Another look at VW

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Road impressions of the Volkswagen 1500S and Volkswagen 1200

A car is only as good as its after-sales service.”
— Dr. Ing.h.c. Heinrich Nordhoff, Managing Director, of Volkswagenwerk .A.G.

Last year, when the keenly-anticipated twin-carburetter VW 1500S saloon was subjected to a Motor Sport road-test, we were disappointed with its performance and petrol consumption. We were assured that the car must be substandard and, knowing that a VW engine needs a great deal of usage before it frees up to the fullest extent, we agreed to try the 1500S again, which last month we were able to do.

The sales success of Volkswagenwerk A.G.’s somewhat outmoded cars is a phenomenon of recent years. Sales figures still soar, notably in the U.S.A., where the 1500 is likely to be introduced for the first time next summer. According to Fortune, VW is the eighth greatest industrial organisation outside America, larger even than Fiat, Daimler-Benz, the B.M.C. and Renault. Nearly 12% of German merchant shipping is occupied with carrying VW vehicles round the world, and in 1964 Volkswagenwerk chartered 67 ships to take some 1/2-million VWs to ports in one hundred different countries. By the end of this year VW expects to increase its production capacity by 15% over last year’s output, which means that it will be turning out about 6,000 vehicles every day. . . .

In this country Volkswagen Motors Ltd., now part of the Thomas Tilling Group, commenced operating a spare parts service from a basement in Davies Street, London, in 1954, where it was a major operation to store and distribute spares for 1,000 VWs in the U.K. For the initial five years their concessionaireship was limited severely by licence and at the end of that period only 20,000 VWs had been imported. Thereafter these restrictions were removed and since 1959 imports have totalled over 100,000. Indeed, last summer the 100,000th VW 1200 to be brought into the U.K. was unloaded at Ramsgate, so that since 1953 over 140,000 VWs have been imported into the U.K. by Volkswagen Motors Ltd., who are the sole importers.

Such vital importance is attached by Volkswagen Motors Ltd. to their spares facilities that when their activities were hampered by a series of dock strikes in London they purchased 25 acres of land at Ramsgate on which the largest concrete-frame building in the U.K. was erected, to serve as a spares store, from which the millions of parts formerly stored at the Slough Depot were moved in the short space of less than three months. Ramsgate also serves as the reception area for imported VWs; where over 100 cars a day pass through the waxing and preparation plant, and it has an ultra-modern office block, in the construction of which German wall tiles, Spanish glazed terracotta partitioning, Welsh green slate flooring, Portuguese carpeting and Swedish floor tiling are blended. The roof lights are specially treated to pass maximum light with insulation from the heat of the sun, and automatic air conditioning is provided by Colt ventilators. ‘The Distribution Centre has its own street lighting, the main buildings are floodlit, and automatic fire alarms are connected directly to Margate fire-station. This development cost approximately £1-1/2-million and is under the control of Mr. J. J. Graydon, the popular Managing Director of Volkswagen Motors Ltd.

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“The external shape of a car does not determine its inner worth.”—VW catalogue.

In view of the foregoing, I should like to be able to report that the re-tested VW 1500S proved a jewel of a car. In fact, the performance figures obtained by the fifth-wheel-driven electric speedometer method were not particularly good and petrol consumption was heavy. Before condemning the car on this score, however, I think that possibly a misconception has built up about the S-series 1-1/2-litre Volkswagen.

When the special 1500S arrived from Sweden for the 1963 R.A.C. Rally they undoubtedly displayed very high performance, and legends of the vivid acceleration and 100+ m.p.h. top speed we could expect when the production 1500SS became available were rife in the land. But works-sponsored rally cars almost always out-perform catalogue versions of equivalent models. So I think it is with this bigger, more powerful Volkswagen, remembering that those rally cars were said to give some 74 b.h.p., whereas the normal 1500S is credited with 66 b.h.p.

Although the speedometer of the test car went to nearly “the ton” at the end of one long straight, the practical maximum is 90 m.p.h., while the acceleration figures we obtained were:—

0-30 m.p.h. … 5.7 sec. (5.1 sec.)

