Classic Cars  (June 1994)

First & Last - People's Car to Limited Edition

78,000 modifications separate the first post-war Beetle in 1945 from the last off the production line in 1978. Laurence Meredith asks if those changes were for the better.

Designing a complex, expensive machine is difficult. Designing a simple and effective machine is much more so. The key to the Beetle's outstanding success is that the car was designed and built by an engineer: one man's vision produced the most successful car of all time. It was conceived as a pure motor car - its function: to transport a family simply and reliably. Over 20 million examples later it has proved a total success.

The Beetle never followed fashion for the sake of it and never relied upon gimmicks to appeal to its loyal clientele. Between the start of production in August 1945, and January 1978, when the German assembly lines were finally halted, some 78,000 modifications had been made to the world's best selling car, but the Beetle's essential characteristics shone through.

Resplendent in two-tone blue, JLT 420 was built on the glorious August 12, 1947 and was one of the first Volkswagens to arrive on British soil. With absurdly narrow crossply tyres, cable-operated drum brakes, 'crash' gearbox, semaphore indicators and left-hand-drive, it hardly inspires driving confidence on today's roads. Yet this grand old car, - 'round the clock' three times and on its roof twice - is a Beetle fancier's dream: the personification of what old man Porsche was getting at back in 1931 when he laid down the first designs for a People's car.

After 46 years, JLT 420 is still so air-tight that you must open a window to shut the doors securely. The blue leatherette seats are, in true German tradition, as hard as hell and the elegantly large three-spoke steering wheel wouldn't look out of place on a battleship. A model of post-war austerity, the painted steel dash has two central instruments: the speedometer and clock. The heavy black plastic switches are exceptionally well placed. With such a small glass area the cabin gives a wonderful sense of 'cosiness'. Never mind that rearward visibility is negligible; when his car was built, you didn't need to worry about 80mph trucks threatening to modify the shapely engine lid.

Turn the minute ignition key, press the starter button under the dash and the 6-volt electrical system instantly fires the 1,131cc air-cooled flat-four into action. It settles down to a steady idle with the familiar Beetle cacophony at 1,100rpm. Select bottom gear, press down the 'roller-ball' throttle pedal and time the non-synchro 'box through second, third and top. You can double-declutch back just for the fun of it: the snick-snick gearbox is that good.

A well maintained Beetle should feel taut, lively and bring an instant smile to your face. This particular car is just about bang on. Even with a feeble and noisy 25bhp at your disposal old JLT is still good for 60mph, even 70mph with a little coaxing, and once up there, there's no stopping it - quite literally. True, it pulls up straight, but disconcertingly slowly! Those famous swing axles, narrow rear track and skinny crossplies don't really help the cornering but, treated with respect, this Beetle can be enjoyed at healthy speeds. Unlike later cars, it certainly can't be thrown at a corner and powered away on opposite lock...

Despite its inevitable shortcomings, JLT is a joy. Its torsion bar suspension is still firm, the steering is fairly direct even without the benefit of a steering damper. There's plenty of 'shake' when the potholes can't be avoided but overall the car feels ahead of its time. From the 'Pope's nose' stop light on the engine lid, to the evocative Schulenburg coat-of-arms bonnet crest, the body is a gorgeous amalgamation of swooping curves and German functionalism.

The modern car, number 215 in a run of 300 limited edition silver Beetles, was produced at Emden during January 1978. In essence, it shares the same design as the early car. The separate body is bolted to a backbone chassis with transversely-mounted torsion bars and parallel trailing arms front and rear. The 34bhp 1,192cc flat-four is still air-cooled and sits in the tail behind the synchromesh four-speed gearbox.

The basic shape changed very little but when safety became a hot issue in the mid-Sixties, Volkswagen made sweeping changes. Although later Beetles were superior machines, each modification stole some of the car's original insect-like character, making it flabbier, more sluggish and aesthetically less pleasing.

The new car has bigger 'Europa' bumpers, vertical headlamps, 'elephantine' rear lights (for which the rear wings had to be reshaped), an unimaginatively styled engine lid, larger windows and increased ground clearance: all of which conspire to give the modern Beetle an awkward stance and a gawky gait.

On the plus side, there are 12-volt electrics, a more comfortable, well-soundproofed cabin, efficient hydraulic brakes and much better handling, limited by the standard fitment crossply tyres. But climbing behind the padded four-spoke 'safety' steering wheel, clipping on the safety belt and staring at the padded matt black non-reflective safety-inspired dashboard, everything feels and smells so clinical.

With its larger glass area the interior is light and airy and a far cry from the inviting snugness of jLT. Above 55mph the engine is almost inaudible - a pity if you are a fan of 'nails-in-bucket' noises. Thanks to successive chassis modifications, bends can be taken at surprisingly high speed in the knowledge that the tail won't overtake the nose - unless deliberately provoked. Acceleration is as pedestrian as ever: it wouldn't be a Beetle if it wasn't. But the top speed of 72mph (little change here) is also maximum cruising speed which means you can drive all day, every day, flat out without endangering the engine.

Over the past 35 years, I have ridden in and enjoyed driving various Beetles over roughly half a million miles, so being objective about these two beauties is not easy. In many ways the '78 is a better car but it's not for me. The '47 Beetle, one of the first, bears all the hallmarks of Dr Porsche's undisputed genius. It is engineering simplicity at its best.

