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The text following is part of a series of articles written by John S. Henry on the restoration and maintenance of air-cooled Volkswagens. While his experience is exclusively with the Beetle, many of the techniques can be applied to other models.

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Article: Early Beetle Bumpers
Last updated: 10/26/01

Early Beetle Bumpers


It doesn't take much thought to realize that a part called a "bumper" might be most often found in less than perfect condition. I am writing this article because over the years I have seen a variety of Beetle bumpers available (or not available) and have also seen a lot of people second guess and/or assume incorrectly about what is available on the market. Now this article is about the early "towel bar" bumpers used on the US market Beetles between 1956 and 1967. Earlier (and non-towel bar bumpers used outside the US) are very similar, if not the same, with the "towel bars" removed.

And unlike most all of my other articles written to date, this one will make heavy use of pictures as I had access to a digital camera and at the time of this writing had excellent examples of three of the major "types" of bumpers available. I took pics and used a micrometer to measure steel thickness.

["Towel Bars" refers to the overrider tubes that give the bumper a higher profile. They resemble bathroom fixtures for hanging towels. These were mandated in the US largely in response to the massive and higher bumpers found on US cars.]

Chrome and Bumper Damage

Before we delve into the world of bumperdom in detail, let's take a moment to review the types of bumper damage that is most common.


  Rust!! So, what is available? Let's start with the cheap stuff...

Brazilian Aftermarket

Ok, I admit I don't know that it is all made in Brazil, but every after market "cheap" bumper I have seen in some sort of packaging (and I use that term lightly) indicates it was made there. These bumper usually sell in the $60 range for a front or rear unit.
The easiest way to spot these cheap bumpers is the ugly black plastic grommet between the overrider tube and the blade. Unlike the better quality units, the fit isn't there to allow a smooth union between the parts. Not the end of the world, but one you know this, this grommet screams "cheap aftermarket!!"

 And the plating at the end of the tubes is usually notoriously poor, leading to rust forming easily and quickly in this area. A bolt accessible from inside the blade secures the tube to it. 

This is no joke. This is how these bumpers are shipped. The fit between the upright and the blade is pathetic. No amount of tightening will solve this. I have seen folks tighten the bolts tremendously to close the gap some. Yes, it works a bit, but it also scrapes the thin chrome from the blade face and the edge of the upright and rust starts forming the next day. My theory is that the tooling for the upright and the tooling used to make the blade are from two different bumper designs. Not all are like this but by far the majority that I have seen are.
This picture really says it all. The prep work prior to chroming is very poor. Scratches in the steel are easily seen through the plating. On the other end of this bumper, the plating was actually worn off a bit when it was unpacked. The ends of the blades were by far the worst; the chrome elsewhere was fair. 
What we are looking at here is the inside of the upright. This is the uppermost bore in the upright, the one that the bolt that goes through the upper brace and "towel bar" threads into. You can see the clearance that accommodates the overrider in the backside of the upright. Now this bumper was basically brand new. It doesn't take an industrial designer to see that this bore is nothing more than an 8mm hole ripped through the steel and tapped for a couple threads.
Summary- Brazilian Aftermarket
Blade steel thickness: .060"
Upright steel thickness: .060"
Fit: Poor
Chrome Quality: Fair/Poor

Now I am not saying that these bumpers are worthless. If I had the choice of these or riding around bumperless, I would take them. But when you see early bumpers "fits '67 and down" listed in the catalogs for $55 (sale!), make sure you know what you are getting. Do your homework, examine the products before buying if possible, or consider other alternatives. The shipping costs for returning a bumper if you are unhappy are very high... 

Wolfsburg West's aftermarket Show Bumper
Many other vendors now sell "show" bumpers, and I have no firsthand experience with them. By constant reading of catalogs, reviewing prices and talking to lots of enthusiasts who have bought other bumpers leads me to the conclusion that the Wolfsburg West bumper is one of, if not the finest aftermarket bumper available. When I visited Wolfsburg West in Anaheim last year, I talked to the owner Tony Moore about these bumpers. Tony has these bumpers made especially for his business, you will not be able to get them from anyone else. They sell for around $325 each. 
This was the first indication I was getting a pretty special bumper. Inside the box that it shipped in, it was enclosed snugly in a black upholstery material bag, complete with "WW" tag (keep in mind the folks at Wolfsburg West to a lot of custom upholstery manufacturing on site) 
This picture should leave no doubts about fit. No grommet, perfect flush fitting between the tube and blade. And of course the magnificent chrome is evident here as well.
As you can see here, the workmanship and design is far better than the Brazilian bumper. The boss is more carefully formed and much stronger. Again, note the quality of the chrome. 
I quickly put this bumper on my '57 before this picture was taken, it needs to be adjusted a bit, it is tilted back too far. But notice here the fit of the overrider to the blade. It is perfect.
Summary- Wolfsburg West's "show" bumper
Blade steel thickness: .060"
Upright steel thickness: .060"
Fit: Excellent
Chrome Quality: Excellent

Undoubtedly, this is very nice aftermarket bumper (should be for $325 huh?). The chrome is nice enough to get dressed in front of in the morning. The paint on the back of the blade is much better than the Brazilian units as well. Best bumper you can get? Read on..... 

