Now that the Beetle has finally reached the end of production, Peter Noad looks back 25 years, to the final batch of right-hand-drive air-cooled Beetles sold in the UK...
When Volkswagen started producing the Golf in March 1974, it was widely believed that the end of the air-cooled Beetle was in sight. This belief was reinforced when production of the Beetle at Wolfsburg was terminated in July1974, leaving Emden as the only source of Beetles in Germany. Needless to say, emotions ran high among the millions of passionate Beetle enthusiasts who thought that the legendary Bug should live for ever...
The ensuing years saw many rumours, uncertainties and predictions about the Beetle's future. The 1303 was axed in saloon form in 1975, continuing only as the cabriolet and the only surviving Beetle saloon was the basic torsion-bar drum-braked 1200. It was available with the 1600 engine and disc brakes in some countries, but not in the UK.
The writing was on the wall when it became known that exports of Beetles to the USA, which accounted for a major share of Volkswagen's sales, would have to cease in 1978 due to the inability of the air-cooled engine to comply with ever more stringent emission regulations.
The price of the Beetle, both in Europe and the USA, was substantially increased, and this was seen as a deliberate attempt to prompt a decline in sales figures which would justify terminating production. A 1200 Beetle cost £2,407 in the UK in 1977, when you could buy a Polo for £1,995 or a Golf for £2,299.
In the summer of 1977, Wolfsburg insisted that no decision had been taken and the situation was still 'flexible', but a few months later the axe fell. Karmann continued making the Cabriolet for another two years, but the last Beetle saloon to be built in Europe left the Emden factory on January 19, 1978. Beetle production continued in countries such as Mexico, Brazil and Nigeria, and Mexican-built cars were imported and sold in Germany until 1986. So, 1978 was not the final curtain but it was the end as far as British imports and official right-hand-drive models were concerned.
To mark the end of the era, which was ironically also the silver jubilee of the UK importer, a batch of 640 (or 650 or 600, depending on which source of reference you read) right-hand-drive Emden-built 1200L Beetles were sold by Volkswagen UK as 'Last Editio' models in 1978. The price was £2,626.
Of these cars, 300 came specially finished in Diamond silver metallic paintwork, with blue cloth upholstery and individually numbered 'Last Edition' plaques on the glovebox lid. At least they should all have had these plaques but they were fitted by the UK dealers and some were overlooked. The allocation of numbers was arbitrary and not related to the sequence of chassis numbers. The remaining cars in other colours (white, red, yellow or blue), without plaques, were technically part of the last batch but only the chassis numbers, commencing 118 200, distinguish them from any other 1978 model 1200L. It is only the silver cars which are generally recognised as the definitive Last Edition Beetle.
In 1978, the 1200 Beetle still had an engine which dated back to 1960, producing only 34 PS. The size of the Solex carburetter (30 PICT) and the compression ratio (7.3:1) were both slightly increased in the Seventies, but no increase in power was claimed as a consequence. The engine was otherwise unchanged, apart from the 12-volt electrics, an alternator in place of the dynamo, and a paper element air filter instead of the original oil-bath type.
The torsion-bar suspension, with trailing arms at the front and swing-axles at the rear, drum brakes all round, and four-speed all-synchromesh gearbox were also the same as in 1960. More recent 'innovations' included the vertical headlamps, larger tail lights, stronger bumpers, dual-circuit brakes, external fuel filler, through-flow ventilation, and various passive safety features to comply with US legislation. In the mid-Seventies, the 1200 was a very spartan 'economy' model and it was only the 'luxury' L specification which had chrome bumpers, hub caps, a glovebox lid, passenger's door pocket, reversing lights and fresh-air vents. By the time of the Last Edition, the specification also included a two-speed ventilation fan, heated rear window, rear luggage cover, padded facia and cloth upholstery.
