It is largely thanks to the British army that production of the Beetle resummed after World War II. With Germany divided in to four occupation zones, the remains of the Volkswagen factory at Wolfsburg, under British control, had been hit hard by Allied bombing raids and lay in tatters. The workforce, which consisted mainly of German PoWs, worked long hours in condition that today would be unthinkable, but there was little alternative because, although the factory lay in ruins, the machinery needed to produce cars remained intact.
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An initial batch of 5000 cars was ordered for use by the army, which was by this time desperately short of motorised transport. Although the first 2500 Beetles were constructed by stretching the concept of improvisation to its limit, the future of the Wolfsburg Motor Works, as it was then known, looked promising. Production started by using whatever parts happened to be available and the cars that emerged before the end of 1945, fewer than 1800 of them, were necessarily crude. Production of standard saloon (numbered the Type 11 by the British) began in August but just 58 units had been completed by the end of the year. There were, however, 703 'hybrid' cars built utilising saloon bodies mounted on Kübelwagen chassis (Type 51), which, having been originally destined for the German military effort, set awkwardly high off the ground. Other cars produced during 1945 were either Kübelwagens or special-bodied cars ordered by the German post office.
Had the Beetle remained as it was initially, the car's future would have been by no means secure. The use of a fish-based glue in the interior trim, for example, gave rise to a horrible smell in the cabin, while the roof panels had to be welded together in two pieces and the oil coolers were prone to leaks. If the smell of fish did not grab you in the back of the throat, the acrid stench of oil burning on the crankcase and exhaust system certainly did. A steering box design fault also led to several serious accidents. But all these problems were quickly overcome and the long process of development began.
In addition to the inevitable beige and khaki used by the army, early Beetles were painted in matt black, matt blue for the RAF, matt grey for the American forces and maroon for the few ordered by the Russians. No cars were available for the public.
In keeping with Porsche's original design, the all-steel four-seater bodywork was bolted, as now, to the lightweight platform chassis with a central backbone for added strength and a rubber seal was seated between the two. The bodyshell was made from a number of individual panels welded together and comprises a roof, rear valance, rear luggage compartment, a rear crossmember which sits on and is bolted to the floorplan, two large side rear quarter panels which include the window 'cut-outs' and inner wings, and the sill panels that also conduct warm air from the exhaust heater boxes to the cabin through an outlet on both sides of the front footwells.
The front section of the bodyshell is made up of two sturdy inner wings that are joined in the middle by a valance, a luggage compartment floor, an apron that includes the rear and floor of the spare wheel well, a crossmember which, being similar to the one describe above at the rear, also sits on and is bolted to the floorplan, and a large structure which comprises the dashboard, lower 'A' posts and the inner sections of the windscreen pillars.
From the rear, the early cars are distinguished by two small tear-shaped windows with a central vertical division, and below are 42 vertical air-intake louvres that allow the engine's fan to draw in cool air from outside.
The beautifully sculpted engine lid, hinged internally at the top, is pressed in the shape of a 'W' and includes an additional pressing for the registration plate, above which is the famous Pope's nose stop light. Below the registration plate is a simple handle for opening the engine lid and an aperture for the engine's starting handle, although the latter was rarely needed because an electric starter motor was fitted from the beginning.
The small tail lights, which glow with considerably less ferocity than a modern-day cigar lighter, were made in right- and left-hand pairs to take account of the curvature of the rear wings. At this stage, both the front and rear bumpers were painted in matt black or body colour, and were fitted with prominent sickle-shaped overriders. A single tailpipe sits below the right-hand half of the valance, but the exact position varies because these early cars were largely assembled by hand - some had a centrally-mounted tailpipe.
