Let us celebrate the Volkswagen Beetle convertible, a car that has successfully ridden the wave of chic-on-the-cheap fashion for more than sixty years. As evidence, we present here an example of the first production Beetle convertible, the 1949 VW Type 14A Hebmueller cabriolet. And for perspective, we also present a representative of the demographic group known for the way it embraces the ideal of style at the right price.
First, let us agree that a Beetle convertible is all about the way it looks. No matter that this 2013 Volkswagen Beetle TDI convertible will retract its canvas top between cycles at a traffic light with the push of a button. No matter that its turbocharged diesel engine matched with a dual-clutch automatic transmission will deliver the exquisite luxury of sailing past fuel stations for as many as 550 miles. Instead, as we have been told many times by many individuals over the course of many decades (a few fingers might have been wagged in our face in the process) the most important thing about a Beetle convertible is its ability to transport you to a place where the handbags and shoes are all snappy, every car has a steering wheel with a white rim, and a young woman feels as if she’s the star of her very own fashion photo shoot in the south of France — or California, at least.
With the new car placed next to the old, you can recognize the underlying simplicity in the Beetle’s shape. It’s a kind of raindrop, viewed as nature’s most efficient form, and you can see the way it has evolved from the very first VW scribed on a blueprint by body engineer Erwin Komenda, through the New Beetle’s geometric gestures created by Art Center-trained designers J Mays and Freeman Thomas, and now into the newest Beetle done with the electronic tools of the VW design studio in Wolfsburg, Germany. Simplicity, bold graphics, and strong color always succeed, whether at a car dealership or on the rack near the door at the discount fashion outlet.
The Beetle comes from the early 1930s, when the German car industry was desperately seeking its own Ford Model T, some form of cheap transportation that would not only put ordinary people on wheels but also restart the economic engine of a society crushed by the Great Depression. Dr. Ferdinand Porsche, the most prolific and innovative automotive engineer of the pre-1950 era, had worked on a number of such projects, and he ultimately presented his own plan to the German government at the 1934 Berlin auto show. Later, he and his son Ferry even traveled to Henry Ford’s factory at River Rouge, which was a kind of shrine for automotive industrialists of the time.
By late 1936, Dr. Porsche had built three examples of the Volksauto for evaluation, and subsequently thirty VW30 cars underwent an average of 28,000 miles — and as many as 62,000 miles — of durability testing. Among the first prototypes was a convertible, and when the cornerstone of the massive new factory in Wolfsburg was laid on May 26, 1938, a convertible drove down the boulevard in front of the crowd. Then the war came and squashed the whole project as flat as the bombed-out factory.
Yet the Beetle droptop endured. The Wolfsburg workers turned the damaged factory into a repair depot for VW military vehicles with the aid of foresighted British administrators, and the VW38-style Beetle sedan went into production in early 1946 at the rate of 1000 per month. Wolfsburg engineer Rudolph Ringel soon built a racy, two-passenger VW roadster for one of the British administrators, Colonel Charles Radclyffe. The Radclyffe Roadster led in turn to a Beetle convertible also built by Ringel, although the windshield kept cracking because of chassis flex.
Finally, two private companies showed up at the gates of Wolfsburg with proposals to build their own Beetle convertibles, Wilhelm Karmann GmbH (which produced convertible versions of first the Beetle and then the Golf until 2002) and coachbuilder Joseph Hebmueller Soehne. Through various circumstances, Hebmueller was the first to succeed, its sporty two-plus-two car rolling out in June 1949. Karmann’s more practical four-passenger car followed in September 1949.
What we have here is a 1949 Volkswagen Type 14A Hebmueller cabriolet, one of the 696 examples that were built between 1949 and early 1952, when Hebmueller went into bankruptcy. The Heb is a little bit of a time machine of the 1930s, right down to the semaphore-style turn signals in the front quarter panels. Indeed, our enthusiast of Beetle style felt transported to a time when she might have taken a snapshot of the car with her own Kodak Brownie camera. (Look, is that a Junkers Ju52 trimotor overhead?) The long arc of the rear engine cover shows us that Karosserie Hebmueller went to some expense to create a true special-bodied car instead of a quick and dirty chop-top.
