By Larry Carley c2011 Click Here to return to Carley's Car Blog.
As a former VW mechanic from way way back, I'm overjoyed to see that Volkswagen is revising the Beetle for a third go around in MY 2012. I always loved these cars, and owned quite a few over the years (over 30 I think!). I used to buy used Beetles that has mechanical problems, fix them up, drive them for a few months, then sell them at a profit to help support myself while I was working my way through college.
The original Beetle was such a huge success because it was cheap to buy, cheap to drive, and cheap to fix when it broke. Those days are long gone, so donít expect that from the new Beetle. But if the new Beetle captures the driving essence of the original, it should be a hit, too.
The original Beetle was extremely simple by today's standards, and quite reliable by 1960ís standards. However, the old bugs did have their share of mechanical bugs. The air-cooled rear-mounted four cylinder engine ran extremely hot, and often died as a result of exhaust valve failure. The engineís lubrication system was barely marginal, holding less than three quarts of oil Ė and there was no oil filter! If a Beetle owner failed to change the oil regularly (every 1,500 miles to 2,500 miles), there was a change theyíd burn up the engine when driving on the expressway during really hot summer weather. We used to count the number of broken down VW Beetles along the road then there was a hot spell during July and August. Some of those were the cars Iíd buy and fix to put myself through college.
The heater and defrosters were also terrible. On a rainy day, the windows would steam up if you didnít open one or both front windows and/or the rear vent windows (on ones that had the pop-out rear windows).
In the winter, your feet would freeze if you were not wearing heavy boots and thick socks. Snow and ice on the floor could also cause the gas, clutch and brake pedals to rust and/or freeze sometimes. And the floor panels would always rust out by the time the cars were five or six years old.
But in spite of its shortcomings, the Beetle was fun to drive (especially around town), super easy to park, and would go though snow that would cause many of today's all-wheel drive cars to get stuck. The interior was also relatively spacious for such a small car (especially compared to most of todayís small cars). The interior had plenty of head room and a relatively roomy back seat (which always came in handy on a date).
One reason so many college kids drove VWs was because of the carís affordability. Most of the mechanical parts did not change from one year to the next. There were upgrades and improvements over the years, but there was also a tremendous amount of parts commonality. That meant replacement parts didnít cost a fortune, and that aftermarket parts were readily available in auto parts stores (a rarity at that time, because most auto parts stores only carried parts for domestic makes back in the 1960s and 1970s).
The original Beetle was also a car that most do-it-yourselfers could fix. You did have to buy a set of metric wrenches and sockets, and a repair book. But other than that, working on these cars did not require a lot of know-how, training or skill. The engine could be dropped out of the chassis after removing only four bolts. They had contests in college to see how fast a team of two people could remove the engine, carry it around the car, put it back in, then start it and drive it away. Some of the faster teams could do it under 8 minutes. It took me a little longer -- maybe 10 minutes to pull an engine.
I was so enamored with the Beetle that I began to soup them up. HOT VWs was a popular magazine at the time, and was full of articles on how to modify your VW. There were also numerous ads for all kinds of speed parts for the Beetle by companies like Scat and others. I bought a 1963 Beetle with a bad engine and decided to make it into a street-legal drag car. For less than $800 in parts, I converted the stock 40 horsepower, 1200cc engine into an 1835cc 160 horsepower engine. I also cut down the stock flywheel to 16 lbs, installed a transporter clutch, stripped down the entire car (removed all sound deadener, bumpers, unnecessary metal, etc.), replaced the stock seats with super light fiberglass seats, replaced the side glass with plexiglass, and drilled holes in everything. The car only weighed a bit over 1500 lbs. when I was done, and looked relatively stock -- except for the large tach on the dash, Hurst shifter, dropped nose, side scoops, rear stinger pipe and blue racing stripe that ran the full length of the car. I called it the "Bug Bomb."
The Bug Bomb surprised a lot of Camaros, Corvettes, Mustangs, Super Bees and other muscle cars of that day. For 1/8th of a mile, I could out accelerate almost anything. If the other car I was racing had a big block (400 CID or larger engine), they might catch me before the end of the quarter mile, but not very often. The really amazing part of the story is that the Bug Bomb was also my daily driver, and I used it to commute back and forth to school. Best of all, it still got over 30 mpg on the highway at 75 mph (which was the legal speed limit in those days).
The Bug Bombís demise came one day when I was racing a Lotus Esprit on the interstate. We were neck and neck at triple digits well beyond the posted speed limit and well beyond my stock speedometerís ability to display an accurate reading. Iím guessing we were both going around 120 mph or so when my motor let go. A loud bang, some smoke and that was it. The Bug Bomb sucked a valve and destroyed the number three piston and cylinder. My beautifully hand ported cylinder head was also a battered chunk of metal. I eventually repaired the engine, but decided it was time for the Bug Bomb to go. I sold the body and engine separately (got a better price that way), and replaced it with a 1968 VW Beetle.
Many years later, I tried to replicate the original Bug Bomb. I found another 1963 Beetle that was the same color (white) and in need of much loving care. I did more or less the same engine modifications as before, but left the body all stock except for some nice wheel covers. It just wasnít the same. The car was fast, but not as fast as the original. I kept it about a year, then sold it to buy a minivan. That was my last VW.
I seriously considered buying a New Beetle when they came out in 1998. The New Beetle looked like a modern version of the original Beetle. But it was essentially all Golf underneath Ė and was also a bitch to work on due to very tight packaging. It was also marketed as a "chick" car (the bud vase on the dash), which limited its appeal to many male buyers. The car also didnít have a lot of zip until VW came out with the Turbo version a few years later. The Turbo Beetles were a nice performing car, and could be easily accessorized with all kinds of aftermarket goodies. But I just never got around to buying one. I had purchased a 1989 Ford Probe GT (turbo) the same year, and continued to enjoy the Probe for the next 21 years! Finally sold the Probe in 2010 after 21 years of ownership! I hated to let the Probe go because it still looked and ran like new, but I needed the garage space for another toy.
So Iím looking forward to seeing and test driving the new Volkswagen Beetle when it arrives. But I doubt Iíd buy one. If I had the garage space, Iíd much rather buy another vintage Beetle project car and do a Bug Bomb III. That would be fun.