Up front, the bonnet, which had yet to receive a VW emblem of the Wolfsburg crest, is opened by a turning handle similar to the one used on the engine lid. Interestingly, the Beetle's bonnet is said by some to have been modelled on female genitalia, but the research reveals that this highly fanciful claim is not to be taken at all seriously. A large horn was mounted on the outside of the left front wing below the headlight, and the headlight rims, devoid of chrome at this stage, were usually painted in the same colour as the rest of the bodywork.
One particularly distinctive feature of early Beetles is a small convex roof pressing, which was intended as a convenient base for mounting a radio aerial above the middle of the windscreen. It almost brings tears to the eyes, but someone recently told me of a man who, eager to achieve a perfect finish on the Beetle he was restoring, took a file to the roof pressing and flattened it out, thinking it was the result of accident damage - an almost irreparable piece of butchery which surely serves as a warning to us all against impatience.
The doors, which are front hinged, have pull-out handles externally, but at this stage only the left-hand door (the driver's side) is lockable from the outside with a key. Both the door windows are made in one piece without quarterlights and can be wound up and down with a conventional handle built into the interior door panel and situated directly in front of the door handle. Other external features include semaphore indicators situated in the 'B' posts and distinctive nipple-type hubcaps (painted rather than chromed) stamped with the VW emblem.
Under the bonnet, which is supported by a single sliding strut on the left-hand side, is a large rectangular 8.8-gallon fuel tank which, by 1945, had replaced the cylindrical type fitted to the wartime cars, and has a large filler neck on the right-hand side. In front of the tank, the spare wheel sits in its own well. Positioned on the body apron behind the wheel can be found a brass plate indicating the car's date of manufacture, its chassis number and the various weights, while the car's body number is stamped on the apron below this plate.
The four wings are simply bolted to the inner wings, a great advantage for the restorer who, it goes without saying, should never be tempted to save time in their removal by cutting the main bulk of the wings with a power chisel, merely to make it easier to loosen the retaining bolts - genuine early wings are now very rare. The steel running boards were usually covered in narrow-ribbed protective rubber.
A model of post-war austerity, early Beetle interiors were not made with comfort in mind. The tubular frame seats were braced with lattice-work springing, padded with horsehair and covered in woolcloth, while the interior panels, including those fitted to the doors, were made of stiff cardboard and finished in woolcloth on leatherette.
Such was the desperate shortage of raw materials, however, that many cars - particularly those used by British army personnel - had no seat covers at all. Instead, soldiers were expected to use their coats to sit on. If you want to restore your Beetle to completely original condition, a couple of old greatcoats stretched across the front seats may well suffice but it wouldn't be recommended such a rash course of action if you actually intend to use your car for the purpose for which it was intended.
Mounted on tubular steel frames, the front seats are secured in their guides by wing nuts, the loosening of which allows a certain amount of adjustment fore and aft. If he was lucky, the custodian of one of the first Beetles would have been treated to rubber mats in the front footwells and cord coverings over the inside of the front inner wings and front floor panel. The cloth headlining was fitted to the roof panel only, and did not extend at this stage to the 'B' or 'C' posts, or to the panel below the rear windows.
Instrument & Controls
The driver is confronted with an elegant three-spoked, thin-rimmed steering wheel with a centre push button horn and the simplest of dashboards with minimal instrumentation. Naturally, all cars were left-hand drive and the steel dash, such as it is, consists of two stowage bins or gloveboxes made from steel (without lids) on the extreme left and right, a black-faced speedometer with white characters calibrated to 120kph to the left of centre, and a blanking plate embossed with the VW emblem to the right of centre.
A VW emblem also appears at the top of the speedometer. The ignition switch is located below the speedometer and the separate starter button is at the bottom of the dash. A black plastic knob at the top of the dash operates the indicators, while the light and wiper switches, also in black, are placed respectively to the right and left of the speedometer. A dome-shaped interior courtesy light is mounted at the top of the division between the rear windows.
