I love German cars. I may never buy that mint Porsche 911, and the Mercedes/BMW/Audi I could afford would eviscerate me on the back end with maintenance costs. So, like many a car journalist, I drive a Volkswagen — the ultimate driving machine available for a reasonable monthly payment. I’m on my second VW; my wife drives one as well. My attainable dream car? Yep, that’s a Volkswagen too.
So when I found out VW was loaning out vehicles from its heritage fleet to members of the media, I checked my borderline unnatural exuberance and fired off a polite email. The result: I was able to spend about 24 hours each with two classic air-cooled 1960s VWs — a 1964 Beetle and a 1963 Karmann Ghia convertible. Now that the euphoria has worn off, I've collected my thoughts below.
Those old VWs were very simple cars
The old chestnut with old Volkswagens is that someone of modest mechanical know-how could keep them running with a maintenance handbook, basic tools and a roll of duct tape. That’s more or less accurate. These cars were stripped down to the essentials. It was the early 1960s so an ashtray was among those essentials.
The instrument panel includes a speedometer, an odometer and a fuel gauge (a novelty not found on the earliest Beetles). You get headlights, a couple of glorified hand mirrors to look behind you, an AM radio, a heater (that probably didn’t work back in the '60s) and a 1.2-liter air-cooled four-cylinder in the back. That’s about it.
Simple doesn't mean safe
As we cruised my neighborhood at 25 mph in the Karmann Ghia, my pregnant wife asked me, “Is this car safe?” “God, no,” I replied.
Forget driver assistance features, airbags and crumple zones. In an old VW, you get a lap belt and whatever metal happens to be between you and the oncoming object. If it's a frontal or side collision, that's pretty much nothing.
Modern cars are also enormous compared to the old VWs. The IIHS knocks modern cars for safety if they are under 2,750 lbs; the Beetle checks in at about 1,500, about half the weight of the modern Golf. The Karmann Ghia was a couple hundred pounds more.
I didn't think too much about safety over a 24-hour loan, but it is something I would consider were I to buy a Beetle or Karmann Ghia (which, otherwise, I would definitely want to do).
Classic Volkswagens are not performance cars
The 1.2-liter engine in the Beetle and Karmann Ghia put out a mere 40 horsepower and 65 lb-ft of torque. The Beetle I had accelerated from 0-60 mph in “you’re asking the wrong question.” The Karmann Ghia did so in "maybe, with a tailwind."
Both cars give you a massive steering wheel with very loose steering. You slide around inside the cabin if you hit a corner at anything resembling real speed. And the springs in the seat were about the only thing providing damping on the rutted Michigan roads.
Old manual transmissions can be an adventure
In now-50-plus-year-old cars, old shibboleths about driving a manual transmission and starting on hills reemerge to the forefront. A modern VW stick is much, much easier. The experience on the old Bug can vary depending on the tuning: the Beetle felt close to a modern car; the Karmann Ghia, however, had a clutch that offered almost no feedback and an awkwardly high biting point. I found a rhythm eventually, though finding second gear remained persistently tricky.
But the old VWs can keep up in traffic
Yes, 40 horsepower sounds like nothing. But like many of their VW descendants, the Beetle and Karmann Ghia have a fair amount of torque, which gives them a surprising amount of pop in the 20-40 mph range. I even threw myself back into the seat once or twice.
You can't haul ass to 60 mph, but that isn't something normal people do in everyday driving. You may annoy that sporty Audi driver with the tinted-out windows stuck behind you, but otherwise you'll get by just fine in an old VW...as long as you don't get on the freeway.
And old VWs make people smile
Old VWs are fun and approachable. They channel the ethos of the time when they were built, and they make people happy. (That charm is a reason Disney chose an old VW Beetle to star in six films starring a sentient anthropomorphic car.)
Seemingly everyone from my parents’ generation in the 1960s and 1970s owned a Beetle, wanted a Beetle — or had a friend who had a friend who maintained a small fleet of them as donor cars to keep the main one running. Recollections were universally positive.
The Karmann Ghia, in turn, was in my driveway for approximately 90 seconds before I had beaming drivers and pedestrians stopping dead to come over to stare at it. It may be the prettiest non-Porsche that the VW Group has ever produced (and it’s better looking than a lot of those Porsches).
After an hour or so of driving the Karmann Ghia on a sunny, 80-degree day, I noticed that my face was sore from grinning the entire time. I also had to ask my wife to repeat what she had just said because I couldn't hear a thing after having an air-cooled engine blaring behind me for so long. But hey, it's all part of the charm.