If you build a better mousetrap, the world will beat a path to your door. Of course it helps if your mousetrap is reliable, simple, cheap, and easy to work on. In the car world, look no further than arguably the most successful, and most hackable, car in history: the Volkswagen Type 1, more commonly known as the Beetle. The ways in which this car was modified to suit the needs of a wide range of people over its 65-year-long production run proves that great design, ease of use, and simplicity are the keys to success, regardless of the project or product.
Built by Ferdinand Porsche in 1930’s Germany, the Beetle was designed to be a car for anyone and everyone. Its leader at the time wanted a true “people’s car” (i.e. “Volkswagen”) that was affordable for a German family, could reliably travel at sustained highway speeds on the new German autobahns, and easily be repaired by its owners. The car features an air-cooled engine for simplicity and cost savings: no radiator, water pump, or coolant, plus reduced overall complexity. The engine can be easily removed by disconnecting the fuel line, the throttle cable, and the four bolts that hold it to the transaxle. The entire body is held on to the chassis by eighteen bolts and is also easy to remove by today’s standards. There’s no air conditioning, no power steering, and a rudimentary heater of sorts for the passenger cabin that blows more hot air depending on how fast the engine is running. But possibly the best example of its simplicity is the fact that the windshield washer mechanism is pressurised with air from the over-inflated spare tire, eliminating the need to install another piece of equipment in the car.
It’s not too big of a leap to realize how easily hackable this car is. Even Volkswagen realized this and used the platform to build a number of other vehicles: the Type 2 (otherwise known as the bus, van, hippie van, Kombi, etc.) the eclectic Karmann Ghia, and the Types 3 and 4. Parts of the Type 1 were used to build the Volkswagen 181, commonly referred to as “the Thing”. Ferdinand Porsche also used design elements and other parts of the Type 1 to build the first Porsche, essentially making a souped-up Beetle. The rear-engine, rear-wheel drive layout of modern Porsches is a relic of this distant Beetle cousin. But the real magic is what people started doing to the Beetles in their backyards in the ’60s and 70s: turning them into buggies, off road machines, race cars, and hot rods that are still used today.
At some point around this time, a few people realized that the Beetle was uniquely suited to off-road racing. The type of suspension combined with the rear-engine, rear-wheel-drive layout meant that even without four-wheel drive, this car could excel in desert racing. There are still classes in this race for stock Beetles and modified Beetles called Baja Bugs.
A “Baja Bug” Races in the Mojave Desert Race (MDR) Series in Southern California. DevkotlanPhotography.com
It’s also very popular to use these cars to build various styles of buggies. The most famous of these is the Meyers Manx, which uses a shortened Beetle chassis and engine but has a different open-style body. The car was an immediate success, winning many off-road races and becoming popular even as a street car. It’s still common today to see these or other buggies that are built in the same style.
The Beetle has been co-opted for use in road racing as well, and not just by Disney for really fun movies (you can probably just skip the second one, but the rest are great). Formula Vee is a class of open-wheel race cars using the engine, wheels, transaxle, and a few other parts from a 1963 Beetle, all installed in a custom tube frame and body. The class is popular due to its relatively low costs and ease of getting into the sport.
The Formula Vee winner Rick Shields at the 2010 SCCA National Championship Runoffs at Road America. Source: Wikimedia Commons via Royalbroil.
Beetles are also popular in drag racing for the same reasons that they make great off-road vehicles: the weight of the engine and transmission is directly over the rear wheels. For this reason they’re prone to doing exciting wheelies. With slight modifications, however, Beetles are still tearing up drag strips, although some have non-Volkswagen engines. In a related race, a mostly-stock Beetle beat a brand new Porsche 911 in a mile-long race, despite the participants’ bias against the Volkswagen.
The ease by which these cars can be modified also makes them popular with hot rod enthusiasts. The “Volksrod” community is very vibrant, with modifications ranging from extensively modified suspensions and new axles to removal of body panels, chop tops, and engine tuning. There are other styles of Beetles that aren’t quite as extreme. Essentially, anything is possible with these cars, parts are readily available, and all of this combined with the car’s uniqueness make it extremely popular for a wide range of reasons.
Hotrodding, Volkswagen-style. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. Source
The Beetle isn’t just popular in the garages of car enthusiasts, though. Until 2012, Type 1s were used as taxicabs in Mexico City. In 2006, the trustworthy old Beetle accounted for around half of Mexico City’s taxis, which slowly declined as taxi licenses expired. Beyond taxicabs, the Type 2 has been used extensively as a basis for
trucks, offroad campers, and even ambulances.
The iconic Beetle has made a lasting impression on the automotive landscape. If you’ve ever considered buying or working on a classic car, the Beetle is a great choice for your first one. What started as a cheap family car for German families in the 1930s turned into a diverse array of different vehicles, all because the design focused on simplicity, ease of use and repair, and practicality. The Beetle was the most produced car of any platform with over 21 million cars produced from the ’30s all the way into the current millennium. In fact, the last Volkswagen Type 1 rolled off of the assembly line in 2003, and the world may never see a car as ubiquitous, useful, or hackable again.