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The Volkswagen Beetle is a motoring phenomenon. In an unprecedented production span of over half a century, nearly 21 million examples have been produced making it a motoring experience shared by an unequalled proportion of the world's population.
This guide features some of the best-loved Beetle models as well as VW's other classics in the form of the Type 2 and Type 3. Karmann and Hebmuller vehicles complete the story which Classic VW.
The first export model Beetle was launched on 1st July 1949. Amongst its features were chrome grooved trim and bumpers, cable operated hood release and round horn grilles. The single most distinguishing feature however of these early Beetles was the split rear window, which was used up until March1953, after which it became oval.
The Karmann four-seater Cabiolet was introduced in 1949. Designed and produced by Karmann of Osnabruck, it remained in production right up until 1980, two years after the demise of the European sedan. Always based on the Export Beetle and in the main hand-finished, the model often carried a host of non-standard extras.
In March 1953 the central dividing rib in the rear window disappeared and the Beetle entered its "oval rear window" period, which lasted until 1958. 1954 saw the first increase in engine power for over ten years when capacity was raised from 1131cc to 1192cc. This was achieved by increasing the bore slightly from 75mm to 77mm. At the same time, the engine got larger inlet valves, compression as raised to 6:1 and the cylinder heads were redesigned. The result was a 5bhp increase in power output to 30bhp @ 3400 rpm and a slight increase in performance. The millionth Beetle was built in August 1955.
Produced by Josef Hebmuller and Son of Wulfrath, the type 14A as it was called was launched at the Geneva Salon in the Spring of 1949. A handsome two-seater convertible, the car's most striking aspect was that the rear deck looked like (and probably was to begin with) as if it had began life as a Beetle hood. Of 2000 cars originally ordered by VW, less than 700 were built, making the Hebmuller Cabriolet one of the rarest and most desirable of classic Volkswagens. One reason put forward for the model's lack of success was the launch of the Karmann four-seater version, which although not quite so good looking was much more practical.
Karmann Ghia Coupe
In 1955 VW sought a way of adding something special to the range and turned to an Italian styling house to design a "sporting" car based upon the Beetle floorpan. Ghia designed it whilst the Karmann Company manufactured the bodies and the result was the Karmann Ghia, a strikingly beautiful coachbuilt motorcar that has today become a "design classic".
Type 2 Transporter Campervan
1950 was an important year for Volkswagen. Production of the Beetle reached 100,000 units and a new plant was opened at Brunswick. It was also the year the Type 2 Transporter was introduced. Originally offered as a closed van or "Kombi" with removable seating and as an eight-seater bus, the model quickly established itself as a successful stablemate to the Beetle saloon. Production rates in five body styles (including a flatbed pick-up truck and an ambulance) reached more than 100,000 a year in 1957. The rear engine position for the Type 2 gave excellent weight distribution and a very clean front end with an inverted V pressed into the rounded prow. The split window and oval headlamps were a styling feature that remained until 1967.
VW's first real saloon car, the Type 3 was launched at the Frankfurt Motor Show in 1961 to a warm welcome from the motoring press. It was the first new production car to come out of Wolfsburg in ten years and soon gained the nickname of "Stuffenheck" or "Notchback". Intitially equipped with a 1493cc pancake engine, a top-of-the-range S model was introduced in late 1963. The S featured the twin carburettors, which raised the output to 54bhp and made 100mph possible. In addition to the Notchback, two other Type 3 models were later available. From 1962 the estate or Variant was announced (known as the "Squareback" in America) and from 1965 the sporty looking Fastback. A Karmann Ghia coupe version was also produced.
Karmann Ghia Convertible
By comparison to earlier cars, 1970's Karmann Ghia models featured larger frontal "nostrils" incorporating three slats and a subtly redesigned front end with higher placed headlamps. From 1970 the body was modified to incorporate new front flashers and larger rear lamp clusters. On the mechanical side, the Karmann Ghia kept pace with the Beetle. In 1961 it came with the 43bhp engine with all synchromesh gearbox and a 1300cc engine was offered for the first time in 1966, replaced a year later by the 1500cc with a semi-automatic gearbox on offer from 1968.
The year 1961 brought a new engine in the form of the 34bhp unit. With its raised compression ratio and new Solex 28 PICT carburettor, a 13% increase in power was achieved. This improved the top speed to 72mph and 0-50 to 17.7 seconds, a marked improvement on the previous model. Other improvements to the car included a windshield washer system, "quick check" brake fluid reservoir, and a redesigned fuel tank, which although had no extra capacity increased luggage space under the hood by 65%. Inside the car grab handles were introduced for the front seat passengers and longer seat runners allowed more leg-room.
New for 1967, the 1500 was another case of the factory following up on what engine tuners had already cottoned on to: the fact that the new 1500cc Camper Van Transporter engine would fit the Beetle. The new unit was more or less the 1300 with bore increased to 83mm to give 1493cc. Compression was up again at 75:1 and valves were bigger to give 44bhp @ 4000rpm. Top speed increased to 80mph and front disc brakes became standard on all 1500s. Externally, the car had altered little, although the engine cover had a shorter lid that appeared squarer at the bottom. The larger flat area at the bottom was to accommodate the larger licence plates required by some countries.
1302 Series Beetle
The 1302 Series, first seen in 1971, introduced the MacPherson strut front suspension giving Beetle owners some 85% more front luggage space. It was about this time that Volkswagen introduced the L and S suffix letters. L meant luxury, and L models therefore came with factory-fitted extras such as heated rare screens. S meant power. In 1971 the 1302S was fitted with the 1600cc power unit that had been introduced into the American market a year earlier and the 1302 came with the old 1300cc engine. The rest of the 1971 range was made up on the basic 1200 and 1300 models, and in the USA a 1600. After 27 years of continuous production saw the Beetle break the Model T Ford production record when the 15,007,034th Beetle left the line.
1303 Series Beetle
As radical as it had been in setting a new style for the seventies, the 1302 Beetle was short lived for 1973 saw the launch of the 1303 Series. Specifically geared to the American market, the body had been restyled yet again and brought in a huge curved windshield, shortened hood and restyled rear fenders with the addition of the biggest rear lights ever fitted to a Beetle. There were four versions, two 1300cc engined - the 1303 and 1303L, and two 1600cc ones - the 1303S and 1303SL. Also, in 1974 an economy model was added to the range named the 1303A with a 1200cc engine and basic trim.