Quick Drive: 1967 Volkswagen Beetle

By James Wong

I’m not going to pretend I am from the era of the 1960s. I appreciate the Beetle’s looks but I don’t know much about how it drives or how much the public loved it: I just wasn’t born when the car was in its heyday. In fact, featuring this car would be akin to driving a car that my grandfather would drive. Don’t for one second get the idea wrong, though: this is no pensioner’s automobile. As I discovered, this car would be better described as a machine. Being born into the age of modern cars with light power steering and a seemingly isolated capsule from the rest of the world, the Beetle was a refreshing take to how some metal and four wheels can actually interact with a human. To say it is raw would be about right.

The Beetle is synonymous with Volkswagen, created as a vehicle for the masses, so that families could get around in a car that could do about 60mph. It’s a shame then that my generation (those born in the 1990s) only knew about the Beetle as the one VW produces now. It is about as far removed from the original as it can possibly be: front-engined and front wheel drive as opposed to rear-engined and rear wheel drive for the original Beetle.

Coincidentally, VW is about to reveal its next generation Beetle in a couple of weeks, but I am not holding my breath. Nowadays, the Beetle appeals more to the young teenager generation who likes a flower in their cabin, just for the sake of it. Thankfully, I got to drive the 1300, which was a gentle reminder that VW once used to make a proper Beetle, one that actually involved the driver.

The 1300 4-cylinder isn’t the first flat-four I have driven – the Subarus have the honour of that – but it is definitely one of the most effervescent engines I have ever enjoyed. The throttle is predictably lazy; it being mounted on the floor also meant it was a departure from the usual ceiling-mounted pedal that I was used to. The clutch is nicely weighted, not particularly heavy to my pleasant surprise, and easy enough to balance to get the car moving.

Nothing quite encapsulates the experience when you move on the first few metres of tarmac. The engine is rather torque-light, so the car covers a lot less distance than you would imagine given the din that it was making, but it made up for it in character. Even while going slow, the car is genuinely involving. Mechanical is what I would describe it. You could feel nearly everything in this car. The gearbox feels a bit stubborn through the gears, but having only four it wasn’t much of a concern. You could almost feel the clutch disengaging the flywheel from the engine and then the gears going into place as I went into the next gear. Then the steering was completely unassisted, so steering it was rather comical. It’s been a while since I had driven a car with no power steering on the public road too, so that made it quite a workout for me. No kidding, I actually broke out in sweat steering the car.

The windscreen wipers and headlights had bespoke buttons that are things that you just don’t see nowadays. Heaving the car onto wider roads I gave the throttle slightly more push and the car doesn’t quite fly, but it just immerses you in the drive. Just imagine having the windows down, the exhaust throbbing from the two tiny steel pipes at the rear and the sun making the environment go ever so slightly sepia: it felt I had gone back in time and had the privilege to drive a car at a time when it was still a rarity.

So it’s a lot less about mechanical superiority but more of nostalgia of the past and how cars used to be. I genuinely feel that cars are becoming less and less of why we love them so much. We like them because the exhaust gives us a good feeling when we go a bit fast; we all deny it sheepishly, but it is true. We like them because we know it has gone through hours and hours of road testing to make sure it involves the driver and is fun to drive. We like them because it is quite unlike a house: it is an expression of man’s work on natural resources to create something so extraordinary; a car. I mentioned this to my friends that perhaps capture what I feel about a car: ‘It being able to move is a bonus.’

Nowadays, modern cars are softer, heavier, more cosseting, depersonalised and detached from the road. All working against why we like them in the first place.

So as I parked the car up in the grassy lawn, I contemplated its shape while taking some photos. What a wonderful looking machine. Nearly 50 years old now but it still looks good. Undeniably, some parts are not original 1967 parts (the car had some work done through its life), but by and large the car still looks like a triumph of human engineering. Now I know what made it so special.

Enjoy your old cars while they last.

Author: James Wong

The only writer to be based in Asia, James provides a refreshingly different perspective to the automotive industry with his unique experience of living in the Far East. He is a prolific journalist who has written for several leading automotive publications in Singapore, including Torque Singapore and REV Magazine Singapore. He believes in the thrill of driving and champions for an appreciation of driving pleasure above the horsepower race. In September 2010, James relocated to the United Kingdom, London, bringing him to a whole new environment from which to start a new chapter in automotive journalism.

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7 Comments

  1. Great article! And the pictures look amazing James. 🙂

  2. Those were the days. You’ve conjured up memories of my ’63 VW Beetle which I drove for three years in the early ’70s. It was a wonderful car. Aside from the ’30s ambiance, it was built like a tank. Nothing ever went wrong, and when it did, sometimes it just seemed to fix itself. Maybe I had fairies under the hood (trunk lid?). I have a 2008 VW Beetle now, which is a terrific car–but as you’ve pointed out in your article, it’s just not the same. It really only looks the same. But that magical driving experience got lost in translation. Thanks for the nostalgia.

  3. My dad had ’67 or ’68 black bug … I’m going to date myself here, but I seem to remember he was driving it about the time I was going into the first grade … my brother and I called it the “Batmobile” in honor of our favorite Caped Crusader.

  4. Great photos of an obviously-cherished VW Beetle.

    Of course, I owned one of these as well, but instead of a 1967, I owned a 1956 Beetle (not a misprint) which I bought in 1976, I believe. So it was 20 years old when I bought it. It was more spartan than this model, if you can believe it. And, again, going from memory, so I may not have this right, it had an 1100 cc engine in it which pumped out 33 hp. That’s gross horsepower, not net horsepower. I’m thinking it probably had somewhere around 25 net hp.

    I was a teenager and that is what I could afford at the time, but that car ran another 52,000 miles before the third cylinder in the flat four seized up. I got a lot of bang for the buck because I think I paid almost nothing for the car because the owner told me it had so many miles on it that it just couldn’t run that much longer.

    The tow truck driver bought the car from me for almost as much as I had paid for it 52,000 miles earlier (he had just wrecked a Beetle and taken a perfectly good engine out of it), and then I bought a 1967 Oldsmobile Toronado from a guy that had one leg, and, had just won the lottery.

    You can’t make this stuff up.

  5. Nice, but could someone borrow a pristine 1967 Oldsmobile Toronado and road test that? The car that Brendan Moore mentions is far more interesting to me than this car. Plus, it would be a nice little tribute to Bob Stempel, who recently passed away.

  6. hi . i am dr kashan . resident cardiologist . since i as a kid , i loved beetle so much and today i bought 1967 , ruby red, almost genuine in condition . so i am a vw owner now. this car reminds me when i was a kid, and the smell of heat out of its tyres and brakes …takes me to old times . whow. great machine by a great man.its manly and cute as well. but its more an art by an artist who painted in metal and oil. i say …those who love cars should have a classic beetle.

  7. I believe that is not a ’67. The ’67 did not have a gas filler on the outside, you had to lift the hood. The exterior fuel filler was introduced in ’68. On the ’67 there are two hoses connecting the air filter (one on each side). Also, no head rests on OG ’67. Correct me if I am wrong, but I believe we have a ’68 or so.

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