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.