For some, only Mini has come the closest to harnessing the power of ‘old’ to sell new cars. Even then some might say that its line-up is more of a caricature than homage to the original small car. Certainly, the modern iteration is no longer small.
Volkswagen, on the other hand, has chosen to look forward in its pursuit of promoting its third generation new Beetle. More a family car than simple pastiche of the original, it’s bigger and more powerful too.
At a recent launch for the car, the queue to sample an original item was disappointingly long. Us hacks, you see, are rather partial to classic automobiles. When you’re fed a diet of new metal it’s nice to be able to cleanse the palate every once in a while.
By way of compensation, when a recent opportunity to drive Volkswagen UK’s very own classic Beetle came up it was hard to say no.
It was certainly worth the wait. Originally purchased for the company’s press fleet, it’s stayed in the family ever since. A sympathetic restoration programme conducted in recent years has seen the car return to its original silver and chrome glory. And with a little over 22,000 miles on the clock, the car’s interior looks like it could have come straight from the factory.
A no frills 1.2-litre version, this original Beetle is as simple and straightforward as they come whether it’s the engine’s modest 34 horsepower or the thin sliver of a key that only works when slotted in the door lock or ignition one particular way.
The simple approach to motoring continues inside, with a plain steering wheel and a fascia sporting the least number of controls to get you motoring. Volkswagen’s stubby, rubber-trimmed rotary controls will be a familiar sight to those who owned this or a Fastback or Variant from the same era. The Beetle’s equally simplistic speedometer is partnered by thin slivers of metal doubling a column stalks.
Still, part of the Beetle’s charm is the way it drives. There really is nothing else like it on the road today. At the car’s inception its rear engine, rear-wheel drive layout was believed to offer the best compromise in terms of packaging, handling and space. This side of a Porsche you won’t find a car with a ‘boot’ in its nose, while the Beetle’s flat-four engine is only trumped by, again, Porsche’s range of performance motors.
Turn the key and your ears are met with the Beetle’s trademark ‘chug-chug-chug’ as the engine stumbles into life. Engage first with the spindly gearlever and you’re soon in motion with surprising ease. Progress isn’t rapid but, even when in the company of more modern machines, it’s pretty easy to maintain a sensible pace. Stick to the posted limits and you’ll be fine; something that’s easy to do thanks to the accurate gearshift and responsive throttle.
Braking is less scary than you might think in a car of this age. Attacking the high-mounted pedal requires a little planning as it does require a hefty push, but the car stops without fuss. What is a surprise is the Beetle’s supple ride on urban roads. More supple and controlled than some modern cars, it’s only when you leave the city limits and wind on a bit of speed do you experience a slight lack of straight-line stability. That’s the only obvious tradeoff for having the engine in the boot – just ask owners of old 911s.
That’s never going to be enough to write-off the overall experience, though. This particular Beetle is a fine example of what was good about the long-running automotive icon. More refined than that other car from the swinging sixties but lacking nothing in terms of character, to many fans this car is fitted with the ‘correct’ engine and the modest output is no barrier to enjoyment.
Being realistic for a moment, a brand spanking new 2012 model year Beetle is no match for this old timer as a day-to-day proposition. But as a low maintenance classic, it’s hard not to be attracted to this charming 1977 car or any first generation Beetle.
It is simple to drive and uncomplicated to run. Sure, there are few quirks to accommodate but that’s part of its appeal. Offering such a rich and tactile experience, it’s hard not to have fun. Let’s hope the new car is fit to follow in its footsteps.
By Iain Dooley