The Volkswagen Beetle – Five Things You Need to Know

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By Dale Vinten

Not only is the Volkswagen Beetle one of the most recognisable and iconic cars of all time but the design itself transcends mere vehicular boundaries and has become ingrained in the collective consciousness, along with other indelible works such as the Zippo lighter, Coca-Cola bottle and Converse Chuck Taylor All-Stars, to name a few.

Timeless, cheap and uncomplicated the Beetle makes for a great starter classic and a good car upon which to hone your workshop skills because they are so easy to work on. Designed by Ferdinand Porsche they remain somewhat of a statement piece too so be prepared for the ubiquitous admiring glances, comments and car park conversations. Over 21 million were produced between 1938 and 2003, boasting some of the highest manufacturing and sales figures of any car ever made, with Volkswagen only ending production of the newest incarnation of the beloved Bug in July of this year. There’s plenty of choice too with different design evolutions over the years as well as various engine and performance options but they all retain the same basic two-door, rear-engined, rear-wheel drive layout. It’s a formula that in part has bolstered the longevity of the marque. If it ain’t broke…

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The VW air-cooled, flat-four boxer engine was used in all incarnations of the Beetle, from 1100cc through to 1600cc and is widely revered for its simplicity and reliability. Lower capacity variants often struggle nowadays while larger engined cars are much more capable and easier to live with in modern traffic. Transmission options are limited to either a four-speed manual or a 3 or 4 speed semi-automatic box, with the manual being the pick of the litter due to its availability, robustness and ease of maintenance. The overall design remained consistent but there were myriad incremental alterations throughout the years, all of which were fairly low-key in the grand scheme of things and many argue that the earlier versions are the prettiest of the bunch. Later cars are generally better overall though and feel less agricultural, fitted as they are with a more modern suspension and braking setup as well as 12-volt electrics; they just make more sense as a daily driver. The important thing to remember is that the Volkswagen Beetle is fun, affordable and eternally popular no matter which one you pick, so here are five things you need to know about the original people’s car.  

1) Body and Chassis

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Yep, you guessed it – rust. It’s better to find a clean example to begin with rather than starting your Beetle relationship via fixing bad repairs or chasing corrosion, so if that means spending a little more money or waiting a little longer to find the right car then so be it, you’ll be better off in the long run. One of the main problem areas to check are the sills, which also include the heater channels. A professional repair is a huge job as it’s a body-off affair so a lot of unscrupulous owners simply patch new sections in, which only prolongs the issue. If these areas feel anything less than 100% solid, walk away. You should also check the roof gutters and it’s always worth checking under the carpets and rear seats as well as the spare wheel well for signs of water ingress, rust or dodgy repairs. Both front and rear bumper mounts can rot through and check that all of the panel gaps are an even width. Front wings bolt on so these are less of a concern and all of the panels you are likely to need are readily available, it just comes down to how much time and money you’re willing to spend after the initial purchase and how handy you are with a welding torch. With such a protracted production run the Beetle has seen many different “movements” over the years and as such a lot of these cars have fallen foul of outdated trends and have been poorly modified as a result. With so many bugs out there don’t feel rushed into buying the first car you see.  

2) Trim

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Spartan, simple and utilitarian the Beetle’s interior is robust and well put together. Age can certainly take its toll though and the effects can range from sagging seats and headlining to worn or damaged carpets and faulty switch gear. The good news is that everything you could possibly need or want is available, so even if the entire interior needs to be re-fitted you’re golden. As mentioned, pre-’67 Beetles were fitted with 6-volt electrics which is fine if you’re happy driving by candle-light but a lot of these cars have been converted to a more modern 12-volt setup. If this is the case, check that the conversion has been done properly and scrutinise the loom for any brittle or damaged wires. Earlier cars also have the metal, body-coloured dash while later vehicles carry a much less appealing plastic piece which can weather and crack. Check that all of the gauges and switches work as intended, especially the heater controls. Cabriolet versions should not present any issues as long as the hood itself hasn’t shrunk and the mechanism is not worn or damaged. It’s a good idea to fit fresh, good quality rubber seals, if not already present, as this will guarantee a water-tight barrier as well as reducing wind noise.

3) Engine

With excellent access to the motor it’s easy to carry out a thorough visual inspection of most parts. Check for any fan belt slippage and for signs of damage to the fan as overheating can be an issue. Also, check for oil leaks – rocker cover gaskets are cheap and simple to replace but any oil escaping from around the crankcase, front pulley or flywheel is much more serious. The motor may emit a little smoke upon start-up when cold but this is perfectly normal and once up to temperature, the exhaust should run clean. Ideally, these engines require oil changes every 3,000 miles to perform at their best so have a good look through any service records for evidence of this. The condition of the oil itself will speak volumes too so have a check of the dipstick. A good indication of the state of the engine is to inspect the amount of end float in the rear main bearing. This can be done by gently pulling the bottom pulley towards you. Excessive movement means a rebuild or replacement engine which need not be the end of the world as replacement motors are so readily available. If the rest of the car is a winner then a fresh engine may be the lesser of two evils. Dynamos were fitted until 1971 at which point alternators took over. These can be retro-fitted so if this is the case make sure it has been done properly. Beetles will happily run on unleaded fuel so there’s no need to worry about converting heads or fitting hardened valve seats.

4) Suspension and steering

There are a few different suspension setups that you will encounter depending on the car and year of manufacture. At the front, torsion bar king and link pin suspension was fitted up to 1966 which requires regular greasing to prevent seizing problems. This was superseded by a more modern ball joint arrangement, while the 1302 and 1303 models received MacPherson struts, the top mounts of which should be inspected for corrosion and/or excessive wear. At the rear, a swing axle is the most common setup and this can be manually adjusted to alter the ride height. Again, the 1302 and 1303 models were the exception and these were fitted with independent suspension at the back with CV joints installed at the gearbox and hub. Whatever the case, check that the car sits level and does not list or sag at any of the corners as the torsion bars can fail. Steering is a fairly simple worm and roller affair but check for any play or slack which could indicate a worn box or ball joints. The steering is adjustable via an inspection port under the bonnet so this is worth checking before disregarding the box entirely. Just don’t over-tighten the adjusting screw as this will prevent the steering from being able to effectively re-centre.

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5) Brakes

Take the car for a drive (if running) and make sure the brakes don’t grab or pull to either side when stopping. Listen out for any squealing and have a feel for any vibrations through the steering wheel under braking. Disc brakes were fitted from 1967 onward but conversions are a simple job on earlier cars fitted with drum brakes and is a great upgrade in terms of overall braking performance. If the car has been standing for a while make sure the calipers are not seized and have a look at the overall condition of the discs and pads. Remove the drums if you can, so that you can scrutinise the brakes thoroughly and perform the usual checks for any fluid leaks and damaged or corroding pipes. Along with a disc upgrade, new braided hoses and good, fresh brake fluid will improve pedal feel.

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