Bug Life

1938 Volkswagen Beetle.

Beneath a heavy grey December sky which promised snow, a beige ’61 VW 1200 De Luxe chugged its way south out of Edinburgh along the A68 to the steady beat of an air-cooled flat-four. Past Fala Dam and through the Lammermuir Hills the little car climbed, and as the long steep ascent of Carter Bar approached its driver dropped a gear and the exhaust note hardened.

It was 1971 and a few days before Christmas. I was making my way home from university for the holidays, and undertaking the journey in my very own car for the first time. VFV 358 was ten years old, and had been bought for £70 and insured for thirty more with the proceeds from a small inheritance. With just 40bhp at my disposal progress was little more than steady, but provided the car kept going that was just perfect.

The snow arrived suddenly and with some force, a white blanket quickly shrouding the road surface. Those in front of me slowed as they struggled for traction up the ever-increasing gradient. With little experience in such matters and scant choice, I cautiously overtook car after car, the weight of the rear engine acting upon narrow driven wheels that cut through soft virgin snow to the asphalt beneath. It was with great relief that the summit was reached.

The descent across the English border was more tricky, but by taking it slowly with a little gentle braking level ground was safely regained, and as feeble six-volt electrics struggled with the burden of both lights and wipers the VW continued south.

Perhaps I then relaxed my concentration as the snow stopped falling, or underestimated the grip levels offered by that which remained on the road, for rounding a falling left-hander before a long descent into a village the tail began to drift to the right.

With sweaty palms and a racing heart I caught it, only for the tail to swing the other way. Not daring to brake, and with speed increasing, I fought for control as the car snaked from side to side, a rapidly approaching bend onto a bridge at the entrance to the settlement very much holding my attention. But gradually the car straightened, at which I pulled up shaking, opened a window and rejoiced.

So, within the space of an hour, I had experienced an early Beetle’s two dynamic extremities: supreme uphill traction and sudden downhill instability.

It was of course Adolf Hitler’s fault. In 1934 the German Chancellor commissioned Ferdinand Porsche to design a people’s car (Volkswagen) that was affordable, able to transport a family and their luggage in comfort at reasonable speed, and be inexpensive to run and maintain. In 1938 the Type 1, as it was officially designated, went into production, its shape quickly earning it the nickname Käfer in German, Beetle or Bug in English.

I cannot pretend that the VW was my first choice, but with funds limited options were few. My friends fell into either the Mini or Ford camps, but as they appeared to spend most of their waking hours underneath them, spanners in hand, I looked elsewhere with a taste for the more exotic.

Initially I liked the idea of a Citroen 2CV, but when my hand went through the floorpan of the first I visited my attention turned to something more substantial. A Saab 96 was my preference, but they were thin on the ground. Then a friend told me about a neighbour’s Beetle that might be available. It had a slipping clutch that he couldn’t afford to mend, and I was quickly on the doorstep sympathising with his predicament and waving a comforting wad of tenners. He handed over the keys almost immediately.

With clutch fixed by a friendly mechanic in exchange for a few ‘readies’ I was soon on the road, with that unique thrill and sense of freedom which only comes from a first car. And before long I began to love that Beetle and its quirky character: those distinctive curved lines and upright screen, plain painted dashboard punctuated by only a speedometer and two knobs for lights and wipers, simple yet comfortable seats, slick gearchange and floor-hinged pedals. The solidity of the doors closing spoke of a certain quality, and there was no mistaking that tak-tak-tak exhaust note.

Of course there were downsides. Six-volt electrics discouraged the use of too many electrical components at the same time, lights, wipers and indicators being out of the question. The heater relied upon air blown through flaps from heat exchangers encasing the exhaust, which if jammed could mean full heat or no heat irrespective of season. Worse still, a leaking exhaust could introduce carbon monoxide to the cabin, quickly followed by running eyes, a big headache, and possible death. This was less than pleasing.

There was no fuel gauge, a dipstick being relied upon. Fortunately a gallon reserve was on tap by twisting a small lever. Then there was that instability, which also manifested itself in crosswinds, it being sometimes possible to change lanes on motorways without any steering input what so ever. My cure was to carry an anvil in the front boot.

And yet I still loved that car and its basic no-frills simplicity, and got used to maintaining what modest speed could be mustered while managing the weight transfer through corners, and we had many adventures together, two of which stand out.

The first occurred on Newcastle’s Tyne Bridge while returning to Edinburgh. Stood in heavy traffic, a British Road Services lorry edged alongside in the next lane and promptly removed both the Beetle’s off-side wheelarches. Oblivious to this misjudgement the driver continued on his way, but a lingerie salesman in the car behind jumped out, took the culprit’s details, then came to my rescue.

Through my open window he proffered a business card between well-manicured fingers with the immortal words, “I saw everything. I travel in ladies’ underwear. You have my full support.” BRS insurance paid out.

On another occasion, five-up and en route to a student party in Humbie, a tiny village to the south of Edinburgh, the engine coughed then died. We all piled out, could see nothing amiss, got back in and restarted the VW. This bizarre procedure occurred twice more, and it was only months later, while cleaning the rear seat, that I discovered a fuel pipe running beneath between engine and tank. The weight of three people had stopped petrol flow, only for it to resume once the seat was vacated.

