Six steps to buying a Volkswagen Beetle Buying Guide How to bag yourself the best German-built Volkswagen Beetle in a world of ‘veedubbers’ and suspect modifications
What to pay
1 Largely, the earlier a car the greater its value. Split-windows fetch £25k for the best, with projects fetching £7500.
2 Oval-window cars range from £4250 to £18,750, with £10-12k for something tidy and usable.
3 ‘Sloper’ projects can be had for under £2k, with the best of the 1300 and 1500 models making £14k; 1200s command 10-20% less.
4 Post-’1967 12-volt Beetles top out around £12k, with usable cars from £3250 and projects from £1400.
5 Add 25-40% for cabrios to the above
The Volkswagen Beetle is more than just a car. It represents a movement, with followers as fiercely devout as you’ll find for any classic. Values have never been higher – but they’ve at least stopped rising for now, which makes this a good time to pounce, because demand is still strong for good, unmodified cars. The market for those is fast regaining ground over the modifiers who have long dominated the world of ‘vee-dubs’.
‘Values have never been higher – but they’ve at least stopped rising for now, which makes this a good time to pounce’
Beetles are such a big subject that this guide focuses on the German-built ‘torsion-bar’ cars – which still accounts for more than 30 years of production. To bring you this guide we’ve pooled the knowledge of Charles Oldroyd and Andy Axnix, chairman and technical advisor of the Historic Volkswagen Club, plus Peter Shaw at VW Aircooled Works.
Which one to choose?
Split-window: this designation refers to these cars’ two-piece rear screen. Produced from 1945, but the first didn’t reach the UK until ’1947 and any pre-’1949 cars are rare here and highly prized (and priced), with no right-hand drive examples before February ’1952.
There’s only 25bhp from the 1131cc flat-four engine – this needs to be borne in mind before you make a commitment because the 66mph top speed requires a patient outlook on life. Suspension is all-independent, brakes are drums and electrics six-volt. A cabriolet was available from July 1949. Around 420,000 were built.
Oval-window: from March 1953 the rear window became a larger one-piece item, but there was no engine boost until 1954, when capacity grew to 1192cc and higher compression contributed to a better but still gentle 30bhp. Around the same time the front torsion bars were changed to improve the ride. Approximately 1.2 million were built.
‘Sloper’: this is an unofficial name referring to the headlamps for the updated Beetle introduced in August 1957. It also had a much larger and more rectangular rear window along with a larger windscreen. Power was increased to 34bhp from July 1960 from a revised engine that retained the same 1200cc capacity, with an all-synchromesh gearbox fitted at the same time. All windows were enlarged in July 1964, then from August 1965 a 40bhp, 1285cc model was added to the range, with a 1300 boot badge. It was joined a year later by the 1500 – its 1493cc engine producing 44bhp, and with disc brakes on the front.
‘12-volt’: big changes arrived from August 1967 with US-legislated upright headlamps, bigger bumpers and 12-volt electrics at last. The engine choice remained 1200/1300/1500 until the MacPherson strut-suspended 1302 Beetles were introduced in 1970, when the larger unit was dropped for torsion bar cars. The MacPherson-strut were cars dropped from mid-July 1975, but the torsion-bar cars continued until 1978 in Germany with 1200 and 1600 engines.
Body and structure
Cosmetic rust will be easy enough to spot, and largely straightforward to repair – but there are areas on a Beetle to be concerned about and check carefully. The key areas are the heater channels that run along the edge of the floorpan on both sides. Rust here is accelerated by condensation, and bubbling at the base of the quarter-panels behind the doors is not just cosmetic – it’s a clue to issues with the adjacent heater channels. Patch repairs to the channels are possible, but far from ideal. To do a proper repair you need to take the body off the floorpan and you are talking about a couple of thousand pounds in all.
Beetles are also prone to rust in the spare wheel well, which is tricky to repair properly, so always take the wheel out for a proper look. Then push down on – or even stand on – the bumpers near the mounting irons. A good car will easily take the latter, but if there’s any movement it means rot around where the bumper irons mount and several hundred pounds to put it right, depending on how bad it has got.
Then take the rear seat out and check the area around the battery tray. Any leaks from rear window seals tend to collect here and feed rust. A new tray is easy enough to fit – there are replacement panels available for around £15 from VW Heritage – but you also need to track down and cure the source (or multiple sources) of water ingress or you’ll be back to square one quite soon. It will at least mean a new set of window rubbers. Also bear in mind that the crossmember behind the battery tray is structural. Charles Oldroyd’s adage is, ‘Buy a solid base and deal with cosmetics later – as long as the price is right.’
‘Lowered suspension is popular, but makes a Beetle handle like a three-legged donkey’
The other common area of corrosion are the heat exchangers, which collect exhaust heat to send up the heater channels mentioned above. There’s nothing structural about these, but new ones will cost around £500 including fitting, so you’d want that knocked off the price of an otherwise good car. The easy way to tell if there’s a problem is to turn the heater on full – if you can smell oil or exhaust in the cabin they’re toast.
There’s an important change-over point to note – July 1960. Either side of this are ‘early’ or ‘late’ 1200 engines, and few parts are interchangeable between them. The new engine had much improved power and quietness, and was introduced the previous year in the Type 2 Transporter. It’s important to know the difference because parts for the earlier engines are scarcer and more expensive, though mostly still available.
Engines are pretty sturdy and last well if looked after – 300,000 miles is not unheard of – but anything can wear out. The first sign of trouble is usually a line of oil around the engine bay, having been thrown outwards by the crank pulley. On a car being offered for sale, it can be just as telling if this area is significantly cleaner than the rest of the engine bay where someone’s been busy removing the oil with a cloth. If you are in any doubt, grab the crank pulley with both hands and try rocking it in and out. Any clonking means wear, which in turn means an engine rebuild is on the cards.
