Press "Enter" to skip to content

Collectors Who Caught the Bug

Most of us don’t find insects endearing, but Volkswagen’s Bug can elicit smiles. Unofficially nicknamed both Beetle and Bug, the original Volkswagen Type 1 is the happy little car that won the hearts of American motorists with its quirky personality, its unique appearance and a brilliant advertising campaign.

Although beloved today, the car that made Volkswagen a major automaker was born ignominiously as a pet project of Adolf Hitler, who wanted an inexpensive vehicle for average Germans. But the car never got off the ground in Hitler’s time. Ferdinand Porsche and his team completed their design by 1938, but wartime production took precedence, and the Beetle was not mass-produced until the end of the 1940s.

Porsche has traditionally been credited as the Beetle’s creator, but in 1953 his standing was challenged by Bela Barenyi, a Hungarian engineer who contended in court that he had designed a very similar machine for Mercedes-Benz before Porsche made his first Beetle. Thus the Bug was born with two squabbling fathers.

Today, when 600 horsepower is not uncommon in high-performance automobiles, it may be hard to imagine how one can fall in love with a car whose first iteration had a mere 25 horsepower and took almost forever to reach its top speed of 62 miles an hour. But a growing number of classic car collectors and VW enthusiasts are enamored of the older Beetles, the models from 1949 through 1965 that got by with 40 horsepower or less and a top speed of 60 to 72 m.p.h. Diminutive cars that are dependent on driver skill to achieve acceptable acceleration, the pokey Beetles are much loved.

How beloved? Matthew Smith, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Manchester in England, is basing his thesis on the special place the little car holds in the lives of many and how this relationship can foster positive mental health. Mr. Smith practices what he preaches: He owns numerous Beetles, the oldest a 1954 model.

The fan base is big, and the barriers to entry to this corner of the collector market are relatively low — think $20,000 to $30,000 for a nice specimen, and substantially lower for a project car.

“I’m in love with Swoon,” said Lourdes Orive of Beaux Arts Village in Washington State. Swoon is her 1960 Beetle, manufactured in Wolfsburg, Germany, and sold by Hans Moosmaier, a dealer in Bamberg.

A German market car, it retains the semaphore turn signals that pop up from the B-pillar to indicate a change of direction. With just 36 horsepower, Swoon isn’t in a hurry to get anywhere, taking over half a minute to reach her top speed of 68 m.p.h. (Yes, Swoon is a female, a mature and classy lady, according to Ms. Orive.)

“Female is just a feeling I get when I drive her,” said Ms. Orive, who doesn’t mind the pokey acceleration. “The beauty of it is I don’t have to go anywhere fast,” she said. “It reminds me to take life at a more reasonable pace.”

Many people name their cars, but Beetle owners seem more inclined than most. Taking cues from Herbie, the Love Bug? In posts on Facebook Beetle groups, women’s names are common.

Doug and Nancy Barber, who live in Ohio, bought their 1964 Beetle from the second owner’s grandson. The car, now known as Bella, was driven 85,150 meticulously documented miles before being taken off the road for the most part in 1983 and retired to a life of pampering. Every autumn Bella was treated to an extensive maintenance and beautification procedure until the owner died in 2018. Those 35 years added only 2,630 miles to the odometer.

The car now lives in a climate-controlled garage and gets a maintenance and appearance refresh every autumn. Since the Barbers bought the car, they have driven it about 3,000 miles a year: 65 m.p.h. max in the right lane.

“When we get in Bella it’s 1964 all over again,” said Mr. Barber, a retired teacher and an automotive historian who has owned six Volkswagens. That connection may be due to his mother having chauffeured him around in a ’60s Beetle when he was young. It is no coincidence that Mom’s Beetle wore the same “sea blue” paint as Bella.

“All of the sensations are the same. It sounds like I remember it. It smells like I remember it,” Mr. Barber said.

That smell is the classic VW aroma emanating from the coconut-hair seat padding, something Beetle lovers embrace. Perhaps it’s testimony to the car’s simplicity that the smell of the upholstery is a key feature. But other practical attributes stand out.

“They were what they were: economical, reliable, repairable and relatable,” Mr. Barber said.

Other Bugs are given men’s names. Mike Betz of George, Iowa, bought his ’64 Beetle from a man named Roy, so he named the car Roy. Why not? The car is an original, having been treated only to a repaint and 12-volt conversion. (Early VWs relied on a somewhat unreliable six-volt electrical system.)

Mr. Betz drives his Beetle regularly and reports that the 40-horsepower machine’s first gear is sluggish but that the upper gears of the four-speed manual transmission provide a bit more punch.

But collectors aren’t into Beetles for speed. For most, the attraction lies in the very simple nature of the car, an attribute celebrated by the advertising campaign that Doyle Dane Bernbach created for Volkswagen in 1959. The first ad featured a tiny photo of the Beetle and the headline “Think Small.”

Sherry Hendershot of Spencerport, N.Y., has been driving Beetles for 40 years. One of her current cars is a practical late model, the other a 36-horsepower 1960 model. She named it Flo.

“The older Beetles are more utilitarian,” Ms. Hendershot said. “They’re for the purists. I love the old-style look, with a metal dashboard and not many bells and whistles. No vinyl padded dash.”

Ms. Hendershot fell in love with the little cars at an early age. Her science teacher, Mr. Warren, gave her a ride home in his Beetle when she was a 15-year-old high school student. “I’ve been in love with them ever since,” she said.

As if to underscore her devotion, Ms. Hendershot recently bought yet another Beetle, a largely original ’59. More love.

While the Beetles’ unhurried nature is often a plus, there are dissenters. Jeff Spearn of Searcy, Ark., owns a ’56 Beetle that he modified to make it as quick as most muscle cars. With a VW engine displacing 2.3 liters and dressed with an array of speed equipment, the little 200-horsepower Bug can knock off a quarter-mile in 13 seconds at 100 m.p.h. And yes, his hot rod, which is a regular on the rod and custom car show circuit, has a name: Dark Horse.

But Mr. Spearn also has a completely stock, coral red 36-horsepower ’56 Beetle. A third ’56 Beetle is disassembled in preparation for reincarnation. When Mr. Spearn was 15, he used $45 of his paper route money to buy a beat-up Beetle. After rebuilding the carburetor and installing a new wiring harness, he was able to drive it around the block, and it provided transportation through his high school years.

Beetles provide “relaxed fun,” Mr. Spearn said. “You can’t get away from having a good time when you’re driving a Volkswagen.”