We Discover the Volkswagen
Until this month we did not include the Volkswagen in our repertoire. Realising that the Motoring education is incomplete without experience of this technically ingenious German “people’s car,” we asked A. Colbourne-Baber, of Colbourne Garage Ltd. on the Portsmouth Road at Ripley, in Surrey, official British distributors for Volkswagen spares, if we could try one of his overhauled used cars. The reply was that so continuous was the demand for them that he couldn’t spare one, even for a few hours.
The matter appeared to be shelved indefinitely when the telephone rang, Mr. Baber explained that he was flying to Germany to the Volkswagen works, and would we like to borrow his personal Volkswagen while he was away? We said with alacrity that not only would this please us very much, but that we would accompany him to Northolt so as to familiarise ourselves with the car and its controls in his company.
Subsequently we drove this smart two-colour 1947 saloon over 350 miles and were completely captivated by it. To summarise before stating the case for the Volkswagen, here is a car of intense technical interest to the enthusiast, which handles very well indeed, which can carry up to four persons in complete isolation from the elements, which is decidedly economical, and immune from frost damage in winter. If the Fiat 500 remains one of the best baby cars yet built, the Volkswagen, or K.d.F., intended by Dr. Porsche, its talented designer, to sell to the herrenvolk for a mere £99, is surely the most sensible “next step up.” When you consider the merits of the K.d.F. in relation to much of the secondhand nonsense in which those seeking an economy car or a second-string to a sports car indulge, this article would seem to be much overdue!
Unconventional cars seldom prove satisfactory in practice but Dr. Porsche, who gave us the Auto-Union G.P. cars, the 19/100 Austro-Daimler, SSK Mercedes-Benz and other immortal cars, knew what he was about and the K.d.F. is the exception to the rule; a really outstanding exception. Its chassis is a tubular backbone stiffened by steel tray, its suspension by Porsche trailing-arm i.f.s. and swing-axle i.r.s., using laminated torsion bars, which gives typically Continental steering and roadholding unequalled by many so-called sports cars. The engine is at the back—an air-cooled. stroke-shorter-than-bore flat-four with push-rod o.h.v. It is kept cool by a fan, attached to the belt-driven dynamo, which draws air through ducts over the finned cylinders, the “bonnet” being rubber-sealed to render this air-cooling effective. Thus the K.d.F. is frost-proof, noise and fumes are blown aft away from it occupants, and, because an over-drive top gear is used, speed can be worked up to 70 m.p.h. or beyond without in any way stressing the 1,131-c.c. power unit. Add to this the excellent driver-visibility that goes with a rear-placed engine, a well-nigh perfect driving position, room on the rear seat for three adults or four children, with a big luggage well behind that, in a body warmed when necessary by hot air ducted from the engine, and in which the two (trailing) doors are so well fitted that they need slamming when the windows are closed, proof-positive that they are draught-free, and the Volkswagen begins to exert a strong appeal.
Take one out on the road and it will surprise us if you do not become, as we have, a “Volkswagen convert.”
Certainly you will forget that this is a people’s economy car! There is present that smoothness of steering and running characteristic of the Continental product. The lamp switches are well made, the electrical equipment is by Bosch, and although the interior is austere, the metal facia, with hot air vents to demist and defrost the screen, carries a speedometer the dial of which is dimly lit when the sidelamps are alight, a big starter button neatly recessed into its lower sill, a clock, and four little windows showing, respectively, a red light if the dynamo ceases to charge, a green light if oil-pressure fails, a red light if you leave one of the non-automatic direction-indicators out, and a blue light if you have full beam on the head-lamps. The bucket front seats adjust easily by means of simple, substantial wing-nuts. Choke and heater controls pull up from the central tunnel (the flat floor associated with a rear-engine is broken by the central backbone, but so generous is leg-room that this is of no moment. The ignition locks, a two-way switch looks after screen-wipers and interior lamp, a similar switch controls side and headlamps. The two-spoke steering-wheel is pleasant to hold, has the horn button in its hub, there is space to park one’s clutch foot, the foot lamps dimmer is nearby, there are two useful cubby-holes and wind-up door windows, the doors Iock, and a petrol tap before the passenger’s feet brings in, at need, a 1½-gallon fuel reserve. Neat, simple and sensible! So are the lights which illuminate the engine when the lid is lifted, the accessible Oldham battery under the back seat, and the need to press the gear lever firmly down before reverse can be selected.
Open the front “bonnet” and you find spare wheel (the tyres are the easily procurable 5.25-16s), a substantial 9-gallon petrol tank (looking like a bathroom cistern and with a simply huge filler orifice), and room to store a suitcase, or mount a radio. The engine seems to keep remarkably clean and that on Colbourne-Baber’s own car has the cowlings, which disguise any semblance of “machinery,” smartly finished to match the body and its metal parts chromium-plated.
A valuable attribute of air-cooling is the quick warming-up from cold, and enthusiasts will appreciate the oil-cooler situated in the cooling duct and by-passed until the oil warms up, enabling 4.4 pints of S.A.E.20 oil to adequately lubricate the engine.