The air-cooled Beetle always attracted strong opinions and 'love it or hate it' feelings. For some it was painfully slow, with dodgy handling; it was cramped, noisy and outdated. For others it was the most reliable, sensible, long-lasting and practical car ever produced, needing only simple - if frequent - maintenance. It has even become a cult icon, a way of life, and a fashion statement.
The Last Edition wasn't the best of the bunch, but it was representative of the Beetle's best era, in the 1960s, when sales topped a million a year. It dates from a time when motorists were more than satisfied with a cruising speed of 72 mph and when an engine which didn't freeze or boil was the exception rather than the rule. It was a time when a pneumatic screenwasher, rear footwell heating, and built-in anchorages for seat belts were unusually advanced features for a small family saloon, and when the rugged suspension and the traction advantage of a rear engine pre-dated the mass-market 4x4 in providing a degree of off-road capability.
Inside the Last Edition you found seats which were similar to those in an early Golf; a large, flat, hard plastic four-spoke steering wheel; thin felt-like carpet on the side of the footwells and tunnel, but only rubber mats to cover the floor; and minimalist instrumentation comprising a single dial, just a speedometer with integral fuel gauge.
The padded dashboard panel retained the traditional shape of the Beetle's facia; it had been regarded as a desirable extra for many years and it suited the Beetle much better than the pseudo-modern facia of the 1303. There were traditional push-pull knobs for the headlights and hazard flashers, with matching rotary knobs to regulate the modest flow of fresh air. You could always open the quarter windows, with their clever thief-resistant catches, if you wanted more airflow into the cabin. The switch for the heated rear window was an awkwardly-placed afterthought on the underside of the facia, with a warning light in the speedo and a column stalk controlled the two-speed wipers. Levers next to the hand-brake controlled the supply of heat to front and rear. Once the engine had warmed up, which took quite some time in cold weather, the heater was extremely powerful but it was difficult to regulate between 'all' and 'nothing'.
The curvaceous shape of the Beetle was not very space-efficient. Like its recent namesake, it had good headroom but was short on rear legroom and luggage space. A shallow compartment beneath the front bonnet offered 4.9 cu. ft of space and there was another 4.9 cu. ft behind the back seat, which also served as a privileged travelling position fondly remembered by youngsters of many generations. The backrest did fold down, though, to enlarge the total capacity to a useful 17.6 cu. ft in two-seat mode.
Road test figures backed up the 'painfully slow' criticisms. Despite weighing only 780 kg, the Beetle required more than 25 seconds, and use of all four gears, to reach the benchmark 60 mph. But, in practice, the 1200 Beetle was not as slow relative to other traffic as the figures suggested, especially around town. This was because a Beetle was usually driven flat out all the time; accelerator pedal travel was very short and peak revs were only 3800 - factors which led to regular, if not always intentional, use of full throttle and maximum power. A hard-driven Beetle with a skilled driver at the helm could keep up with much faster cars, both around town and on winding country roads.
Words such as 'an acquired taste' and 'quirky' were often used when describing the handling of the Beetle. Back in the 1950s, it was highly regarded for its handling and roadholding, and enjoyed considerable success in rallies. But industry standards moved on and the torsion-bar Beetle remained stuck in the standards of the Fifties and Sixties: 'Better than an A30 or Ford Anglia' was a long way short of a Golf or Polo.
Inherent oversteer, due to the rearward weight bias and positive camber swing-axle suspension geometry, could be used to advantage on tight corners and in rally situations, but care and anticipation were needed to avoid instability on high-speed bends, especially in the wet. In inexperienced hands the Beetle could prove distinctly dangerous, and it was also notoriously poor in cross winds where it could require all of the driver's efforts to stay in the same lane on the motorway. In contrast, its rugged suspension and the superior traction of the rear engine layout meant that it excelled on rough roads, and it could climb muddy or snow-covered hills with ease.
When I tested a Last Edition Beetle, for the September 1986 issue of Volkswagen Audi Car, it was a display car which had been kept by Volkswagen at Milton Keynes, with less than 500 miles on the clock at that time. Virtually a brand-new car, I praised the gearchange 'still one of the best to be found in any car', the lights, 'one aspect that had been transformed since the early years', and the remarkably smooth ride over poorly-surfaced roads.
