That Car Again!
Not only is the Volkswagen one of the world's best-selling cars, it is also the one most frequently discussed in the World's Press. One of the latest references to the German beetle appears in the American journal Speed Age, which devotes 5½ pages to an article by Smith Archer under the heading of "Volkswagen -- World's Most Over-rated Car." Archer attempts to pull VW prestige to pieces but fails miserably.
After admitting that this little car is "one of the most successful machines in the world . . . by far the best-selling car in Europe; and even in U.S. it outsells all the other foreign jobs and a surprising number of U.S. cars," Archer opens his attack by stating that a VW is "thoroughly, almost aggressively ugly." He develops his theme by calling it underpowered, comparing its 45 lb. per h.p. with the 15 lb. per h.p. which is fairly standard in Detroit today -- which would be a far better attack were the VW intended as a sporting instead of a utility vehicle and if Detroit didn't happen to make some of the most powerful automobiles in the world!
Next crack is that you can't easily "soup" a VW. Archer sneers because the "skimpy intake ports defeat all the direct, inexpensive forms of souping -- like Henry's Model T," he adds. But the Model-T sold 15 million, the VW is on its way to 2 million because modest power spells reliability and long life. However, Archer is happy with his theme, even to comparing the performance of the model-A Ford with that of the V.W. ". . . a good model-A can blow you off at a traffic signal" -- although he admits "the VW's all-independent suspension gives it a big advantage over the model-A." This is offset by a suggestion that even bad roads in the U.S. don't call for i.r.s. This is true in England, too, but cars sell also in the continent of Europe, where roads are not so smooth. Over step-off acceleration, Archer has scrambled the facts. The Autocar gives a 10-30 m.p.h. time for a 1929 model-A of 8.8 sec.; the same journal timed a 1954 VW at 7.5 sec from rest to 30 mph.
Praise is grudgingly bestowed on VW dealer and service organisation because attention has to be drawn to Britain's "bland disinterest" in this matter. (There are a few exceptions, admits Archer, naming Jaguar as one.) But in practice dishonest U.S. service stations apparently tend to undermine the good intentions of Wolfsburg. In citing an example, however, Archer guns against his own argument -- an owner who is alleged to have spent 375 dollars on overhauls in 40,000 miles says he's sure he's been "had" and would dump the thing in a minute if there were "anything made in the U.S. that matched the VW in payload capacity, low initial cost and operating cost." A car which makes you admit that after complete engine and transmission failure isn't exactly over-rated!
This article concludes with jibes at poor chrome, falling craftsmanship, oversteer, restricted space in the back parlour, a poor heating system, noise, battery-fumes inside the car, and leaking oil-coolers. One owner is cited as having experienced five broken clutch cables on three different VWs. Nordhoff is dismissed as "Napoleonic and conservative all the way down the line" -- yet he is only following in the footsteps of Henry Ford and Andre Citroen, Sir Henry Royce and the Jowett brothers over no-change policy and, to be fair, can the introduction of the Italian-style Karmann-Ghia coupe be called conservative? If you want to go faster, there is the Porsche. Finally, Archer dispels the genius of Dr. Porsche by attributing the VW design to Ledwinka of Tatra, which no doubt rests on fairly solid foundations.
Part of what Smith Archer writes is, indeed, near-truth. The VW was conceived many years ago, it is cramped for four grown-up passengers, it does oversteer, its chrome isn't so hot and the early oil-coolers did develop leaks -- although our clutch cable hasn't broken in 36,000 miles. The ridiculous thing is that so much time is wasted in trying to puff the beetle off the roof. From its sales-record alone, apart from the almost embarrassing volume of correspondence we still receive, it is abundantly clear that there is a growing demand for a family car of this sort. Instead of slanging it, we should be busy with designs that will beat it.
Our Motor Industry Research Association laboriously tore a VW down to its component parts, presumably to reassure British motor manufacturers that it is a poor sort of thing, anyway, and not to worry. But did they find it so poor? If they had, you would expect the Press to be called in to publicise the good tidings. But, although we are members of the S.M.M.T., we have been told we cannot read this report on the German competitor . . .
Why waste time compiling reports and writing articles which are on a par with the alleged German "smear campaign" conducted against our products? The widely read U.S. Consumer Reports, in their 1957 auto ratings, confirm powerfully the worth of the VW in the up-to-2,000-dollars class and even include a "letter from a Young Man to a car manufacturer" in which the writer, after sampling a variety of U.S. automobiles, adds a postscript, "This morning I got a lift in another car, a VW. It wasn't much to look at, but you should hear the owner rave about it. It's small; it's easy to drive and park; it handles like a kiddie car; it's sturdy; it costs just over 1,500-dollars, and it's economical to run. In fact, it's about everything that Mary and I need and want ... " That is the sort of competition we have to crack; the VW isn't perfect and we should be able to do it. Motor Sport has tried for a long time to open the eyes of British designers to the sort of competition they face -- closing them will prove fatal. We must put light quick steering, a delightful gear-change with "real" lever, good paint finish and trim, low tyre-wear, long engine life, good engine-balance, ingenious design, a high degree of "thiefproofness," big fuel-range and all-round-independent-suspension on the list, keep weight down, and perhaps abolish prop.-shaft and heavy water, to beat the VW's monopoly.
B.M.C. have already "seen the light" and returned to short, rigid gear levers and, in the Wolseley 1500, offer built-in overdrive which, even in a small-engined car, gives that low r.p.m. at cruising speed which 30/98 owners enthused over many years ago. We believe B.M.C. have i.r.s. on the stocks, too. It may be tempting to make cars which wear out after a year or so, thus encouraging early replacement. But we must not overlook the VW claim of 60,000 to 70,000 miles before major engine overhaul is required. In this respect it was disappointing to read, in the Manchester Evening News earlier this year, that Dr. J. H. Weaving, Superintendent of Research and Design at the Austin Motor Company, was reported as saying that the public wants, among other things, "trouble-free motoring up to 25,000 miles." It seems to us that Dr. Weaving should set his sights considerably higher!
The VW isn't a sports car but its ability to average 40 m.p.h. on cross-country journeys over our twisty minor roads at rather better than 40 m.p.g. of medium-priced petrol is sufficient performance for many. Let that be another target for our designers to aim at, and surpass.
If refreshingly new worth-while British designs come along Motor Sport will be delighted and intends to go flat-out to publicise them. Britain cannot afford to ignore the insect-life which teems over the highways and by-ways of the world !
As a Tanganyika correspondent wrote so aptly to The Autocar recently: "This constant denigration of the VW in the British Press is simply sour grapes. Face the facts -- over a million people all over the world have bought the VW and found it to be a well designed and splendidly-built car at a moderate price, and -- most important -- with cheap spares coupled to a servicing agency second to none. When the British build a car like it, they'll have something." To which Motor Sport would add, it isn't something like it we want, it's something better. -- W.B.