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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: What to Look for When Buying
Last updated: 10/27/01

What to Look for When Buying

Symptom: You just HAVE to buy a Beetle now that you have read all of this stuff.

Heater Channels. If you are going to get bored real quick, and not read any further, and only remember a word or two about what to look for, that is it. Heater Channels.

Index for this article:


I know the feeling well of trying to make a technically intelligent choice on purchasing a used, complicated mechanical device when you know absolutely nothing about it. There is just this fear that the seller is thinking "Oh, he'll never look there" and my educated friends would later say "You paid how much for this!?". You just wish you could talk to someone who had knew this stuff well and could give you a few "pointers". Well, this is what this article is all about. I really believe that with all of the experience I have, that this experience has the most to offer those just venturing out into the world of Beetles. And based on the feedback I have received, this is definitely the one of the most useful articles at this site

 Hopefully, you have come to grips with the fact that you are looking to buy an "old" car. And "old" means that it WILL, almost inevitably, require some work when you buy it or soon after. If you have some automotive experience and some tools and ambition, well, plan on setting some time aside on the weekends and getting greasy. If you have no experience, tools or intentions of getting your hands dirty, well, plan on finding a good VW shop and set aside a few hundred; for starters. You should not have the mindset of "IS there anything that would need to be fixed". Instead you should be thinking of "WHAT will need to be fixed", and how much that might cost. Now don't let me scare you off. It IS possible to find a cherry, well maintained and/or mostly rebuilt Beetle that doesn't need to go under the wrench right away, but don't fool yourself. You will likely pay big bucks for such a find and sooner or later it will need you attention (or money). So plan on having to spend some money on your Beetle after you buy it.

And here is perhaps some more hard reality. Even the best of Beetles requires many times the maintenance of today's cars. I don't mean to scare you off, the maintenance is relatively simple, and even fun. But don't expect a Beetle to be a car that will carry you 200,000 miles, through all sorts of conditions with nothing more than some oil changes like the cars of today. The aircooled Beetle, in all its years, is mostly a car developed with 1940s technologies. It is crude and simple. But hopefully that is why you want one.

And you might have a particular year in mind when you go out with your wad of money, but be flexible; it's not like you will pick from a row of cars, one from every year, and they will all be in exactly the same condition. No, you must take your intentions, your preferences and your budget and then go look to see what is available. Your intentions are especially important. If you want high vintage value, don't have to drive it immediately (or at all) and are willing (and able) to take on a bit of a "project", you might look for one thing. On the other hand, if you need and "immediate driver", you should look for other things too. Below are some of the important things to look for both a "Project" and "Immediate driver".

I might mention that originally this article was attached to "The Years" article, but the two just got to big and had to be split up for web management reasons. If you are considering purchasing a bug, though, you may want to read that article as well.

"Is a Beetle What I Really want?"

This section was a recent entry to this article. It has come about as I see more and more folks new to Beetles, considering, or even buying them, thinking that they are just as reliable and driveable as the 15 year old Honda Civic or Toyota Corolla that they looked at. They are not, I assure you. Yes, they can be cheap transportation, but they are not the same as other cars. Now some of this is my opinion, but here's how Beetles are different from other $1000 "mainstream" used cars that you might consider:

Ok, first, some of these statements are controversial. Yes, there are scads of people who will tell you how they survived an accident in their Beetle, drove away, and the "other car" was totaled. I'm sure there are such cases, I am not interested in debating. Second, note that not all the differences are negatives.

It may be a surprise to some that I said that the Beetle will require more maintenance and repairs than a "typical" car. What? The car that won the world over and was the icon of bulletproof reliability and economy?   Yes, that car. In 1967 it was the gold standard for reliability and economy. In 1999 however, when compared to a 1984 VW Rabbit or '82 Civic, it is a quirky, needy, noisy, ill handling antique that can't help rusting. Remember folks, this car was designed in the 1930s, the gross functional changes made in the 40 years between 1938 and 1978 to the suspension and drivetrain are insignificant. The Beetle, no matter what year of manufacture, is a 1940s car, at best.

Ok John, are you done pummeling the Beetle now?

