Motormessenger welcomes a new project car – a 1973 Volkswagen Beetle 1300 in retina-searing orange
While the Beetle’s bubbly physique is familiar thanks to countless pop culture references, it still is downright quirky in a way that appeals to both young and old. Little children lose their minds when the Bug rattles by. A 911 driver has even given me The Nod at the lights in this thing. It is a mobile Snapchat and Instagram centrepiece for my generation, and a starter of ‘When I had one…’ stories for my parents’.
So much has been said about the original People’s Car that it’s hard to add anything meaningful to its legacy. We all know about the Hitler and 911 connections, as well as its status as the world’s most-produced car. People have dropped V8s into them, slammed them, lifted them, dragged them, dailyed them and restored them in hundreds of ways. My Beetle story, however, begins before I was even born.
In 1970s Britain, my Dad needed a cheap, reliable car. What he ended up with was a baby blue Beetle – a later model with the chunky plastic dash and larger rear lights. Growing up, I’d ask him to remember traits and experiences about the odd little Volkswagen. Mum mentioned something about it being heavy and unnecessarily loud. Then I found out about Herbie, and taped onto VHS all the films I could watch. OFP 857, with its towel-rail bumpers and metal dash became a permanent feature on my dream car list.
In 2010, I passed my driving test at 17. I quickly found out that Beetles were out of my budget, pretty unsafe and prone to rust if used daily. The ambition was put on hold and, if I’m honest, pretty much forgotten about while I tinkered with Polos and 3 Series.
It was a blazing hot June afternoon this year when I signed for the Beetle, perched atop of a trailer fresh from Telford. What had originated as a few conversations with my Dad a year ago had developed into eBay reconnaissance missions and, eventually, a winning bid. We had a Bug – one that had recently benefited from a complete bodywork, engine, suspension and gearbox overhaul, too.
In the last few months, I’ve tried to drive it as much as possible before the Scottish autumn calls time on classic driving. I’ve driven it at night, on motorways, through rush hour traffic and in the rain. I’ve even managed to run out of fuel in it (with a dodgy fuel sender to blame) and I’ve once managed to cook the rear brakes on a brisk B-road run.
Our Beetle is a 1973 1300; one of the last of the German-built models. With the desirable and much more attractive metal dash, our 12V car came with an orange pool ball atop the gearstick and, er, not much else. A blanking plate exists where the stereo would be, and the same goes for the cigarette lighter. When we first took delivery of it, it didn’t even have grab handles to shut the doors. A small list of niggles have gradually been ironed out, meaning that I’ve picked up some knowledge about the four-cylinder boxer engine, its drum brakes and utterly pointless heater channel system.
The Beetle, then, is a beautifully simple antidote to today’s computerised cars. A socket set and screwdrivers will let you fix or tune up nearly everything in it. Dad and I retrofitted original front seats to replace the bloated Ford efforts that ruined the interior. What tools did we need for the task? Just our hands.
Until that day in June, I’d never even been inside a Beetle. My first experience of seat time would be to drive the thing off the trailer. Opening the weightless door and pitching down into the well-worn but soft seat grants you access to an incredibly airy cabin. The A-pillars are thin wisps of metal, but visibility is excellent. The few controls there are are well-placed, though even now I’m still not used to the massive amount of space at the bulkhead where an engine would normally reside. A solitary glass-fronted speedometer has fuel, indicator and light readouts. Even the lights are reasonably good for a 42-year old car, if a bit vertical in their throw.
The floor-mounted pedals are well spaced for a size 10 wielder like myself, making heel-and-toeing pretty easy. The main reminder that you’re in a classic car is the ever-so-slightly diagonal driving position, with your legs canted to the left and the large steering wheel nearly brushing your upper legs while you sit upright. A ‘feed the wheel’ approach is needed to steer it, without appearing like some sort of weird leg-stroker.
