Survivor Stories: Barrel Roll in a VW Beetle

By: Joe Kenwright, Photography by: Stuart Grant

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volkswagen beetle front volkswagen beetle front

Mid-air rollovers were all part of the fun owning a Bug...

From Unique Cars #306, Dec 2009/Jan 2010

I’ll never forget this one incident involving a VW Beetle in the early-’70s. Over breakfast, an ashen-faced house mate mumbled something about rolling his Beetle late the night before but he couldn’t be sure, as it had kept going and here he was! Because it hadn’t been a drinking night, he was worried he was losing the plot.

Because there had to be some damage, I figured a quick look at the car would reveal whether it was a bad dream or real. Walking up to his old 1963 VW 1200 it didn’t look any different from when I last saw it. Only after closer inspection did I find a crushed roof gutter above the left rear window and a small scrape on the top of the right front guard, confirming he had indeed survived a rollover while travelling on Victoria’s straightest road!

Davo’s bug was running on similar square-walled cross-plies that early Beetles came with from new. Stopping a Beetle rear-end overtaking the front was never easy with these tyres in the best conditions.

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Volkswagen -beetle -onroadEarly Beetle is still a retro favourite but had diabolical handling. However, its rugged reliability won over legions of Aussies until the Datsun 1600 changed the small-car landscape

His story was that he was heading to Melbourne from outside Geelong on his usual Sunday night return from his girlfriend’s. A gap in the shrubbery sent such a strong blast of wind across the front wheels that the car turned almost at right angles to where he was heading.

Davo tried to correct it but the Beetle’s weight had already shifted to the left wheels at 100km/h. It left the ground at such speed that it launched into a barrel roll in mid-air, landing on its feet before a panel could touch the road.

He recalled it rocking on two wheels for a moment, like it was deciding whether to do a repeat performance, before settling on all fours. The engine hadn’t missed a beat and it was late, so he figured he might as well keep going…

Lethal weapon

If you were setting out to design a car to counter a population explosion, an early VW Beetle would be a useful starting point. Its engine sat behind the rear wheels leaving the fuel tank just behind the dash waiting to incinerate you if you survived a crash or rollover.

Volkswagen -beetle -rear

It rode tall on skinny 15-inch wheels, each rear wheel attached by a single pivot point on each side; hence the term ‘swing axles’. Because each rear wheel could generate an arc in exactly the same way as a playground swing lifts a child into the air, a Beetle’s suspension would try to lift the rear of the car under even moderate cornering forces. As the rear track narrowed when each wheel tried to clap hands, the rear of the car could end up resting on the sidewalls of the rear tyres; a rollover was almost inevitable.

Throw in six-volt electrics and feeble headlights and you would be lucky to see the corner in the first place. Beetles didn’t get a fuel gauge until late in 1961 and even then only on the Deluxe version. There was a reserve tap under the dash that you learned to kick into action, especially if the engine coughed in the middle of an overtaking move.

The trick was to remember when you were running on reserve and fill it up. And if neither of those caught you out, there were no wheel studs, which meant that you could easily distort the brake drums and kill the brakes if you didn’t tighten the wheel bolts in sequence.

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Volkswagen -beetle -engine -bayBeetle’s 1300cc, air-cooled boxer engine (below) was almost indestructable, as generations of uni students will attest. Performance, though, was leisurely

Then there was the battery under the rear seat, waiting for someone to forget to replace its cover so a seat spring could short it out and set the car alight. As Beetles grew older, owners could always bond by comparing survival stories.

Aussie favourite

In this context, it’s hard to comprehend how the Beetle became Australia’s second biggest selling car after the Holden by 1964 and why VW’s Clayton facility in Victoria became the second biggest VW manufacturing facility outside Wolfsburg (only to be shut down by the end of 1967).

One word explains it: reliability. Every ownership survey – until the arrival of the silicon chip and Japanese assembly practices made it a non-issue – would unfailingly cite reliability as the most important quality regardless of price. The Beetle had the reliability game sewn-up during a period when Australian roads would quickly destroy most cars, especially small ones.

Volkswagen -beetle -brochure

After countless ReDex Trials established the Beetle’s credentials, Aussies gladly overlooked its myriad shortcomings if they knew a Beetle was going to get them to where they needed to go, without fail.

After Volkswagen committed to full Australian manufacture in 1964 with a 95 percent local content target – which involved making everything locally including the Beetle’s sophisticated magnesium alloy flat-four engine – the Beetle market evaporated.

Faced with important new safety requirements in 1968, which couldn’t be added to the local Beetle after it had fallen so far behind the German version, the parent company had to write off a $20m investment by the close of 1967. Add a zero to that figure then double it to get a sense of what it represents today.

The company had to quickly revert to assembling the latest models shipped as CKD (Completely Knocked Down) kits leaving much of the massive Clayton complex redundant.

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Rising fun

Ironically, just as Australia was amongst the first to embrace a small car from its former European enemy, the process was repeated with new Japanese models.

The first Toyota Corona, followed quickly by the Mazda 1500, offered Beetle reliability and build quality with four doors, comfort, mature styling, a real boot and a cabin that didn’t feel like an empty 44 gallon drum.

As local roads rapidly improved, the Beetle’s extra ruggedness became less important at a time when its age and lack of performance were now exposed.

Local VW executives would have been aware of the 1967 overseas release of the ground-breaking Datsun 510 and its imminent local arrival at the start of 1968 as the Datsun 1600.

Volkswagen -beetle -radio

During a grim 1968, while clearing the plant of leftover parts and shipping its machinery elsewhere, pragmatic German management also delivered a locally assembled version of the latest VW 1500 Beetle with the large window body, front disc brakes, 12-volt electrics, safety cabin and the first major styling changes since local manufacture commenced.

Knowing that even this wouldn’t be enough to keep the factory alive, management added a facelifted Type 3 and Transporter range, then courted Nissan to add the Datsun 1200 and 1600 to the local VW assembly line. The Volvo 142 and 144 followed.

By 1969, the Datsun 1600 cost $2239, just $40 more than a VW 1500 Beetle, and as it delivered sledgehammer performances in rallies and on the road, the Beetle was relegated to another era.

Weeks after his bizarre rollover, Davo came home with a new Datsun 1600 GL, an Aussie premium version that the former VW factory had built.

Owner of our feature VW Beetle - Matt Kinsey

Matt Kinsey, a graphic artist, wanted an original retro-Beetle for cheap student transport and bought his 1300 Australian Deluxe in 1996.

Volkswagen -beetle -2

The fact it was the last Beetle series manufactured in Australia gave it extra appeal; its time warp local build making it the youngest and best finished version of the early six-volt, small window Beetles.

After buying it from its first owner complete with its original plates and fully documented history, Matt used it as a daily runabout before preserving it as an award-winning example of the last all-Aussie Beetle series.


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