Primitive to Practical: Comparing the Oldest and Newest Air-Cooled VW Beetles
How much did the Beetle change from 1949-1979? We drive three of the cars to find out.
LOS ANGELES—The first air-cooled Volkswagen Beetle was imported into the U.S. in 1949 and the last in 1979. Park a '49 Type One VW Beetle next to a '79 Super Beetle and they look pretty darn similar, but nearly everything under the skin is different, from the transmission to the suspension to the stuffing in the seats. How different is the driving experience between the first and last air-cooled Beetles? With the help of Volkswagen of America and the Ventura Vintage Volkswagens club, I had the opportunity to find out.
I drove a '49 Volkswagen Beetle from VW's heritage collection back-to-back with a 1970 standard Beetle and a 1977 Super Beetle convertible. Before comparing, though, I had to get thoroughly versed in the ways of the '49—and the learning curve turned out to be much steeper than I imagined.
Getting to Know the 1949 Volkswagen Beetle
Our 1949 Volkswagen Beetle came from VW of America's collection (same source for the '73 VW Thing I took on a deep tour of Los Angeles). It's a European model, not one of the original two Volkswagens sold here in 1949, but mechanically it's pretty much identical—same 25-horsepower, 1.1-liter boxer engine, same four-speed, non-synchronized transmission, same cable-operated drum brakes.
The interior is as plain as the machinery. The overstuffed front seats provide about as much support as a thrift-store sofa, and adjusting their position requires loosening the wing nuts that hold them to the floor. The three-spoke steering wheel looks like it was made from pipe stock. The sole gauge is a speedometer, with red hash marks indicating max in-gear speeds. Two Bakelite knobs flanking the key-slot control the wipers and lights, and a third atop the dashboard flips out the illuminated semaphores that serve as turn signals. There is no stereo or fuel gauge, and there are no side mirrors.
Starting the '49 is easy: Pull the choke lever on the floor, turn the ignition key, and press the starter button on the underside of the dash. The 1,131-cc boxer engine lights right up from cold and settles into a familiar chugging idle. When it runs smoothly, start pushing the choke button in, and you're ready to go.
1949 Beetle: Life Without Synchro-Shift ...
Or are you? Keeping up with traffic in a 25-hp air-cooled Volkswagen Beetle might seem to be the biggest challenge, but your real nemesis is the non-synchronized transmission. The shift lever has no precision whatsoever, and finding first gear is a guessing game. (I aimed for an imaginary spot just to the left of the starter button, and that usually worked.)
First gear acceleration is surprisingly rapid, thanks in no small part to a super-low 4.43:1 final-drive ratio, but it's shockingly brief—the engine isn't supposed to rev past 3,300 rpm, which equates to about 12.5 mph. Time to change up: Clutch pedal down, shift to neutral, release the clutch pedal, count s-l-o-w-l-y to three, then clutch and shift to second. Rush it and you'll get a crunch; if you really botch it, it'll grind or simply not go into gear. Second gear gets you to 24 mph, and third is good for 40.
Truth be told, you won't want to go a whole lot faster than that. The '49 Beetle's steering is loosey-goosey in feel, and the tires aren't much wider than those on a Schwinn. By 50 mph, directional stability is almost non-existent, and bumps in the road practically bounce you out of the softly-sprung seats—there are no seat belts to keep you in place. Top speed is allegedly 62 mph, but I wasn't brave enough to find out.
… and Without Brakes and Mirrors
And then there's the matter of stopping. The owner's manual recommends relying on engine braking to stop the car—apparently VW realized just how inadequate cable-operated drum brakes are. They're okay for scrubbing off a little speed, but hard braking is a measure of last resort—the car pulls sharply (usually, but not always, to the right) and squeals like a tortured pig. (The Beetle switched to hydraulic brakes in 1950.)
What's more frightening than the lack of brake effectiveness is the lack of side mirrors—a bit of hardware you don't really miss until it's gone. A quick glance over the left shoulder doesn't tell you much, since the big C-pillar blocks most of the view. A long look is dangerous—in a car with controls this imprecise, you don't want to take your eyes off of the road for a second longer than necessary. Changing lanes was the single most frightening aspect of driving the old air-cooled '49 VW Beetle, and I stuck to single-lane streets whenever possible.
For all its shortcomings, though, the old Volkswagen is good fun. Driving becomes a matter of planning ahead: Where is the road going? Uphill or down? Will I need to stop? Will I need to steer? Will I need to downshift? (Clutch in, neutral, clutch out, rev engine, clutch in, select gear.) It's hard work, enjoyable but exhausting.
1970 Volkswagen Beetle: Mid-Century Mechanicals
Having some inkling of how different the first air-cooled Volkswagen Beetle would be from the last, I thought a middle step would be appropriate. Adrian Fine owns a beautifully restored 1970 Beetle hardtop; from the outside it looks very similar to the '49, but from the inside it's a completely different car—Spartan and bare by modern standards, but a Rolls-Royce compared to the 1949 VW Beetle.
The 1970 Beetle has high-back bucket seats that are comfortable, supportive, and can be adjusted without unscrewing them from the floor. The dashboard is still stark, but the speedometer is centered ahead of the driver and contains—praise be!—a fuel gauge. The two-spoke steering wheel looks like it was designed and not merely fabricated. There's even a radio! The back window seems huge, and over-the-shoulder visibility is much better. Not that it matters, because the 1970 Volkswagen Beetle has a driver-side mirror! Never in my life have I been so happy to see a little piece of reflective glass.