0-40 m.p.h. … 8.6 sec. (8.1 sec.)

0-50 m.p.h. … 13.9 sec. (13.5 sec.)

0-60 m.p.h. … 19.0 sec. (18.0 sec.)

0-70 m.p.h. … 28.8 sec. (27.9 sec.)

Standing start 1/4-mile … 21.7 sec. (21.5 sec.)

Best times in parentheses.

These figures show little improvement over those obtained last year, and then only above 60 m.p.h.; VW blame this on clutch slip, but this wasn’t noticeable when driving the car.

As to fuel consumption, road driving gave a figure of 26.0 m.p.g., including some fast driving when 56 m.p.h. was averaged over a deserted cross-country route at night. Feather-footed local commuting, without exceeding 50 m.p.h., gave 33 m.p.g., so the overall figure is 28.3 m.p.g. The engine called audibly for 100-octane petrol and even on that was inclined to knock, so the performance figures cannot have been affected by retarded ignition. The fuel tank holds petrol for 220 miles, the reserve arrow indicating that sufficient fuel for 30 miles remains; it shows zero for some distance before the tank runs dry.

Because the acceleration and other performance figures are not particularly impressive, the VW 1500S must not be dismissed as a worthless automobile. It should be borne in mind that, in comparison with the 1500N, it develops an extra 12 b.h.p. Similar figures for other performance-plus models are the 29-1/2 additional horses of a Ford Cortina GT over the normal Cortina, 20 more b.h.p. from a B.M.W. 1800 TI over the output of the ordinary 1800 (which itself gives ten more b.h.p. than a B.M.W. 1500), Laricia’s gain of 14 b.h.p. by increasing the capacity of the original Flavia from 1-1/2 -litres to 1.8-litres (or 32 b.h.p. if you have the latter in Sport guise), and the progressive uplift in power of 31, 34, or 41 b.h.p. available to B.M.C. Mini drivers by ordering a 970-c.c. Mini-Cooper, a Mini-Cooper S., or a 1,275-c.c. Mini-Cooper instead of a bread-and-butter Minibric. While there are other factors besides b.h.p. to be considered in assessing a car’s performance, this is a quick guide to why these cars go better than the lower-powered equivalent models of the same make and excuses the VW 1500S for not being able to out-perform a 1500N to quite the degree the rally-showing of three years ago suggested.

On the road this Volkswagen has useful step-off acceleration, and the play-free steering from a small, low-set wheel, light but not as light as that of a Beetle, gives confidence in traffic. Although cross-winds make the car weave, the handling is better than first acquaintance leads one to expect, because roll does not develop under fast cornering and road-grip, even with the tyres on the test car, which were tubeless Michelin LPs and not “X”s, is quite good. Although not in the category of a front-drive vehicle, the VW 1500S can be glibly put into a deliberate tail slide and this can be neatly controlled by putting on opposite lock, without disaster. One is, however, always conscious of the wing-axle rear suspension and the torsion-bar springing is bouncy on bad roads.

The appearance of this compact 5-seater saloon with its 16-in. tyres may be undistinguished, even old-fashioned, but it follows splendidly the VW policy of no-changes-for-the-sake-of-change, and the concept is that of reliability, tyre and oil economy and long life rather than modern styling.

The comfortable front seats, adjustable to 49 different settings (although I found the squab knob far too stiff), the excellent finish (four coats of paint, each individually sprayed on, sanded and inspected), the delightful gear-change which makes light of the need for frequent use of the gear-lever, and the quiet functioning once the engine has finished accelerating, are credit points very much in the VW’s favour. Doors and boot-lids shut nicely and the controls are properly fitted.

Rather than fill pages with a detailed description, I would refer you to a beautifully-produced, copiously-illustrated publication, “The VW Idea in the I.5-Litre Class,” which, distributed from the Sales Promotion Department at Ramsgate, should be available from VW agents, or direct from Volkswagen Motors Ltd. if you mention Motor Sport when you write. It is most persuasive, but honest—bidding you, for instance, “to look at the angles and corners you don’t normally notice. The door edges, under the seat bench, under the carpeting” before buying a VW.

