An Old VW For Everyday Driving?

By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist

My friend Dom asked me the other night what I thought about getting an old VW to replace his modern car as his everyday driver. He hasn’t owned an old Beetle before. I have owned two — and drove one of them (a ’73 Super Beetle) in DC traffic (the Ultimate Test) as my everyday commuter for several years back in the early ’90s. Here are some thoughts about the pros — and cons — of driving an old Beetle as an everyday car:

The Pros:

Even today, old Beetles are still pretty cheap to buy. No doubt, prices have gone up (I paid $700 for my ’73 circa 1991) but relative to the cost of buying a new (or even recent vintage used) car, they are still very low. The sweet spot for a solid “driver” — which means, basically sound (it might need a tune-up, or minor brake work, but not major engine or transmission repairs) and with a decent (not rusted out, structurally sound) body — seems to be in the vicinity of $3,000-$5,000 dollars.

If you watch Craigs list like a hungry vulture — and keep your “car-dar” on for opportunities locally — you may still able to snap one up for less than $3,000. (I’ve seen one in my area recently that looked good with an “1,800 or best offer” sign on the windshield.)

You’ll pay more for a convertible, of course — and a lot more for a restored example. But solid, get-in-and-drive ’em Bugs are still obtainable for about what you’d pay for a high-miles, 8-10 year-old used economy car. And the upside is that unlike a high-miles, 8-10 year-old used economy car, an old Beetle is not reaching the end of its economically viable life. Because they are simple, basic cars — without computers, without elaborate emissions controls — they can be kept running at reasonable cost almost indefinitely — the chief limitation being the body (which is vulnerable to rust) rather than the drivetrain. This is the opposite of modern cars, which may not rust out for decades but which can become junkyard fodder when cost-prohibitive drivetrain repairs (usually related to the electronics or emissions systems) render the car not worth fixing.

Related to the above is you won’t have to worry about emissions inspections — which in most states aren’t required of cars more than 21-25 years old. The last new Beetles were sold (in the U.S.) in 1979 — almost 35 years ago. And even if your state still requires that a car pass “smog” in order to register it/keep the tags valid, you won’t have to spend $500 on a new catalytic converter (or $1,000 on major engine repairs) to do so. Usually, adjusting the timing and cleaning the carb — maybe a new set of plugs — will do the trick. Shouldn’t cost you more than $25 — or take you more than half an hour.

The Beetle will not depreciate.

Unlike almost any new or late-model used car, whatever you pay for your Beetle today, you’ll probably be able to get back two or three (or five or seven) years from now, should you decide to sell. Beetles are classics. Their value has plateaued — or increased. Only if you seriously abuse a Beetle and render it in obviously worse shape than it was when you got it will it be worth significantly less than what you paid for it.

This makes it a true investment — unlike almost anything new, which will lose value every day you own it.

It will cost you next to nothing to insure a Beetle — assuming you go for the bare minimum legally mandated liability-only policy. I am assuming you’ll pay cash, of course — which is another money-saver all by itself, since it means no car payments every month. You may have to spend $30 here, $15 there every once in a while for things like a fan belt or a new set of plugs. But recurrent — and significant — monthly drains on your wallet will be a thing of the past.

A Beetle can be easily — and for the most part — cheaply maintained by its owner. If not by its owner, then by any competent independent mechanic, whose services ought to cost you a fraction of dealership hourly rates.

This, perhaps, is the Beetle’s biggest draw.

Assuming you get one that’s mechanically sound, the car’s routine maintenance requirements are extremely basic. You can, for example, change the oil with nothing more than a crescent wrench. It is not even necessary to jack the car up. There are just four spark plugs and a single fan belt — all easily accessed with very basic tools. Being air-cooled, there is no radiator to worry about, no coolant leaks to sweat, no thermostats to get stuck, no water pumps to fail. Replacing brake pads/shoes is simple (and cheap). Ditto tires — which are not “low profile” mounted on fancy aluminum rims, but el cheapos fitted to durable, inexpensive 15×6 steel wheels. I just checked Tire Rack and they stock a set of 165/80-15 tires (factory size) for $272 ($68 each). See here. That’s cheap, chief.

The one hassle with old Beetles, maintenance-wise, is checking/adjusting the points in the distributor — which you’ll need to do about once every six months or so if the car is driven regularly. But by now, many old Beetles will have been updated with a conversion kit that eliminates the points. If your particular car hasn’t been, you can buy the kit (about $100; see here and here) and install it yourself in about 10 minutes — again, with basic hand tools. I have done this job several times; it’s very easy. Anyone who can remove/install a doorknob can handle it.

Beetles are great in the snow.

Though rear-wheel-drive, the Beetle is a tough little dude in the snow because of two things: Its air-cooled engine sits on top of the rear wheels, and its tires are skinny and tall. The weight pushes the skinny tires right through the snow, like pizza cutters through a Sicilian deep-dish pie. I’ve driven Beetles in blizzards. They are almost as good as a 4WD truck.

