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Beetle Battle: Which 1972 VW Super Beetle Is A Better Project?

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It’s time once again for Shitbox Showdown! It’s April 25th, which has been described as the perfect date. (All you need is a light jacket). This week, we’re going to look at those marvelous piles of hopes and dreams that too often leave us with broken hearts, skinned knuckles, and empty wallets — project cars.

But before you start working on a project, you need a good daily driver, so let’s see what you chose last week:

It appears the old Volvo 240 has it by a nose over the California Focus. Not a bad choice at all, especially here in Portland, where the Volvo community and many specialty shops stand willing and able to help keep the machine on the road.

Our first pair of projects is in honor of Don Juan de Torchinsky and his wonderful story on Friday about the VW Beetle engine sound (among other subjects). I just happened to have found, practically in my own back yard, a pair of 1972 VW Super Beetles for sale. Let’s see which one is the better choice for sneaking off on a forbidden clandestine romance.

Before we begin, I’d like to give a big thank you to my friend Cas Falkowski for some help with a few particulars on these cars. Cas is a VW nut who has a few old Volkswagens in his fleet, including a ’73 Super Beetle (his first car!) and Subaru-powered Vanagon Riviera pop-top camper.

Let me also add that I am in no way an authority on the Beetle, but I have done my homework as well as I could. It’s entirely possible I’ll get something wrong and Torch will call me out on it, and I’ll end up having to wash his Yugo as penance. But I can’t avoid air-cooled VWs – or Jeeps, for that matter – forever, so here we go. And maybe I’ll feature a pair of MGs someday, and teach these guys a thing or two.

Now, let’s meet our contestants:

1972 VW Super Beetle – the blue one – $2,500

Engine/drivetrain: Air-cooled flat 4, 4 speed manual, RWD

Location: Woodburn, OR

Odometer reading: unknown

Runs/drives? Runs, but not drivable

Volumes have been written about these cars, of course, but here is the Cliff’s Notes version: By the late ’60s, Volkswagen’s utter dominance over the US small car market was in jeopardy thanks to the increasing popularity and quality of Japanese imports. To keep the venerable Beetle competitive, in 1971 VW introduced the Super Beetle: a tiny bit bigger, with a completely new McPherson strut front suspension in place of the old torsion-bar-and-trailing-arm setup — intended to future-proof the Beetle for a while until the more modern Rabbit came along.

This example is said to have originally been a one-year-only shade of blue called Gentian Blue, which according to my research was also known as Enzian Blue [Editor’s note: For the first time ever, I’m going to possibly teach Mark a fun-fact: Enzian is a beautiful alpine flower found in Germany (where I happened to grow up), among other parts of Europe. The American named “Gentian Blue” is a reference to the English name for the Enzian, the “stemless gentian.” -DT], though I don’t know what the point of calling out the original color is when the car has clearly been repainted, and probably more than once.  You can see a little bit of the original blue on the firewall and in the trunk.

Mechanically, it’s all there, and almost drivable; according to the seller it runs but needs the fuel lines replaced in order to be driven safely. It has a hot-rodded engine of unknown displacement, with dual carbs and some other go-fast goodies. It has had a lot of little detail parts replaced that you may not give much thought to until you actually dive into a project: window seals, a carpet kit, and a new dash pad (though the latter two are not installed yet).

It’s also rust-free except for one damaged front fender, being an example of that mythical species of beast known as a “California car,” which usually, but not always, exempts a car from corrosion. This one looks pretty good, and has the potential to look a lot better without much work.


1972 VW Super Beetle – the orange one – $1,500

Engine/drivetrain: Air-cooled flat 4, 4 speed manual, RWD

Location: Clackamas, OR

Odometer reading: 55,000 miles, but states “broken”

Runs/drives? Nope

I need to preface this one by saying I am only reasonably sure it is a Super Beetle and not a standard Beetle. Spotting the difference from the outside is a lot harder on the 1971-72 Super models, which had the same flat windshield and dashboard as a standard Beetle. In 1973, the Super gained a curved windshield and a more modern dashboard, which makes them easy to spot. But based on the shape of the front end, I’m pretty sure this is a Super, and I’m absolutely sure Jason will yell at me if I’m wrong.

