When was it that Volkswagen first launched a new line-up, designed to ensure it didn’t rely solely on the Beetle for car sales? You might think it was 1973, when the crucial new Passat was launched, followed by the Golf the following year. Yet in reality you’d need to go back much further – to 1961, in fact, when the new Type 3 was announced.

Following on from the success of the big-selling Type 1 (Beetle) and Type 2 (Transporter), the Type 3 had a lot to live up to. But its launch was essential if Volkswagen was to survive long-term; any company that offered just a single passenger car line-up was in a potentially dangerous position if buyers’ tastes changed.

Not surprisingly, the Type 3 followed the Beetle tradition of being a rear-engined model featuring a flat-four air-cooled powerplant. It was based around the chassis and running gear of the Beetle, though the engine was modified to reduce its overall height. A longer stroke saw it grow from 1192cc in the Beetle to 1493cc for the newcomer.

The Type 3 arrived in late 1961 and, known initially as the VW 1500, was launched as a two-door saloon with what its maker referred to as ‘Notchback’ styling. A three-door estate (known as the ‘Variant’) was unveiled the following February, with the two-door ‘Fastback’ (or TL) going on sale by 1965 – with the Type 3’s engine being uprated to 1584cc and twin carburettors at the same time.

By 1967 the range as a whole was being fitted with front disc brakes and 12-volt electrics, while here in the UK the Notchback model was dropped – leaving just the Fastback and Variant on sale. Fully automatic transmission became an option from 1968; more important though, was the availability of electronic fuel-injection (a first for any mass-produced car). These Bosch ‘injected’ versions being known as the TE Fastback and E Variant. Uprated suspension also helped to improve the Type 3’s handling during its final few years of production.

The last Volkswagen Type 3 was produced in 1973 after a 12-year run, paving the way for Volkswagen’s thoroughly modern new range of front-wheel drive models. But just how successful had it been? Well, with more than 2.5 million examples built in total, it could scarcely be called a flop, despite the fact that many Beetle traditionalists struggled to accept the Type 3 as a ‘proper VW’.

Happily, its reputation is stronger today, with Type 3s being more sought after on the Volkswagen air-cooled scene than at any time in its history. And that means project cars are being restored, while fans of modified VWs see the Type 3 as a way of doing things slightly differently. The downside though, is that the 1500/1600 is hardly the most plentiful of classic VWs, with a relatively low survival rate that makes tracking down the ideal example potentially tricky.

Even the best-selling models from the Type 3’s career in Britain aren’t what you’d call ubiquitous on the classic car market. The entry-level version of the Fastback (known as the 1600TA) has survived in the biggest numbers; but in reality, that translates into only 283 being taxed and 34 declared SORN at the time of writing. Meanwhile, if you fancy a fuel-injected estate version of the Type 3, there are currently just 32 taxed – of which a mere two are fitted with automatic transmission.

If you hanker after an air-cooled VW that’s just a bit different from the norm, a Type 3 makes a great choice. Just remember that finding your ideal example for sale may take a little time – and plenty of patience.