Beetlemania - Blackbourn 430

By: Rob Blackbourn

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It seems that Rob Blackbourn might be angling for membership of the Glenn Torrens VeeDub fan club

The recent news that VW Beetle production was ending caught me by surprise because I knew that the last Beetle came off the line in Mexico quite a few years back. As it turned out the news wasn’t about the classic rear-engined, rear-wheel drive, Type 1 Beetle – it was about the demise of the ‘New Beetle’, that strange hybrid that unconvincingly combined a Beetle-esque body with a front-engine, front-wheel-drive Golf platform.

| Read more: The last VW Beetle to roll of production lines

The sentimental appeal of classic Beetles has some history. Like that other ‘1950s foreigner’, the Peugeot, the Beetle won its first dinky di admirers through its motorsport successes in the hands of competitors like George Reynolds and Eddie Perkins (Larry’s dad).

Its unique ‘dak dak’ exhaust note soon became a familiar sound on Aussie roads. With sales of close to 14,000 in 1958 the Type 1 Beetle became our top-selling European car, and was third overall behind Holden and Ford. A high-turnover VW spare in those halcyon days was the lovely enamel Wolfsburg bonnet badge (later deleted) that was frequently nicked from parked cars.

| Read next: VW Beetle Herbie the love bug replica

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Certainly driving the early 1200cc Beetles required some technique. While the rear engine set-up with a swing-axle made them a bit ‘taily’ especially on wet roads or unsealed surfaces, the modest torque and power available from the air-cooled boxer-motor minimised the chance of slides. It also affected the approach to overtaking on typical two-lane country roads. To pass the guy in front you first dropped back, changed down to third and flattened it. Hopefully by the time you caught him up you were changing into top at around 60mph with enough momentum to carry you out and past. Often, though, by the time you’d done all of the above an oncoming truck appeared over the horizon and you had to abort the pass and start all over again.

A welcome and surprising Beetle bonus I experienced one night long ago was its ability to avoid disaster by skating at speed straight across an unexpected stretch of deep floodwater (don’t ask…) thanks to its light nose and full sheet-metal front belly pan.

DIY engine-work was a breeze – only four bolts secure the engine to the transaxle. While oil changes were needed every 1500 miles (along with valve-clearance checks to protect the vulnerable #3 exhaust valve), they were easily done. Although I’m without a Veedub these days, I still have the manual, my favourite – John Muir’s How to keep your Volkswagen alive. Its folksy mix of tech-talk and philosophy is right up there with Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance.

| Buyer's Guide: 1954-67 Volkswagen Beetle

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As a hitchhiking kid, before I ever drove a Beetle, I had a memorable lift in one in Queensland on my way to Tennant Creek. My two new best mates explained that I’d have to share the back seat with a sheep they had shot beside the road to provide food for their journey. (Yeah, I know…)

At Richmond the aggressive local copper barred us from going any further – the wet season rains had started, meaning the then-unsealed black-soil road would soon be impassable for weeks. No surprise that once he was out of sight we pressed on. After about 20 kays our progress ceased terminally with the wheels sunk so deep in the mud that the Beetle’s belly was sitting flat on the ground.

I wished the guys well before hiking west along the railway line, arriving a few hours later at Maxwelton where I raised the alarm about the stranded VW with the station-master before catching the train to Mt Isa where the bitumen recommenced.

I’ve often wondered how much of the sheep those unfortunate blokes munched before they were rescued. And what the copper from Richmond did to them… 

  

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