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VW Beetle Cabriolet

History of the Volkswagen Beetle Cabriolet

Introduction

Mostly from a mechanical point, the coachbuilt convertibles followed the steel roofed models, here is a brief overview of how the soft top versions came about: During 1949, Wolfsburg's Volkswagen sanctioned two designs of coachbuilt convertibles, based on their Beetle. One was the two seater produced by Josef Hebmüller and Son more often called a "Heb". The other is the far more common four seater Type 15 version, designed and produced for over 30 years by Karmann in Osnabrück Germany.

The Hebmüller officially called a Type 14A and was first built in June, 1948. It's most unique feature is that the bonnet and boot look very similar! They replaced the strength of the car that was lost when they cut the steel roof off, by building a stronger windscreen frame and placing two Z-section girders under the floor. It showed great promise as its was attractive and functional, but the company's future success faded when a fire destroyed the factory. The very last Hebmüller Cabriolet was built in February of 1953 with a total production of 696. It is thought that there are fewer than 100 of these left today. Hebmuller also produced a 4 'canvas' door version for the police, manufacturing around 480 of them.

Karmann was established in 1901 and began production of their VW convertible in 1949. Theirs was a very practical 4 seat 2 door Beetle with a well insulated roof boasting over 2 inches of padding. Again they had to tackle the issue of strength once the steel roof was removed. They added front to rear strengtheners under the heater channels, as well as changes to the door pillars. Karmann Beetles share only about 50% of body panels with the steel roofed brothers. The doors and rear quarter panels are taller than a normal Beetle. The last of 331,847 cabriolets came off the production line on 10 January 1980.

The VW Beetle has become an iconic vehicle worldwide, and has built a huge loyal following. It is known by numerous names, for example, in Germany it’s a Kafer, in the USA a Bug or salon, England a Beetle etc. As the floor pan and running gear can be used without the body being attached, they became a firm favourite of the kit car builders. They were turned into Porsche 356 replicas, beach buggies, and Nova kit cars to mention just a few. When production stopped in 2003 in Mexico over 21 million air-cooled Volkswagen Beetles had been produced.  During eight decades of manufacturing came a whole variety of models, ranging from 25Hp through to the 1303S or Super Beetle with its Independent Rear Suspension (also known as IRS). Salons, sunroof models, cabrios and even specialist versions as police cars, German post office delivery vehicles and in Mexico City, the green and white Beetle taxi, with its missing passengers seat, was a common sight until recently.

Personalisation and the custom scene

Fashions change and over the years the VW Beetle or Bug has seen styles come and go. The 1950’s saw shiny and standard Beetles as the common style. But by the 1960’s the trend to ‘soup them up’ and build street legal drag racers was taking hold in the USA, especially on the West Coast. This was the time of legends such as Gene Berg and cars such as the Empi Inch Pincher. In the UK, smaller tuning companies such as Speedwell developed carb tuning kits and alloy wheels. By the mid 1970’s the Bug was being used for time trials and autocross racing.

This was also the start of a ‘dark’ time for the Beetle customising scene, as the fat whale tailed body kits were fitted, so if you saw it on a dark foggy night, it could look a little like a Porsche 911! However as the whale tail was strapped on, in California they developed what has come to be known as ‘Calook’ or Californian Look.  Lowered, smoothed out, de-chromed, alloys, neat interiors and performance engines where the main features of the Calook scene. Luckily by the mid 1980s in the UK, the body kits were out of fashion and the Calook scene took hold, initially from Essex. Since then there have been a variety of fashions, with the VW drag racing scene now in its fourth decade. We’ve seen ‘Old School’ lowered, lots of chrome and accessories, neat and tidy. ‘Rat look’ is almost the polar opposite, with flat mat paint, original and lived in interiors but shares the passion for vintage accessories! Calook in various rebirths has been a steady influence. However, today there seems to be strong move back to ‘stock’.

Please Note: When trying to identify a Beetle, bear in mind that on all models (except 1302/1303) most body panels are interchangeable, so if a Beetle has sloping headlights, don’t assume that it is a 1957>1967 model. Many late Beetles have early wings, lights, bonnet, engine lid and front and rear valances, making them, at first glance identical to a 1964 to 1967 model, but generally if it has an external fuel filler cap it is likely to be built between 1968 and 2003. 

Production history and technical changes 

Here are the main changes that took place to the Volkswagen Beetle during its eight decades of production.

1936 > 1952 ‘Splitscreen Beetle’ The Beetle story started in the early 1930’s, but production started officially in 1936. The Second World War all but stopped production until the British army rebuilt the factory and production commenced of the ‘Splitscreen’ Beetles (named after the shape of the small ‘split’ rear window). These were very basic cars with engines from 985cc (24bhp) to 1131cc (25bhp) but are rare and very desirable. 

