The Volkswagen Beetle is a cultural touchstone. While it was the butt of jokes on its initial introduction to the U.S. market in the 1950s, it didn’t take long for the Beetle (or Type 1 as it was officially known) to attain cult status with a following that would grow to define VW as a brand in the American consciousness. Although it might be cute, and definitely anachronistic with its rear-engine, rear-wheel drive design, the Beetle has also lived a second, third, and fourth life as a canvas for hot rodders fascinated by its big personality and tiny, lightweight platform.
There are almost endless avenues for the Beetle to take on the path to overcoming its econo-car roots, and while we couldn’t possibly explore them all we can definitely cover the basics. Check out our take on this uncommon performance car’s potential.
From The Factory
Quite honestly, there’s not much to cheer about the stock Type 1 in factory trim – and that’s by design. The Beetle was intended to slot in as a cheap-to-own, cheap-to-run vehicle that could squeeze as many miles out of a gallon of gas as possible thanks to its modest size and small-displacement motor.
The very first U.S.-bound Beetles coaxed 30 horsepower from their 1131 cc four-cylinder engines. By 1954 that number has soared by six ponies thanks to a displacement bump to just under 1200 cc, and by the mid-60s 1285 cc cars (dubbed ‘1300s’) were pushing 50 horsepower. It would take half a decade to gain seven horsepower with the introduction of the 1585 cc engine in 1970, a figure that was soon rounded up to 60 thanks to the Super Beetle’s revised cylinder heads in 1971. Keep in mind that these numbers are all from the fuzzy logic era of gross output, which explains why the introduction of fuel injection as the ’70s fizzled out would actually see the vehicles ‘net’ power rating drop. By 1980 the Beetle was shunted off to South America as the Golf and the Rabbit became the star players in Volkswagen’s global small car strategy, with production continuing until well into the Millennium.
With less than 2,000 lbs to motivate those admittedly wimpy horsepower figures can still be fun enough zipping around town. In the real world, however, the car could never stand up to, well, really anything in a straight line. Volkswagen was pretty serious about keeping the Beetle economy-focused throughout almost its entire production run, with only a handful of performance-tuned models – including the Brazil-built, 65 horsepower 1600s Bizorrao edition – being offered to the general public.
From The Aftermarket
With millions upon millions of Beetles out there, and given the extreme parts interchange capability among Volkswagens of its era, there’s no shortage of aftermarket options and tuning tricks that can unleash significant gains in terms of power and handling for the Type 1.
Ask almost anyone in the fast-Beetle business and they’ll tell you the same thing: the car’s tiny four-cylinder engine just wants to fill its lungs beyond what the engineers at VW felt was sufficient for frugal motoring.
“The easiest way to get more power out of a Volkswagen engine is to make it breathe better,” says Kevin Lewis of CB Performance, one of California’s premier Beetle builders. “Customers frequently buy larger cylinder heads, larger valves, larger ports, and get instant power.”
Lewis explained that it’s possible to move, in increments, from the factory specs to a much higher performance version of the engine by way of larger cranks, and larger pistons, too – with the latter not always requiring machining to install.
“The original crank size in the car is a 69 mm stroke, with the next step up being a 74 mm. If you stay with the smaller stroke engine you don’t have to modify the block, but if you step up to a 76 mm, or even go all the way up to an 86 mm, then you’re looking at a lot of machine work for clearance,” Kevin explains. “It’s the same with pistons. The stock size is 85.5 mm, and you can use an 87 mm or 88 mm piston without machining it, but once you hit the 90 mm piston or bigger you’re back at the machine shop.”
By installing the largest pistons available for the Beetle, in tandem with a well-breathing head and the right cam, it’s possible to produce 120 reliable horsepower from the four-cylinder engine. CB Performance also offers an extensive catalog of turn-key, street-friendly blueprinted engines ranging from 120 horsepower all the way up to 165 horsepower, and there are customer and employee cars in their parking lot that top the 200 horsepower mark while retaining daily driver manners.
Kevin says that much of the company’s development work has been aimed at keeping the Beetle competitive with the V8 racing world, and that means being at the track and keeping up with the latest developments outside the VW universe. Still, you don’t have to drop major coin on an engine rebuild or a blueprinted engine to have fun in the Bug.
“First-time Beetle owners looking for more performance can get great results with bolt-ons. We sell a lot of carburetors, or dual-carb setups, along with exhaust headers and even things like bolt-on rocker arms to provide more cam lift. Together, that puts you between 10 and 20 horsepower more than stock.” Lest you scoff, Lewis wants to remind you where you’re starting from. “Don’t forget, if you’re adding 10 or 20 horsepower to an engine that only put out 50 or so from the factory, that’s going to be very noticeable when you get behind the wheel,” he says, laughing.
From a handling perspective, there’s not much that’s unique about the Type 1 suspension that rules out the standard array of tuning tricks. “Lowering kits, drop spindles, four-wheel disc brakes, and bigger swaybars are all really popular,” lists Lewis, “along with heavier-duty torsion springs up front and torsion bars out back, matched with stiffer shocks.”
From Left Field
Once upon a time, the most common bizarro-world build for a Volkswagen Beetle was to transform it into a buggy and go bash around the dunes, but Kevin Lewis told us that those days are long gone, as the closing of beaches and parks along combined with the huge popularity of cheap side-by-sides have significantly shrunk the VW buggy business.
Instead, if you want to get wild with your Type 1 might we suggest an engine swap? The possibilities aren’t quite endless, but they are certainly vast. Volkswagen’s close corporate relationship with Porsche over the years has led to a number of air-cooled 911 and 356 engines finding their way behind the Beetle’s brow, but soaring costs in recent years have directed gearheads elsewhere.
One popular landing spot? The Subaru EJ25, the same turbocharged mill that motivates the WRX STI, can be stuffed back there with a little work, but if you don’t need 305 horsepower in your sub-2000 pound car then a naturally-aspirated 2.5-liter or 2.2-liter Subaru boxer four-cylinder in the 140 to 170 horsepower range is also a good bet (or maybe a 2.0-liter turbo to split the difference between the two). Other been-there, swapped-that suggestions include Corvair power plants, tiny 12a Mazda rotaries, or even the 2.3-liter four-cylinder from the Ford Pinto – a surprisingly well-supported old school option.
Looking to get your Love Bug love on? By far the best online resource for classic Volkswagen lore is The Samba online community, but don’t forget about VW Vortex’s air-cooled section. In addition to CB Performance, there’s no shortage of companies out there supporting the Beetle scene, including Aircooled.net, JBugs, and VW Heritage Parts Center for British VW fans.