friends Gary Inman of Sideburn Magazine, and to Jason at Rothfink Industries

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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