Video games aren’t what they used to be.
I’ll admit I’ve not been around since the very start of the video game craze, but I got in there from the late 80s and I’ve played a fair few of them since, so I like to think I know a little bit about them.
Back then, you bought a game, spent an hour or so loading it from the billion floppy disks it came on onto your computer, and then you started playing. If it was a role-playing game you got dropped straight into the story, if it was a shooter you started shooting stuff and if it was a racing game, you picked a car, picked a track and did some racing.
Now I like modern games, but you seem to spend so much time faffing around that you experience more of the menu system than the game. I’ve been known to log onto Gran Turismo 5 on occasion simply to buy a few cars, change their colour schemes and modify them a bit. I’ve not actually played anything; I’ve simply operated a few menus.
That’s a bit what owning a project car is like.
You buy the car, take it home, then start taking it to pieces and a decade later emerge with something you can actually drive. Then you sell it, buy another and repeat the process. The whole point of buying a car – to drive it – is sometimes lost. And that’s a shame.
Which is why, with my own project car, Roland the Beetle, sitting un-driveable in my garage, I jumped at the opportunity to have a go in Volkswagen’s immaculate 1970s example at a recent event. It’d be the equivalent of banging a cartridge in a MegaDrive and just playing it.
First, a little information about the car you see in the photos. It’s a 1977 Volkswagen Beetle, built in December of that year in Germany. That makes it one of the very last German-built Beetles (the year suggests the Emden plant, rather than Wolfsburg), before production moved to Mexico in January 1978, where it continued until 2003. The car was restored by Volkswagen in March 2006.
It’s technically a 1303 like Roland, being a post-1974 Beetle, but at the same time it’s not a “Super Beetle”, as it doesn’t have the larger, softer dashboard of the Super, nor the large, curved front windscreen.
Frankly, I’m no expert on the Beetle and towards the end of the car’s European production the exact specifications are a little hazy. So I can’t tell you the exact engine specifications. VW did have specification sheets in the car, but I neglected to pick one up. Mechanically, I suspect it’s fairly similar to Roland, though post-1975 Beetles apparently had more precise rack-and-pinion steering.
“More precise” is of course relative, since out on the road VW UK’s immaculate 26,000-mile example wandered around like a good’un. There’s an area of incredible lightness to the steering around the straight ahead which does direct the car to some degree with a sort of nervous attack, but as you call upon it for tighter turns it weights up considerably, which also helps with the confidence.
Of course, before the first corner you’ll have experienced other aspects of the car.
There’s the offset driving position to contend with first, which puts your legs somewhere off to the left, tackling floor-hinged pedals. It’s not as uncomfortable as you might think and you quickly get used to it, helped by the exceedingly squashy and comfortable seats.
You sit close to the screen, closer even than in my own 1303 thanks to the flatter windscreen and shallower dashboard, with a large, narrow-rimmed wheel to hold.
The engine fires immediately, a sensation I remember from my own, and settles into a noisy, offbeat idle with a surprisingly responsive throttle. It takes a few revs to pull away (at least, you find this out after stalling it initially with too few…), but the engine has more torque than you’d expect and connected to the wheels via an initially tricky, but thereafter incredibly precise gearshift.
Then there’s the brakes. Or rather, there isn’t, if you’re used to modern cars. I’m not sure what friction material is used in the drums but it clearly wasn’t one chosen for its good friction, and as such braking needs to be dealt with early and firmly. Amusingly, VW’s car actually has better brakes than my own, which makes me wonder just how I made it home alive in Roland.
That said, a drive in such an immaculate example proved to me that Roland’s mechanicals are essentially sound. If anything, my own car seems to have a little more power if my memory serves me correctly, perhaps as a result of the looseness attributable to having another hundred thousand miles on the engine.
Driving through Henley-on-Thames, the Beetle reminded me of another side to driving these cars, that of attracting attention. The sound alerts people first, but then they smile, having seen probably one of the cleanest Beetles they’ll ever see on the roads.
Not wishing to take the car too far, I made my way back and my drive was promptly over.
It reminded me what I have to enjoy once my own car is done. People are quite disparaging about the Beetle, and it’s true to say it’s not quite as dinky, nimble or cute as the old Mini or Fiat 500, but it’s an enduring vehicle and fun to drive in its own unique way.
If you’ve not driven one I urge you to do so – if not Volkswagen’s own beautiful car, then hire one from one of the many excellent classic car hire firms dotted about the UK.
And to sign off – it’s heartening to realise that Volkswagen still produces a spiritual successor to the Beetle, too. Not the new Beetle, excellent car though it is, but the up! city car I’d driven before taking my place in the classic. Practical, inexpensive, fun to drive and with a characterful engine, it’s every bit the modern-day Beetle.
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