Georg Kacher: driving VW’s original icons, the Beetle and Bulli

Published: 17 August 2011

In the new September issue of CAR Magazine our European editor Georg Kacher has been behind the wheel of both the gorgeous VW Bulli concept and the New Beetle Mk2 – back-to-back with their original, iconic predecessors. We couldn’t squeeze in everything Georg wanted to say about the original Beetle and Bulli in the latest issue, so here’s the extra content…

Cruising through Berlin in a 1959 VW 1200       

The perceived contrast between the cream vintage Volkswagen Beetle and the New Beetle MkII is as extreme as the difference between candle and LED, typewriter and PC, DC3 and A380. The rear-engined original, built in various forms and generations between 1949 and 2003, was an early personal mobility assistant: more spacious and less susceptible to bad weather than a motorcycle, more independent than a tram, more flexible than a train, more grown up than the Lloyd, Gutbrod and Fiat microcars it competed against.

Over time, VW sold more than 21.5 million units of its air-cooled icon: European Beetle production ceased in 1979 when the Cabriolet was phased out at Karmann, but the Mexican-made Bug continued to thrive until 2003 when crash and emission regs finally squashed it. Contrary to common belief, the Ur-Beetle was not at all about cult, image, even driving pleasure. It was a totally pragmatic A-to-B connector, virtually indestructible, totally affordable, utterly practical. The people’s car made history because it became the official personal transportation appliance of the Wirtschaftswunder generation (the hippie movement) and, eventually, if only as 1303 Cabriolet, for the nouveau riche who were not quite rich enough to obtain an MG or a Porsche.

Dynamically, you needed a performance upgrade from Oettinger or Sebring to claim a spot in the overtaking lane of the freshly completed autobahn. In base trim the 1959 specimen featured here (the Käfer as it is called in Germany) was a sluggard that struggled to keep up with up the small delivery weasels from Tempo and Hanomag.

According to VW marketing, the Beetle is a brand by itself which needs to be attended and developed. Why? Because irrespective of age and gender most car buyers can still relate to the role the turtle-shaped five-seater played in European mass motorisisation, and because almost all connotations to its boxer-powered history are favourable. Most of us have at least one Beetle story to tell – the first trip over the Alps, the first kiss in the back seat, the first snow neutralised by rear-engined traction.

In the ’60s when just about everyone who had a job seemed to queue for this spartan tail-happy bubble car, the top-secret annual modifications were regular headline material. Newsworthy modifications included the increasingly larger rear window; the size, shape and segmentation of the taillights; the evolution of the two-spoke steering-wheel which went from white bakelite to black foam padding; and of course the step-by-step increase in power output from 24 to 50bhp.

In 1959, body colour and bare metal were all you could get from the VW works in Wolfsburg. True, a heater was no longer an option, but the car radio fitted to our nilewater beige crowd-stopper was a very expensive confession to luxury, and the Export model shown here flew at least one social rank above the dechromed Standard. The choice of seat trim was confined to grandfather’s bathrobe jersey and an artificial leather quality named Skai which people loved at least as much as nyltest shirts made of 100% polyester. Safety belts had yet to be invented, but extra money did already buy adjustable backrests, a foot-operated main-beam feature, pneumatic DIY window washers and the indispensable passenger grab-handle.

I vaguely remember one snowy winter evening when I drove a VW 1200 into the ditch – and straight out again without doing any damage at all. The Beetle was that kind of car. The only way you could hurt it was by underestimating the radical weight distribution, the inept drum brakes, the unassisted divining rod steering and the undertyred chassis which hated crosswinds, cobblestones and corners of any kind. We kept our family potato supply bagged in the dark and cool cavity above the front axle, a move which gave the term ground control a whole new meaning.

The very first Volkswagen is a time capsule that looks, smells and feels strangely familiar. One sits as close to the doors as in an early Cinquecento or Opel Kadett, the nose registers the same blend of vintage rubber that is common to all old cars, the eye scans a dashboard which excels in functional minimalism. The pressed steel key rests quite loose in the exposed ignition lock, the clutch dives with unexpected ease into its spring-loaded abyss, the floor-mounted throttle needs a firm stab to summon the air-cooled backstage quartet, the thin plastic-capped gearlever baulks into first, gnarls into second, disappears in third and plunges into fourth. 

Compared to any modern pace car the old Volkswagen Beetle moves at such a laidback pace that the angry urban traffic would never tolerate it if it was not for that charming 1959 wrapper. 

Santa Monica, California, in a 1963 VW Type 2 deluxe hardtop 15-window bus 

First introduced in 1950, the VW Type 2 was in essence a re-bodied Beetle. Driving it brings back fond memories of long hair, sweet smoke, free love and loud music, which became more psychedelic with every fresh No Nukes! sticker, tattoo or T-shirt. Familiar features include a slim lightweight ignition key made of pressed steel, the famous off-white Bakelite two-spoke steering-wheel installed at an almost horizontal angle, the airy footwell dominated by standing pedals, a spidery gearlever with matching two-feet long handbrake, and a painted metal tube in which the long steering column rotates from lock to lock.

One sits close enough to the windscreen to defrost it by breathing, upright enough to automatically check the vertebrae whenever the trailing-arm front suspension hits a ridge or a pothole, and far enough forward to become a very physical part of the marginal crumple zone in case of a head-on collision. Integrated in the bare-metal dashboard are various pull-knobs, a single round instrument depicting speed and accumulated miles, and a large pull-out ashtray the Gauloises & Gitanes generation could not do without.

Despite a displacement of 1.5 litres and a kerbweight of only 1140 kilos, our 1963 Bulli was not exactly a scorcher. Saddled by a single carburettor, the boxer engine is hampered by excessively long respiratory tracts which cause a sleepy throttle response and a certain reluctance to build up revs and torque.

The four-drum brakes are heavy and occasionally at odds with each other, the steering is even heavier and prone to harden as you wind on more lock, the swing-axle rear suspension is tospy-turvy through bumpy corners but benign elsewhere, the spaghetti gearlever which tries to sort out the four-speed box feels light and vague yet rarely misses a beat. Good for exactly 66mph, the holdall from Wolfsburg averages 30.7mpg.

A well-kept Type 2 bus is worth at least $30K these days. Stephen Toshiyuki shelled out over $35K for his partly restored specimen pictured here, but an original 23-window Samba version with fabric sunroof easily doubles this tally, and a one-owner low-mileage trailer queen has recently changed hands for more than $200K. 

Just goes to show how much some people love the iconic classic Volkswagens. And driving these two, you can see why.

>> Don’t miss Georg Kacher’s first drives of the new VW Beetle and VW Bulli concept car in the new September 2011 issue of CAR. Click here for a free digital preview

By Georg Kacher

European editor, secrets uncoverer, futurist, first man behind any wheel