Point is, if you really want a Beetle, it better be because you want a Beetle, not just some cheap wheels that have a little character. And you better really know what a Beetle is, and what it isn't. To summarize, I think a Beetle is for you if:

Conversely, I think a Beetle may not be for you if:

You get the idea. Yes, Beetles can be very reliable. But you need to keep them mechanically happy, well maintained and even if nothing breaks, you still need to have tools and manuals (They can "sense' if you don't have repair capabilities and will break by themselves. They like to be "touched" often). And yes, they can be made to go fast and handle pretty well too, but that can cost big bucks. And lastly about that driving in the snow comment. Beetles actually drive very well in the snow, but they cannot survive the rocks and salt of winters. No matter what you do, paint, undercoat or fix, salty roads will eat them up. Newer cars of today are able to deal with this problem much better.

 So make sure you know what you are getting into. Even if you are older and used to own, or had in your family, a Beetle, assess this decision carefully. Drive the new prospect as much as you can. If you are really a Beetle fanatic, you will want to by a Beetle because of all these things.

Ok, enough of that, now lets go on.....

Terms Used

Now before we start, let me give some definitions of some terms I use often in this text:

These are ordered the way they are above for a reason and really are very important. You should assess a car starting with "solid" and work your way down to "original". Each successive grade you give as you work your way through, adds to the value of the car. (I'm thinking of some kind of formula where you take each grade and multiply each category, then divide by the year, raised to the.....naaaa). But just understand that high grades in one area doesn't merit the car a gem. Think about it, someone could have bought Beetle new, parked it in a field and just left it there. It might be rotted up to the door handles. Original?  yep; correct?  uh huh; complete?  absolutely; solid?  I don't think so. Solid should be your utmost priority in almost all cases. Look beyond new seats, stereos, chrome wheels, big engines, for solid. Then complete, then correct, then original.

Ok, enough briefing, let's move on. We'll take two approaches here. We'll call one the "solid" Beetle. Most of these considerations should apply no matter what you are buying. Then we'll go a second step and talk about mostly mechanical stuff that would be very important if you needed that "immediate driver". At the end of each section, I'll mention some "Vintage" considerations that you would want to look for if you were making a long term, heart and soul investment on a real oldie.

And at the end, I'll give you some tips to get super nit-picky about assessing a Beetle. You will want to read this if you go and look at the "fully restored, absolute mint, pristine and indistinguishable from new" Beetle that the seller is asking $8000 for.   Ha.

What is "Solid" (important truths about heater channels)

This text will be biased by my appreciation for vintage "correctness", but much of this stuff is generally applicable to any Beetle purchase.

First appearances are important. And I may mean the opposite of what you're thinking. I don't mean that you should only buy it if it looks good. You need to be able to look beyond that first appearance. See, if I go look at a filthy, tires low on air, good dent on one of the fenders, headlight out, headliner falling down 1962 Beetle, my first thought is "opportunity". Which requires further looking. If that car is correct, complete and "inner" mechanically sound, it is worth far more than that same car with an Earl Shieb $250 dollar "monthly special" paint job, some remnant house carpet covering the holes in the floor, missing bumper, huge holes in the dash for "previously removed" stereo equipment and a Type 3 engine shoe-horned into the back. Now again, I'm straying into my bias that "correct" is the only way. There is nothing wrong with a new "after-market" engine correctly installed into an earlier car.

The "Solid" Beetle- Assessing the BODY

First and foremost, I look for rust in the "doomsday" places.

  1. The heater channels
  2. The front bulkhead area
  3. The lower A-Pillar area.
[Begin Lecture on Heater Channels...]

 I come back and revise these articles often, and before I wrote this "lecture", I had this fear that waaay too many people were innocently buying Beetles with rotted heater channels either not knowing they were rotted, or were grossly underestimating the scope of replacing them. So I have added this section, and even broke one of my BugShop covenants not to duplicate text in articles. But this is very important folks.

The text below appears in the "Dealing with rust" article. I will make it a different color so you will know what is excerpted.

That might be little more technical/detail oriented then you would expect to have seen in a "What to look for when buying" article, but I hope it makes a very strong point. As the years go by, and the available "pool" of good restorable Beetles shrinks, this is all the more important. Find a Beetle with solid heater channels if at all possible! The guy selling the car might say "It just needs a couple of floorpans". But be informed and look closely for rotted heater channels, both front and back.

 I'm not saying don't do it, just be aware of what is involved. If you are comfortable and confident in body work, have a nice shop, MIG welder and LOTS of time, give it a shot. But if you are young, have a "spot" in the yard or apartment complex that you can park your car, only a handful of tools and want something to drive by the end of the summer, don't be fooled!

 [..end lecture on Heater Channels. We now resume your regularly scheduled article. already in progress.]

