Classic VW Beetle Buyer’s Guide

Classic VW Beetle Buyer’s Guide

Written by the JK Team
Published 22 April 2022
Just Kampers

Bags of character, amazing parts availability and easy to work on, little wonder the air-cooled Beetle is the best-selling car of all time, bit how do you buy a good one?

Why buy a classic VW Beetle?

Because there’s nothing else like a Beetle. Which is odd, because VW built over 21-million of them before production finally came to an end in 2003. True enough, some manufacturers did offer their own take on rear-engined, air-cooled technology - did someone mention Porsche? - but as an affordable, reliable car for the masses, the Beetle is quite literally, second to none.

If you’re reading this and of a certain age, you may remember a time when a Beetle was an affordable first car. Simple bangernomics made them a cheap run-around that was easy to fix and modify. Sadly, those days are long gone. Times have changed and kids these days expect things like electric windows, air-con and Smartphone connectivity in their first cars. Plus, the exorbitant cost of insurance and the rising values of Volkswagen’s people’s car means they’re now a valued and much-loved classic in their own right.

Nowadays, the vast majority of people who buy a Beetle do so because they either always wanted one in their youth, or they’ve owned a string of air-cooled classics and can’t imagine life without a Beetle in their garage.

Are classic VW Beetles easy to work on?

Beetles also make a fabulous starter classic as they’re super-easy to work on. Most jobs require only a handful of tools – we’re talking 10, 13, 15, 17 and 19mm sockets and spanners to tackle all of the routine maintenance you’re going to carry-out once you’ve bought one, plus a few screwdrivers, a jack, some axle stands etc.

Whilst the thought of working on air-cooled engine scares a few, they’re super easy to service once you know how they work, and that old chestnut, “Just four bolts and the engine comes out” is actually mostly true.

The genius of the Beetle is that it’s simple tech. Placing an air-cooled engine in the back does away with a lot of the troublesome and expensive parts found on regular cars. There’s no radiator, cooling pipes or driveshaft to worry about. Parts are ridiculously easy to source, and you can buy absolutely everything to restore one from the ground up. Don’t believe us? Take a look here for starters.

Plus, if you can work on a Beetle you can work on a Split or Bay Window Type 2 because they’re fundamentally the same vehicle, using the same components and technology. Which means you can cut your teeth on a Beetle and then move on to a VW Camper, or buy a Beetle as smaller run-around for when you don’t want to drive your Bus, and park in town. Let that one sink-in for a second…

Which is the best classic VW Beetle to buy?

If you’re new to the world of air-cooled VWs then you may think a Beetle is a Beetle, but you need to look a little closer. In the 65 years Volkswagen produced them, in Germany, Mexico, Brazil, Australian, even Ireland (Beetles were built in VW factories all over the world), there were a whole world of changes to the mechanicals and bodywork of the humble people’s car.

Park a Beetle from 1938 next to one from 2003 and whilst they’re both clearly a Beetle, they are very different animals to look at and live with.

As a general rule of thumb, the later the Beetle the cheaper it will be to buy, and parts will be cheaper and more plentiful too. Later examples are also better equipped and easier to drive on a regular basis for a number of reasons we’ll come to in a minute.

1950 Split Window Beetle
Late 1972 1303 Beetle

One of the many endearing quirks of VW enthusiasts is that they tend to covet the older models more. It doesn’t matter that later examples have larger windows, better ventilation, indicators other drivers can see and more powerful engines and brakes, they’re still willing to pay a premium for an example from the ’50s or ’60s. This is because they are – arguably – much prettier than ’70s Beetles, but parts are harder to come by and prices are higher.

1956 - 1961 VW Beetle Tail Lights
1962 - 1973 VW Beetle (1200) Tail Lights
1968 - 1973 VW Beetle (Tombstone) Tail Lights
1973 - 2003 VW Beetle (Elephant Foot) Tail Lights

If you’re looking to buy your first Beetle, we’d suggest the following options. Firstly, consider a Beetle built from 1964-1967. That way, you get things like larger windows, decent windshield wipers, better heaters and ball-joint suspension, but you also get the prettier styling, with sloping headlights, longer bonnets and decklids and blade bumpers. They’re like a happy medium.

Earlier cars have smaller windows and windscreen wipers, king and link pin suspension and command a premium. Beetles from 1968 onwards have upright headlights, chunky Europa bumpers, big rear lights and simply aren’t as pretty, and therefore seen as less desirable. Find a good one however and you’ll discover they’re fabulous cars that are capable of being daily driven if you’re of the mindset.

Early 61 VW Beetle
69 Late VW Beetle

Things to look out for when buying a VW Beetle

The quick answer is to refer to our handy checklist but the longer answer is everything, and we’ll start with two pieces of advice.

Firstly, always buy the best example you can afford. Trust us, you’ll get way more enjoyment out of something if you can drive it straight away than if you buy a rusty bodyshell and boxes of bits.

A car that needs work will always swallow up more time, money and enthusiasm than you initially planned for. Secondly, it’s better to buy a mechanically tired car than one that requires bodywork.

Cutting out and replacing rusty sheet metal is far more time consuming, and therefore expensive than replacing worn out engine, brake and suspension components, all of which are readily available here

Where do Beetles rust?

German production came to an end in 1979 but the Mexican factory churned them out until 2003. That makes even the ‘newest’ Beetle just shy of 20 years old and Mexi Bugs have a reputation for rusting like nobody’s business.

All Beetles, no matter when or where they were made rust in the same places so begin by checking the bottoms of the wings, doors, bonnets and engine lids.

