Volkswagen Beetle: What to know before you buy

Photography Credit: Courtesy Volkswagen

It’s a slow car with humble roots, but you could argue that one fits into just about any collection: the Volkswagen Beetle. 

Its iconic shape can be found on birthday cakes and sand sculptures, splashed across movies and doodled in notebook margins. It even inspired a game–and woe to the person who receives too strong a punch. Herbie helped make it a Hollywood star while reminding us that good–and love–shall always triumph.

Even the Museum of Modern Art recently showed a Beetle, the car formerly called the Type1. “The Volkswagen Type 1 sedan has a distinctive bulbous shape that feels seductive but also cartoon-like,” MoMA curator Andrew Gardner stated. 

And that exhibit didn’t ignore the car’s roots: “In the mid-1930s Adolf Hitler charged German automakers with designing an inexpensive Volkswagen, or ‘people’s car,’ as part of his larger aspirations to get as many Germans on the road as possible and drag his country into the auto age. The result was the Type 1 Sedan, which in the years after World War II transcended its inglorious origins and lived up to its name by becoming the choice for millions of car owners around the globe.”

Millions is right. In early 1972, Volkswagen produced the 15,007,034th Beetle. By the time the production line wound down in 2003, some 21.5 million were sent out in the world. 

By most modern measures, the Beetle isn’t fast. Its zero-to-60 time likely won’t wow today’s minivan owner. And it doesn’t feature the latest electronic doodads.

But that’s not what the Beetle is about. Today it offers easy access to a simpler time and is welcome just about anywhere.–David S. Wallens

Shopping Advice

Carl Heideman
Eclectic Motorworks

You pick the era you like. The older you get, the more expensive you get. 

The early ’50s have the split and oval rear windows. Until 1967, the covered headlights remained as the cars were updated. Even after then, the headlights still looked cool. The late-’60s and the ’70s cars are slightly less dangerous–they have shoulder belts and headrests, dual-circuit brakes and other safety features. Uncovered, sealed beam headlights came with a 12-volt electrical system, making the cars more modern at the cost of some style.

It’s really hard to find an unmodified one. A lot of them have received the later, 1600cc dual-port engine with an alternator. Almost all the 6-volt cars seem to have been converted to 12 volts. I have daily driven a 6-volt car for 10-plus years, so it’s possible, with dim lighting being the biggest drawback. There’s nothing wrong with a generator car, and some alternator conversions have been done with sketchy wiring.

Modified cars are fine, but only if well sorted. There are several things to consider. Many modifications are cosmetic to follow a trend like the Cal look or Baja Bug. Sometimes the mechanical side of the modifications is done poorly, and these cars can be unreliable or even dangerous. Other cars are modified because of the Lego nature of Beetles. 

These cars spent a long time as very cheap transportation, and used parts from one car would often ended up on another. Back in the day, sometimes the rear taillights would be of a different era because the junkyard sold someone a $3 fender with a taillight to replace the one that just got dented.

Rust-free is really important. Or it needs to be properly repaired.

Well sorted is important, too. It’s pretty common for the brakes to feel terrible. The pedal should be firm and not travel too far. Beetles don’t stop great, but they’re not terrible. Some disc brake conversions, in fact, are way worse than drums and some are way better. The aftermarket stuff just varies. 

Electrical issues also seem pretty common. Any 50-year-old wiring harness has corrosion and other issues. Plus, people who convert to 12 volts and add radios or other accessories often take shortcuts that cost the next owner.

The Beetle is still served by a thriving community, but the scene has really changed. There are now more purists out there concerned about originality. Finding a VW with an original motor is pretty rare, as they only lasted 30,000 or 40,000 miles. The motors got swapped all the time. 

Changes Over the Years

1945: While conceived a decade earlier, mass production doesn’t begin until just after World WarII. The basic body shape plus the rear-mounted, air-cooled, flat-four engine would endure through the end. 

1949: A convertible officially joins the lineup. 

1953: VW replaces the original split rear widow with an oval one.  

1958: The Beetle gets a larger rectangular rear window. 

1965: Now all of the windows get bigger.

1967: The Beetle moves from a 6-volt system to 12-volt electronics, while traditional sealed beams replace the covered headlamps. 

1968: To meet new safety regs, we got big bumpers, a collapsing steering column and high-back seats.

1971: More power: A dual-port engine replaces the earlier single-port one. The roomier Super Beetle joins the lineup. 

1973: Bigger taillamps become standard. 

1974: An alternator replaces the generator. 

1977: Final year for U.S. Beetle Sedan sales.

1979: And the last year for the U.S.-market Cabriolet.

2003: After decades of production outside of Germany, the final Beetle leaves a Mexican assembly line. 

Why You Want One

• You can show up anywhere in one, from local morning meet-ups to Monterey and The Amelia. You can race it, show it or just admire it.

• Listed on the National Historic Vehicle Register, right there with the Cobra Daytona Coupe, the Mercedes-Benz 300 SL, and the original Tucker prototype: Bruce Meyers’ Old Red, his Beetle-based Manx dune buggy that ushered in the phenomenon.

• Price of entry can be as low or high as you’d like.

• Lots of support available: parts, service and even the moral kind.

• Kids of all ages can identify it and often react with a smile.

Recently Sold

Sold: 1979 Volkswagen Super Beetle Cabriolet
$90,000 • Bring a Trailer
The most expensive Beetle sold via Bring a Trailer so far is a 190-mile convertible once part of the Stoddard Collection.

Sold: 1965 Volkswagen Beetle Sedan
$18,700 • Mecum
Like so many, a bit of a hotrod. At the end of the day, though, still a desirable, covered-headlamp model.

Sold: 1956 Volkswagen Beetle Sedan
$33,000 • RM Sotheby’s
Top money for this car should be north of $90,000, but this restored, oval-window Beetle sold for the price of a smaller SUV.

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