Look at the pans closely, first from under the car, then from above. Lift up all of the carpet. Lift up the bottom of the back seat. Look under the carpet under the "storage" space under the rear window. Repairing floor pans really is not that bad if it is truly JUST the pans that are rusted. To the novice though, it might not be apparent where the pans stop and the heater channels start (Read my article "Fixing the holes in the floor" too). Lift up the carpet covering the inside of the heater channels. This is the door "sill" area that rolls downward to meet the floor. Rust and rot at the bottom, vertical edge of this metal is NOT floor pan rust, it is heater channel rust- MUCH harder to repair.

Go all the way around the car and look for rust at that "heater channel" level. Where the running boards bolt up to. And the inner front quarter. Turn the front wheels about halfway to the right, now go look inside the front right fender. See the area that the back of the wheel is "pointing" at? This panel has a tendency to rust out about 1"-4" up from its lower edge. This is actually the back of the "frontest" part of the heater channel. If it has a little rust perforation, well, it's not catastrophic, but it must be dealt with (see my article "Dealing with rust"). Look for rust at that same level in the front bulkhead area (this will require you to crawl up underneath the front and contort you neck). In a nutshell, rust (rust through, rot) anywhere at that "heater channel" level is not easily repairable.

Look for sagging doors, close them slowly and watch to see if they "hop up" when they latch up. Conversely, with them closed, very slowly release the handles and watch while squatting down. Do they drop down when the latch releases? Close them almost all the way and look at the line that the molding makes from the door to the rear quarter. Lift up on the handle hard with them almost closed, is there play? Unfortunately, there is no one cause of sagging doors, but they are almost always difficult to remedy. They can sag from accident damage, A-pillar rot, worn hinge pins or just general old age. This is especially important for convertibles. Hinge pins are replaceable but it is not an easy job. Unless you have a special tool, it requires that you take the door off of the car, which my require other tools that you don't have. See "The Doors" article.

And speaking of accident damage, go look for that. First, open up the hood, remove the spare (if there is one) and look at the inner sides of the spare tire well where the bumper brackets bolt to [may not be applicable to McPherson strut, "spare lays flat" Super Beetles]. Look for wrinkled metal. Now I have to tell you that in 17 years and all of the junkyards and cars in between, aside from show cars (and not always those either), I could probably count on one hand the number of pristine "well sides" that I have seen. The design of the front end of the Beetle is such that it cannot hide even a 6 mph collision with a solid object. There is a complex stamping in those side panels though, among which is a rounded large "wrinkle" to match the circumference of the spare tire, don't mistake that for collision damage. Collision damage is non-uniform and pretty easy to spot. There will usually be surface rusting and paint flaking in the wrinkles. Look also at this area from under the fender, in front of the wheel. Now damage here is not necessarily a reason not to buy the car, but it is a reason to tell the seller on discovery, "Oh geeez, this car has been hit" and start talking him down.

Now go down back, get on the ground and look under the fenders, behind the rear wheels. Look at the area surrounding where the rear bumper brackets bolt up to. Same story, look for wrinkled metal. This area does survive a hit much better than the front though. Also, while you are on the ground, look for rust-out along the lower edge of the inner rear quarter. If this area is severely rotted (outer edge gone) I'd pass it up.

Now as for the fenders, don't worry about them, really. New ones are around $60 and good used ones can be had for $20 or less in the right places. But you don't have to tell the seller that. If one or two is dinged really good, or even missing, just say "Oh, geeez. THIS will have to be replaced" and talk them down some more.

Bumpers, especially on the "old" ('67 and earlier) models are important, the older the car, the more important. See the "About Chrome" section in this article. A good set of original, heavy steel, nice chrome bumpers are worth a lot. If the bumpers are destroyed, rusty or missing, again, doesn't mean don't get the car, but finding a "good" set will likely be tough. As for the new bugs ('68 and up), it is a little easier to find them.

Worth noting: if you are looking at a 1967, make sure that the rear decklid (thing that covers the engine) and the rear apron (the panel below the decklid that the tailpipes come out from under) are in good shape and that both door handles are to your satisfaction. These are one-year only parts on these cars, and while they are not impossible to find, they are getting scarce and prices are going up. Even harder to find is the deck lid for the '67 convertible, door handles are the same as the '67 sedan.

The "Solid" Beetle- Vintage Considerations

Ok, you're in MY camp now. Completeness and correctness counts, but to what extent really depends on what you want to do with the car. We should have passed the "solid" tests above and/or be prepared to deal with whatever shortcomings that were found. Look "past" dirty things, but make note of things dented, destroyed or missing. Definitely look for the collision damage above.

