Few cars can have earned as many adjectives as the Volkswagen . . . reliable, dangerous, strong, ugly, well-made, and noisy are just a cross-section of the view-points of 10 million post-war owners who, it seems to us, bear shortcomings lightly.
At least until the new ” 1500 beetle ” came along the suspension had always seemed to be the focal point of criticism, a driver needing to be very good or very foolish to press on in wet and slippery conditions, so it intrigued us when Speedwell Performance Conversions Ltd showed us a car equipped with many modifications designed to improve handling and road-holding. Road springs at the rear are shorter and the transverse camber compensator spring fitted to limit travel of the swing-axles. An anti-roll bar on the front suspension also helps to limit weight transfer, and the job is completed with Speedwell’s own heavy-duty shock absorbers. It was also found necessary to develop and fit a heavy duty steering damper.
Reducing unsprung weight to a minimum must also assist handling, and for the first time we had the chance to use the new Speedwell – B.R.M. magnesium alloy five-stud wheels, shod with Dunlop SP4I tyres in this case. The wheels are certainly expensive at £14 each, but give the advantage of a 5J rim and 8 lb. weight, compared with a 4J rim and 12 lb. weight for the normal equipment. The test car started life as a 1200 c.c. model, and although a ” big-bore ” kit has increased the capacity to 1,350 c.c.—a useful increment for owners of older versions—it should be borne in mind that new VWs have a capacity of 1300 or 1500 c.c. in standard form. Perhaps the most interesting thing about the engine improvements is the adoption of a pair of Stromberg CD 38 m.m. carburetters which, logically, make a significant contribution to better combustion on the banks of a flat-four unit. The average power increase is about six horsepower, net, as the choke area has been increased by four times, and special adaptors make the kit suitable for any size of engine in the VW beetle range. Torque is also improved, in the case of the 1300 from 63 to 68 lb. ft. and the 1500 from 74 to 79 lb. ft. In no instance do Speedwell advocate improvements to the heads or cams, relying rather on making the existing designs more efficient.
The standard throttle cable arrangement is retained, but with a series of adjustments to give anything from a light to heavy pedal response. Another feature of the test car was the ” Grand Prix” exhaust manifold and silencer, making the car a little noisier, especially when driven hard, but allowing the engine to breathe better. As modified, the 1,350 c.c. Speedwell version was giving about 50 b.h.p. net and some 70 lb. ft. torque. Also included in the specification were a brake booster assisting heavy duty linings, a wood-rim steering wheel, and sub-panel containing a set of instruments manufactured for Speedwell, namely a tachometer, oil temperature and oil pressure gauges.
Due to advanced ignition timing the Speedwell VW was not always a first-time starter from cold, especially in sub-zero temperatures, and it was a little disconcerting to see the oil pressure gauge remain on the stop for anything up to a mile, an effect of the long supply line from the rear engine. In normal winter running the oil temperature rarely rose above 60 deg. C, and in consequence we would not pay much attention to the gauges except when running on motorways.
Undoubtedly this Volkswagen is different. The engine has the typically flat beat but the note is lusty, and acceleration is decidedly useful while falling short of gran turismo standards with a 0-60 m.p.h, figure of 18.1 sec. (compared with 33 sec. for the normal 1200) and a standing-start quarter-mile in 20 sec. More impressive is the low-down torque which urges the car forward without undue fuss, enabling the driver to change up effectively at around 4,000 r.p.m. before the engine gets very noisy. The rev-counter, if fitted in the sub-panel, is masked by the thick wood-rim steering wheel and the driver’s hand; normally the best change-up point in fast driving is 5,000 r.p.m., with 5,500 as the limit.
The best thing about the conversion is the car’s handling, particularly its behaviour on wet roads. With the lighter of two front anti-roll bars fitted there is primary understeer in cornering, though basically the beetle can be nothing but an oversteering car. The camber compensator combines with the roll-bar to subdue lurching on oversteer transfer and the axle-swing has been so reduced that a driver can gain considerable confidence. As grip on wet or dry roads has been substantially increased with wide-rim wheels and S.P. tyres it is possible to compare the cornering potential with that of a Mini, and that should be praise enough. Naturally, the ride is harder than standard, since float and body-roll have been reduced, but the sporting driver would not have cause for complaint.
Another excellent modification, costing only a couple of pounds, is a linkage retaining strap which limits movement of the gear lever so that the normal quick and light change is effected with only about half the movement. Braking, with the servo, is light to the point of being fierce in town, particularly when the drums are cold, and would no doubt have been better at speed if the drums had not needed dusting out. The standard lighting system was unfortunately quite inadequate to match the performance.
Anyone wanting to increase the capacity of a 1200 engine can buy a “big bore ” kit for £42, and prices of other modifications are as follows:
Sprint kit consisting of two Stromberg carburetters, manifolding and linkages, £39 15s; Grand Prix exhaust system and manifolding, £29 15s; camber compensator, £5 19s 6d; front sway bar, £7 15s; competition dampers, £10 a set of four; steering damper, £2 10s; brake servo, £14 15s; competition linings, £6 a set; 4J steel wheels £6 10s each, or 5J magnesium-alloy wheels £14 each; quick-shift gear-change, £1 19s 6d; handbrake warning light, £3 15s; rev.-counter, £10 15s; oil-temperature gauge, £4 9s. 6d; oil-pressure gauge. £3 3s; instrument panel, £1 7s 6d.—M. L. C.
Acceleration (m.p.h. / secs.):
0 – 30 / 5.8; 0 – 40 / 8.9; 0 – 50 / 14.1; 0 – 60 / 18.1; 0- 70 / 29.7
1st ..22; 2nd..42; 3rd..66; 4th..85.
Fuel consumption, 26.2 m.p.g.
Conversion by:Speedwell Performance Conversions Ltd., Cornwall Avenue, London, N3.