What is certain is that it has the Formula Vee appearance package. Like so many “Special Editions” from VW and others, this is really just stripes and a few cool accessories intended to jazz up an otherwise ordinary economy car. At least this one has some racing heritage: Formula Vee is a low-cost racing series using single-seat race cars based on VW Beetle mechanicals. It dates back to 1963 and is still going strong today.

The Formula Vee package also helps its teenage-rebellion cred: a yellow FV Beetle was Kevin Bacon’s ride in the 1983 movie Footloose. (But in typical Hollywood fashion, more than one car was used, and in some scenes the car has Formula Vee stripes, and in others just plain black stripes. Is anybody else annoyed by continuity errors like that?). Exactly what it is about bad boys in Beetles that attracts the good girls is a subject that may warrant further study.

This Beetle looks a bit more original than the blue one, but also a bit rougher; I’d say we’re into “barn-find” territory here. It doesn’t run, and the fuel tank has been removed for inspection, but the seller says it’s odor- and mouse-free, which is a plus, and the interior doesn’t look half bad either. Aside from a few dings, it doesn’t look too rusty, and actually, the chalky paint and patina are kinda cool as-is. There’s not much information given about it mechanically, but Beetles are simple creatures, and there is no shortage of parts available to get it going again.

So there they are, two old Bug projects, one a bit further along than the other, but also a bit more expensive. Which one is a better starting point is now up to you to decide.



Images: Craigslist/sellers
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46 Responses

  1. To determine if a ’71 and ’72 Type 1 is a Super Beetle look at the front fascia where it is below the front bumper (other than looking for the McPherson struts under the front fender). If it is slotted as if it has a lower grille and the bottom is curved to the back, then it is a Super Beetle. The regular Type 1 Beetle has a simple skirt in front to hide the torsion bar suspension. This from a prior owner of a ’71 Super Beetle who spent a lot of time in the same junkyard as Tracy looking for replacement body parts after rolling it.

  2. Body filler, qu’est-ce que c’est?
    Fa, fa, fa, fa, fa, fa, fa, fa fafa
    Better run, run, run, run, run, run, run away

    This is both an explanation for why I’d go with the significantly cleaner body of the blue one and a fun pop culture reference that I got stuck in my head.

    1. Funny – I’d be willing bet there’s way more filler in the blue car than the orange one. In fact, you can actually see remnants of filler on the damaged front fender of the blue car, not to mention the fact that (looking at the rear apron) it’s been painted at least twice previously. The orange car shows prior paint on the damaged rear fender, but I don’t see an obvious signs of filler.

      1. The damage on the rear fender is actually what made me think it’s mostly body filler – the smooth pink isn’t previous paint, that’s filler sanded down. There’s also a lot on the front end that I can see.

        Plus I wanted to make a Talking Heads joke.

    1. Seems to be a German car thing – my parents had a BMW 2002Ti in the same orange. For a few years in the early 1970s, it seemed that most BMWs and VWs were green or orange.

      In this case, though, I’d go blue…..

  3. I had a 69 regular Beetle in a nice sand color (read Beige). Loved the character of it. It was a fun car. I took my wife to Bug Jam in Land O Lakes, Florida in it. That was a fun day. When you own a bug, you join a cult.

  4. As an aircooled VW enthusiast, and having owned more than my fair share of roached bugs, I feel like orange is the easy answer here. Along with what appears to be original paint and the Formula Vee stripes, it appears to be in much better overall condition than the blue car. And with no way of verifying the size or condition of either engine other than tearing them both down, mechanically they’re probably a wash.

    And like any Beetle enthusiast worth his salt, I loathe Supers in general. Being forced to pick between the two, I’d have to go with the earlier flat-windshield car regardless.

      1. First and foremost, they’re ugly thanks to the bulbous nose and front fender treatment that accommodates the MacPherson setup. Then throw in the curved windshield, add to that the unfortunate trappings of late Beetles in general (larger taillights, crash bumpers, padded dashboards), and you end up with a mess of car that usually has a front-end shimmy at highway speeds. They have their devotees, of course, but there’s a reason (or 10) that Supers are generally so much cheaper than the vastly more desireable ’67-earlier cars.

