Reader Question: Unfair Beetle Bashing?

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Here’s the latest reader question, along with my reply!

BeetleBob asks: I read a quote from Ferdinand Porsche regarding the air-cooled engine in the Porsche designed Tiger tank of WW2 that sums up his design philosophy for engine cooling.  “We always have the air,” as opposed to coolant leaks. True. a VW air-cooled engine with all the tin in place and heater system connected correctly would chase you out of the car. My 71 Type II camper would cook your feet  set at half way. Most techs were too lazy to reconnect the heating system and folks just accepted poor or no heat as a normal condition. Air-cooled  engines have a thermostat below the passenger side cylinders connected to vanes in the fan housing. You have to disconnect it to remove the fan shroud from the engine. Techs would leave the thermostat out and remove the vanes in the  fan shroud when rebuilding the engine  to “improve the cooling.” Yes, I rebuilt some engines and know how to set up the crankshaft endplay with a dial indicator gauge.

My reply: I can only amen all of the forgoing – as the former owner of several air-cooled old VWs, including two Beetles and a Fastback with the Bosch fuel-injection system. These old VWs are saddled with the false opprobrium of being mobile meatlockers, in the same way that old Corvairs were – and are – vilified as evil-handling  death traps. People like you and I know better. You can’t fault a car design because some idiot mucked up the car’s design. In the case of the air-cooled VWs, it was – as you’ve described – people screwing with the tinwork and thermostat or not maintaining the cables that opened and closed the air doors, etc. In the case of the Corvair, it the “handling problem” was the result of people not adhering to the recommended tire pressure values.

In both cases, the “design flaw” was the same as a Corvette’s inability to rock climb.

. . .

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  1. Well, GM made things worse by moving the spare to the rear, thus adding weight to the rear, having a heavier drivetrain, more power, and by having lower profile tires at the rear than the old swing-axle Type 1, thus making the inherent naughtiness of swing-axles worse than they were in the VW. However, any competent driver can handle a swing-axle ‘Vair just fine…key word, COMPETENT.
    The 4 link rear end ‘Vairs were completely cured of the naughtiness with just a trace of tail-happiness left. Those later ‘Vairs were sweet little domestic 911 killers! Even VW went to a 4-CV-joint setup in the late ’60’s with the Type 1’s, and from the beginning with the Type 4’s. You had to be very deliberate to make the rear end of a VW 412 chase the front, and I sure have tried!

    • Well, my soon to be wife’s VW (mid 1960s) tried to kill me but I straightened it out and then it tried to kill her and succeeded in rolling off a cliff because she kept oversteering. The Bug got banged up worse than her, but we still flipped it back on its wheels and I drove it home.

      I don’t think I’ve ever driven a Corvair except maybe around a parking lot.

  2. The VW had the same or worse handling problems as the Corvair but Needle-Nose Nader saw fit to ignore that and concentrate on attacking an American carmaker instead.


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