Below I have attempted to list the "very hard to find" parts and the years that they were used on. This is because I don't want someone to pass up a solid vintage candidate because the glove box door is missing- they are the same on a wide variety of years and are plentiful in the junkyards. On the other hand, I wouldn't want someone to pay top dollar for a '67 with a bashed-in decklid and missing door handle thinking, "I'll just stop at the junkyard on the way home and pick up these things", it ain't likely to happen. See? So this list (built with a little help from readers of rec.autos.makers.vw.aircooled) is not complete. But these are the "Oh wow, where did you find one of THOSE" parts, and I tried to list them in approximate order of scarcity:

This is not a complete list, just what pops into my head right now as the very first things I would look for. In the really early Beetles, there are lots of rare and hard to find parts. As a general rule, the older something is, the harder it is to find. In the 60s and newer Beetles, only the '67 stuff seems to be an exception. Once you go back to the very early 60s and into the 50s, stuff like correct interior parts, seats, some door hardware can be pretty tough to find.

Documentation on the car can be very valuable too. Original owners manuals, invoices, window stickers as well as maintenance records of any kind will add to the value.

Mechanical Stuff

This really is even more dependent on what you want the car for. I would gladly take a car (depending on the year) with NO brakes because I know that the whole system can be replaced for about $250. From the 40 horse era ('61) and up (assuming that you want to replace it with the correct items), most mechanical stuff is pretty inexpensive and available.

Mechanical Stuff- ENGINE

I did completely rebuild the engine in my first VW (in 1981), I did all of the tune up, valve setting, "external" stuff on all my bugs for many years, nothing in, or about an aircooled VW engine scares me. But, I am far from an engine expert. In my humble opinion, a Beetle "long block" (that means the stuff inside the case, crank, rods, pistons, cams, heads valves,..... I thinks that's all the big stuff) is good for about 100m mi IF the engine is taken care of. Specifically if the valve clearances have been kept right and the oil changed every 3-5k mi. A "short block" (case, crank, cam, maybe rods) is good for about 200k mi under those same conditions. These are rough estimates, but the two most important considerations in assessing a Beetle engine are how many miles are on it, and has it been maintained properly. Unfortunately, it is very likely you will not know one or either of these two things.

I am not going to go into the technical engine assessment procedures like compression tests, spark plug inspections, etc. I think John Muir and other books have some good text on that (ISBN: 1562614800). I would just say two things. 1) Your best purchase is form a "known" seller. I don't necessarily mean family, but from someone who has owned the car a long time, has records and indicates that he/she has meticulously maintained the car, can tell you every thing about it. As opposed to someone who just "got it from a friend" a couple weeks ago and has know idea of it's history. And 2), don't think of a wheezing, drippy engine as a stake in the heart of an otherwise good car. Engines are pretty cheap compared to other makes. "Top ends" (pistons, cylinders, heads) can be rebuilt by the novice pretty easily. If the history of the car is unknown and the condition of the engine questionable, maybe you take a chance knowing that you could scrape up $300-$400 for some engine work.. (BUT, see "Vintage considerations")

But I will give you three little "tests" that I have learned over the years to assess engine condition.

And let me make one more point about the engine. I once went to a Beetle shop to ask for a quote to have a clutch done. I lived in an apartment and didn't have the resources to do it myself, although I had done it several times before at my parents years ago so I knew exactly what was involved. The shop quoted me $300 in labor to "R&R" (remove and replace) the engine. The last time I removed a Beetle engine in my garage, it took me 15 minutes. At many bigger VW shows there are "Engine Pull" contests where a Beetle is driven to a spot, two guys get out and remove the engine, roll it something like 10 ft away from the car, then back, re-install it and drive off. Record times, last I saw, were in the 6-7 minute range. That's no typo, 6-7 minutes (but I don't think the heater boxes are hooked up). Don't let anyone quote you any more than an hour labor to remove and replace an engine. If it takes them longer than that, they have no idea what they are doing (or they are trying to hose you) and you shouldn't be paying them to work on your car. If you are so inclined, you should really try it yourself. All you really need is a good floor jack.

Mechanical Stuff- Transmission, suspension

There are a couple of known "wear out conditions" with the VW trannies. One is when the "slider" gear gets worn. In this case, the car will not stay in reverse. To test, back up the car and put a little load on the tranny. Back up a slight incline or get in a clear area, engage the clutch fully in reverse and get on the gas a bit (be careful, don't hurt any one). If this gear is worn, the shifter will pop out of reverse with a loud "thunk". If the gear is really worn, it won't even start to back up, it will just pop out quickly and quietly. Always check reverse, the car may behave perfectly other wise. If reverse pops out, the car will need a new tranny ($100 - $400 depending on used/new).

