1969 Volkswagen 1600 Type 3
1969 Volkswagen 1600 Type 3. Click image to enlarge

Story and photo by Bill Vance

The Volkswagen Beetle was an evergreen design if there ever was one. It was conceived as a low cost “people’s car” in the 1930s by Ferdinand Porsche’s Design Office under a commission from the Hitler government. A huge factory was completed for its production in 1938 in Wolfsburg, State of Lower Saxony, although serious VW output didn’t begin until after the Second World War. The Beetle was also built in other locations, including Mexico. More than 22 million would be manufactured before the last one rolled off the Mexican assembly line in July, 2003. The new Beetle continues to be built there.

When the Beetle arrived in North America in the 1950s, its fuel economy, fun-to-drive characteristics and robust durability, combined with an excellent service network, soon made it the top selling import.

But the Beetle had limitations. While it could be conceded as looking “cute,” it couldn’t be called beautiful. And although it could cruise all day at its top speed, its top speed wasn’t very high.

It was also cramped, noisy, skittish in cross winds, and had limited luggage space. And the heater, which pumped the cooling air from the air-cooled engine into the cabin, was marginal.

By the late 1950s Volkswagenwerk recognized that the Beetle had limitations, especially for the North American market. The competition was getting bigger, faster and more comfortable. Also, there was nothing in the VW family for Beetle owners to move up to when they needed a larger car.

VW had spun off the beautiful little Karmann Ghia in 1956, but its two-passenger accommodation, and a price that was $1,000 higher than the Beetle, limited its appeal. Thus in 1961 Volkswagen surprised the world by announcing its attractive, all-new 1500 model two-door notch-back sedan. It bore no resemblance to the Beetle, and was intended to complement it, not replace it. The 1500 still retained the traditional VW engineering features, although modified and improved.

As in the Beetle, the engine was a horizontally opposed (flat), air-cooled, four-cylinder located behind the rear axle. It was much more compact, however, which allowed the placement of a shallow trunk above the engine to augment the one under the front hood.

In the Beetle, the vee-belt-driven air cooling fan at the rear of the generator discharged into a housing mounted vertically on top of the engine. In the 1500 the fan was mounted directly on the end of the crankshaft, which lowered the engine’s profile, thereby contributing to a very compact powerplant that was only 381 mm (15 in.) high. The belt now had to drive the generator only.

It was more elegant solution than the Chevrolet Corvair’s horizontally mounted cooling fan which was rotated by a contorted drive belt that twisted in four different directions. The 1500’s oil cooler was mounted horizontally, not vertically as in the Beetle, and a side draft carburetor further contributed to lowness.

The suspension, while retaining the VW four-wheel independent feature utilizing torsion bars, was also modified in front. In place of Dr. Porsche’s famous laminated torsion bars anchored at the centreline of the car, the 1500 used lateral solid torsion bars anchored at opposite sides of the vehicle. The rear suspension was similar to the Beetle’s with swing axles, short, solid, lateral torsion bars and trailing arms, although as befitted a larger car, the track was 58 mm (2.3 inches) wider. It had the same 2400 mm (94.5 in.) wheelbase as the Beetle.

As its name implied, the 1500 had a 1.5 litre (1,493 cc) engine, compared with the Beetle’s 1,192 cc. It was, according to VW, an all-new design that developed 53 horsepower compared with the Beetle’s 40. They both used an all-synchromesh four-speed overdrive transmission which allowed VW to continue to make their “top speed is the cruising speed” claim.

The engine was accessible by lifting the floor of the luggage compartment, although the oil dipstick and filler could be accessed without disturbing the luggage. And as with the Beetle, the engine could be lowered out the bottom of the car in a few minutes.

In spite of the new model’s extra power over the Beetle, Road & Track (5/62) found that it wasn’t a great deal faster in acceleration. They recorded a zero to 96 km/h (60 mph) time of 24.0 seconds for the 1500, and 27.7 for the Beetle. The 1500 was considerably faster in top speed however: 133 km/h (82.4 mph) versus 115 (71.5).

The 1500 was offered in three body styles, a notchback sedan, fastback sedan, and squareback (station wagon), also known as the Variant. In 1965 the engine size was increased to 1,584 cc (96.6 cu in.) and horsepower went up to 65. R & T (1/66) tested a fastback 1600 and found that while the top speed was the same as before, the acceleration was now a much more respectable 18.9 seconds to 96 (60).

The 1500 began arriving in North America in 1962, with the 1600 coming in 1965 as a ’66 model. The 1500 lasted through to 1968 and the 1600 to 1973. The latter was replaced by the larger but rather short-lived 411 model.

Ironically, while bigger, faster and more stylish than the Beetle, and being offered in a variety of body configurations, the VW 1500/1600 was outlasted by the ubiquitous Beetle.

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