The auto industry has always been about newer and better, mostly because they want to sell everyone a new car every year. However, the Volkswagen Beetle stands in stark defiance of that idea. With only comparatively minor changes, the original Beetle was produced and loved worldwide for 57 years.
With production of the new Beetle closing down in 2019, it’s time to take another look at the little air-cooled people carrier that defined its own market — and that continues to provide good value as a classic for frugal, pragmatic collectors.
Aficionados may quibble about the birth date of the Beetle because the first prototypes were on the road in Germany as early as 1938, but for the purposes of most collectors, the first commercially available Beetles were made in 1946. The last air-cooled Beetle rolled off the production line in Puebla, Mexico, on July 30, 2003. In between those dates, a total of 21,529,464 Beetles were made in factories around the world.
Meet the Beetles
The first U.S.-imported Beetle — dubbed the Type 1 by Volkswagen — arrived in 1949. A 1949–52 Beetle is easily spotted in the wild thanks to its split rear window. Hydraulic brakes were installed from 1950 onward, which makes those cars safer and more usable. Then again, you’re not likely to be dealing with high speeds in any early Beetle.
U.S. buyers had a choice of Standard or Deluxe trim, starting at $1,280 for a Standard sedan and ranging up to $1,997 for a Deluxe convertible. Buyers got a 1.1-liter engine rated at 30 horsepower and a 4-speed manual transmission with no synchro in first gear. According to the SCM Pocket Price Guide, buyers should expect to pay a median of $49,500 for a good example of a split-window Beetle sedan, but only about $33,000 for a convertible.
From early 1953 to 1957, Beetles were fitted with a small oval rear window. These are more common in America, but still rare. These cars also received an engine upgrade to 1.2 liters and 36 horsepower. Median prices on these are much more affordable, coming in around $21,500 for a sedan and $27,500 for a convertible.
Major changes took place for 1958. The rear window grew again, and became mostly rectangular. The four-wheel drum brakes also got bigger. The Beetle was available as a sedan, sunroof sedan or cabriolet. VW updated the 1.2-liter engine to 40 horsepower and put a synchronizer on first gear in 1961. Between 1958 and 1965, U.S. sales went from about 60,000 vehicles per year to more than 370,000 Beetles per year. Today’s median pricing on these cars is about $15,000 for a sedan and $14,000 for a convertible.
More modern Beetles
The mid-’60s saw rapid changes, with the 1.3-liter (50 horsepower) engine coming in 1966, followed by a 1.5-liter (53 horsepower) engine in 1967. 1967 also saw the Beetle electrical system convert to 12 volts, making the cars much more livable.
The first “automatic stickshift” transmission arrived as an option in 1968, allowing limited shifting without the use of the clutch. 1969 models finally moved away from the swing-axle rear suspension design that had been used from the beginning of production. All Beetles from this point on used dual-CV-joint rear-axle half-shafts, and handled much better in corners as a result.
In 1970, the last engine upgrade took place, bumping the Beetle to 1.6 liters and 57 horsepower. 1971 and later models received new “dual-port” cylinder heads and 60 horsepower, though that was knocked back to 46 horsepower when SAE ratings went from gross to net horsepower for 1973.
From 1971 to 1974, Beetle buyers could also purchase a “Super Beetle,” which had some dramatic differences compared to a standard Beetle. Visually, the biggest difference with a Super Beetle is its fully curved windshield, compared to the mostly flat windshield of a standard Beetle. Super Beetles also used a MacPherson strut front suspension instead of the traditional torsion-beam axle and trailing arms.
1968–79 Beetles have the most attractive prices, hovering around a median of $7,000 for a sedan, $9,500 for a Super Beetle, and $10,500 for a convertible. Incidentally, the Beetle convertible was sold through 1979. 1977 was the last year for U.S. import on the Beetle sedan. The last two years of convertible production were a series of special editions that are hard to find.
Why collect a Beetle?
Although the word “iconic” is overused, it’s fitting here: It’s no stretch to say that the VW Beetle is among the most iconic vehicles in history.
Almost 40 years after the last of the air-cooled Beetles was sold in America, no one would think twice about seeing a well-restored Beetle in a premium collection. After all these years, the lowly Beetle has achieved some respectability.
Looking through the SCM Platinum Auction Database, there have been more than 100 Beetle auction sales so far in this year alone, ranging from several “Herbie” movie cars fetching up to $128,700 (SCM# 6868932) through a fully restored 1956 convertible at $72,800 (SCM# 6863846) and a very sharp 1955 sedan at $37,400 (SCM# 6877451).
Yet for all those comparatively expensive sales, the majority of Beetles are changing hands at auction for less than $20,000. Solid driver-condition cars from the 1970s can be purchased for well under $10,000.
With so many Beetles sold over the years, savvy buyers can save even more by shopping on Craigslist. In the world of affordable classics, they don’t get much more affordable or more classic than a Beetle.
Beyond all that, if you were born between the 1940s and the 1970s then chances are good you’ve got some happy memories that involve carefree days, good friends and a Beetle. Maybe that’s the best reason of all to add one to your collection. ♦