        1. So Super Beetles are the rubber-bumper MGBs of the VW world. I see. The trouble is, in both cases, the pool of affordable examples of the more-desirable early cars is starting to dry up, so we’re going to have to start accepting and working around the shortcomings of the later models and give them a seat at the cool kids’ table, lest the club get ever more exclusive.

          1. Yes, to put it politically incorrectly, anything post 67, but especially supers, are the red headed step kids of the VW world.

            As the owner of a 74 Super, I understand this and I understand why other models are much more desirable and why an early big window is more aesthetically pleasing. Money being no object, my VW collection would be extensive and would involve an Oval window (and an early KG and Squareback).

            But as mine approaches its 48th birthday, I can say that things like IRS, McPherson front, a curved windscreen, 12v electrics, rear demister and a more powerful motor actually make it much more pleasant to live with, and during my 14 year custody of it, I’ve been more than happy to use it for commuting to work or meetings rather than it being a chore to use, even if it’s only ever been a hobby car.

            Also, given it’s 50 years old and they don’t make them any more, their rarity and uniqueness make some of the snobbishness go away, after all, there is more that binds the air-cooled community than separates it.

            And of course lastly, ask the average person on the street, and they’ll no more be able to tell a 1974 Super from a 1949 Split window than they can walk through the Pacific ocean while singing the Italian national anthem backwards in Japanese.

            Beetles make people smile, even if what makes them smile is that they don’t own one, or think they’re ridiculous.

      2. Originality snobbishness. The Supers are far superior handling cars with the strut front end. I put 60 series 14″‘s on mine and it stuck to the road like glue. Embarrassed my friends ’79 Camaro LT many times.

  5. I’ve gotta go with the orange. Original paint job means you can actually see what you’re getting and can be relatively certain it’s free of bondo. It’s also likely everything is stock, so it’s easier to figure out what’s going on.
    The blue one was at one point somebody’s project car, and dealing with someone else’s weird workarounds is a recipe for frustration.

  6. I’m more inclined towards the blue for the irrational reasons that Woodburn is home to Oregon’s most prominent drag strip and as a former denizen of Beaverton I have it in for Clackistan.
    It’s also worth noting that since Oregon doesn’t use road salt cars in the Willamette Valley are more prone to moss than rust.

  7. I would recommend the one with the better body, the orange one, and convert to EV. I mentioned in another topic how I would go about it, but it’s even more suited to this topic, so I will repeat the post.

    I think the potential for a hobbyist without wind tunnel access to cut a stock early VW Beetle’s total air drag by about 40% exists.

    A properly designed rear spoiler could help the rear of the car act as a partial kammtail, and given all of the turbulence at the back of the stock car, cut drag by 15% or more by itself and improve high speed stability. Underbody panels covering the underside from front to rear with the bare minimum spaces to clear the wheels/suspension could easily/likely get another 10% reduction over the stock Beetle. Another significant reduction could be had with the cumulative effort of a rounded front air dam, underside rear diffuser, ground clearance lowered to about 4.5″, rear wheel skirts, passenger mirror delete, curved airshield over the windshield wiper area, wheel spats, and shaved rain gutters.

    If a 40% overall drag reduction is achieved, it would cut the drag coefficient from 0.48 to about 0.27, assuming a slightly increased frontal area from the front air dam and wheel spats, from 1.8 m^2 to 1.9 m^2.

    This would mean you could use a single Netgain HyperDrive 9″ motor and controller, which would require a modest sized battery pack to max it’s in-spec output to 130 horsepower peak, 100 horsepower continuous, 168 lb-ft of torque peak, and with optimized gearing, it would be enough power to max out at about 140 mph using peak power and risking exceeding the motor/controller limits if the speed is held too long, or max out at 128 mph and never exceed the continuous rating of the motor. Doing so would require some gearing changes over the stock VW Beetle transmission. Assuming the completed conversion weighed in at 2,200 lbs, 0-60 mph would be in about 6 seconds, rowing through the gears.

