Something unusual, and wonderful, happened at the 2013 Volkswagen Beetle Convertible First Drive event in Malibu, CA last week. Alongside the fleet of turbodiesel, turbocharged, and just plain five-cylinder drop-top Beetles that Volkswagen had brought along for us to sample on the canyon roads that carve through the region, there were also a trio of 30 year-old Bugs tagging along for the ride.
That's right - two 1979 Volkswagen Beetle convertibles and a 1980 Volkswagen Beetle convertible had been broken out of the Volkswagen Classic collection to give us the chance to see just how far the design of the iconic car has come over the past three decades. It was a rare chance to pilot generationally-distanced Beetles back to back, and I want to give you a little bit of a taste of just how dramatically different the old and new Beetle Convertibles truly are.
Sound and Fury
I had never driven an original VW Beetle convertible before, and I didn’t know quite what to expect when I was given the keys to a white '79 and was told, along with my driving companion, Tony Markovich from Complex magazine, to go have a good time. I was handed a map of a local drive loop, but this was quickly forgotten as soon as I fired up the Bug's ignition and was instantly enthralled by the clatter of valves and the sound of the exhaust system sitting directly behind me. A rear-engine open top car is a sonic experience unlike any other, especially when dealing with perhaps not the smoothest engine design of all time.
Pulling away from the curb, I was impressed by just how enthusiastically the roughly 55 air-cooled horsepower from the Beetle's 1.5-liter, four-cylinder engine motivated the admittedly lightweight automobile. Shifting the four-speed manual transmission was done by judging just how angry the hive of bees stirring under the backseat bonnet sounded, and although I was unable to develop a feel for timing my gear changes with anything resembling expert precision, the Beetle was forgiving and content to accelerate at a steady pace regardless of what ratio I had selected.
Cruising along contentedly in the Beetle convertible for the first mile and a half of the trip, I had my first real wake-up call announcing that I was, in fact, driving a car based on technology that had been developed well before I was born. Yes, that's right - I tried to use the Beetle's brakes. It was silly, in retrospect, to think that such a small, seemingly light vehicle would be easy to stop. The four-wheel drums put in a token effort as I jammed down on the center pedal, but in reality, sticking my hand out of the side of the car and using the aerodynamic principle of drag would have been a more effective method of slowing us down.
Lesson learned. I spent the rest of my time with the car carefully planning out each and every maneuver that required the Beetle to slow its forward progress, cursing the brakes explicitly with each application as though my terse words could somehow coax a little bit more performance from their drums-at-all-four-corners design.
A Nautical Feel
The interior of the 1979 Volkswagen Beetle convertible was snug, and closing the driver's door was akin to having a carnie lock you in your Magic Tea Cup - if the Tea Cup in question buzzed incessantly at you until you buckled your seatbelt. The dashboard was simple and bereft of all but the simplest of readouts, although it did feature a puzzling number of buttons and toggles whose functions neither my co-pilot nor myself saw fit to explore.
With the relatively low sills on either side the VW Beetle convertible came across as almost a small power boat, one of the beautiful all-wood designs that dropped out of sight as their popularity began to fade in favor of fiberglass in the 1960s. The smell of the cockpit was also maritime in nature, that fine mixture of unburned hydrocarbons and escaping oil that took me back to my days when I briefly owned a '74 Mercedes-Benz 450 SE. It is my firm belief that all German cars of a certain age wear the same distinct cologne, and the Beetle convertible was the latest vehicle to confirm this particular theory as sound.
David vs. Goliath
There is no fair yardstick to use when comparing and contrasting the 2013 Volkswagen Beetle Convertible against its '79 predecessor. To begin with, in 1979 the Beetle was on the verge of being eliminated by federal safety regulations, as it was based on technology cobbled together to mask a design that had initially debuted over forty years beforehand. The 2013 Beetle, on the other hand, represents the fine point of efficiency (TDI models are the most frugal 'verts on the road), safety (airbags, stability control, pop-up roll bars), and comfort (driving the 2013 Beetle Convertible at highway speeds is as quiet as riding a bicycle).
Perhaps more important, however, is the fact that it's not just automobile design that has moved forward since 1979, but the environment in which modern cars are driven has drastically changed as well. The classic Beetle convertible was fun enough to steer around the quiet Malibu suburb, but I would have undoubtedly had a heart attack had I been required to negotiate the interstate traffic in the plucky little drop top. Glacial acceleration, vestigial brakes, and the sensation that one is separate from death by the thinnest of tin door panels do not inspire confidence while being passed on both sides by SUVs, minivans, and 18-wheelers traveling at twice your rate of speed.
The 2013 Volkswagen Beetle Convertible lets you have your nostalgia and make it home from work alive, too, wrapped in a thoroughly modern package that delivers excellent fuel efficiency and impressive horsepower. The 1979 Volkswagen Beetle convertible is best enjoyed by fans who can appreciate its classic charms in an environment that doesn't require one to be constantly on the look-out for those texting at the wheel.
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