Because a petrol gauge was not fitted, a reserve of one gallon can be released by flicking a tap in the passenger footwell, a precarious activity for which a particularly adept right foot is required. So as not to upstage the left foot, the headlight dip switch was placed in the driver's footwell to the left of the clutch pedal, although quite why anyone would ever want to dip the feeble headlights of a 6-volt Beetle is open to speculation.
The handbrake lever is secured between lugs welded to the top of the chassis tunnel, and the straight gear lever immediately in front of the handbrake is stopped with a black plastic knob which on some cars embossed with the KdF cogwheel-VW emblem.
The brake, clutch and throttle pedal cluster consists of a base tube that also forms a mounting to the chassis. Cables for the clutch and accelerator are carried out of harm's way through the central backbone to the gearbox and carburettor. At this stage, a small roller ball suffices for the throttle pedal. Slightly forward of the gear lever on the right-hand side of the tunnel is the black choke button stamped with the letter 'L' for Luftklapper (air flapper valve); the choke cable also runs through the backbone.
Wheels & Tyres
Between 1945 and 1952, all Beetles were fitted with 16in five-stud wheels made from pressed steel and initially painted with matt paint to match the body colour. Absurdly narrow 4.50-16 Continental crossply tyres were replaced by 5.00-16 boots in 1946, but these offered very little improvement in roadholding. After October 1952, more modern 15in wheels were fitted with 5.60-15 tyres.
Today, tyres are readily available for both wheel sizes. Whereas owners of pre-1952 cars are confined to using crossplies, post-1952 Beetles can be fitted with radials. Although radials would not doubt be frowned upon by out-and-out purists, they are generally cheaper and unequivocally a good deal safer.
Curiously, all Beetles up to 1967 had a 6-volt electrical system, the Bosch battery being housed under the rear seat on the right-hand side of the floorplan. Both the 1300 and 1500 models were equipped with 12-volt systems thereafter, but the 1200 model soldiered on with half a dozen volts even into the 1970s.
Due to shortage of supplies, the first Beetles produced in 1945 were fitted with Kübelwagen headlights with vertical lenses placed awkwardly inside the wing pods. However, as things in Germany began to improve, the correct sloping headlights were supplied either by Hella or Bosch, and in most cases were stamped with a V-over-W emblem at the top or bottom of each lens.
At the rear, one bulb behind each of the two small red reflectors sufficed for the tail lights, while the single stop light was housed in the 'Pope's nose' number plate pod mounted on the engine lid.
Initially supplied by the German company SWF, the semaphore indicators were operated by a switch in the middle of the dashboard which activated a vertically-positioned solenoid in each of the 'B' posts. Made in left- and right-hand pairs, the semaphore arms were fitted with lenses which were a dark yellow-orange colour and usually 'ribbed'. Smooth lenses were employed from 1954.
The winscreen wipers are driven through a linkage by a small Bosch electric motor mounted in front of the dashboard under the scuttle. Several cars made throughout 1945, 1946 and 1947 were fitted with one wiper blade only - on the driver's side - because of supply shortages.
A Bosch electric starter motor with a solenoid was fitted from the beginning of production but a 'backup' facility was provided by a starting handle which, when threaded through an aperture in the rear valance, was placed directly onto the nut that also holds the crankshaft pulley in place.
The coil and dynamo were also Bosch items. The dynamo, which sits on its own purpose-built alloy pedestal, is belt-driven from the pulley bolted to the crankshaft. A voltage regulator with an in-built cut-out sits directly on top of the dynamo.
Over the years, many Beetles have been converted from 6-volt to 12-volt systems, their owners weary of contending with the dreaded voltage drop. Six volts are fine if all are present and correct, but you have a problem on cold mornings when occasionally four decide to go AWOL. On the other hand, if you have a 12-volt system and four suddenly go missing, you still have eight, or two more than a six-volter on full song. It's not suggesting for one moment that you upgrade your early Beetle merely so you can see when driving at night or get started on a winter morning. No, that would be far too easy. Six-volters are fun, so enjoy them for what they are.