Pop the delightful quarterlight window open – why don’t modern cars have these? – and secure yourself using the aircraft-style lap belt. I thumb the key into the barrel the wrong way round; it won’t even turn. Key flipped, and with two or three stabs of the throttle to force fuel into the carburettor, the starter motor scurries and the engine catches with a fast idle. The whole car vibrates as if there’s a big-bore V8 in the nose. The chromed mirrors are now entirely redundant as they flail around outside.
With the engine and gearbox cold, it’s a grumpy drive; all jolts and surging revs. Once properly warmed, the experience becomes much smoother than I expected it to be. With only four long gears, 1st to 3rd are more than ample for city driving. The shift itself, with a long metal pole connecting the orange pool ball to the gearbox at the rear, is well-spaced, making it easy to find the ratios. There’s a thick clunk as each gear meshes, with a reassuring level of resistance that’s lacking in Project Junior Executive. Change up too early though, and there’s no fuel-injection to save you from stalling. The Bug has the capacity to make you look like a complete novice if you don’t give it enough throttle or shift gear too early.
That aircooled flat-four is very loud for the power it produces (approximately 44bhp), but it makes a rhythmic chugging noise that completely suits the over-engineered character of the car. The powerband of the 1.3 gives more than enough acceleration to stay level with the cut-and-thrust of city driving, but I have no idea at what revs the Bug gives its full potential as our car was never fitted with a rev counter. The novelty of engine noises and gearbox whines emanating from the rear of the car remind you of the wonky weight distribution that all Beetles possess. All these thoughts soon fade once I get onto some less congested roads.
I have never driven something with such feelsome steering as this. Not even the Ferrari F430, E46 BMW M3 or the Honda Integra Type-R I’ve had the pleasure of driving come close to this unassisted system. With no power steering, it’s a hassle to wrestle the wheel from lock-to-lock quickly, but it’s a downside that is more than compensated for by the 14-inch wheels and thin tyres.
The broad but perfectly-dimpled steering wheel always lets you know what’s going on underneath, allowing you to feel even the tiniest road imperfections. While there’s a bit of play in the rack, the turning circle is perfect for cramped European streets. In wetter conditions, you feel the rearward weight balance through the rim as the steering gets lighter and the rear-engined, rear-wheel-drive layout acts as a pendulum. Turn in hard at this point while pressing the throttle and the Bug will demonstrate its willingness to step sideways. It’s a bit of a weird feeling though; like watching your granny play rugby, it just doesn’t feel right or respectful.
In standard form, the Beetle is a car that works best when you drive it smoothly. Concentrate on each shift, making sure to slur the accelerator and clutch just right, and the 1300 is a lesson in responsiveness. It’s at its best on 40-50mph roads, where the engine noise isn’t intrusive and the high ride height copes well with bumps and ruts. The only potential limiter to this are the drum brakes, which need a heavy foot and religious belief to be used effectively. Mastering a progressive foot, along with engine braking, is essential to slowing the Bug down.
Once you’ve got this down, though, the Beetle really is quite straightforward to drive. There’s lots of legroom, squishy seats and not one but two boots (even though the front one is mainly a home for the spare wheel and half a sandwich). The main thing that stops me driving it daily is the fact that it’s Fanta orange. You know those drizzly, midweek days where you just want to get home and out of the traffic? An orange Beetle is not the vehicle of discreet transport.
But if you buy an aircooled Dub solely for your commute, you are missing the point of this car. It has a gorgeous musk of unleaded about it at all times, it’s a silly colour and it has a comically chirpy horn – all of which never fail to put a smile on my face. Despite its inconveniences (more than once I’ve headbutted the near-vertical windscreen while getting out of it), it gets positive attention from both car fans and regular people alike.
Driving past one of my city’s notorious ‘gentlemen’s clubs’ at 10.30pm on a weeknight elicited cheers of approval and clapping from the performers taking a cigarette break in the street.
I can’t think of any Lamborghini that would get that response.