After graduation the Beetle was sold to an old chap for £135 and I moved on to better things. However, when said better things were replaced by a first house, funds became scarce again and more humble transport the norm.

I had briefly co-owned a second Beetle with my mother as a fall-back whilst rallying, just in case my RS2000 disappeared through a hedge or worse, denying me transportation to work. That having gone with the Escort, I now worked my way through a series of cheap and cheerful wheels before buying a 1976 limited edition Sunshine Beetle. This sported yellow bodywork – the colour of the sun,  obviously – a steel sunroof, funky wheels, cord upholstery and, praise be, 12-volt electrics. The air-cooled 1300cc motor produced a heady 50bhp.

Peter Herbert's 1976 Sunshine Beetle.

As an avid reader of the much missed Cars and Car Conversions magazine I closely followed the exploits of contributor, autotester and rally driver Peter Noad and his extensively modified Cartune Beetle, and could not resist a few tweaks myself. Today it may sound strange that anyone would take the trouble to modify a Beetle, a car many look back on as slow and fundamentally flawed, saddled with an engine in the wrong place cooled by air rather than water.

However, that was a very British view, and not one shared by the rest of Europe or America. Indeed, it should not be forgotten that early Beetles proved their strength by winning the East African Safari Rally on three occasions, while closer to home Herefordshire garage owner Bill Bengry won the inaugural Motoring News British Road Rally Championship in one.

In the early sixties Mike Griffin founded Cartune, a company dedicated to the tuning of the air-cooled Beetle. Based in Ashford, Middlesex, it sponsored both Noad and Francis Tuthill’s rally cars, and eventually expanded to Middlesborough, where it acquired a VW dealership that also provided an outlet for its performance parts. It was run by Ron Turnbull, former racing mechanic to local driver Jimmy Blumer, who also rallied a Beetle shared with future stunt driver Russ Swift. I would often travel the few miles to Cartune Teeside to press my nose against its plate glass showroom windows and marvel at the treats within.

The modifications to my yellow Beetle were modest. A set of wider steel wheels fitted with Uniroyal Rallye 180 tyres, a Bosch sports coil and big-bore Zoom Tube exhaust, smaller Moto-lita leather-rimmed steering wheel and 100 watt headlamp bulbs.

Eager to learn whether sparkier electrics and a freer flowing tailpipe had made any difference to power output, I took the car to McDonald Racing in the County Durham village of Lanchester, where a cluster of sheds was inhabited by men with beards messing with Morgans. These hirsute coves viewed my car with some suspicion, but agreed to give it a run on their rolling road, and after experimenting with carburettor jets found a whole 4bhp increase. Not a lot, but almost ten percent nevertheless.

And that was that, or so I thought. But in the pub one night I was persuaded to join a new local Motor Club, TC76, and it just happened they were about to hold their first competition, the oddly named Slipper Di Clutch Rally, a 150-mile Twelve Car affair. Would I care to enter? I initially declined as I no longer owned a suitable car, but was persuaded the Beetle would be fine. I then protested that I did not have a navigator, but a pal immediately volunteered. So in exchange for a rather reasonable £1.50 entry fee I came out of retirement for one last rally.

Twelve Car rallies were, and indeed still are, low-cost competitions essentially for beginners, although the more experienced are not precluded. Restricted to a dozen entries, and so free of strict national controls, they are navigational exercises on public roads and open only to members of the organising club. These days they are fairly tame, albeit still enjoyable, but in the seventies were seen as a prelude to competing in bigger road rallies, which at the time verged upon being open road races.

When Saturday 29 October 1997 arrived I began to have misgivings. I couldn’t afford to damage my car, yet didn’t wish to finish last either. The 11pm start was from Scotch Corner Services on a clear cold night, and the assembled cars and crews were a mixed bunch. There were a Cortina GT, Escort Mexico and Triumph GT6, but also a couple of Morris Marinas, a Vauxhall Viva and other fairly ordinary motors.

At three minutes past eleven the Beetle set off into the lanes of South Durham, and without breaking sweat we soon caught and passed the Cortina, and then the GT6. I couldn’t believe it. My navigator was a surveyor well used to reading maps, so we didn’t stray far from the route, and as everything was happening slowly compared with the RS2000 I was able to maintain a reasonable and safe pace.

But gradually the drum brakes began to fade, which meant we couldn’t help but go quicker. The second half used the moorland roads and lanes of North Yorkshire, many of which were very familiar, and back at the Scotch Corner finish we were declared the surprise winners. Shortly afterwards I sold the car to an Indian doctor for a small profit – well, it was a rally winner, after all – so bringing my Beetling days to a close.

Today we look back nostalgically at such motoring landmarks as the Austin Seven, BMC Mini, Citroen 2CV, Fiat 500, and Volkswagen Beetle, and motor manufactures have found it easier to capitalise on this trend rather than create new icons. Of these modern interpretations, perhaps the Fiat 500 has been aesthetically the most successful, and the MINI the best dynamically, but over-styling and greater mass have done little to recreate the Beetle magic.

Surely it cannot be beyond the undoubtable skills of contemporary car makers to reignite that spark between man and machine by designing a simple, no-frills, affordable, characterful and desirable car that would make ownership and motoring a special experience once again.