The first production cars were fitted with the 1131cc engine originally destined for the wartime Schwimmwagen (amphibious car). This unit produced a maximum of 25bhp at 3300rpm from a 75mm bore and 64mm stroke, and a compression ratio of just 5.8:1. Due to a shortage of decent quality materials, these early power units were never particularly reliable and often required a complete overhaul within 30,000kms. In terms of design and layout, Mexican-built units remain unchanged to this day.
A neat and compact unit, the air-cooled, overhead valve, flat-four dispenses with a conventional sump, the normal function of which is catered for by a two-piece alloy crankcase split vertically on the centre line through the main bearings and simply bolted together. Long studs threaded into the two halves of the crankcase hold in place the finned cast-iron cylinder barrels and light alloy cylinder heads (mated to each other without gaskets) by passing directly through them, the latter being secured on the outer ends of the studs by nuts. The combustion chambers are to a hemispherical design. Both the exhaust and inlet valves are 28.6mm diameter. The crankshaft runs in three main thin-wall bearings (steel-backed with copper-lead inserts) and one additional bearing that acts as a support for the auxiliary drives. The camshaft, mounted below the crankshaft and driven from it by single helical gears, operates the overhead valves via rocker arms and pushrods encased in cylindrical tubes, each cam operating two rods. At this stage the camshaft was mounted in the crankcase without bearings.
The flat-topped pistons are secured to the connecting rods with a floating gudgeon pin that is held in place by circlips. There are three rings on each piston, namely two compression rings and one oil control ring. Forged connecting rods are fitted with high tensile bolts screwed into the lower caps, while the thin-wall big end bearings are steel-backed copper-lead with white metal.
Contained within the black painted sheet steel fan housing is the coil cooler, which is bolted directly to the top of the left-hand crankcase. This simple but vital component contributed handsomely to early engine failures, many having been welded with inferior materials. To the right of the oil cooler is the cooling fan, which consists of a motor mounted on one end of the dynamo armature shaft and driven by the fan belt at the other end.
The fan, which revolves at twice the speed of the engine, draws in air through the louvres in the bodywork above the engine lid and forces it over the oil cooler, cylinder barrels and heads. Critical to the cooling process, there are steel ducting trays (commonly referred to as 'the tinware') placed over the cylinder barrels and heads to prevent hot air from the engine finding its way into the engine compartment and causing overheating. Hot air from the engine is expelled at the rear of the car below the valance but it also used for heating the cabin.
The distributor, driven by spiral gears from the crankshaft, is also located on top of the left-hand half of the crankcase. The diaphragm petrol pump, mounted to the left of the distributor, houses an operating rod driven by a cam on the distributor driveshaft which, in turn, is driven by the crankshaft.
Because the carburettor manufacturer, Solex, had its factory in Berlin which fell under the control the Russians after the war, Volkswagen made its own carburettors initially. The small downdraught unit die-cast in alluminium alloy (Type 26 VFI or VFJ) is as rudimentary as any carburettor in the history of the motor car, consisting of a body and float chamber topped with a pancake air filter. The smaller components such as the jets were made by Voigtländer, better known as manufacturers of camera equipment. Petrol is dispensed to the cylinder heads through the extraordinarily long, small-bore inlet manifold so beloved Beetle folk on cold mornings, when the engine refuses to run properly, due to the perennial problem of icing, until it reaches its optimum operating temperature. Made of steel and painted in grey or black, the manifold branches from a single pipe into two just below the carburettor. Each pipe is bolted to the top surface of the cylinder heads and feeds the petrol/air mixture into a single port in each head.