The 1966 1300 represents a sweet spot in the annals of Beetle production. But with so many of them built, there’s a Bug for every taste and price range. Distinctively spartan interior is simple to restore and home to one of the vaguest gearchanges in the motoring world. Air-cooled flat-four engines are simple if idiosyncratic, and removable with a few tools and a trolley jack, but check the crank pulley. The cult of customising Beetles has a long history, but well looked-after original examples like this unrestored 1966 1300 are becoming more desirable.
You never know exactly what will be uncovered, but allow at least £1000 for a rebuild, or more on an early engine. Specialists offer rebuilt later 1200s off-the-shelf for around £1300, though you will then lose any ‘matching numbers’ status, which goes against the growing move towards originality.
Gearboxes are generally tough, and are one of the car’s stronger features. They are not indestructible though, so beware of them jumping out of gear, especially reverse. That may not be a disaster because it can be caused by a worn gearbox mounting. If so, you’ll be able to see the exhaust tailpipes moving up and down when the car pulls away – get the seller to do that while you watch. A new mount is a simple job.
If it’s not that, then the ’box needs a rebuild or replacement. The bad news is that some gearbox parts are currently hard to find, as are good secondhand units. Expect to spend upwards of £1200 on a rebuild, plus fitting. Juddering when changing gear will either be a weak clutch or oil leaking onto the plate. It’s an engine-out job but neither problem is expensive to fix.
All pretty straightforward with no parts issues, but Charles Oldroyd cautions against cars with lowered suspension, ‘It is very popular, but bad for several reason – it makes a Beetle handle like a three-legged donkey, and the camber angle change it brings at the rear accelerates tyre wear and wrecks wheel bearings. Walk away unless you are really after that look.’
Until 1967 all Beetles had six-volt electrics, which means most of the interesting ones. They are notorious for poor lights and starting. As Charles Oldroyd points out, ‘Poor connections and ageing components can easily cause a 1.5-volt drop, which is insignificant on a 12-volt car, but amounts to 25% on a six-volt one. It’s something you have to keep on top of.’ Some people convert their Beetles to 12v, but this is a lot of work and has to be done right. Oldroyd adds, ‘You can’t just put a 12v starter motor on a 6v car – it’ll be noisy and will eventually destroy the teeth on the flywheel. If it has been done, make sure a specialist was involved.’
Owning a VW Beetle
Nigel Wallace, Sutton Coldfield
‘My current Beetle is a 1966 1300 that I’ve owned for five years. I’d known this car for some time because I’ve been Membership Secretary of the Historic Volkswagen Club for 15 years. Along with the ’67 1500, these are widely regarded as the best years for Beetles. ‘It’s an all-original 53,000-mile car that has never been restored. I only add a few hundred miles a year. Since I bought it the biggest job has been a new set of dampers – £29.95 each from VW Heritage. Other than that, I’ve replaced a couple of fraying cables and the plug leads. Servicing has all been DIY, and costs around £50 a year in parts. I use SAE30 oil. They cost next to nothing to run if you start with a good one.’
Andy Axnix, Bradford
‘I’ve had Beetles since 1983, buying older cars each time. I’ve owned a 1955 oval-window model for the last ten years. It was resprayed around 15 years ago in its original one-year-only colour of Metallic Ultramaroon. I’ve had to do very little over the years apart from routine maintenance. I got the vinyl front seats re-stitched and had some damaged panels on them replaced using donor seats I bought at a VW show. I also renewed the entire brake system – master cylinder, wheel cylinders, pipes and hoses, brake cables, shoes and springs – all for less than £300.
‘Following a foray recently into British classics, I can honestly say a Beetle can beat most of them hands down, in particular with its superb engineering and build quality.’
Robert Meekings, Shipley
I bought my first Beetle, a 1972 1300, in 1976. Since then I’ve owned at least 25 Beetles. My current and only Beetle is a 1978 1200L Last Edition, which I bought from its first owner nearly ten years ago. It’s an unrestored example still with only 33,000 miles on the clock. ‘It’s never been a daily driver so costs of maintenance and repairs have been minimal. Regular engine oil changes are important, but this isn’t expensive because the oil capacity is only 2.5 litres with no screw-on oil filter to change, just an oil strainer gauze to wash out in petrol. Nowadays the combined exhaust/heat exchanger system can be pricey to renew but my system is still good after ten years in use. The 15in tyres are becoming harder to find and more expensive to replace but then Beetles don’t wear out their tyres quickly. The 1192cc, 34bhp engine will return 40mpg on a run. Spare parts and repair panels, both new and used, are in plentiful supply.’
Sponsored by Carole Nash insurance
’In the main the values of VW Beetles in the last 10 years have remained pretty static with a slight upward curve,’ says Peter McIlvenny of specialist classic car insurer Carole Nash. ‘The biggest value increases have been in the earliest models, and those with split or oval rear windows. In the next year or so I believe the Seventies models will offer the best return on investment. Top performers would be special editions such as the Jeans series, and the 1978 Last Edition cars with a numbered plaque, but originality is key. If you like getting your hands dirty, buying a cheaper modified version, with a view to returning to stock – in many cases it would not be too much of a challenge.’
Contact 0333 005 7541 or carolenash.com/specialist-vehicle
1966 Volkswagen Beetle De Luxe – £14,995
Left-hand-drive. Registered on 1 August 1966, the first day of production of the 1967 model year. Body 100% rust free. Original 1500 engine rebuilt less than 3000 miles ago. Supplied with original sales invoice and service books/documents, plus all of the maps the first owner used to tour Europe before shipping it to the USA, where it spent most of its life. Full service history since arriving in the UK in 2011.