Another tranny "failure mode" is similar to reverse but involves 4th gear under load. Get the car out on the open road, get into 4th at about 40-45mph and floor it. If 4th is bad, it will pop out with a loud thunk.. If this happens, plan on a new tranny.

 Lastly, a common wear sign is when the 2nd gear syncro goes bad. If this is the case (assuming a '51 or newer bug), the gears will "grind" when you try to downshift from 3rd to 2nd. This type of failure is very common (I think because 2nd is the gear most often "downshifted" to) but it doesn't render the car undriveable. Two of my Beetles did it and I drove them for years like this. There is a workaround, by the way, that just involves a change in your shifting technique. When you go out of third, don't go down into second with the stickshift. First, go up like you are trying to go into first, push "up there" a little (don't worry, at 25+ mph, you are not likely to get it to go into first anyway) then quickly drop down into 2nd; and the gears won't grind. What you did was use the first gear syncro to match the mainshaft speed to the wheels and then jumped into 2nd before it had a chance to spin up again (as simple as I can describe it with a dissertation on synchromesh transmission concepts). If it grinds going into 2nd the usual way and you do this while the seller is riding with you, just say matter-a-factly "Oh. Second gear synchro is shot, you didn't tell me that did you?"

 As for the suspension in general, the rear swingaxle suspension ('68 and earlier) is pretty hardy. The only thing that I might suggest is to look at the axle boots. These are rubber boots on either side of the tranny that flex as the axles move up and down. They are cheap and easy to replace, but leaky ones and no indication by the seller that they were ever concerned about that might indicate a tranny run without (much, if any) gear oil. At highway speed (that would be about 50 for a Beetle), a tranny that has run without gear oil most of it's life will (in the terms of an old Beetle mechanic I knew in upstate South Carolina) "howl". I've heard deafening ones. You'll know it when you hear it; = new tranny.

The front suspension is a little more sensitive. It is a pretty good design, but gets wobbly, clunky and UNSAFE when it wears. Most parts are pretty inexpensive, and aside from accident damage, everything is pretty much fixable. Speaking of accident damage, look for a bent front beam and/or bulkhead area. The twin tubes that make up the beam should be straight and square with the front of the car. The bulkhead portion of the pan front that it (the beam) bolts to should be square and free of bends on its corners.

The parts that make the front end wobbly/unsafe when they go bad are most often the ball joints ('66 and newer) or the king/link pins ('65 and older) and the tie rod ends. Particularly unsafe is when a lower ball joint gets so bad it pulls out of its socket. This just leaves one of the two torsion arms to hold up that side of the car. If you are going slow when this happens, the front end of your car will collapse, more pronounced on the side with the failed ball joint, and the tire may drag inside the fenderwell and steering will be mostly inoperable. If it happens when you are going fast, the wheel will slam back in the fender opening the second you hit the brakes because you think something has gone wrong, usually rip the upper ball joint loose on that same side and allow the entire wheel, brake hub and spindle to rip from the car as soon as the rubber brake hose tears off, opening the brake lines and possibly rendering the brakes in the three hubs that you still have possession of, useless. Steering will be up to the will of the gods and you are now driving a brakeless three-wheeler. I was lucky enough to have learned this lesson when mine let go going over a speed bump at work., I know others who were not so lucky.

King/link pins front ends almost cannot let go that way, BUT they are somewhat more expensive to rebuild. Ball joints at the time of this writing are still plentiful around $10 ea; there are 4 of them.

So assess the front end carefully, and unless the seller shows you a receipt for a recent rebuild, count on spending some money here. If it is a ball joint front end and more than 2 yrs old (or unknown) since they were replaced, I would replace them immediately. The consequences are not worth the risk. Check the tie rods by grabbing the front wheels at 3 and 9 o'clock and trying to turn them back and forth while someone holds the steering wheel tight. Play here could be tie rod ends or steering box. Now if you can jack the car up, do the same with hands at 12 and 6 o'clock. Play this way usually means ball joints or link/king pins or loose/worn wheel bearings. The Muir book has some good points on this.