Engine oil is drawn from the bottom of the crankcase, which also houses a removable gauze filter, through to a gear-type oil pump situated in the rear of the crankcase and driven by the camshaft. Oil is pushed through holes in the case to the crankshaft, camshaft and pushrods, the latter also carrying lubricant to the rocker arms. The pushrods are protected by tubes that also act as conduits for lubricating oil. Oilways are also drilled into the crankshaft to connect the main journals with the big-end bearings. Naturally, an air-cooled engine relies just as much on oil to keep it operating at the correct temperature, and conventional wisdom dictates that a monograde is preferable to a modern multigrade oil. Whichever you choose, all 4½ pints of it should be changed religiously at 3000-mile intervals.
From the outset, the Beetle was fitted with a heater. Heater boxes integrated into the exhaust system utilise warm air passed over the cylinder barrels and feed it into the cabin under the rear seats via pipes which divert air through the sills and into the front footwells. The earliest cars have the disadvantage that the heater control switch is located in the engine compartment next to the oil dipstick, rather than on the transmission tunnel as was the case with the later cars.
One of the endearing features of all Beetles up to the introduction of the 1500 model is the remarkable amount of space in the engine compartment, allowing easy servicing and maintenance. Everything, including the plugs, is within easy reach, making the Beetle a joy for the DIY mechanic.
|1131cc 25bhp Cubic capacity
Bore and stroke
Gear ratios (standard)
Final drive ratio
Gear ratios (Export)
Downdraught Solex 26 VFI or VFJ, HUF to March 1950,
26 VFIS to October 1952,
followed by 28 PCI
25bhp at 3300rpm
The gearbox is bolted to the rear of the chassis pan and to the engine, and is protected by rubber mountings against vibrations produced by engine torque. It also carries the starter motor on the top right-hand side. Split vertically and longitudinally, the ribbed, alloy-cased gearbox and final drive assembly are integrated into one compact and rigid unit. The gearbox, which is without synchromesh at this stage, is driven from the engine by an input shaft, and a Fichtel & Sachs 180mm single-plate dry clutch is splined to the input shaft.
The two friction surfaces are applied to the flywheel (which is bolted to what Volkswagen owners usually refer to as the front of the engine) and to the pressure plate which is fitted to the clutch cover. Positioned behind the centre line of the rear axles, the clutch is operated by an adjustable cable and contained within the bellhousing of the gearbox. When the clutch pedal is operated, a thrust ring makes contact with the clutch release plate which, in turn, disengages the clutch plate from the flywheel.
An integral part of the gearbox, the differential assembly consists of a differential housing with housing covers, side gears, pinions with pinion shafts, and solid axle shafts which are articulated with universal joints and contained within axle tubes. Both rear axle shafts are flattened on their inner ends and are fitted between fulcrum plates in the side gears.
The sliding nature of the axles in between the fulcrum plates in conjunction with the rocking of the fulcrum plates in the side gears allows the universal joints to work: a simple but exceptionally strong design which is almost, but not quite, unbreakable.
A Beetle's rolling chassis (except for the later MacPherson strut cars) can be driven without the body in situ, for it is an immensely strong self-contained unit rather like a kart. Two floorpans, ribbed for additional strengh, are welded to a central backbone or tunnel which also acts as a conduit for the fuel line, gearchange rod, throttle, clutch and choke cables. At the rear, there is a sturdy fork to which the gearbox is bolted.
All four wheels are independently sprung by transversely mounted torsion bars which, over the years, were 'softened up' considerably in the interest of ride comfort. At the front, the torsion bars are contained within two cylindrical tubes with five leaves in the top one and four in the lower one and are joined together in the middle by a pinchbolt.
Several torsion leaves were employed in two tubes rather than one torsion bar in each tube for many reasons. Firstly, leaves are cheaper to make, which was an important consideration in the 1930s when Dr Porsche was commissioned to design the Volkswagen, and secondly, they are very much heavier, a factor which partially contributed to balancing the rear weight bias of the car. Fitting two torsion tubes to the front axle assembly also offered a convenient anchorage point for the upper and lower parallel trailing arms, which are secured to the square ends of the torsion leaves with screws and nuts. The trailing arms on early cars were welded in a solid block to the outer ends of the tubes.