Hardly run-in at the time, its mediocre performance was nothing to shout about, but with a following wind or downslope it could build up to 10 or 15 mph more than its official maximum speed. On the other hand, point it into a headwind or long uphill gradient, and it could be fiat out at little more than 60. Running quite happily on cheap 2-star petrol, and equally capable of using modern unleaded, the 1200 was more economical than larger-engined Beetles and I achieved 33.7 mpg overall.
The Beetle's build quality and paint finish were always highly praised and the Last Edition was probably better than most cars of the 1970s. Nevertheless, they do go rusty if neglected, and the blue cloth upholstery fades. Those which have survived for 25 years - the current Register can account for about a third of all the silver ones - tend to fall into two categories. Some have been preserved as showpieces, perhaps purchased originally as an investment, have extremely low mileages and remain in almost mint condition. Others (the majority of those which have come up for sale) have been used as 'daily drivers' and become as tatty as any typical 25-year-old run-of-the-mill family saloon. There are exceptions which have done a high mileage and been lovingly maintained or restored, including one which has clocked up well over 200,000 miles.
Volkswagen's reputation was largely built around the reliability and durability of the air-cooled engine. Being able to cruise all day at its maximum speed - even if that was only 72 mph - was unusual for a family saloon in the Fifties. What makes the engine seem unique nowadays is the 3,000-mile service interval, when you are advised to change the non-filtered oil as well as adjust the contact breaker, tappets and fanbelt. Without the benefit of hydraulic tappets, the valve clearances need checking every 6,000 miles. Its overall life expectancy is only about 70,000 miles, before requiring at least a cylinder head overhaul, although the original 1200cc version, as in the Last Edition, is less prone to overheating and premature failure than the larger capacity versions. The engine's best features are that it is very simple, easy to work on, and parts are cheap and widely available.
The air-cooled Beetle still has a huge following and world-wide appeal to enthusiasts of all ages, and there are few signs of this ever diminishing. A late-Seventies model does not have quite the classic status of the early ones, but it evokes the spirit of an earlier age while offering some of the practicality and safety features of a more modern car.
With Mexican imports continuing (officially and privately) amazingly for another 25 years, it is easy to forget the Last Edition Beetle of 1978. But, at the time, it represented a very significant, and emotional, turning point in Volkswagen history.
Perhaps because of the high price, those last 300 right-hand-drive Beetles were not all snapped up immediately by eager buyers. Most are S-registered, but some did not sell until after August 1978 and got T-plates, while one or two were mysteriously late-registered on W-plates. This model in particular has attracted an enthusiastic following and the Last Edition Beetle Register keeps details of all the known cars, organises occasional get-togethers at VW events such as Volkswagen North West, at Tatton Park in Cheshire, and it has an active website.
Julie Kinley, Palmers Green, London
Last Edition Beetle number 250, bought in 1989, was my first car. I had no idea at the time that it was so special, but when its significance finally dawned on me, I formed the Last Edition Beetle Register to try and track down as many of the others as I could.
I bought my Beetle when I began a community nursing job, believing it to be a reliable form of transport for visiting my patients. It served me for six years in this capacity, although on some occasions I walked to my visits, when it refused to start, or I had to drive it in second gear only! However, my patients loved it; it was recognised by sight and sound, by most of the people in the community where I worked. I often stopped the car to be greeted by someone who'd recognised it and followed me, as they wanted a chat. I could never go anywhere undetected!
Since 1989, it has had various roles, some more pleasant than others. It acted as a rubbish cart when we were restoring our house, transporting debris to the dump, but a more glamorous job was as my bridal carriage. Sadly, both the Beetle and myself are a lot older now, its current restoration probably being an easier task than mine would be!