And, finally:

Beetles are fun. There’s a reason this basic,unassuming little car remains hugely popular decades after the last one was sold new. They are spunky and pugnacious — like a Boston Terrier — and just as easy to love. They are an end-run around the American sickness of acquisitiveness and a thumb in the eye of class-consciousness. Everyone — anyone — can drive a Beetle and not look or feel silly doing it.

They also offer a return to sanity, A to B transpo-wise. Instead of being chained to a perpetual debt machine, you’ll have money for other things in life.

The Cons:

The Beetle is slow

Really slow. If you’ve never driven one, you ought to — you must — drive a Beetle before you buy one. To be certain you can deal. A modern car is considered pokey if it takes 10 seconds to get to 60. The slowest new cars get to 60 in about 12 seconds.

A Beetle takes about twice as long.

It also tops out around 90 MPH — that’s a Super Beetle, with an 1800 CC engine and a tailwind. On mostly flat roads, it can maintain 70 or so MPH. But it will be obviously working hard to do it. And it will be noisy. The Beetle does not have a modern car’s five or six-speed transmission. There are just four forward gears. (A crude two-speed automatic was available; do not even consider buying a car so equipped. It’s not merely slow. It’s paralytic.)

The upside to having just four forward speeds is you do want the engine (which, remember, is air-cooled) to be running at fairly high RPM on the highway — because that means the engine-driven fan will be spinning faster, helping to keep the engine from overheating. But the lack of a modern transmission’s deep overdrive gearing in fifth or sixth also means the engine will feel (and sound) a lot “busier” at even 60 MPH than a modern car (including modern economy cars) would at 70 or even 80.

There is also not much in the way of reserve power. A Beetle chugging along at 70 is close to maxxed out. A Beetle attempting to pass a Clover doing 63 is a Beetle facing a challenge. A Beetle ascending a grade will probably not be able to maintain speed with the traffic around it. Be ready to move right — and be passed yourself. Much of the Beetle’s slowness can be compensated for by the art of maintaining momentum. But this requires an expert driver — not a cell phone gabbler. If that’s you, a Beetle is probably not for you.

Not as an everyday car, anyhow.

Beetles do not have amenities — including heat.

That’s not technically true, of course. The VW has an elaborate system of forced hot air directed by the engine cooling fan through a system of ducts and controlled by driver-operated levers. If all the ductwork is intact, if all the cables and so on are operating properly — you will get adequate (but rarely toasty) warmth. Usually, however, something’s not quite right.The tinwork around the engine is leaking. The air ducts on either side of the engine are loose — or have tears. Cables are seized up. The various air doors/channels within the system are rusted out. Result? The hot air stream is minimal — or it is suffused with oil fumes from the engine.

The defroster rarely works well. Ditto the windshield wipers. I kept an old rag in the glovebox to wipe down the interior glass as I drove — and an old credit to scrape ice off the windshield in winter (while I drove, from inside the car). You’ll want to bundle up.

No T-shirts in January.

Forget AC. Some Beetles have it (it was usually added by the dealer or an aftermarket shop). But you do not want it. It taxes the Beetle’s already marginal power reserves — and it makes the engine much more prone to overheating. Also forget: Power options, including windows, locks and cruise control. You will, however, have a fuel gauge and a speedometer. Plus a red light for the generator and another for the oil pressure.

The brakes are terrible. By modern car standards. Drums all around — maybe discs up front, if you buy a later-model Super Beetle There is no ABS to keep you from skidding into the car ahead of you if you failed to maintain an adequate following distance and he stops abruptly — or you’re driving too fast for conditions. If you have never driven a car without ABS, you will want to educate yourself about the lost art of threshold braking, about how to steer into a skid — and so on.

Gas mileage is not a strong point. Beetles average about 25 MPG — and low 30s on the highway. In the ’60s and ’70s, when Beetle popularity was at high tide, that was excellent — roughly twice as economical to drive as a V-8 (or even six-cylinder) car of the era. But today, a V-8 powered Corvette gets about the same mileage overall as the Beetle — courtesy of the ‘Vette’s overdrive transmission, fuel-injected engine and other modern advances.

They rust. It is common to find old Beetles in need of new floorpans and sometimes much more. Even if you buy a solid one, if it is driven in winter and exposed to road salt it is likely you’ll be dealing with rust eventually. It is imperative to thoroughly check any prospect for rot that must be repaired — structural areas and floorpans. (Be sure to lift the back seats and check underneath. The battery is mounted there and this is a common area for rust problems as a result). Sometimes, rusted panels can be repaired at reasonable cost. Other times, not. Know which you’re dealing with before the car you’re looking at becomes your car.

In sum:

Be honest with yourself. Beetle ownership can be rewarding, but it will also require more from you in the way of patience and personal comfort than you may able to handle.

Know the car’s limits — and yours.

If you’re interested in learning more about the Beetle — or just interested in a good read — I highly recommend How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive: A Manual of Step-By-Step Procedures for the Compleat Idiot, by John Muir (see here). This classic work has been around almost as long as Beetles have — and may be partly responsible for that. It’ll tell you what you need to know — and how to deal with almost anything that might come up — in the event you join the fraternity and become a Beetle owner yourself.


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