Notice how the car drives. Can you move the steering wheel side to side some without affecting steering? This probably means either steering box replacement (although some are adjustable, it is usually not the right fix) or very badly worn tie rods (pretty cheap). Steering boxes have gotten a little pricey lately ($100+). Go over some bumps. Listen and feel for clunking and loose stuff. I can't really get into the details of all the stuff that can go wrong up front and how to diagnose and fix it, but be sensitive in this area ("Yep, the joints are shot. Listen, this car needs a few hundred in front end work, I'll offer ya...").

Take from this text these points:

  1. Beetle front ends are victims of wear and make Beetle feel sloppy, rattly and quite possibly unsafe
  2. Almost all parts are plentiful and inexpensive, stuff can be fixed. Only the steering box is a high dollar item
  3. Link/king pin front ends are somewhat more expensive to rebuild than balljoint units and require some additional expertise and tooling.
  4. Count on alignment and wheel balancing AFTER you have all the other front end mechanicals 100%. A Beetle CAN go straight down the road, smoothly.
Mechanical Stuff- Brakes

Ok, this will be quick. The Beetle brakes on the bug, when 100%, will stop the car, fast. These brakes are really no different than any other drum braking systems, YOU can do the work on them (get the Muir book). Here's my stab at system pricing, from my head at the time of this writing:

Why did I suddenly list brake component parts prices in this article?. To make the point that beetle brake work is simple and parts are cheap. Personally, I would never NOT buy a Beetle that I otherwise would take because it needed brake work. No matter what condition the brakes seem to be in, if you buy the car, plan on either paying someone to go over them or get the Muir book and a Saturday and do it yourself. And haggle a the selling price accordingly.

Mechanical Stuff- Clutch

A whole, new clutch costs about $70 (parts). Yes, you have to take the engine out to replace it, but that is no big deal (see "engine" text above). There IS a common problem with Beetle clutches though worth mentioning. It is when the clutch tube (a skinny steel pipe inside the "tunnel" that guides the clutch cable from your pedal back to where the clutch actually is) breaks itself loose from its welds inside the tunnel. I wrote an extensive article on this ("Clutch tube reattachment"), it should be available from wherever you got this one. The symptoms may vary. It might be a clanking or clunking sound from inside the tunnel when you depress and/or release the clutch (there should be NO sound), or it might be a very "tight" feeling clutch pedal; one that has no free play at all at the beginning of its travel and begins to disengage the clutch as soon as it is pressed. (this is because the clutch cable has to be tightened so much to compensate for the moving tube in the tunnel to make it work) You might find this symptom if the seller is trying to "hide" this problem (intentionally or not). The repair for this is somewhat involved and requires some simple welding. If you have a good candidate with this problem and are comfortable dealing with it, inform the seller of the problem and get him to lop a big chunk off the selling price.

Mechanical Stuff- Other

This whole mechanical thing is hard for me because I know these cars well, I'm not scared away by anything broken on them. So my tendency is to NEVER say "don't buy it if...." (except for bad rustout described above) As I go through it, there is very little that I could say, "Oh that's a BIG problem". On the other hand, lots of little problems can sink a ship too.

"Other" mechanical stuff might be windows rolling up and down (Read "The Doors" article to address the mysteries in there), hoods closing right, wipers, wiring etc. All I can think to say is that there is no "bad" designs (years), it's all VERY simple (that's why the car was so successful). If you mechanically inclined, this is a perfect car to jump into.

Mechanical Stuff- Vintage considerations

You might think that "vintage" and "mechanical" are two words that don't really go together. Well in the case of the Beetle, they really do. Going on the assumption that you are somewhat (if not very ) interested in the vintage aspects of a pending purchase, let me offer what I think are some special mechanical considerations.

Mechanical Stuff- Vintage considerations, Engine

In "The Years" article I "classed" the engines used in the Beetle, back to 1949. There was an earlier still engine that was never appeared in a U.S. Market car, and that was the 25HP engine. There are many folks who know these engine aspects much better than me, so I will only offer what I am sure about. Basically, the "correct" engine for a vintage car increases its value. As you may well guess, it is easy to pop a 1971 dual port engine into a '63, maybe for driveability reasons, and this is done often.

The 1600 engine ('70 and up in US models), in all of its forms, is really the "bread and butter" engine of the Beetle crowd. You will likely find it in many bugs that originally came with a different (and smaller) engine.

The 1500 ('67-'69) was actually only offered in U.S. markets for 3 years, 1967-69, and isn't easily distinguishable from the 1600. It has single port heads and comes within 3HP of the later 1600 and many enthusiast feel it was the "best" and most reliable engine.

 The 1200, 40HP engine ('61-'66) has some special attributes of its own and, I would say, having correct vintage 40 horse in your '61 - '66 bug is an important vintage consideration.

