10 minutes in and it had already tried to kill me. The 1968 Volkswagen Beetle marked it’s first attempt on my life by sending me sideways through a very wet and populated roundabout in Mosman. Perhaps the 45 year old machine was not pleased to be pulled from retirement, having lived a trying life of daily errands and weekend hill climb competition. I preferred to think that it was testing me, trying to assure my reflexes were up to the challenge of owning such a clandestine vehicle. This was a romantic take on the fact that I had just purchased 900 kilograms of metal, coconut fibre and rust that I intended to drive daily for the next 4 years of my life.
12 months prior to this, my Father purchased a 1970 Beetle. A driveway which had once occupied the likes of a 12 cylinder Jag, a Targa top 911, a handful of BMW’s, and a Mercedes Benz Coupe barnfind; was now home to a 75% metallic blue, 25% mustard yellow Beetle.
I thought my old-man had lost his mind, which changed the day he handed me the keys and a shopping list. A red P plate wedged in the front bumper and a concerned frown at the lack of airbags were my only companions for my first journey. I returned 20 minutes later with bread, milk, and a plan to sell all my worldly possessions to have my very own slice of Volkswagen heaven.
4 years later, I sit in a well worn drivers seat, hands on the thin steering wheel trying to put into words why these cars are so good. I probably should start with the history. I don’t mean the history of Hitler and Ferry Porsche creating a people’s car, or Herbie honking around the Swiss Alps; I am talking about the personal history. Every single person has a Volkswagen story and will stop at nothing to tell it to you. I will gladly stand at the servo for 45 minutes talking to someone about cars; however if you don’t want to hear about the cashiers Uncle Bob who rolled his Kombi into a ditch on the way to a Cold Chisel concert, perhaps classic Volkswagen ownership isn’t for you.
As with most things over 47 years of age, it rattles, groans and sometimes bits fall off all together. I have replaced many things on my Beetle, and have done so on a very stringent student budget, which meant rolling up my sleeves, buying a set of tools, and reading a lot of guides on the internet. Cheap parts and lots of community support means that most work can be done at home, with a bit of time and a lot of patience. I have a permanent layer of dirt under my fingernails, and a couple of scars on my hands; but have gained a wealth of knowledge and a unique sense of independence – both of which are priceless.
With a base weight of around 900 kilos, a low mounted flat four, and a lack of electronic or hydraulic assistance makes the Beetle a no nonsense classic. Add a couple of bolt-on bits like some larger carbs, merged headers and wider tires and a 47 year old utilitarian vehicle starts to become something else. A modified Volkswagen Type 1 shines truth into the saying that “driving a slow car fast is more fun than driving a fast car slow”.
While the Porsche family rear engine, RWD platform has dry-surface grip; a wet road is this configuration’s natural enemy. A driver with a light foot and careful steering is rewarded with a safe trip home.
For a car under 1000 kilograms, the Beetle can be quite thirsty. I am currently running a dual carb 1895cc stroker, which provides a perfect amount of power for the small monocoque frame, but will never equal the efficiency of more modern vehicles with higher horsepower.
In a practical sense the Volkswagen has a small boot, but can comfortably seat 4 people (taller friends will struggle for legroom in the back). The backseat can be lowered allowing for a lot of luggage space.
Owning a 47 year old car as a daily-driver is not a choice many will take, but at one point in your life you have to drive a classic Volkswagen. Owning this car shown me what is possible with a set of tools, 2 hands and a bit of motivation. It has become part of my identity and has changed my life.