It describes all the VW amenities of simplicity and common sense, such as the three-dial facia—Vdo clock, which kept good time, 100-m.p.h. speedometer calibrated in progressive steps, with non-decimal milometer, and fuel gauge incorporating multiple warning lights—the so-convenient central hand-brake, the handgrip before the unlockable cubby-hole, the seven heater inlets, and so on. Indeed, this booklet even illustrates all 49 settings of the front seats!

One cannot but admire the ingenious engineering which stows the 83 x 69-mm. (1,493 c.c.) air-cooled, flat-four 66-b.h.p. (S.A.E.) engine beneath the floor of the rear boot, so that, as the aforesaid publication has it, you have two luggage compartments, “one for gentlemen, the other for ladies, or one for grown-up, the other for children,” to ensure that the VW is counterbalanced, “like carrying two suitcases, one in each hand, rather than one large case, twice as heavy.”

Naturally, this book is a publicity publication, and I do not agree with everything in it. For instance, the dip-stick can be withdrawn without lifting the engine-compartment flap, but one still has to open the boot-lid, so this is no more convenient than lifting a conventional bonnet, and it is an exaggeration to claim it as “something new in motor-car construction.” But the honesty of the announcements is commendable––”You’re welcome to a test drive at any time—tomorrow, in six months, a year, or in the more distant future. It will still be the same VW 1500S—more than likely with a few improvements (even with good things, there’s always room for improvement). But one thing is certain, it won’t be another car, redesigned according to the latest fad in auto styling,” or, “The VW 1500S is a 5-seater. Therefore, you should try it out in five ways—as driver, as front-seat passenger, and as a passenger in the rear, on the left, in the middle, and on the right.” And so on. . . .

As it’s all in this literature, and because we published a full road-test report on the normal VW 1500N saloon in May 1962 and one on the Variant, or estate car, in September 1963, I need not add more than to say that the engine, after turning over relatively slowly on the 6-volt starter, commenced very readily in the coldest weather, that the neat but rather too small press-buttons for lights and wipers have been replaced by conventional knobs, the wipers’ having a washers’ control in its centre, that the “knob-of-a-thousand turns” which used to work the heater has been replaced by two little floor levers for volume and direction of flow, abetted by three facia controls, but that the neat interior door handles-cum-locks, dished steering wheel with horn-push on its spoke, and lamps flashing-switch under the flashers’ control I.h. stalk are retained. The screen-washers require pressurising from a tyre pump (35 lb./sq. in.), which may eliminate working parts but could be vulnerable to leaks.

VW make much of their “standing” instead of pendant pedals, but they are awkwardly high from the floor. The door arm-rests are well positioned, there are pockets in the doors, the upright spare wheel in the front of the front-boot is easy to remove, but interior light and bonnet-release knob remain on the near-side no doubt VW don’t consider they sell sufficient r.h.d. cars to justify a transfer. The front seats slide easily and there is a useful o/s. exterior mirror.

The brakes are powerful, rather sudden, and had a tendency to pull to the left. The austere interior is beautifully finished, the heater adequate, and the attention to detail—such as the cover over the fan-belt—praiseworthy. The direction flashers ceased to function after 943 miles; rather dangerously, because their indicator light’s (both of which come on whichever signal is being made) remained operative. Otherwise this unusual Volkswagen 1500S gave no trouble and after just over 1,000 miles the sump level had dropped by the equivalent of one pint of oil.

Not exactly an up-to-the-minute or even a very spacious car, this long-wearing 1500S, which will cruise “unburstably” at nearly its maximum speed, will presumably continue to sell to discerning owner-drivers at its high price here of £938. Air-permeable leatherette instead of cloth upholstery and a sliding roof cost extra.

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“It is with great pleasure that we welcome you into a family of VW owners, who now number over seven million.”—From a VW 1200 service publication.

