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Cars of the 1940s and 1950s around the world were big and trimmed to the gills in chrome. While most looked like airplanes and were stunning to look at, they also cost a small fortune to run. Enter the Volkswagen Beetle. First introduced in 1938, the tiny ‘people's car’ shot to prominence after World War II. It was basic, still managed to fit the family, and ran on the smell of an oily rag. It went on to sell nearly 22 million units over its lifetime.
In 2016, this iconic car drove off into the sunset for the last time. After slow sales, the Beetle is no more in Australia, and the German auto giant marked this occasion with a special limited-edition car, the Beetle Classic. It’s back-to-basics, with no options, taking inspiration from the original Bug. So, to see just how much has changed over the decades, we put it up against my very own 1965 VW Beetle.
The old Beetle was $1700 new and powering it was a 1200cc engine (my car has been upgraded to 1600cc) which pushed out a minuscule 22kW of power and 70Nm of torque. The engine is located in the rear and relies on air to cool it, so no need for a radiator.
Safety wasn’t really a top priority in 1965 either, as the car didn’t come with rear seatbelts, airbags or any of the clever safety features of today. Even a radio was an option.
Everywhere you look, there’s chrome. The bumpers, side body trim, mirrors, headlight surrounds, hubcaps, door handles – the list goes on. And you can’t beat that unmistakable bonnet which resembles the wings of the very insect its name derives from.
There’s only room for a few bags of groceries under the bonnet (sounds weird, huh?), as the spare wheel and fuel tank takes up the majority of the room. Although, a suitcase can fit behind the back seat.
The vinyl low-back seats are springy and you almost rub shoulders with your front seat passenger. In the back, it’s a tight fit for any adult, but would be fine for children.
So, how does it drive? Slow. Any speed over 90km/h, the engine starts to whine and it becomes loud. Although, it’s happy to putt around town at low speed. It’s a reminder that the Beetle was never famous for its power. There is no power steering, as most of the weight is on the back wheels, so the wheel is very light to turn.
The four-speed gearbox is synchronised and reverse is found by pressing down on the gear knob. The first gear ratio is that close, that taking off in second gear is recommended. Back then, the close gear ratios were good for towing, but with drum brakes all-round, it’s probably not a great idea.
Now, over to the Beetle Classic.
It will set you back $36,990 plus on-roads, but with only 53 of them made, it has the potential to be a future collectable. The number 53 isn’t because of the world-famous racing Bug, Herbie, but denotes the year the Beetle was first imported to Australia. What makes it even more special is, that this specific car is number 53 – the last Beetle in the country, ever.
This more ‘tougher’ design replaced the somewhat ‘girly’ look of the New Beetle from the early 2000s (flower on the dashboard, anyone?), and this latest iteration really gets close to the look of the original Beetle. Other noticeable similarities are the chrome hubcaps and dress rings, chrome side mirrors, side body trim and even the Volkswagen logo on the boot.
The biggest difference to the old model is the engine is situated in the front and has a radiator. And it’s more powerful, with a turbocharged and supercharged 1.4-litre engine, producing 118kW of power and 240Nm of torque.
The Beetle Classic is by far a much safer car, with ABS, blind-spot monitoring and a rear-view camera. And not to mention, disc brakes, so stopping is a much more pleasant experience.
Boot space is at 310 litres, and increases to 905 with the two-seater back seats folded down. It was tested with boxes of kitchenware and even a front beam of an old Beetle wrapped in sheets, and had no problem accommodating them.
After pressing down on the Start/Stop button for a couple of seconds, the car fires up, but it doesn’t have that iconic 'dak-dak' noise.
It isn’t super-fast, but it does take off from a stand-still quite quickly. Engaging sport mode feels like the car turns into Herbie. It kicks your head back and revs hard, to the point where you need to return to Normal driving mode or use the paddle-shifters for it to change down a gear.
The petrol engine is teamed with a seven-speed DSG automatic transmission, which is clunky crawling through peak-hour traffic, but going through each gear is smooth as silk.
After driving these cars back-to-back, it’s clear to see how the cute little Bug can niggle its way into your heart. The 1965 Beetle is charming and whoever crosses its path, they’re sure to smile. The Beetle Classic is the closest you will get to the Beetle of old, while still having the added assurance of safety features.
To one of the cutest cars in the world, Australia says thanks for the memories.
Click on the Photos tab for more images by Tom Fraser.