Monday, October 25, 2010

Road Test: 1971 Volkswagen Super Beetle

At last, a drive in a Bug that isn’t a rolling piece of Scheiße.

According to owner, and, judging by the way it looked/drove, this is probably the closest thing to a brand new 1971 Super Beetle available in the entire state at this point, if not the entire country. Bone stock in every way, right down the non-retractable seatbelts. My expectations were very high.

Which is why I was so disappointed. I had always assumed that my late mother’s 72 Bug (which, by the way, I have seen driving around every so often with its new owner) was so crappy feeling because it was old, worn out, and hadn’t been taken care of. Well, it turns out they felt like that when they were new, too. The closest thing I can liken it to is a 1940s farm tractor, which, if you think about it, is what the Type 1 really is. A Chevrolet Aveo is a Mercedes S-Class in comparison, and, amazingly, that is not even the slightest bit of an exaggeration.

It seems almost useless to make objective measurements in comparison to anything even vaguely modern, as the levels of unrefinement are so wildly off the charts. What bothered me the most was that, at any given time, it sounded and felt like the thrashy little engine was sitting right next to you. In the past, I’ve made snarky comments in my reviews of modern economy cars about how it seemed like there was no insulation anywhere on the body at all. With the Bug, there literally isn’t any insulation on the body at all. In all but steady cruising in 3rd or 4th gear, it is difficult to hold a conversation with the passenger sitting right next to you. I honestly couldn’t tell you if there was any road or wind noise, the damn engine was so ear-splittingly loud.

On the other hand, it did ride better than I expect, thanks to generously sized tires and a softly sprung suspension. The steering wasn’t half bad either, and despite being manual the effort was almost equivalent to an overboosted power unit you would find an old Lincoln. I can only assume this is due to there being almost zero weight over the front wheels, with both the engine and driveline being placed out back. The brakes… yikes. Manual, no-antilocks, coming to a stop was an event every time.

As a whole, driving just a couple blocks took an intense amount of effort. Rather than the car being an entire unit that effortlessly worked in harmony, each part of the driving experience – steering, brakes, clutch, throttle, shifter – had to be closely monitored and kept in check at all times. This is in contrast to most modern cars, where two of those variables are removed altogether and the other three are largely taken care of by the car itself, with only slight inputs from the driver. It really is a whole different world.

I can’t see how a car like this would make a plausible daily driver. If it took that much effort (and fear), to a go a mile or two, I can’t imagine what it must be like for thousands. At least it helped renew my appreciation for the technology we have now. I think I’ll leave this one to someone else, and admire it on the road and in parking lots rather than in my own driveway.


Martin van Duijn said...

It was a fine daily driver for many during the 1950s and 1960s, and compared well to many other cars people could choose from. I remember how my father always told what a challenge it was to drive his 1960 Opel up to 120 km/h.
A big advantage was Volkswagen's effortless winter use, always starting in the coldest of winters thanks to its air cooled engine. Servicing was easy, you could remove the entire engine in just 15 minutes.

But in the 1970s everything changed. Car engeneering took big steps forward, and the Beetle could not keep up. Its concept could probably not evolve any further, save for the 1303 Superbeetle with the curved windshield. After 1970, Volkswagen Beetle sales nosedived. I don't think there are many people who use 'm as a daily drivers in the western world today, but as a hobby car they are still very po[ular. A pristine 1303 convertible puts you back €10,000 here.

Andrew T. said...

The "farm tractor" description is an apt one! Consumer Reports once described the old Beetle as "1930s technology dragged through four decades" say that a modern car is leaps beyond in NVH reduction and technology is putting it mildly! I agree on the noise factor, as well: When I was a kid, I used to run for cover whenever a Beetle or Transporter drove by because the sound of the engine hurt my ears! I can only imagine what it would be like to have that flat-four air-cooled engine a panel's length away for hours on end.

The "People's Car" certainly wasn't without its virtues; although in retrospect, it's almost remarkable that the design lasted as long as it did. I'd love to drive one for the experience at least once in my life.

Mark Brown said...

Ah, but they'll go anywhere, and keep going anywhere... :D I think for most people today though it's just an image thing.

What you describe about having to constantly monitor every aspect of driving is pretty typical of the classic car experience! I enjoy that - it makes even going slow a lot more demanding, involving, and thus, in my opinion, fun - but I'm not so fond of it for a daily driver. Been there, done that, for 3/4 of a year! But the two days I had with the manual steering, manual brakes, manual everything Morgan, I enjoyed immensely!


Anonymous said...

My 40-something wife (who had previously never driven anything older than about 2-3 years) has a Super Beetle as her daily driver and loves it.

Some people like to be isolated from the driving experience and let a nearly-robotic device with no road feedback drive itself, and they just use one finger to guide it between the painted lines while yapping on their cellphones.

Then there are people who drive.

Pretty clear which group you fall into!