Original VW Bumper
Well, original is original. As you will see, the design is superior to even the best aftermarket products. The steel thickness is a full 50% heavier than the aftermarket stuff at .090". Available? I'm sure somewhere in some dark warehouse there are some stashed away, but good luck finding them. And rest assured that if one is perfect on a car somewhere, the car it is attached to is perfect too, and you are not likely to get the owner to "part it out".
This picture is kind of tricky. You will notice that the reinforcement plate behind the upright has an added flange to it for strength. This makes it very hard to see the threaded boss unless you use little mirror like I did here (although you can easily feel it with a finger). There is a square nut welded to the plate, much stronger than the "push through" bosses seen above.
Fit and finish? Well, chrome good enough to see my reflection in. And this is a used bumper. Notice the overrider tube / blade fit.
Again, the factory fit. This is a rear bumper by the way.
Summary- Original VW
Blade steel thickness: .090"
Upright steel thickness: .090"
Fit: Excellent
Chrome Quality: Very good/Excellent

As you can see, the aftermarket stuff is quite up to snuff with a good old original VW bumper. I give the chrome on this one a slight demotion, but it is a used bumper. Probably as good as any you will find. 


Admittedly I have no firsthand experience with this, but I'll offer what I have. I looked into having a couple components on my '57 re-chromed and visited a couple shops. I quickly came to the conclusion that re-chroming is both expensive and labor intensive. Like body work, the quality of the final product relies heavily on the work done on the processes that precede it. Specifically, the preparation of the surface underneath. It isn't as simple as just grinding the existing chrome off and applying a new plate. To achieve good results, great attention must be paid to the preparation of the underlying surface. A pitted bumper must be de-rusted, ground down, then successively sanded and perhaps even filled (with metal) to achieve a nice chrome job. Without this preparation work, the piece looks like the end of the Whitney bumper seen above.

Given this, the best bumper candidate for a re-chrome would be one that is as dent free as possible, with only minor pitting at worst. Excessive pitting will require more fill work (or grinding resulting in a thinner finished piece) and inevitably cost more. Also, make sure that the threaded bores in the uprights are in good shape and not stripped. Replacing them would be possible but require the removal and re-welding of the reinforcement plate on which it is mounted. And also keep in mind that shiny chrome will reveal surface imperfections and undulations that might not be detectable when the blade is bare steel; just like adding a nice clear coated paint job to a door panel reveals imperfections that you never noticed in primer.

I have heard "rough quotes" of early bumper re-chromes in the $200-$300 range. Call around, get as many data points as possible. Word is that there are many "hack" shops out there. Ask for several references and call them. One good source of referrals are vintage auto enthusiasts (like the really old car where there are no aftermarket part available). Go to www.deja.com and search the newsgroup rec.autos.antique for key words like "chrome shops". You'll get screens full.

So what does it all mean? There is no substitute for an original early VW bumper in good or better condition (rusty bent ones are a dime an dozen). The picture on the right makes the thickness difference evident. The bumper on the top is the Wolfsburg West one, the lower one an original. But the Wolfsburg West aftermarket show bumper has chrome that is second to none. In fact, I would go so far as to say it is probably better than a brand new VW bumper.

 And the Brazilian bumpers are not totally worthless. From a distance, especially to the novice, they look fine. If they are all your resto budget will accommodate now and you get a deal on them, bolt 'em up. Save your allowance for the really nice ones and all the while keep your eyes peeled for some originals.

 Hopefully this article has educated you a bit on early Beetle bumper "science". Many folks in the hobby for years don't know how to tell an original from an aftermarket. Some people just think a bumper is a bumper! Not true! If you ever chance on a near perfect original bumper, grab it! A perfect original is the Holy Grail of chrome on Beetles. Now you know how to identify it. And by the way, you can piece together bumpers. If you find a perfect blade with missing or trashed uprights or tubes, get it. Keep looking for the rest elsewhere. You know how to spot the original uprights now; look for the square nut boss and heavier steel.

And if you ever find an old warehouse with a stack or two of bumpers, guarded by an old 80-year old former VW mechanic who is willing to talk for cash.....drop me an e-mail... 

Copyright© 2000; John S. Henry

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