The miles accumulated rapidly in its working life and I finally put number 250 out to pasture in 1995. I couldn't bear to part with it, though, so I saved for its restoration, which finally started last year and is now an ongoing project. While its working days are over, its showing days are about to begin. Despite all this recent tender loving care, I am sure it will remain its lovable, idiosyncratic self!
Katy, Penryn, Cornwall
I bought my Last Edition Beetle seven years ago, after we found him in a garage in a very bad state of repair, with a siezed engine and needing a lot of TLC. We already had a Beetle which we'd fully restored, so knew what was involved, but we rebuilt him totally, including a full respray in the original VW Diamond silver.
Now, I drive him every day, and love him to pieces, I would never part with my car. However driving a Beetle is hard work and at least one thing breaks every month. You have to be very dedicated to drive one, and keep it nicely. The biggest problem I have is the petrol gauge. I've replaced every single component and it still doesn't work. I've become famous locally for running out of petrol, and am now quite well acquainted with a few of the AA drivers!
But, at the end of the day, a Last Edition Beetle is so much more than a car; it's a hobby, a passion, a little friend, and such good fun to drive. I love it when you pass other Beetle drivers who give you a little wave, and I love it when people come up to you and say how lovely your car is. It's moments like this that make all the effort worthwhile!
Richard Copping, Carnforth, Lancs
Buying a Last Edition Beetle, back in April 1978, was the beginning of what has become an all-encompassing hobby for me for many years. I had no idea at the time that I'd purchased an appreciating asset. Indeed, it was only some weeks later that the special dashboard plaque arrived, and only after nearly two years and the best part of 11,000 miles did I decide that it should be cosseted.
My first Concours entry was at Stanford Hall in May 1983, where it came third, behind another Last Edition Beetle, whose owner has remained a friend ever since. Throughout the remainder of that decade, and into the next, appearances and trophies mounted, but due to work commitments, the Last Edition Beetle has lead a very quiet life recently. Indeed, since 2000, it has remained ensconced in the purpose-built garage it shares with a 1960 Standard Beetle.
Undoubtedly the high point of the last 25 years was in 1999 when Major Ivan Hirst, the British post-war saviour of Volkswagen, sat in the car and remarked how far the Beetle had moved forward in terms of luxury since his days at Wolfsburg. Foolishly, in the excitement of the moment, I forgot to take a photograph!
The final passing of the Beetle, and yet another Last Edition, is a sad time indeed, although I'm not tempted to snap up one of the last, as I was a quarter of a century ago. It's a great consolation to me, though, that while many a car is quickly forgotten, the Beetle will still to be a motoring phenomenon when my advancing years make it likely that driving or writing about will no longer be practical.
Fred Wall, Chingford, London
One day in August 1978 I noticed a silver Beetle in the showroom at my local VW dealership, under a banner proclaiming it to be a 'Last Edition Beetle'. I was instantly smitten, and a week later I drove away in WMK 720T, number 45 of the last 300 produced for the UK. Yes, it was slow on the uptake, even by the standards of those days, but it was superbly built and there was always that air-cooled engine with its characteristic sound.
It also changed my life for the better. One Sunday, a girl at my local Church turned up in a gleaming 1967 Beetle; we started a conversation about our cars and were married a couple of years later! After enjoying the delights of touring in the Beetle, the birth of our first son necessitated the installation of carrycot straps. Space was at a premium by the time our second son arrived, the solution being to hitch on a trailer to carry all the necessary paraphernalia. Contrary to tradition, neither of our babies was conveyed in the luggage space behind the rear seat!
25 years and 228,000 miles later, I'm still Beetling. It has been enormous fun to own and drive this car and I particularly enjoy the fellowship with other enthusiasts, both when attending shows and on the road, and I always look out for that familiar wave!
Article reproduced by kind permission of the Editor, Volkswagen Driver
Now that the Beetle has finally reached the end of production, Peter Noad looks back 25 years, to the final batch of right-hand-drive air-cooled Beetles sold in the UK...