Cornering forces improved on the trailing arms are taken up by the torsion leaves, while the vertically-mounted shock absorbers are bolted at the top of the steel uprights welded to the beam, and bolted at the bottom to a mounting stud on the lower trailing arms that points inwards to the car. The trailing arms are connected to the hub and spindle assemblies via a king pin and two link pins each side, and are held in place by bolts. The front suspension assembly is bolted directly, with four bolts, to the head of the chassis frame.
The two rear torsion bars are also contained in cylindrical tubes welded to and transversely mounted across the chassis in front of the gearbox. Being some distance away from the hub assembly and axle tubes, the torsion bar tubes are linked to the axle tubes by a single steel blade or radius arm each side. The torsion bars themselves, solid pieces of exceptionally strong but light cylindrical metal, are splined on their outer ends to allow for the fitment of the steel radius arms. Damping is taken care of by Hemscheidt lever-type single acting shock absorbers, but more modern telescopic units were employed after April 1951.
Drive from the gearbox to the rear wheels is taken up through swinging half axles which also run in cylindrical tubes, an ingenious system eventually employed on such exotica as the Mercedes-Benz 300SL 'Gullwing' but one with quickly gained a reputation for creating unpredictable changes in rear wheel camber during hard cornering. Under extreme circumstances, the inherent tendency of the Beetle to oversteer could become almost uncontrollable, especially if one wheel adopted the dreaded 'tuck-in' position. The inclination of these early cars to invert themselves, however, has a much to do with the absurdly narrow 49in rear track and 4.50-16 cross-ply tyres as the general geometrical layout of the rear suspension.
Treated with a degree of respect for their limitations, the 1940s Beetles can be enjoyed at reasonably high speeds, even though their cable-operated brakes might give you food for thought in modern driving conditions. So tough and strong is the chassis, indeed, that a Beetle can be driven over rough roads as fast as it can on a smooth motorway and it is a credit to Dr Porsche's robust design that a good many older cars in existence today are still fitted with their original torsion springs.
Incidentally, not all chassis pans were fitted with jacking points in 1945. Those that were had round tubes into which the jack was inserted, but they proved unsatisfactory as cars often toppled off their jacks when raised off the ground, so square box-section fitments were introduced in 1946.
Renowned for its precision and lightness, the steering is by transverse link and unequal length track rods. The steering box is a simple worm and nut affair which is clamped firmly to the upper torsion bar tube. A rubber bush is incorporated in the steering column to insulate the steering wheel against shocks transmitted through the road wheels. A lubrication nipple was incorporated into the inner tie rod but its position proved almost inaccessible to a standard size grease gun, so it was therefore suitably modified in 1946.
Until hydraulic brakes were introduced on the Export model in early 1950, the Beetle was fitted with cable-operated drum brakes on all four wheels. The four cables are enclosed in protective tubes and are operated under tension.
When the foot pedal is called into action, it forces the cable junction arm at the front of the chassis to move forward, thus pulling the cables at all four wheels. The handbrake operates on the same principle but it obviously not connected to the foot pedal shaft. Instead, it is attached via a ratchet to the handbrake linkage rod running through the backbone tunnel and operates on all four wheels.
The brake shoe assembly is entirely conventional and consists of a primary and a secondary shoe, two return springs, a shoe retainer spring on the top and bottom, shoe anchors and an operating lever. A clamping nut on the rear of the drums allows for shoe adjustments when the cables have stretched, which, with use, they most certainly will do.
The front drums are 230.1mm in diameter while those at the rear are 230mm. The front shoes were 30mm in width until October 1957 (chassis number 1-673410), when they were changed on the Export (but not the Standard) model for 40mm shoes. The width of the rear shoes remained at 30mm until 1968 (chassis number 118 328 505), when they were changed on the 1200, 1300 and 1500 models for 40mm shoes.