It seems extraordinary that in 1949, the success of the Beetle was built on Volkswagen’s principle of doing the exact opposite of what U.S. car manufacturers deemed necessary for their success. At a time when it was standard practice for U.S. carmakers to completely redesign their product every two or three years, Volkswagen purposely minimized changes and–in effect–grew an allegiance of American owners who appreciated the Beetle for its simplicity and dependability.
Ferdinand Porsche designed the Volks-Wagen, or “peoples’ car”, under orders by Adolf Hitler in the early 1930s. Hitler’s plan was to provide a vehicle for the masses that was reasonable in price, could accommodate two adults and three children, and have a top speed of 100km/h (or 62mph). The Third Reich financed the development, prototypes were built, and by 1939 a handful of cars were produced before the war started. Production came to a halt, and the factory used to assemble the Beetle was now building military vehicles. After the war ended, allied forces needed a means of transportation while still occupying Germany. Orders were given to produce the Beetle for the allied troops. Many returning U.S. soldiers who had been stationed in Germany remembered the Beetle with fondness.
The Beetle was first imported to the United States in 1949. Priced at $1,280 and available as a two-door sedan or convertible, the car was a hard sell–only two cars sold that first year. However, the returning soldiers had a soft spot for this unique little car, and slowly sales increased in subsequent years. The car was light and agile but bland looking, quite small, and some would even say downright ugly. Its 30-horsepower, rear mounted, air-cooled engine provided a top speed of about 63 mph, much less than the typical domestic car at the time.
Early Beetles had few comfort features. Air conditioning and an automatic transmission wouldn’t make it to the option list for years to come. The intent of the Beetle was to provide a simple, yet dependable car for the masses; one that would get excellent fuel economy and be cheap to own. Volkswagen was determined to make design changes only when it would make the car better or safer, but not necessarily better looking.
Hydraulic brakes replaced mechanical brakes in 1950. Vent windows, dual taillights, and a fully synchromesh four-speed manual transmission were added in 1952. For 1953, a larger one-piece rear window replaced the dual oval rear windows for improved rear visibility. Horsepower was increased from 30 to 36 in 1954. The only change for 1955 was separate flashing directional signals on the front fenders.
By 1956, the Beetle had evolved into somewhat of a cult with customers waiting two to four months to get a car–and for those who did own one, they loved driving it. Very few changes occurred during the 1956 model year. Chromed dual tailpipes replaced a single pipe, and wider, adjustable front seatbacks were added. The rear seats were repositioned to give two inches of additional rear seat space. Other changes included taillights that were moved two inches higher in the rear fenders for improved visibility, and a redesigned gas tank that yielded improved trunk space. The sunroof material was changed from cloth to plastic. Its body, however, remained the same. Performance remained incredibly slow, the car provided few comfort features, and surprisingly, the car still did not have a gas gauge. But it did not matter–the Beetle had found a niche that the public loved.
Today, owning a vintage Volkswagen Beetle is like owning a vintage horse and buggy. It is not the fastest or most comfortable thing to ride in, but it demands respect from those who appreciate its uniqueness.
Fuel For Thought
VW sold 395,690 Beetles in 1956, and 21,529,464 total
Taillamps were moved up in 1956 for improved visibility
Tubeless tires were added
Don’t think about winning a drag race
Number built – 395,690
Construction – Unibody
Engine – 73 cubic-inch, horizontally opposed, air-cooled 4-cylinder
Power/Torque – 72 cubic-inch 4-cylinder, 36 horsepower, 56 lb-ft torque
Transmission – Four-speed manual
Suspension front – Independent, longitudinal trailing arms and square-section torsion bars
Suspension rear – Independent, swing-axle shafts with training arms and round torsion bar
Steering – Worm and roller
Brakes – Four-wheel drum
Length/width/height – 160.2/60.6/59.1 inches
Wheelbase – 94.5 inches
Weight – 1,565 lbs.
0-60mph/quarter mile – 28 seconds, 23.2 seconds at 56 mph (Road & Track, October 1956)
Top speed – 70.2 mph
MPG – 32 mpg
Price – MSRP - $1,495; Today – $5,200 - $15,500
Insurance cost is $132/year for a $9,500 1956 Volkswagen Beetle. This is based on 3,000 miles per year of pleasure driving.
*Based on a quote from Heacock Classic Car Insurance, www.heacockclassic.com
Engine – The 73 cubic-inch engine was the lifeblood of the Beetle. Designed in the 1930s and used for decades, this was the “little engine that could.” From its humble U.S. beginnings with 30 horses, the Beetle engine continued to be refined with outstanding results. The two major complaints from owners were the lack of power, and poor heater performance.
Handling – Handling was, for the most part, excellent for a car of its caliber. The Beetle was light in weight, and the independent suspension worked well with the Volkswagen’s weight and wheelbase configuration. The Beetle did, however, tend to oversteer due to a large percentage of its weight being over its rear wheels.
Alternative: 1956 Renault 4CV
Number built – 127,201
0-60/quarter mile – 32 seconds est., 24.6 seconds at 52.1 mph
Top speed – 63 mph
Price – MSRP - $1,295; Today – $5,000 - $11,800
Alternative: 1956 Citroen 2CV
Number built – 95,864
0-60/quarter mile – 45 seconds est., 37.6 seconds at 53 mph
Top speed – 63 mph
Price – MSRP – N/A; Today – $1,000 - $15,000
Parts readily available
Easy to work on
Difficult to find early Beetles
Cramped interior space
Vintage Beetles are typically driven on weekends and to local shows. Few are trailered to events. Owners enjoy the driving experience and response from people who appreciate the uniqueness of the Beetle.
What to pay
1956 Volkswagen Beetle
MSRP – $1,495
Low – $5,200
Average – $9,500
High – $15,500
*Based on prices from the Classic Cars and Parts Price Guide, fueled by NADA and available wherever Classic Cars and Parts magazines are sold.
Right rear fender $199.95
Rocker panel $29.95
Front carpet $103.95
Inner tie rod $14.95
Master cylinder $23.95
*Based on information from Bug City Auto Parts,
Volkswagen Beetle (Model by Model) by L. Meredith
VW Beetle–a Collector’s Guide by Jonathan Wood
How to Restore a Volkswagen Beetle (Enthusiast’s Restoration Manuals) by Jim Tyler
Small Wonder: The Amazing Story of the Volkswagen Beetle by Walter Henry Nelson
The Beetle, while underpowered and with styling that many consider bland at best, today has a following that stretches worldwide. While driving a vintage Beetle is a somewhat of a chore, the rewards are well worth the effort. The downside of driving a car with little power is overshadowed by the fun of owning a vintage VW. Another plus is the affordability of purchasing one.