This particular car came into Volkswagen’s hands recently after sitting in a Florida museum for thirty years, and it shows evidence of a restoration during the 1970s. Then as now, it is very small: the VW Type 1 sedan (a.k.a. the Beetle) from which the Heb is derived measures 160.2 inches overall on a wheelbase of 94.5 inches. With its reinforced platform, the Heb convertible probably weighs more than the Type 1’s 1600 pounds.
This smallness is the essence of the Beetle’s charm because everything is perfectly scaled to the human form. You sit comfortably upright in the fresh air, holding the slim rim of the steering wheel with your fingers. The pedals are hinged at the bottom, which was customary then but seems like an ergonomic nightmare now. (Especially, our style enthusiast reports, if you’re wearing high-fashion shoes.) The upright windshield and the proximity of the steering wheel to the dashboard remind you of a Porsche, which should be no surprise since the Porsche 356 was built on a Beetle platform, and these design cues endure even today in the 991 version of the Porsche 911.
The Beetle engine seems impossibly exotic for its time, an air-cooled, 1131-cc flat four with a magnesium crankcase, cast-iron cylinder liners, and cast-aluminum pistons and cylinder heads, not to mention a dedicated oil cooler. The little engine would fire up readily even in snowy February since there was no risk of frozen coolant. Of course, it makes only 30 hp SAE gross (25 hp by German DIN measurements), but you have to remember that the European gasoline of the time had a very low rating, perhaps 60 octane, and you can’t expect much power from a compression ratio of 5.8:1.
The Heb’s Type 1 engine is free-revving in the way that modern VW engines still are, even the 2013 Beetle TDI convertible’s 140-hp turbocharged diesel. All the horses check in by 3300 rpm, but you rarely rev much past the torque peak of 49 lb-ft at 2000 rpm. The distinctive whir from the engine reminds you of a windup Schuco toy car spinning up to speed. Of the four nonsynchromesh gears, the Heb loves third gear best, just like the modern diesel Beetle convertible. While 60 mph is possible, the old car is happiest between 35 mph and 50 mph. (Eliminating worries about cockpit air turbulence and reducing the need for the obligatory postdrive brushing of hair, our style enthusiast notes.) The recirculating-ball steering isn’t very precise, but then again the rough-riding 5.20 x 16-inch bias-ply tires aren’t capable of much. Plan ahead when it comes time to stop, because the cable-action four-wheel drum brakes will remind you of dragging your old Chucks on the ground when you were riding that 1969 Marx Big Wheel.
Once you swap over to the 2013 VW Beetle, it feels as big as a school bus. Nevertheless, the new car’s dimensions aren’t too different from the Heb’s, as it measures 168.4 inches overall on a wheelbase of 100.0 inches. Of course, it also weighs 3340 pounds. And yet for all that, there is something unpretentiously personal about the new car. Modern convertibles are too often all about speed and all about style, yet they always threaten to tip over the edge into pretentious vulgarity. Instead, the Beetle ragtop is simply all about you — an intensely personal expression that is more like fashion than fine design.
It’s customary now to dismiss the retro cars of the late 1990s as fakes, bad copies of tired ideas. But J Mays, who grasped the significance of the retro idea and helped create successful retro-style cars at Audi, Volkswagen, and Ford, understood that a whisper of retro can tell a story about the car and the company that builds it. Retro sets up a kind of resonance within us, and so we welcome the car, the company that makes it, and even the person driving it.
This describes the 2013 Beetle convertible. It’s true that the Volkswagen Type 14A Hebmueller cabriolet was a luxury car in 1949 and remains one now. (We’ve seen a perfectly restored example of the 130 or so remaining Hebs that is priced at $195,000.) Today, though, a Beetle convertible reminds us that a Volkswagen is about real cars for real people. As our style enthusiast notes, it is great fashion that even the young and perpetually penniless can aspire to own. So why not wear it while you still can.