On the road the K.d.F. reveals additional charms. The road-holding and cornering qualities would be deemed outstanding in any price-class. The rear engine promotes some oversteer, but this adds to interest in driving and is never so excessive as to become. troublesome. In conjunction with light, smooth, accurate steering, the rigid chassis and only-moderately supple suspension enables sudden changes of direction to be made with complete confidence and corners to be taken very quickly with full enjoyment and security.
Our test commenced in conditions of damp roads and gusty gale-force winds, accentuating oversteer and necessitating some concentration in steering along straight roads. Yet soon we were cornering the K.d.F. at its limit for the sheer fun of so driving it. It is a car you feel reluctant to put away in the garage and to which you return, following a day in the office or at the races, with a sense of keen anticipation for the drive to come. To the excellent handling qualities are allied steering which transmits no return-motion or column-judder, has slow but still useful castor-action, and is geared just-not-too-low (2¾ turns from one lock to the other), a positive, just-not-fierce clutch, and a honey of a gear-change—that is, providing you are not too impatient to get from one ratio to the next. The rigid lever is set beside the right hand rather than in front of it (we speak of left-hand drive) and controls, nicely if a thought spongily, a plain dog-change four-speed box. If the change is hurried, the aforesaid sponginess irons out such brutality; if you double-declutch the gears go in beautifully. Bottom is for rnountain sides, second provides brisk acceleration up to 25-30 m.p,h,, third is normal top, and so in frequent employment in traffic or for maintaining speed up slight gradients, and from third you snick into the pleasant over-drive at anything over 25 m.p.h. From third (maximum 40 m.p.h.) the lever likewise snicks consolingly down into second gear. That the K.d. F. likes to have its lower gears liberally used is no criticism, with such a charming gearbox. The ratios are 3.6, 2.07, 1.25 and 0.8 to 1; axle ratio 4.43 to 1.
Noise? Outside the car the air-cooled engine clatters but this is not apparent to the occupants, and thus another charm of this clever little saloon is its silence at a cruising speed which can be as high as 65 m.p.h., and is seldom below 50 m.p.h. Apart frtom gear hum, an odd squeak and a rattle of control runs in the central tunnel, no sound intrudes, nor are the tyres prone to howl while corners are enjoyed. Only towards 45 m.p.h. in third gear or the equivalent in first or second does the engine sound at all busy. Even in the back seat we were impressed by the silence.
Noticing the luggage-well between rear engine compartment and back seat we thought, “Ha, Dr. Porsche has cunningly isolated us from a hot-spot.”How wrong we were we discovered after a fast run home from Goodwood, when not a trace of heat could be felt by the naked hand laid on the back and floor of the well, and scarcely more at the engine compartment panels. The engine remains adequately cool and although sceptics are eager to point out that this only holds good providing the dynamo-belt does not break, it would not be the work of more than minutes to replace this, should the no-charge light indicate that the fan had indeed ceased to rotate.
No car is perfect but the K.d.F.’s faults, in our view, are confined to a slight restriction of head-room in the back compartment, a rather hard back-seat cushion, poor headlamps, and brakes which are adequate but give only meagre stopping power under firm pedal pressure. The central hand-brake holds well and as hydraulic brakes can be substituted for the cable brakes, this last criticism applies only to the earlier cars. That so few criticisms can be pinned on one of the least-expensive cars in the world today is a nice tribute to the genius of Dr. Ferdinand Porsche as exemplified in his ingenious Volkswagen. Even now the need of praise is not exhausted and it must be recorded that although the K.d.F. owes its economy and sprightliness to low weight (14 cwt. unladen), it rides exceptionally well over poor roads without diminution in speed. Moreover, to do so is not cruel, for the car was designed to fulfil military requirements in this respect. There is sharp up and down motion, more noticeable in the back seat, which is obviously intended for occasional use, but this is not excessive, nor does the car roll or pitch. Another nice habit of the K.d.F. is the manner in which it goes up main-road hills at 40 m.p.h. in “normal top,” passing many larger cars which have been reduced to 30 m.p.h.
Finally, as if to gild refined gold, there is the economy. Driving hard, and using the gearbox to get through the homeward-bound Goodwood traffic, we got 36 m.p.g.; with less ambitious driving this rises to over 40.
Additional attractions are a cute circular tool-kit which bolts to the front of the upright spare wheel, its lid secured by a simple clip, and the very informative instruction book printed in English by Volkswagenwerk G.M.B.H.
How to acquire a Volkswagen ? They cannot be imported for sterling, but Colbourne Garage Ltd. overhaul secondhand ones, recellulose them any colour to choice and re-upholster them in a choice of cloth (they also carry a full range of spares and their works manager, W. R. Howden, has taken the “works” course in Germany), at prices ranging from £425 to £475. This is appreciably less than the price of the least-expensive car on the British market today, apart from which, those who decide to do their economy motoring in a Volkswagen reflect something of the discernment which the talented designer displayed in creating these clever little cars.—W. B.