Following the 1500S, VW Motors fixed me up with a vivid red Beetle to try, which immediately made me feel ten years younger, although in 1955 I was concerned with a black beetle. So much has been written about the VW 1200 and so many people now own these cars, that I need not elaborate. The initial impression was of a very narrow car with high scuttle. The very wide back seat makes it a 5-seater but this back bench is close to the extremely comfortable front seats—a true compact!

The engine was surprisingly noisy, clattering when idling as if a tappet needed adjusting and making a whirring noise at speed. Memory suggests that my more feeble old VW was quieter. But soon I was captivated by the splendid gear-change (although the knob of the lever has been cheapened), the light, positive steering geared under 3-turns lock-to-lock, found the brakes a bit sudden but adequate, and the feeling of “unbreakableness” about the car undeniably pleasing.

For 1965 the famous Beetle has larger windows and greater screen area, improved heating, lower brake-pedal pressure, better wipers, modified jacking, swivelling vizors, excellent press-button external door handles, two levers to control heating instead of that tiresome knob, and a steering wheel with horn pushes like those of the 1500, apart from less apparent improvements which the Wolfsburg technicians are forever incorporating. Lights and wipers/washers knobs are akin to those on the bigger VW but placed, conveniently, in the centre of the painted facia. The excellence of the external finish goes without saying and inside the car the door upholstery panels fit beautifully, and everything feels firm and works properly. It is still desirable to open a window before closing a door, due to the excellence of the rubber sealing, which, I gather, is not just pasted on, but is also held fast by the fold of the door’s edge.

So many VW owners still acknowledge one another that it is a pity the lamps-flasher of the 1500 is absent from the l.h. direction indicators’ stalk; however, this camaraderie amongst owners is reassuring, because it implies that a VW in trouble (eh !—out of fuel) would not be long without help arriving.

There is now a Vdo fuel gauge, blending with the facia beading, in lieu of the old petrol-tap, the only other dial being the 90-m.p.h. Vdo speedometer.

I did not take performance figures, but the 41.5-b.h.p. engine winds the car up to indicated speeds of 25, 50 and 70 m.p.h. in the three lower gears. As to economy, VW intended to fill the tank with premium fuel but the garage being temporarily out of it, they put in the cheapest grade. Whereas my 1955 VW was fine on mixture but refused “cooking” petrol, the more powerful 1965 model never gave a trace of pinking, and on local, pottering chores unconducive to economy, that tankful lasted for 269 miles (not the 306 the instruction book quotes but useful nevertheless), the reserve reading on the gauge coming on after 230 miles. Further tests of fuel consumption in more normal motoring gave an overall figure of 33.6 m.p.g., still using inexpensive petrol. A pint of oil was required after 450 miles.

The VW 1200 has not altered its beetle shape since its inception and ugly Hella turn-indicators now spoil its clean outline —the test car had Bosch headlamps. The road-holding may have been left behind, especially by Birmingham-weaned f.w.d. small cars, which is why I would not relish returning to all-the-time use of a Volkswagen, and the suspension is lively and swings the steering wheel, but there is no denying the usefulness of the Volkswagen, particularly as a second or third vehicle in 2- and 3-car families. At its price of £650 (up by £24 since Labour’s inflated Import Duty), it is expensive compared with the Mini (£515), Fiat 850 (£576), Imp (£533) or Ford Anglia (£576), but it is either larger, or its advocates regard it as more durable, or both. And, of course, it oozes individuality. Both test cars had Irvin safety-belts.

The test car gave no trouble in a week’s donkey-work, and the only snags were that the front bonnet had to be slammed shut and there was reflection from the white steering wheel in the screen. A panel at the rear of the front boot, when two nuts are removed (one had removed itself on the test car), detaches to make the behind-the-facia wiring and fuses splendidly accessible. The 1200 started after frosty nights out if anything even more promptly than the 1500S. It was easy to drive, providing one kept changing gear, and looked distinctly smart. The 600 x 15 Michelin tubeless tyres should last a very long time. In fact, some of my old enthusiasm is flooding back. Time to stop? — W.B.

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