Now going back one further, we had the 36HP motor ('54-'60, was still 1200cc's though). This engine has some unique (and hard to find) internals. An original 36HP engine is a real perk, but rebuilding a tired one might be a little difficult and expensive. Parts for these engines are available but expect to have some difficulty finding them and to pay 2-3 times more for the same part as in a newer vintage engine. So keep that in mind. A quick way to spot a 36hp engine is that the generator stand is part of the right engine case half and is not a separate unboltable casting like it is on the later versions.

 I really won't get into the older engines because I really believe if you are going there, you better know what you are looking at BEFORE you read this. Summary: old and correct is valuable.

Mechanical Stuff- Vintage considerations, Other stuff

As I said many times earlier, when it comes to vintage, correct and complete is everything. Mechanically speaking, the things listed below are things that I would "OOooohh!!" if I saw in a "for sale" car:

About Chrome

This section was a late entry to this article. I realized just how important good chrome is (and how hard it is too find) as I started to re-assemble my '57. Not too long ago, good Beetle chrome was taken for granted, either because it wasn't that old and (on a driver) had been kept nice, or because good chrome spares were readily available. Now that isn't so much the case anymore. So I thought I would add this section and go over the chrome "bits" (as the English would say), front to back, and comment on availability and stuff. The thought being that someone scoping a Beetle for sale and seeing something rusted to nothingness or missing altogether might like to know the difference between "Not to worry, its an $8 part" and "Ha, you'd have better luck finding a T-Rex skull than one of those with good chrome".

As usual, this stuff is kind of "skewed" toward older Beetles, remember that I have never owned anything newer than a '68. And some of the stuff mentioned is body accents and trim which are actually not chromed but other metals.

Exterior Parts:

Interior Parts: Summary of it all

Ok, so we covered a lot of stuff here. Many people who have read this article and gone and looked at a Beetle that they thought was perfect came back and e-mailed me and said "man, you really scared me!" What does it all mean? It is hard for me to say "don't buy that one", because I feel like I can fix anything. But it is always a tradeoff. And it may be even more important for you to pass up a basket case give-away if you are unsure of your capabilities/resources. And don't under/over estimate the availability of missing or bad parts. Some stuff is damn hard to find. Scope out availability before you buy.

So to summarize the solid Beetle, let me group the candidates in to 4 general categories. This assumes that the selling price of the Beetle is fair. Yeah, if it is a giveaway, I might be inclined to buy more of a "project".

There are of course exceptions everywhere. No, I wouldn't "walk" on an otherwise complete '51 for $1000 because the rear running board area was rusted through. But on the other hand, a '71 with a loose clutch cable tube and a wheezing engine might make me go looking' at the other four '71s that are in the paper that week. And it doesn't mean you shouldn't buy that '64 that needs a tranny, bumpers and has baja fiberglass fenders all the way around. It just means that you shouldn't pay top dollar for it.

Hopefully that all helps "scope" things for you. What I really hoped to offer in all of this are those "hidden" things that are a real pain, and those things that might look big to a newbie, but are really easy and inexpensive to fix.

And remember, you WILL be fixing stuff.

Assessing the "Ultimate" Beetle

So, you want to get really picky huh?

Perfect is indisputable. I have decided to add this for two reasons.

I had made a note to myself to add this stuff as earlier this year after I went to assess a '56 that was for sale in my town for two separate people who contacted me on the 'net looking for a special old Beetle.

The short story goes that I had found a '56 "fully and professionally" restored in the classifieds, in my town, for $4500. Now, a '56, really restored nicely, might be worth that. But "magnifying glass" inspection of this car revealed that is was poorly done. At a distance this car looked wonderful. Nice paint, no dings in the lower front hood, absolutely pristine interior done in all the right (expensive) fabrics. But closer inspection revealed peeling paint, a B pillar with a "wave" curvature in it, and a nose that was punched in a good inch and a half such that the hood line didn't match the front quarter panel lines. 
I talked to the guy who had done the restoration work a couple years back, he was quite proud of his work. But it was an absolute shame to spend all of that time and money and paint on this car and not even TRY to pull the nose out. No one with good conscious could have painted over this B pillar and expected the discerning enthusiast not to notice. Interestingly enough, I was contacted via e-mail just last week by a guy looking for a wiper for his '56, found out he lives in the town next to mine. He called me and told me that he had bought this '56; for substantially less than the seller was asking. Months before, the seller had told me a dozen times about all the good money she spent on it (she did virtually none of the work). Sadly, she will never get it back.

