classic cars - the volkswagen beetle

no one could have predicted the rise of the volkswagen beetle. brainchild of ferdinand porsche, the type one (as the beetle is technically known) has become the by-word for retro chic. neil hopkins looks under the cellulose paint

The VW Beetle has had more incarnations than David Bowie, Madonna and Fatboy Slim put together. Ferdinand Porsche's original design brief was to create a vehicle to drive the German motor revolution by conveying the thousands of workers up and down the miles of autobahn that were being laid as fast as the concrete could be produced. The car needed to be powerful, nearly indestructible but most of all, affordable.

The result was unlike anything that had ever been produced before. If you had two spanners, an adjustable wrench and two screwdrivers, most of the car could be taken apart and stacked away within a day. Powerful enough to climb large hills with a full luggage load, yet efficient enough to cruise the autobahns for hours without a pause, the Beetle soon became the mode of transport in 1940s Germany. The Beetle as we know it nearly disappeared after the war due to the destruction of the factory by Allied bombers, but English Army Major Ivan Hurst kept the production lines rolling and kept the dream alive.

The 1960s saw the biggest explosion of Beetles in this country. Immortalised by Walt Disney's 'Herbie', the Beetle was driven by everyone from hip students to families with four children and a dog who appreciated the deceptive size of the car and the durability of the rear-mounted, flat-four air-cooled engine (engines routinely go on for over 150,000 miles with little more than regular servicing).

Although the Beetle has been altered cosmetically over the years, much of the construction is identical to the very first Kraft durch Freund Wagens - the Strength through Joy Cars - that powered Hitler's vehicle revolution. The KdF Wagens, now rarer that rocking horse fossils, had a split rear window, sloping front headlights, a 6v electrical system and mechanical brakes. The mechanical brakes disappeared in the 1940s to be replaced by a more modern hydraulic system, and the split window became an oval at the end of the decade. The Splits and Ovals, as they have become known, are among the most highly sought after cars on the market. The wings became upright in 1964 just after the rear window became rectangular and the wiring doubled in voltage - meaning that driving by night was less like holding a candle. Most Beetles on the road are from this period and later - only a relatively small number are in daily use from before 1964.

In the early 1970s, VW decided to produce a sporting Beetle and hence the 1302/3 series was born. Equipped with McPherson front suspension (the same design as is found on modern cars), reshaped bonnet and front end and a curved front windscreen, the 1302/3 series proved very popular especially on the off-road racing circuit - the rear wheel drive powered the vehicles across the most testing terrain while the up rated suspension coped with the worst that dirt tracks could throw at it. Today, not many 1302/3s survive, due to their heavy predilection for rust and the fact that many Beetle 'purists' prefer the older shape with its unaerodynamic front windscreen and longer bonnet.

Many of the Beetles that still survive are customised. Some sport only mild lowering jobs, giving them a little more road poise. Others have been completely transformed from the original shape, and the most distinctive of these is the Baja conversion. Beefed up suspension, massive rear tyres and no rear valance - which leaves the engine surrounded by a shining steel cage - give the Bajas an unmistakable profile and sound. Rev a Baja hard enough and you'll shake your neighbours' windows. If power is your thing, then even mild modifications to the basic engine block will produce enough power to regularly spew gravel from the rear tyres. And if a standard VW engine just won't do, put in a bit of work, run some cooling pipes through the body to a front grille and drop a V8 or Porsche 924 unit in the back.

If you appreciate a laid back lifestyle, then an air-cooled VW is for you - the VW 'Scene' is characterised by the dual mantras of 'No Worries' and 'Take it easy'. You can't be rushed in an air-cooled VW, so why should you be rushed when out of one? And to think, there are people who don't believe that Beetles are a way of life.