1953 > 1956 ‘Oval Beetle’ Very similar to the Splitscreen, but with the split removed from the rear window making it an oval. Small developments aimed at improving driver comfort and making the Beetle appeal to foreign markets, including a new 1192cc (30bhp) engine.

1957 > 67 Little difference in appearance from the Oval Beetle, the biggest being the rear window, which was enlarged in August 1957 to the large rectangular shape that would remain for the remainder of production. The windscreen and side glass were also enlarged in August 1964. These Beetles still retained the sloping headlights, long bonnet, link and king pin torsion bar front suspension and swing axle torsion bar suspension at the rear and 5 bolt wheels as previous models, but in Aug 1966 the link pins were replaced with ball joints and the wheels used four bolts instead of five. Engine options were now 1192cc (34bhp), 1285cc (40bhp) and in Aug 1966 the 1493cc engine with (44bhp).  

1968 > 2003 August 1967 saw the first major styling change with upright headlights, a shorter bonnet and engine lid, plus an exterior mounted fuel filler cap. These models retained the torsion bar front suspension and swing axle rear suspension, which remained until the end of Brazilian production in 2003. The only exceptions were the semi-automatic Beetle which came with I.R.S rear suspension and the 1302 and 1303 models which used front coil springs... (see below).  Engine options for these were 1192cc (34bhp), 1285cc (44bhp), 1493cc engine with (44bhp) and 1584cc (50bhp).

1971 > 72 ‘The 1302 Beetle’  In an effort to make the Beetle more practical and improve sales, VW offered a restyled version alongside the regular Beetle which was badged the 1302 (1285cc) and the 1302S (1584cc). This had a more bulbous front bodywork but retained the flat windscreen and the torsion bar front suspension was replaced with MacPherson struts with coil springs, similar to the VW Golf. The rear suspension was also the much improved I.R.S torsion bar system similar to the Porsche 911 of the same era. These changes improved the handling, ride comfort and stability, plus the front luggage area increased from 5 cu ft to over 9 cu ft, however, the styling proved unpopular and it was replaced after 2 years by the 1303 model.

1973 > 80 ‘The 1303 Beetle’ This was a revision of the 1302 Beetle and was available as the 1303A (1192cc) 1303 (1283cc) and the 1303S (1584cc). The only major change was that the flat windscreen was replaced with a more modern curved windscreen, which improved aerodynamics and interior space. This was also sold alongside the regular, torsion bar; flat windscreen Beetle, with the last 1303 was built in 1980.

The classic styling of the torsion bar Beetles helped them outlive the improved design of the 1302/1302 ‘Super Beetles’ and production was ended in 2003 to free up factory space for the front engined, water-cooled ‘New Beetle.’

German Beetle production chassis numbers

The chassis number is very useful when ordering parts for your Beetle as it gives the date of manufacture, model type.  These can be found in two places. Firstly, in the front luggage compartment, by the bonnet lock and secondly, under the rear seat on the central tunnel.

1946 1-053815 > 1-063796
1947 1-063797 > 1-072743
1948   > 91 921
1949 91 922 > 138 554
1950 138 555 > 220 133
1951 220 134 > 313 829
1952 313 830 > 428 156
1953 428 157 > 579 682
1954 579 683 > 781 884
1955 781 885 > 1060 929
1956 1060 930 > 1394 119
1957 1394 120 > 1774 680
1958 1774 681 > 2226 206
1959 2226 207 > 2801 613
1960 2801 614 > 3551 044
1961 3551 045 > 4400 051
1962 4400 052 > 5225 042
1963 5225 043 > 6016 120
1964 6016 121 > 115 410 000
1965 115 410 001 > 116 463 103
1966 116 463 104 > 117 422 503
1967 117 422 504 > 118 431 603
1968 118 431 604 > 119 474 780
1969 119 474 781 > 110 2 473 153
1970 110 2 473 154 > 111 2 427 591
1971 111 2 427 592 > 112 2 427 792
1972 112 2 427 793 > 113 2 438 833
1973 113 2 438 834 > 114 2 423 795
1974 114 2 423 796 > 115 2 143 743
1975 115 2 143 744 > 116 2 071 467
1976 116 2 071 468 > 117 2 063 700
1977 117 2 063 701 > 118 2 026 312
1978 118 2 026 313 >  
1979 119 2 121 136 > End of German production

German Beetle production engine numbers

The engine number can be found stamped on the top of the crankcase, centrally above the crankshaft pulley on the engine.

CodeCCBHPNotes
A 1200 30 Single Port
D 1200 34 Single Port
E 1300 40 Single Port
F 1300 40 Single Port
H 1500 44 Single Port
L 1500 44 Single Port
AB 1300 44 Twin Port
AC 1300 44 Twin Port
AD 1600 50 Twin Port
AF 1600 50 Twin Port
AH 1600 50 Twin Port
AJ 1600 50 Fuel Injection
AK 1600 50 USA
AR 1300 44 Twin Port
AS 1600 50 Twin Port

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