Its elegance is in its simplicity but you still need to know the pitfalls when shopping for the VW Beetle. Here’s your VW Beetle buying guide.
The humble Volkswagen – for that was its original name, with Beetle not adopted officially until the Golf-based New Beetle emerged in 1998 – has had a devoted following for far longer than it has been recognised as a classic. Despite that though, it remains affordable – in fact in a similar vein to the similar-looking but entirely different Morris Minor, with a huge gulf between the mainstream examples and the extreme values of a few sought-after variations.
It can get confusing for the unwary though, since the VW Beetle was subjected to more or less continuous improvement throughout its long lifespan and each variety has its devotees.
First to arrive was what the enthusiasts call the ‘split window’ car on account of its divided rear screen. These first appeared in the UK as a trickle of imports (usually the less spartan Export model) in the late 1940s, usually coming over with returning service personnel who had served in the postwar Allied administration. Given the car’s genesis in the prewar era, it was a brave owner who dared use something so obviously Germanic as daily transport in the UK but the cars quickly built up a following among those who admired them for their engineering.
Those early cars were powered by an 1131cc engine producing 30bhp which meant leisurely acceleration and a modest top speed but the ability to cruise all day at that top speed, courtesy of long gearing and an unstressed engine effectively restricted by its intake. The underpinnings were true to the blueprint provided by Dr Porsche before the war and employed a flat chassis (known in VW circles as the floorpan) with a central backbone, mounting transverse torsion bars for the front suspension and forking at the rear to mount a transaxle to which the flat-four engine was bolted, driving through simple swing axles.
In 1953 the split rear glass, designed originally to use cheaper flat panes was replaced by an oval window and in 1954 the engine grew to 1192cc and 36bhp. In 1957 the oval rear window was replaced by a rectangular window and the side windows were enlarged, while in 1965 the engine grew again to 1285cc and 40bhp. At this point the cars were badged VW 1200 and VW 1300 to denote engine size, but the big news came in 1967 with the 1493cc VW 1500. The larger engine boosted power to a still modest 44bhp but together with increased torque the driveability was vastly improved and many consider this to be the optimum incarnation of the original VW engine. The following year the sloping headlights were replaced with the vertical units fitted from 1967 for North America, paired with larger rear lights.
A further stretch to 1584cc would be made in 1971 when the first departure from Porsche’s original design would be made with the 1302 model. Sold as 1302 with the 1300 engine or 1302S with the new 1600 engine, the car replaced the torsion bar front suspension with MacPherson struts in the interests of improved front luggage space, while the rear suspension received double-jointed driveshafts to create an IRS set-up which reduced the dramatic camber change during braking.
If the purists were horrified by this, they were outraged the following year when the 1303 arrived. Again offered with the 1300 engine as the 1303 and the 1600 motor as the 1303S, this added a curved screen and plastic dashboard in a response to potential US legislation regarding the distance between the driver’s head and the windscreen. Underneath it mirrored the layout of the 1302 with the Macpherson strut and IRS layout, the car often referred to by its nickname ‘Super Beetle’.
It may have been technically superior to the original but was destined for a short life, since production of the 1302 and 1303 ended in 1975, leaving only the flat-screen torsion bar model, although the 1303 body style was retained for the Karmann-built convertible.
In 1978, German production of the Beetle ended as VW looked towards the new front-wheel drive future represented by the Golf and Polo. The Beetle still appeared in the price lists in continental Europe, supplied by the Mexican factory where the car had been built since 1957, but right-hand drive production ended at this point. Beetle fans found it easy to personally import German-market cars until European sales ended entirely in 1985 with the Jubilaumskäfer special edition celebrating the car’s half-century.
Unbelievably, individuals and VW specialists continued to import cars directly from Mexico until 2003 when the axe finally fell after 21,529,464 had been made, with the end marked by the Ultima Edicion special – a handful of which found their way to the UK.
Unsurprisingly, the bulk of Beetles sold here were the flat-screen model and that’s the car which is beloved by the enthusiasts, with the 1302 a relative rarity and the 1303 an acquired taste at least in hardtop form – the convertible retained the 1303 style right to the end and remains sought-after.
There may be controversy over how much of the car’s design was original thinking by Porsche but one thing’s for certain, the original Volkswagen is one of the most elegant automotive designs out there, rivalling even the 2CV for its ‘less is more’ philosophy.
The cars were also produced to a very high quality almost from the beginning, with nuts and bolts where BMC would use a self-tapping screw, thick steel used for body panels and a quality control which was in a different league from British brands.
They’re old cars now though and many were messed about with by would-be customisers in the ’80s attempting to emulate the popular ‘California Look’ custom style and more recently the fashion for the ‘patina’ look on the VW scene. All of which means it’s very easy to fall into a wallet trap for the price of buying a better one in the first place. Here’s what you need to know.
VW Beetle Buying Guide – What To Look For
The Beetle is technically a separate chassis design, with the bodyshell bolted to the rolling floorpan around its perimeter. This does allow it to get away come MoT-time with a degree of rust, but the shell still needs to be sound, especially in the body mounting and seatbelt mounting areas.
This isn’t helped by the design of the heater which uses the hollow sills of the bodyshell to duct the hot air from the engine into the cabin. Condensation can build up inside and they will then rot from the inside, one of the giveaways being a rotten section where the front of the sill meets the rear of the inner front wheelarch. It’s common to find a plated repair in this area (and I’ve done it myself) but the long-term cure is to lift the body and fit a new sill section. And as for the dreaded ‘oversills’, they’re a sure sign that grot lurks underneath.