They’re easier to replace than anything on the main bodyshell as you can buy replacement panels that will bolt straight on but you’ll need to spend time painting and fitting them. Replacement panels vary in quality. The cheaper ones tend to fit poorly so require more effort (time and money) to get them right and if they’re made of thinner metal they won’t last as long either. Basically, you’ll get what you pay for.

Fixing a rusty bodyshell is far more time consuming. Especially if rust has taken hold of the rear quarters, sills and inner wheel arches. Look for tell-tale bubbles and holes in all of these common rot spots and then open the doors and give the sills a squeeze. The sills carry heat from the engine into the cabin and can be crunchy. Lift the carpets up to assess their condition as replacing floorpans is a big job.

Check for rusty door corners
Check for rust under the bonnet
Well protected inner front arch. These are common areas for rust
Inner front arch showing lack of protective underseal

Check the sill closing panels from underneath and look at the floorpans too. These can take a hammering on lowered cars. Original jacking points are water traps and easily damaged on slammed Beetles, as are frame heads

Check for obvious signs of rust on floorpan sills, pan halfs and framehead.
56 Oval sill, well protected with underseal.
1969 VW Beetle Cabrio sill - needing repair

The battery occupies a space under the rear seat and leaking acid leads to rust underneath. Lift the seat bottom and have a look around. Check the condition of the heater pipes and body mounts under here too.

The gutters, front scuttle and areas around the bottoms of the windows are all prone to rust, as is the spare wheel well. Pull the spare wheel out and check for rust, previous repairs or damage. Again, these take a beating on lowered cars.

Battery tray area - Often rusts and often poorly repaired
Under rear arches - check for rust around body mounts.

The battery occupies a space under the rear seat and leaking acid leads to rust underneath. Lift the seat bottom and have a look around. Check the condition of the heater pipes and body mounts under here too.

The gutters, front scuttle and areas around the bottoms of the windows are all prone to rust, as is the spare wheel well. Pull the spare wheel out and check for rust, previous repairs or damage. Again, these take a beating on lowered cars.

Paint and bodywork

Believe it or not, shiny isn’t always best. You’ll see a lot of wagged up old dogs when you start looking at cars for sale. Shiny paint can hide a multitude of sins, like filler covering rust and poor accident repair. You’re often better off looking for a car still wearing its original paint, that way you know it won’t be hiding anything.

Strange as it sounds, a lot of owners will pay a premium for an original paint car, especially one with faded patina. Beware any car that’s had a recent respray and/or has micro blisters, cracks, sags and splits in the paint.

Look for overspray and wavey panel work and poor panel gaps/alignment. If anyone tells you a car has been restored, ask by who and to see some receipts and photos as proof that it’s been done to a decent standard.

Shiny paint
Orignal 'patina' paint
Check for dents in the bodywork
Check for cracks in paintwork

Bumpers and trim

Check all of the trim is there and in decent condition. Replacement trim, mirrors and bumpers are readily available, but they will all add to the cost of if you have to buy replacements. Again, there are various qualities available and you get what you pay for with chrome. The term ‘show chrome’ was coined to allow certain people to sell bumpers that rust at the first sight of rain. No fooling. For some decent bumper options look here

Beetle side trim
Chrome blade style bumper

Are classic VW Beetles reliable?

Yes, when they’re looked after. The problem is a lot of people think Beetles are reliable so don’t need anything doing to them, which is why they break down.  The best thing you can do is to stick to VW’s original service schedule and service your Beetle every 3,000 miles, or once a year.

Get yourself in the habit of servicing your Beetle every Spring. That way, it’s ready for the year ahead and you’ll spot any little issues before they become big issues. A basic service should involve replacing the oil, points and condensor.

Rocker assembly, checking tappets
HT leads, distributer and condenser

You should also check and set the tappets and timing. Changing the spark plugs, HT leads and distributor cap on a regular basis is also a good idea, but always use quality replacements.

1600cc Type 1 Engine
Okrasa 1298cc Type 1 Engine
1776cc Type 1 Engine

VW air-cooled engine problems

Regularly servicing a Beetle will keep it in tip-top condition and help keep an eye on things, but what do you need to check when buying a Bug? Look at where it’s parked for starters. Oil on the ground is a sign of leaks. Some VW people say all Beetles mark their spot but they shouldn’t. They never did when they were new. The problem is an oil leak can come from anywhere so narrowing it down can be difficult.

The worst one to look out for is a leaking flywheel oil seal. If the crankshaft oil seal is bad there will be a load of oil leaking from where the engine attaches to the gearbox. This can cause a clutch to slip and ruin the clutch surface. For replacement clutches look here.

Flywheel oil seals dry out over time and tear, leading to a major loss of oil. The only cure is to remove the engine, whip off the clutch and change the seal. That sounds daunting if you’ve never done it before but isn’t that bad once you know what you’re doing.

Another cause for a leaking main oil seal can be due to what’s known as end float. This is the amount of movement back and forth (tolerance) there is between the crankshaft and crankcase. You check this by pulling on the bottom pulley.

If it moves in and out so much that you can notice it, this means you have too much. Worse case scenario? Your engine case/crank is junk. Hence, it’s one of the first things VW people look for when checking out a Beetle.

Other oil leaks can be the result of leaking pushrod tubes, a leaking oil cooler or even something simple like incorrectly torqued sump nuts.

Flywheel oil seal
Rusty pushrod tubes

You also need to check that everything is where it should be. Missing pieces of tinware are common but can lead to overheating issues.

Carburettors can wear and you really don’t want fuel leaking onto a hot engine. Likewise, check the condition of fuel lines and that they’re all properly secured by clamps.

Exhausts are often rusty but are a cheap and easy fix. Beetles use heat exchangers to send heat into the car. You may find they’ve been replaced with J-tubes or are simply disconnected, in which case you’ll have no heat inside the car at all.