So when you are inspecting that "concours" Beetle, what do you look for? Some of this stuff is obvious, I've already mentioned it (but I take it a step further), and some stuff you may never see perfect. And by the way, the car that passes all of these tests is NOT driven. Maybe across town to a show, where it is then wiped down for three hours. Here's my Beetle "final" exam:

So now you know. When you go out to see that car that the seller told you on the phone is "immaculate" or "mint", pick him apart a piece at a time until he grovels and sells you his "perfect" $6000 car for $2500. And if you can't, even with these tips, find a single fault or failure, race home and give me a call and let me know where this car is. You really don't want it. Perfect is perfect.

So How Much to Should I PAY!?

Well this is the difficult part. I cannot tell you how many people post on the newsgroup and ask me via e-mails "how much is it worth?". There's a part of me that say's "leave this alone", it is way too subjective and market driven. But the reality is that Beetles ARE inexpensive, still. So I will stick my neck WAY out and attempt to discuss the VALUE of Beetles. Remember that value is a personal virtue, and the "market" value of anything is the dollar amount that the person who values the piece the most is willing to offer. And this means that this person needs to be accessible to the seller. Just because a '65 Beetle in Japan fetches $8000 doesn't mean it is worth that in Indiana where the general populous has offered $1400 after 6 months in the paper. A seller has to make the decision to take and offer or sit around and wait for something higher. He can say that it is worth whatever he wants, but if it is higher than the highest buyers value, well, he'll still be sitting on it this time next year.

As it turns out, I just replied to a USENET post from somebody in my home state looking for advice on how to find a Beetle. So I went on line to a 5 state classified ad paper and did a search on "Beetle" and "Bug" in the antique cars section (I happen to know that this paper puts any car 25 years old and older car in "Antique Vehicles" automatically. Normally "Antique" and such headings as "Special Interest" means that the seller thinks it is worth more than an "ordinary" car). It occurred to me that this would be a great way to comment on Beetle values.

So below I have listed some of the Beetles in the March 4, 1997, and Feb. 13, 1998 issues of the New England "WantAdvertiser". I have removed the phone numbers. Following each ad are my comments regarding the ad.

Hopefully that little jaunt through the classifieds gives you some idea of what these things are going for. Below I have listed the classes of cars that I mentioned in "The Years" article and provided a price range of what I would pay.

Disclaimer: This is *my* assessment. These are what *I* would consider paying. There are always exceptions. Solid and complete counts the most, especially in the older models. I monitor classified ads in this area weekly and have been part of the buying and selling of many Beetles. Beetle market values may be different in other parts of the country. This is for "sedans", not convertibles. I would be so bold (having no experience with 'vert Beetles) to say that you could add 15-20% to the prices below for the 'verts, but do remember that 'vert only parts costs can be very high, especially for the earlier years.

Now bear in mind that I have never had any ownership experience with post '68 Beetles. They hold little vintage value for me and they seem to be orders of magnitude more common (available today) than the early 60s and older bugs (should be apparent in my pricing).

As unqualified as I am though, let me make a comment about late model convertibles. I have seen, quite often, '77- '79 convertibles for sale with very low mileage at ridiculous asking prices. I think many enthusiasts/collectors knew the demise of Beetle was inevitable and tried to take the last year (only convertibles were sold in '79) and hoard them. I have seen 1-40k mi 'verts with asking prices of $7 to $15k and up. These people are dreaming. In the VW circles, the real valuable models are the old years, original and well preserved. The '79 verts for $12k are usually owned by snooty people who couldn't tell you where the dipstick on the car is (heavy opinion). To them, the Beetle is no different from their Benz or Infinity (aka:"Datsun"). They just bought it because it's "cute" and "lots of people love these cars". Don't encourage them!

So that's it. Remember, these are my opinions (but I do welcome polite and constructive comments). I have lots of experience with these cars, but I don't know it all. And especially with pricing, there is no "right" answer. Remember to LEARN all you can before you go out and buy. Talk to as many owners, enthusiasts that you can. Get the Muir book if you are serious. Go to a VW show, they are a GREAT way to see what is out there and available. Read some industry magazines like "Hot VWs" or "VW Trends". Don't let a seller "tell" you what the car is worth. Especially today, buying a Beetle takes patience. It takes some investigation, lots of reading, phone calls, etc. But the are out there, you just have to find yours.

If it's in your blood at all, you will get sucked into it like the rest of us!!

Copyright© 1999; John S. Henry

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