1954 Volkswagen Type 1 Beetle - Kiwi Bug
Volkswagen has recently retired the Beetle nameplate so we thought it timely to check out an early, New Zealand-assembled bug. And this one might be the only one of its kind in the world
The Beetle officially died in July, Volkswagen finally killing off the nameplate as sales dwindled to a trickle. For aficionados, the Beetle, or Type 1 as they probably prefer to call it, died long ago however. That was back in June 2003 when the last Type 1, number 21,529,464, rolled off the line in Mexico.
Despite its unconventional design, the Beetle was a raging success, reaching peak popularity in 1971 when 1.3 million of them were made around the world. It would continue to be produced in Germany up until 1978, four years after VW finally produced a viable successor in the Golf.
The origins of the Beetle stretch right the way back to Ferry Porsche’s Type 12 concept of 1931. It later transpired he may have ‘borrowed’ the idea for the layout but history records him as the father of the Beetle, while Uncle Adolf nurtured its development.
Hitler’s grand plan was to mobilise the German nation and so commissioned Porsche to develop a car that everyone could afford. This would see that original concept evolve in to the Type 1 Volkswagen, the brand name a Nazi party idea, literally translating to ‘people’s car’. More prototypes were made in the mid-30s, and a few customer cars were produced before Hitler decided on a more sinister mobilisation plan. Volkswagen production was militarised with all vehicles leaving the factory in the direction of Poland. After the war, Ford famously passed on the opportunity to take over the VW factory, with a company advisor quoted as saying “What we’re being offered here, Mr. Ford, isn’t worth a damn!” It’s worth quite a bit now though.
The Brits took control of what was left of the bombed out factory in 1945 and it was again operational after they removed an unexploded allied ordnance that would have otherwise destroyed much of the machinery responsible for tooling the Type 1. They managed to make a handful of Type 1s that same year and 10,000 each in 1946 and 1947.
Thanks to the economic stimulus of the Marshall Plan, 20,000 were made in 1948 and by 1951, Beetle production topped 90,000 for the year with a third of those for export. By 1953, the 500,000th Beetle had been made, and it was this year the split rear window became an oval while completely knocked down kits were being sent around the world for assembly, including New Zealand.
This 1954 Type 1 is an early Kiwi car. Assembly of these Volkswagens was first conducted by Jowett Motors in Otahuhu from 1954. The company was renamed VW Motors in 1955, and in 1958, it was moved to a new factory on Fort Richard Road, where Beetles were made up until 1972, the 1302 Super being the last.
One significant change for the 1954 Type 1 was an increase in cylinder bore, bumping displacement up from 1131 to 1192cc. Along with a redesigned crankshaft to get it spinning more efficiently, horsepower swelled 20 per cent from 30 to 36 (27kW). You might be wondering why this car only has one exhaust pipe - the twin pipes weren’t a feature until 1956. The brake lights on a ‘54 are peculiar with a heart-shaped lens sitting on top of the light housing, meaning you can’t actually see them in action from behind while the semaphore-style turn signals flick out from the B pillar.
The Volkswagen was fairly basic motoring; even a fuel gauge was an accessory. The only way to check the level was to dip a stick into the tank (located under the hood up front). This particular car is fitted with a trio of optional accessory dials, including a fuel gauge, although the dip stick method is more reliable we’re told.
Accompanying the car is a folder full of its history. According to the Certificate of Registration, the first owner of AX4838 was Robert Banks of Avondale in 1954, its make being recorded as a Volkswagen 14hp. And at the time, it mattered whether the tyres were solid or pneumatic, being one of the few details listed on the document.
Banks owned the car until 1994, and it’s had four other owners since, mainly Volkswagen enthusiasts who understand the significance of it. Current custodian, Andrew Bayliss, reckons it might well be the only Type 1 in existence painted this particular colour from the factory. The metallic maroon he says was a Jowett-specific hue, a rarity at the time, and he doesn’t know of any other still around in New Zealand. He’s claiming it as a one of a kind, and who are we to argue?
The ownership folder has just about every receipt ever generated in its upkeep. It’s a little treasure trove of history. It underwent a big job in 1967 when it must have suffered a catastrophic malfunction requiring a new camshaft, an overhaul of the cylinder heads and new big end sets, amongst other things. The cost to replace a rear brake drum in 1968 came to $9.08, half of that in parts, the other in labour. And that was all there was to pay since GST was still 18 years off being implemented.
In 1974, it had insurance coverage for $600, the premium being $44 thanks to AA Mutual. A warrant was $2.50 from a testing station in 1976 while car rego was expensive even back then, at $27.60. It was cheap to post a letter though, a 1977 postmark records the cost at 10 cents. The Beetle received a new stainless steel exhaust in 1984 costing the princely sum of $459, while a service invoice from 1994 indicated that 3.5 hours of labour was only $97.50, which would buy you a bit over half an hour now.
The original VW brochure is present, the picture of the Deluxe Sedan model having £795 handwritten next to it, suggesting the price in 1954. Some of the standout features of the car according to the brochure included the ‘short, gracefully plunging VW hood’ which they reckoned ‘increases driving safety by permitting an unobstructed view of the road almost up to the front wheels.’ And there is quite a view from the driver’s seat. The fact that your face is literally a foot from the windscreen helps.
The driving position isn’t cramped despite the only adjustment for the seat being fore and aft. Its floor hinged pedals are aren’t particularly easy to operate, at least smoothly, and neither is the tiny roller wheel accelerator. The four-speed manual lacks syncro on first so it only slots in when you’re at a complete halt, but it otherwise still changes fairly smoothly. Its 1192cc ohv air-cooled four fires into life relatively easily despite a six-volt system doing the cranking.
But then the four is only running 6.6:1 compression to net it the 36 SAE certified horsepower. The downdraught Solex carb fuels it smoothly and the engine is famous for comfortably cruising at its maximum speed. And this will still cruise along at an indicated 65-ish mph, the engine happily chugging away feeling totally unstressed yet unable to give any more. The weight of the Beetle is listed at 710kg, so it doesn’t take much persuasion to push it along.
We didn’t think there was much in the way of in-gear pull in fourth, but we discovered this is overdriven, so any incline requires third at least. The old girl still rides well thanks to that torsion bar suspension, dubbed Torsi-o-Matic, with the swinging half axles and torsion springs on the rear giving it an all around independent set-up.
Considering its small wheelbase, it has a genuinely compliant, settled ride at 100km/h. The worm gear steering has just 2.4 turns lock to lock, yet it’s lightweight on the move, requiring very little effort to turn. It’s a bit slack around centre but there’s a feel for the road in corners, while it filters the bumps well. With that swing axle and the lump in the back, you can feel the weight transfer in the rear through bends and the roll oversteer is amusing in the tighter turns.
As we head into a new decade, VW is ready to mobilise the world again, with battery-driven vehicles its next big push.
But will the iD range of cars be as influential as the Type 1? Not likely, given everyone is clambering on the bandwagon.