    A 25 kWh pack of Tesla Model 3 modules would weigh around 500 lbs. With it, you’d likely be able to get a real-world non-hypermiling 120 miles range @ 70 mph and 160 miles @ a more efficiency-friendly 55 mph on the highway without exceeding the GVWR of the car with a driver and passenger. And make enough power from the battery to max out the power output of the motor/controller combo. And the Model 3 battery modules are so dense you could balance the weight distribution of the car to however you saw fit.

    Plus it would be rear wheel drive and a crap ton of fun if set up properly.

  8. I’ll go with the orange because that saving of $1000 is easily enough to rebuild the engine, and probably before breakfast and with only a single spanner and some gum. The second, and clearly the most important reason is the factory fitted go fast stripe. That adds an extra .0003725 hp and of course that sealed the deal for me. Nuff said

  9. I’m pissed ass drunk but saw rust in every picture not just the fender. So lying in ad loses points. Super Beetle blue seems to have every SB part replaced from rockauto so no longer a SB except for rusted metal. I’m not a fan oc the orange but I bet it’s closer to the description in the ad than old rusty rockauto cheap parts.

  10. Blue, it runs.
    Orange, engine was out and back in, so who knows wtf is going on with it. i.e. was it rebuilt, or ??? Also the lack of engine bay pics makes me nervous.

    I wanted to vote for both, but blue wins, dual carbs don’t scare me, as much as the non-running engine because of other priorities does.
    Also, supers are Super! Curved glass Rocks IMHO 😉 i know, nobody else cares.
    Thanks Mark,

  11. Having formerly owned and loved a Beetle (not a Super Beetle), I am going with the Orange one, mainly because of the unknown “engine mods”. Getting a beetle to run is easy, getting it to run well is harder. Bad mods can mess up any car, and I would rather save $1000 and have the more original vehicle and get it done right myself. Also, I would not want to fool with trying to balance those dual carbs.

  12. I mean, I know the heart wants what it wants, and if you’re looking at Beetles it’s because you really want a Beetle, logic be damned. But last week’s Chicago Prizm was cheaper than both of these, and with the cash leftover you can drive up to the Wisconsin Dells for the weekend without worrying if you’ll make it back. And the Prizm will probably outlive both of these examples.

    So yeah, I’m voting neither.

  13. I grew up the son of a VW fanatic. Every Saturday was spent in the driveway watching my father and his best friend, a certified VW master mechanic, wrench 1 of 3 Buses and/or 1 of 2 Bugs.
    To me, knowing if a Bug is a Super or not is as easy as looking at the hood. If it is squared off above the bumper and has a louvers under the bumper, it is a Super. If the hood comes more to a point and dups below the bumper, it is the non-Super.
    I personally like the Supers. You get around 150ish CC’s over the older model. Seeing the dual card set up in the blue one reminded me of my father’s last Super. He upgraded the rockers/cam and had the heads bored out. I think he was at 1700 or close to 1750 CC when he was done. I know he did something with the front suspension as well as it was stable over 80. No WOT for him off the line. The front end would pick up off the ground and wheelie bars were illegal on the street. He loved toying with the Camaro owners of the early 80’s and would chuckle at how fast he lost oil on a hard pull (an issue he had after the rebuild…) And ironically, he never had a lack of heat in the cabin. The vents were stuck open and seemed to radiat heat easily. He eventually sold it for $1k. The new owner then sold the engine for $2k.
    Those were the days.

  14. Like Jason, I am a Beetle fan, having owned several. I concur that the Super variety is butt ugly but that not what’s being discussed. Valid points have been made for both and overall I don’t think I would take either one of them on. Anyhow, I think I would go with the blue car.

    FWIW, there is a German liqueur made from the roots of the Enzian plant. It is very very nasty. In general, I love all kinds of booze but this one stopped me cold.

  15. This is a tough one, it’s hard to dispute that having a running engine is a huge plus in a putative project car… on the other hand it’s an engine that someone jacked around with in unknown ways so could be a pain to deal with later. I guess I’d go with blue. With it running, I’ll have a baseline for future “improvements” ie does the engine still run after I swap that part!

  16. Personally I’d go for the blueone just because of parts availability issues, I’m struggling with those issues myself as I try to help my dad build his dream car before he retires. But if parts availability were not so much of a concern it could go either way for me.

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