1947 Beetle - one man's vision

Split oval rear window, Pope's nose numberplate light, small tail lights, narrow blade bumpers, single exhaust tail pipe, aperture in rear valance for starting handle, 42 long intake louvres below rear windows, pull-out door handles, round section jacking points, nipple type hubcaps, solid steel l6in wheels (not ventilated) with crossply tyres, turning handles on bonnet and engine lid, semaphore indicators. Convex roof pressing above windscreen to mount an aerial. JLT 420 differs from original factory cars in having gloss paint, brightwork mouldings applied to the bodywork and a badge on the bonnet. Also, the crankshaft pulley wheel, hubcaps and inlet manifold are chromed. This car is virtually the same now as prepared for sale by Colborne-Baber in the late Forties except for the bumpers, which are from a later Beetle and the steering wheel which is a Transporter item and larger than standard.

1947 BeetleFront seats adjusted fore and aft with butterfly nut, large 3-spoke steering wheel, open gloveboxes left and right of dash, speedo runs 'backwards' and is rare in showing mph rather than kph, courtesy light above rear windows, choke button on backbone tunnel, headlamp dipswitch to left of clutch pedal, reserve petrol tank operated by tap in passenger footwell, starter button under dashboard, push-pull door handles, screw type heater knob on backbone tunnel, no heel-boards under back seat, 6-volt battery, small oval rear view mirror, no quarterlights in door windows. Bonnet is supported by one stay with a sliding clip. Beetles after 1960 had spring-loaded struts on both sides.

1978 Beetle - safer but flabbier

Vertically positioned headlamps with halogen bulbs, large Europa bumpers, front indicators in bumpers, flat hubcaps, narrow alloy body mouldings applied to bonnet and body at 'waist' level, 15in wheels (l6in before 1952), slightly curved windscreen (completely flat before 1964), no V-over-W emblem or Schulenberg coat of arms on bonnet, bonnet handle fixed into position, door handles with trigger release. 'Elephant footprint' rear lights with modified wings to accomodate them, larger windows all round, crescent vents behind rear side windows, short engine lid with vertically mounted number plate and broad pod for registration light, 50 air-intake louvres below rear window (instead of 42), fuel filler in right-hand front inner wing, twin spring-loaded struts to support bonnet instead of one unsprung on JLT 420.

1978 BeetleFour-spoke safety steering wheel, padded dashboard, fuel gauge integral with speedometer, headlamp dipswitch and windscreen wiper switch on steering column, firmly padded cloth seats, front seats mounted on 'safety' pyramid structure, front seat belts, bonnet belts, bonnet release catch in glovebox, ignition switch built into collapsible steering column, pull-out door handles. 12-volt electrics, 34bhp 1,192cc engine, four-speed all-synchro gearbox, automatic choke, hydraulic brakes, handbrake on rear wheels only, increased front and rear track, front anti-roll bar and rear equaliser spring to assist torsion bars under load, alternator instead of dynamo, twin exhaust tailpipes, heat exchangers instead of heater boxes integrated into exhaust system.

Major modifications 1945-1978

1949 Export model and Karmann-built cabriolet introduced. Gloss paint, quality seat fabrics, bright exterior trim, ivory-coloured steering wheel and switches.
1952 Synchro on 2nd, 3rd, 4th gears. Revised dash and quarterlights.
1953 Oval window model introduced. 945 cars exported to Britain.
1954 Engine up from 1,131cc (25bhp) to 1,192cc (30bhp).
1955 1,000,000th Beetle produced at Wolfsburg.
1957 Big back window introduced.
1960 Front anti-roll bar, 34bhp 1,192cc engine, all synchro gearbox. Flashing indicators.
1965 40bhp 1300. Ventilated wheels, flat hubcaps.
1966 44bhp 1500, front disc brakes, increased rear track, compensating spring on rear suspension.
1967 Facelift to 1300 and 1500. Vertical headlights, enlarged rear lights, stronger bumpers, 1 2-volt electrics, safety steering column, petrol filler in right-hand front wing. 1500 offered with semi-auto transmission and double-jointed driveshafts as an option.
1970 1302S introduced: 50bhp 1600cc twin-port engine, front MacPherson struts, double-jointed driveshafts. Boot space up by over 80%. 1500 dropped but 1200 and 1300 torsion bar cars continue in production.
1972 1303 and 1303S introduced with 1300 and 1600 engines. Shorter bonnet and large panoramic windscreen.
1975 1303 range dropped. Cabriolet continues to Jan 1980 with MacPherson strut front end. Saloon has torsion bar suspension and 1200 34bhp engine only.
1977 1200 has choice of 1200 or 1600 twin-port engine.
1978 Production ends in Germany but continues in Mexico.
1993 Brazilian factory reopened.
1994 Combined production C 1,000 units per day. Beetle-like Project One shown at Detroit Motor Show, production to start 1998.

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Classic Cars June 1994

First & Last - People's Car to Limited Edition

78,000 modifications separate the first post-war Beetle in 1945 from the last off the production line in 1978. Laurence Meredith asks if those changes were for the better.