Rusty wings needn’t be a problem, since they’re all bolt-on, but you can expect the bottom of the spare wheel well to be ripe on most cars – and since it’s right next to the fuel tank, it’s not the easiest DIY repair.
Check the lower edge of the rear valance by the tailpipes for rust, but otherwise do the usual checks for panel edges and take a judgement. Everything you’ll need for repairs is available, so if the car’s the right price it doesn’t need to be a deal-breaker.
Condition of the chassis goes hand-in-hand with the bodywork, since the floor is in fact the chassis. Lift the carpets to get a handle on the state of the floor sections, especially under the back seat below the battery. It’s common for battery acid spills over the years to rot out the floor here and all sorts of bodged repairs are common, from wood to fibreglassed-in floor mats. While you’re there, check the battery has a safety cover on it to insulate the terminals from the seat springs.
From underneath, assess the condition of the frame head where the front suspension beams mount and the ‘horns’ at the rear which form the gearbox cradle.
Engine & Transmission
The air-cooled VW engine is one of those designs which is perfect in standard form and modifying one component invariably impacts on another. Bear in mind that all you see with the engine lid open is the inlet manifold and carburettor with the fan shroud behind it. The bulk of the engine is underneath, with the black-painted pressed tin panels around the base of the engine compartment designed to separate the hot cylinders below from the cooler air above. If they’re missing or have been replaced by chromed aftermarket parts then cooling will be impacted.
The engine has long been regarded as bulletproof but crucially, only when in standard form and properly maintained. An engine with incorrect ignition timing and valve clearances will start to run hot on long motorway trips and heat is the enemy of any air-cooled engine. A knowledgeable owner will know this and will have kept on top of the maintenance. Speaking of which, there may be no water in the engine but the oil is vital to its cooling so regular changes and decent oil are crucial.
Many cars will sport uprated engines and it’s possible to extract impressive power from the unit with reliability, but only by someone who is an expert at building the VW engine. Check who built the engine and do your research.
A standard engine in fine fettle will sound like a sewing machine at idle, with a precise, smooth mechanical beat. Any clattering suggests loose valve clearances or other issues.
The VW gearbox is similarly robust and major problems will be obvious via alarming noises. Jumping out of gear can often be cured by attention to the linkage adjustment at the base of the lever, while a rattly lever with woolly shift action can be transformed by changing the nylon knuckle joint under the access plate below the back seat.
The clutch is cable-operated but if the cable snaps, threading a new one through the conduit in the transmission tunnel looks like a simple task but can often be a day’s work when it gets jammed. One to leave to the experts.
Suspension & Steering
There’s really not much to the suspension on a regular Beetle: two transverse torsion beams at the front and a simple driveshaft at the rear. Leaky driveshaft gaiters are a straightforward fix or a split boot design makes for an easier DIY job, while at the front end the torsion beam should be greased regularly. Play in the balljoints needs a workshop press to replace them.
Shimmying over potholes can often be fixed by replacing the steering damper, while up to an inch of play at the wheel rim (with the original wheel) is deemed acceptable. If it’s more than that, it can be adjusted out via the nut on the steering box, but an over-stiff action suggests someone’s been there before you.
It’s common for Beetles to be lowered, either using welded-in adjusters or dropped spindles at the front and by rotating the rear suspension arms on their splines but although this may look good it generally ruins the handling – and the ride, especially at the front where the torsion leaves are under increased preload. If you find a modified car, it’s generally easier to raise it to a sensible height though, with just a mild drop working well.
More than many other cars, a Beetle needs decent tyres since there’s very little weight on the front end and the front pair run at just 18psi. Really cheap budget tyres are often a sign of someone who doesn’t really understand the car.
Like the MGB, there’s very little you can’t get for these cars and a shabby interior can be dramatically improved by fitting a new set of seat covers and carpet. It’s simple DIY work with hog ring pliers and basic hand tools, meaning that with patience you can achieve a professional level of finish.
Watch out for cars with the painted metal dashboard which have had the radio hole enlarged by hand to suit a modern DIN-sized radio.
As time went on, it became harder to convert the Mexican-made cars neatly to right-hand drive, so check the security of the pedal mounting and the neatness of the dashboard. One of the best conversions was offered by Beetles UK which usually added its logo to the speedo face.
For someone new to the Beetle scene, the mid ’70s cars are the best bet, featuring 12-volt electrics and better performance than the 1950s cars. There’s not a huge difference in straight-line speed between 1200 and 1300 models, so buy on condition.
If you’re tempted by a convertible – Cabriolet as Volkswagen called it – don’t get fooled by the many aftermarket conversions which have been performed over the years. The factory Cabriolets were all made by Karmann and the bodyshell was significantly reinforced to compensate for the loss of the roof. None of the conversions manage to replicate this and it’s obvious by looking at the shape of the windscreen, which was completely changed by Karmann. The Karmann cars also used a complex multi-layer hood which makes the converted cars look like a sad tent in comparison.
It’s those mid-’70s cars which are also the most affordable, with respectable examples available from just £4500 and projects at half that. The sloping-headlamp 1960s cars will command a step up in value to the £9000 mark for tidy examples, with very original or expensively restored cars running up to £15,000. The split and oval-window cars have their own market from around £15,000 to £25,000 or more, as do the convertibles. Budget on £8000-£9000 for a nice usable car, with the later models and restored cars running up to the £20,000 mark.