Volkswagen Beetle (1960-1969) Review
VW’s icon makes for a great classic, the 60s era perhaps the best balance between traditional looks and decent driveability…
1,192cc, 1,300cc, 1,500cc
What Is It?
A car that should require very little in the way of introduction, the Volkswagen Beetle is an automotive classic combining a fascinating history, mechanical intrigue, unmistakeable design and a uniquely characterful driving experience.
From the Christmas of 1945 all the way through until July 2003 a total of 21 million Beetles of various types were built on production lines across the world, but for the purposes of this guide we’ll concentrate on the middle phase of production in the 1960s. Over this period the original design was refined and the engineering modernised, resulting in a more driveable classic that retains the cleaner look of the older models.
For while the fundamentals of the Beetle clearly didn’t change that much over its long life there were endless detail tweaks along the way, prompting endless debate among the superfans about which is best. That argument can run and run but, in general terms, a mid-’60s Beetle will be considered by many to be the sweet spot. Here’s how to get a good one.
Sill heater channels, especially at joint with inner front arch
Battery tray beneath rear seat
Spare wheel well in front luggage compartment
- Modifications and personalisation are part and parcel of the Beetle scene and aided by easy interchangeability of parts – unless you’re chasing originality it’s not necessarily a problem as long as it’s been done sympathetically and by someone who knows what they’re doing
- Rust can occur anywhere but is especially bad in the ducts that channel heated air to the cabin via the sills, with condensation causing corrosion to spread from the inside – check where they meet the inner front arches and, while they can be patched, a full repair of the sills is a body-off job
- Beetles have a distinctive mechanical smell but a strong whiff of exhaust could be damaged heat exchangers directing fumes into the cabin, which is obviously something to be addressed as a matter of urgency
- Sloppy steering could be indicative of worn front suspension or loose ‘worm and roller’ mechanism – the latter can be easily adjusted but can end up feeling ‘tight’ if not set correctly
- Power brakes feature on all Beetles of this era and all should offer decent stopping power when correctly maintained so check for corroded lines or leaking cylinders at the wheels if not – 1500s and later models also got discs rather than drums on the front axle
- Wings are bolt-on and easily replaced but the seam between them and the body can be a rust trap
- If you’re chasing a convertible it’s worth paying the (considerable) extra for a proper Karmann bodied one for its reinforced body – aftermarket conversions may not be as structurally sound
- Enthusiasts favour earlier cars and these are considerably more valuable – look for the smaller side windows of pre-1965 cars, ‘five-stud’ wheels, sloping headlights and smaller rear lights as giveaways, though cars may also have been ‘backdated’ so check for originality
- Engines are generally tough and air-cooling means one less thing to worry about, though overheating can do lasting damage so make sure the oil is in good condition and the black painted ‘tinware’ directing cooling air around the cylinder heads hasn’t been removed
- Broken fanbelts can also lead to overheating so carry a spare and the tools necessary to fit it
- While in the engine bay give the crank pulley a tug – a little play is fine but visible or audible knocking could be something more worrying, ditto any rattles or other undue noise from the valvegear
- Earlier cars with the dynamo powered 6V electrics may not be as sturdy as later 12V ones, though many will have been upgraded at some point in their lives so don’t be surprised if you find a retrofitted alternator and 12V system
- Volkswagen offered two automated transmission options over this period across different markets, including the four-speed Saxomat with an automated clutch mechanism and three-speed AutoStick seen on some late 60s models – both are rare and have quirky appeal but most drivers will prefer the manual
How Does It Drive?
Many of the Beetle’s handling traits have since been taken to extremes by the Porsche 911 it shares its backstory with but, with the engine in the back, the steering could be kept light even with relatively fast gearing while all independent suspension means decent ride quality. A steering damper introduced in 1961 means a smoother response at the wheel, the distinctive floor-hinged pedals one of the many quirks while the four-speed gearbox should shift cleanly.
No ‘60s Beetle in standard trim will ever be described as fast in modern terms, though a steady run is perfectly pleasant and they go well on motorways thanks to the original pre-war design brief requiring the car to be capable of cruising the then-new German Autobahns at a steady 60mph. Like a 911 the light front end means corner entry speeds need to be respectful, the swing-axle rear suspension and engine behind it also demanding respect if you lift-off mid-turn.
Power brakes (earlier Beetles use cable ones) make a ‘60s car easier in modern traffic, post-1968 ones getting discs up front.
The Beetle’s looks are obviously a huge draw, the curvy shape arguably at its best through this ‘60s era with its longer front end, smaller lights and elegantly sculpted engine cover at the back. But you’re not just buying a car – you’re joining an entire community in its own right, with a huge scene stretching from matching numbers originalists to customisers enacting modifications from mild to wild each with its own unique aesthetic and fanbase.
The combination of that charismatic engine note with driving manners and refinement that work better on modern roads than many other cars of this vintage are also appealing while the Beetle’s enduring popularity also means a huge support network of parts, specialists and knowledgeable folk. This, interchangeability of parts and inherent mechanical simplicity means it’s also a relatively easy car to work on and fix yourself.
Given the popularity of modifications and ease with which older examples can be upgraded or changed you’ll need to decide if you’re going to hold out for an original car or take a more relaxed approach. Condition is key and, as ever, it makes sense to buy the best you can afford unless you have the time, money and inclination to take on a restoration project.
Inevitably rust will be your first consideration, common traps including the heating channels that run through the sills (check where they meet the inner front arches and bulkhead), the floorpan and battery tray (look under the carpets and rear seat) and spare wheel well common rot spots.
A puff of blue smoke on start-up is nothing to worry about but if it persists or there’s any noticeable rattling from the engine there could be trouble brewing.
Which Model To Choose?
The Beetle enjoyed a steady process of upgrades throughout the ‘60s, starting in ’61 with an upgraded version of the 1.2-litre engine, better fuel permitting a higher compression ratio to unleash a mighty 34PS (25kW).
This 1200 was joined by 1300 and 1500 versions as the decade went on along with a number of other detail improvements. The big decision point, though, is whether to chase a more desirable pre-1968 model with the sloping headlights and slimmer bumpers or save a bit of money and opt for the updated later version distinguished by the US-style upright lights and chunkier bumper with the obvious black trim strip along its. middle.
Real purists will probably be after a pre-1965 one with the smaller side windows as well but, according to those in the know, the one you really want is the 1966 1300 for its combination of a revvier engine and lower gearing.
Failing that a 1967 1500 would also be a good pick for its combination of torquier power delivery, improved rear suspension and disc brakes combined with the rounder, old-school look.
Specifications: Volkswagen Beetle 1300 (1966)
1.3-litre four-cylinder petrol
51PS (37kW) @ 4,600rpm
90Nm (66.7lb ft) @ 2,500rpm
Four-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
1966 (overall post-war production 1945-2003)