Unique? Maybe not, but the vintage VWs are definitely special

Brendan McAleer

Any number of cars are special because they are rare, but it takes something truly exceptional to be both common and still charming.

This 1956 Volkswagen Type 1 is exactly that: a car built for the masses, but one that offers an ownership experience that’s arguably more appealing than some contemporary exotica. It is not fast, it is not a particularly deft handler, and to the casual onlooker, it might only ever be, “Just a Beetle.”

But there’s a reason more than 20 million of these cars found homes. It’s the same reason the first movie starring a Volkswagen was called “The Love Bug.” A Beetle’s hardly an Alfa-Romeo, but it can still feel special to drive.

Brendan McAleer

The Volkswagen Type 1 family can basically be broken into three categories: the elegant 1950s, the hotrodder 1960s, and the comfortable but perhaps a bit “Fat Elvis” 1970s.

This 1956 sedan hails from right around the time that Volkswagen became a household name in North America. Sales were slow until 1954, but then exploded in 1955; in the year that this particular Type 1 left the dealership, Volkswagen sold some 50,111 cars. Slightly more than half of all import car sales in the U.S. were VWs.

Brendan McAleer

Why would you buy a funny little German economy car over best-selling General Motors full-sizers like the Impala or Bel Air? It certainly wasn’t prestige and luxury. This car has the popular extra chrome and a push-button AM radio, but even by the standards of the day, creature comforts are pretty spartan. The cabin is roomier than expected thanks to the curving roof, but fitting three bumptious kids in the rear for any kind of road trip would require some judicious application of the now frowned-upon martial art best described as Dad Hand.

The appeal wasn’t necessarily innovation either. When prototypes first debuted in the 1930s, the VW Type 1 was forward-looking and futuristic. By the mid-1950s, it was a bit like a black-and-white space adventure movie. Today, the car has a friendly, cheerful face, but in 1956 the Volkswagen was considered a bit homely, and its rear-mounted, air-cooled flat-four engine a bit odd.

However, by 1956, critics were already raving about the VW’s economy, practicality, and simplicity. The public agreed, voting with their wallets. After all, a sedan like this only cost about $1495. Bugs were everywhere.

Viewing this car through modern eyes emphasizes how simplicity is a nearly lost art in automotive design. It’s such a familiar shape, a curve atop a curve, but seeing an early VW out in the world of cliff-faced pickup truck grilles and fussily corporatized crossovers really underlines how good its design is. It just looks happy.

Plus there’s the added benefit that almost everyone is happy to see you. The original VW is such an icon that everyone seems to have a story about one, and you’d better get used to strangers coming up to talk to you about it. It’s a bit like the thing where motorcyclists all wave to each other, but here you also get waves and smiles from random people walking down the street. Kids too. And I would swear that even dogs seem to pant happily at this car.

A three-speed automatic was available much later in the VW’s lifespan, but in a 1956 you get a four-speed manual. Power – such as it is – comes from an 1192 cc flat-four engine that sipped gasoline through a single-barrel carburetor and made just 36 hp. Fitted with twin chrome exhaust pipes for the ’56 model year, that flat-four makes a sound that is immediately recognizable to anyone who grew up with Beetles around. It’s hard to describe, but it’s a blend of a chirp and dried pea rattle that sounds like a cricket performing an offbeat drumroll.

Thus, as soon as you start a VW, it puts a smile on your face. Engage first gear and set off. Delightfully, 36 hp immediately feels like enough. Not a surfeit of power, certainly, but not lacking either, and with enough torque to get up to speed or climb the odd hill or two.

The other surprise is how comfortable the VW feels. This is a pretty basic car with torsion-beam suspension, but because it is light and has a rear weight bias, it feels slightly floaty to drive. The steering is very light – since the front end is – and you can see how North American drivers would come away from a test drive impressed.

As usual, it’s the brakes that offer a dose of reality. They’re not bad by the standard of the day, but like many cars of the 1950s, a little forward planning and alertness is required. New cars can stop a lot quicker than a Beetle can, so you give people a little extra room.

Brendan McAleer

The handling is as much a Beetle characteristic as the soundtrack. Dire pronouncements about treacherous swing arm rear suspension are really only a danger if you’re really driving a VW furiously on rough roads, and why on earth would you be angry-driving one of these? Instead, it’s just a bit of a lean, that airy-light front, and the feeling of planted traction out back. For an economy car in its mid-to-late sixties, this Beetle scarcely puts a foot wrong as a slow dancer.

Seated in an airy cabin with great sight lines, grasping the simple two-spoke steering wheel, it’s easy to understand why the Beetle remains such a beloved classic. Nothing else sounds like it does. Nothing else really looks like it. Everybody knows about it.

You can’t call it a unique experience, because by definition something that’s unique is one of a kind. A Beetle can never be one of a kind; it’s one of millions. It’s still just a really special car. The kind to make you smile.

Brendan McAleer

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    I have driven many cars over the years, but a ’61 Beetle that I rented a few months back was one of the most memorable. It is very easy to get in and drive, and feels great on a backroad. It even has great brakes and probably the best steering I have ever felt. There is something magical to the air-cooled flat-four in the rear formula.

    “everyone seems to have a story about one”

    Yep, and here’s mine! When I was a teen, I spent the summer visiting my sister and her family in Germany (her husband was in the USAF and stationed at Bitburg AFB). We spent many days traveling all over the area in a ’59 Beetle they’d bought there. I grew quite fond of sitting in that noise little cocoon’s back seat while we explored SW Germany and NE France – many days seeking out deserted pillboxes on the famous Maginot Line. My least favorite day, however, was when I forgot to grab my passport when we set out to visit Luxembourg. No one even looked at us as we crossed into the country, but when we came back across into Germany (of course, it was called West Germany in those days), a guard lowered a barrier and stepped over to the car. He demanded passports. I was screwed! I was forced to wait in the border station while my brother-in-law drove to fetch my passport. Then, after a stern tongue-lashing by the German guard, I was allowed to cross – and then got chewed out by my brother-in-law for about 45 minutes until we got back to the base housing. From that day on, before I was allowed to get into that Bug, I had to produce my credentials!
    Until the day he died, whenever my brother-in-law saw me, he asked me if I had my “papers” on me. Now, I know this is not really a car story. But it is a story with a Volkswagon Beetle in it, and I hope it’ll bring a smile to one or two of you who read it. 😋

    My first was a black ’65 that I beat to death for 7 years – it went one to be a dune buggy. I could’t stop missing it for all these years so I now have a restored ’67, just for occasional summer drives.

    Spent over 180k miles in first, a ’63 owned by my father, then both a ’67 square back and a ’70 bug with auto-stick shift. The last two served many years of Colorado Rockies ski country access and camping. Skis will fit inside the square back, not exposed to weather, and there is space to sleep comfortably back there. Would I want another early VW? Not really but daughter has a modern, diesel bug with over 300k and will do many more.

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