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Homepage. This page: The pre-war motors were history as Don moved on to owning a '53 Volkswagen.

1953 Volkswagen Beetle.

Having experienced an ecclectic assortment of pre-war motorcars, and some scarily rapid motorcycles, Don decided to go 'sensible', and plumped for an ancient Volkswagen, saddled with just 25bhp of air-cooled performance..

1950s VW Beetle
A mid 1950s VW, similar to the 6v Bug that Don owned.
"Everyone seemed to be raving about Volkswagen Beetles in the early sixties, they were supposed to be economical and reliable, the tyres lasted for ages, the engines were capable of 120k miles before giving trouble, and they were quite nippy. How was I to know how few of these virtues applied to the 1953 standard model?

I had been married six months and the Hillman Minx had developed an ominous clatter in the engine. I bought a very cheap A40 Devon, but it was too cheap, the previous owner’s teenage son having ‘practised’ on it.

I saw the VW sitting resplendant on a sales lot in Ashford, it was low mileage, no sign of any depreciation on the body or interior but the engine made an interesting noise from a hole in the inlet manifold which allowed the price to be reduced.

With a new manifold fitted I put the car through its paces. ‘Paces’ may be the wrong word because there was no pace at all; it was fitted with the 1132cc 25bhp engine which would barely propel the beast to 60mph with a following wind.

Ah well, I had independent suspension all round and the roadholding would be great? (Recalling tales of derring-do I had heard recounted by other owners). The first time I tried to corner at any speed in the wet I found myself facing the wrong way, having only narrowly avoided an unscheduled gastric event.

I tried to look on the bright side; the VW would probably laugh at cobbled streets and ploughed fields, but then again, when was I ever going to encounter these conditions? There were other endearing little features: the noise, there was no sound insulation whatsoever and a friend who borrowed it for a short journey mentioned ‘threshold of pain’ when referring driver and passenger comfort. He also mentioned, in passing, that it was probably the only car produced since the war without a synchromesh gearbox, I had to agree, but this omission on the part of the Wolfsburg development team proved useful on several occasions.

Returning from visiting some friends in Buntingford, about a hundred miles away, the clutch cable snapped; in desperation I tried putting it into first and pressing the starter … unbelievably, the car lurched forward and started with four up.

Having a ‘crash’ gearbox made clutch-less gear-changes simple, one just had to get the revs right. A great deal of anticipatory driving was needed, but luck was with us. When I had to stop the road was always flat enough to restart the engine in gear, but we arrived home with my nerves ragged. A few months later the same happened again while camping in Sussex somewhere. Being a bank holiday there was no way I could repeat the Buntingford caper so I scrounged a piece of Bowden cable, punched a hole in the VW's rear bulkhead and tied the cable to the engine clutch lever and clutch pedal. All I had to do was exert a couple of hundred pounds of pressure to operate the clutch. I walked with a limp for several days after the journey home.

I was looking forward to testing the Volkswagen's legendary cold starting qualities (remember the advert with the gap between cars on a snow covered street, ‘The one that got away?’) well, that one at least was true: but the down side was the heater. Two flaps provided heated air by re-directing the engine cooling air into the car. Sharing the cooling fan housing was an oil cooler subject to regular seal failure. The early VW engines had only to suffer one oil leak and the heater could not be used until a complete removal of cowling and degreasing of the engine had been carried out. We froze that winter.

Spring came and my father bought a younger ‘de luxe’ model Beetle and the difference in performance with the 1172 cc engine was quite marked. It produced 34bhp and the heater system had been improved. I bought and fitted one of these engines to my old standard model and used the Beetle until 1968, when the fear of becoming deaf caused me to replace it with a Morris Minor Traveller."

More of Don's motoring yarns, beginning in the 1950s with a series of motorcycles, and moving onto cars soon after, can be found in the motor-car memories section at oldclassiccar, including the story of how he got on with a stylish Karmann Ghia coupe. Memories sent in by a different contributor, this time relating to a 1960 VW Beetle, can be found here.

If you are a fan of older VWs, this Volkswagen screensaver may be of interest, as might this story of how a brochure for a 1938 KdF Wagen, the original VW, survived the war intact.

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