The '70 Volkswagen starts with a twist of the key, and while the chugging idle sounds the same as the '49, the engine producing it is much different—still an air-cooled boxer four, but now with 1,584-ccs of displacement, more than double the horsepower (57) at 4,400 rpm, and 82 lb-ft of torque. The four-speed transmission is synchronized and the shifter gates are better delineated, so there's less guesswork as to where to find first. First gear is still super low—15-mph max—but the 1970 Beetle will do 35 mph in second gear, a speed the 1949 Volkswagen could only attain in third.
We take off—I mean really take off, compared to the '49. "Man, this thing is quick!" I say, and Fine opines that of all the compliments he's heard about his car, that's a new one. After two solid days of wheeling the older VW around Los Angeles, I feel like I'm driving a sports car: Acceleration adequate to keep up with traffic, easy shifting, and responsive (if heavy) steering. The ride feels noticeably firmer than the 1949 air-cooled Beetle, but this may well be a function of the firmer seats.
The dual-circuit, hydraulic drum brakes lack power assist, and while the pedal is stiffer, it's more effective than the one in the '49 as it stops the car rather than steering it. The '70 VW Beetle may be a primitive car by modern standards, but it's light-years ahead of the 1949 VW Beetle.
1977 Volkswagen Super Beetle: The Corolla of Air-Cooled Volkswagen Beetles
I park the '70 and make a beeline for Jon Johnson's 1977 VW Beetle. It's a convertible—1977 was the last year for the sedan—and it's a Super Beetle, with a curved windshield in place of the standard Beetle's flat glass, and a MacPherson-strut front suspension in place of the standard's transverse torsion bars. The dashboard is unique to curved-windshield Supers, padded with a stand-up pod for the gauge package, which remains a simple speedometer with an integral fuel gauge. The steering wheel looks somewhat modern, if only because its plastic center section is big enough for an airbag it doesn't have.
With only seven years of progress compared to the 1970 Beetle, I expected the driving experience to be largely the same. Boy, was I wrong. The MacPherson struts make a huge difference in the way the car drives. The steering is so light as to belie the absence of power assistance, and the car tracks straight and true, even more so than the 1970 Beetle. (Some of my Beetle-fanatic friends recommend Supers for those who actually travel with their Volkswagens, and now I understand why.)
From the factory, the 1977 Volkswagen Super Beetle's 1.6-liter boxer would have had fuel injection and net (versus gross) power ratings of 48 hp and 75 lb-ft of torque. Johnson's father, previous owner of the orange convertible, replaced the fuel-injection system with a carburetor; it has a lot more kick than Fine's 1970 Beetle, and it's a rocketship compared to the '49. The shifter, surprisingly, is more precise than either car. Compared to the other two Beetles (not to mention the '73 VW Thing I drove last month), the Super is almost like driving a Corolla. The '49 and the '70 give you the feel of operating machinery; the '77 feels like—well, it feels like driving a car.
Same on the Outside, Different on the Inside
With the driving done, we parked all three air-cooled VW Beetles together, and where before I saw only the similarities between the oldest and newest Volkswagens, now I saw only the differences. Volkswagen ads bragged about their external similarities and internal changes, but I had no idea how much progress the cars made in 30 years. The 1949 Beetle is primitive and slow—difficult to get going, challenging to keep pointed straight, and frightening to stop. The 1977 Super Beetle goes, stops, turns, and shifts in a way that is—well, if not exactly modern, at least within the comfort zone of a modern driver.
Lesson learned: Having judged it from the outside, I was under the impression the air-cooled Volkswagen Beetle didn't change much in its three-decade run here in the U.S. I was wrong: The first and last VW Beetles brought to this country are completely different cars, and now I know exactly how different they are.
1949 Volkswagen Beetle Specifications
|PRICE||$1,280 (when new)|
|ENGINE||1.1L OHV 8-valve flat-4/25 hp @ 3,300 rpm|
|LAYOUT||2-door, 4-passenger, rear-engine, RWD coupe|
|L x W x H||160.0 x 60.5 x 61.0 in|
|0-60 MPH||42 sec (est)|
|TOP SPEED||62 mph|
1970 Volkswagen Beetle Specifications
|PRICE||$1,839 (when new)|
|ENGINE||1.6L OHV 8-valve flat-4/57 hp @ 4,400 rpm, 82 lb-ft @ 3,000 rpm|
|LAYOUT||2-door, 4-passenger, rear-engine, RWD coupe|
|L x W x H||158.7 x 61.0 x 59.1 in|
|0-60 MPH||20 sec (est)|
|TOP SPEED||82 mph|
1977 Volkswagen Beetle Specifications
|PRICE||$4,799 (when new)|
|ENGINE||1.6L OHV 8-valve flat-4/48 hp @ 4,200 rpm, 75 lb-ft @ 2,200 rpm|
|LAYOUT||2-door, 4-passenger, rear-engine, RWD convertible|
|L x W x H||164.8 x 62.4 x 59.1 in|
|0-60 MPH||18 sec (est)|
|TOP SPEED||81 mph|