I can’t recall exactly how this came up recently, but I was talking to David about my first real high-school girlfriend, the girl I first actually had sex with (I know it had to have happened on a Monday afternoon, because I went to a Boy Scout meeting that night for a really potent shot of incongruity) and I remember telling him how every time I picked her up to take her out for a date, I had to turn off my car and coast. Because her mom was an anti-Semite who didn’t want her daughter dating Jews. I had just kind of accepted this for decades without thinking about how that sentence sounded to people, but David’s reaction reminded me that, oh yeah, that’s all pretty weird. And, I also realized that most of that sentence could use a lot more clarification. I can’t do much to answer the why of the anti-semitism, but I think I can make a decent stab at the turning-off-the-car part, so let’s dig in to this little nugget from my adolescence.
Her name was Jennifer, like I think every girl in the 1980s was named, and she was an adorable blonde girl with big brown eyes, and I was delighted and a bit amazed she was interested in me. This was around, oh, probably 1987 or so? Something like that. We went to high school together and while I can’t recall exactly how we first met, it turned into A Thing fairly quickly, and, to Jennifer’s credit, she mentioned quite early on that her mom had a strict no-Jews rule for her daughter socially. As a reasonably healthy and clinically horny 16 year-old kid, I really didn’t care what restrictive social religious preferences her mother wanted to impose on her daughter, so I was undeterred.
Plus, why the fuck would I want to make an anti-Semite happy? Tough shit, lady. Your daughter has the Shtetl Fever. Deal with it.
[Editor’s note: Two things: First, this is a sad story in many ways, and a real shame to have happened to young Torch. Second: There are certain, uh, personal things in this story that I’d never discuss in public, but Jason is a bit “open” so I guess I’m just going to let him do his weird thing. For those of you offput by any of this, no worry — there’s a technical story on how suspensions work right there on the front page. -DT]
Jennifer didn’t give a shit either, but she had to live with her mom, so we couldn’t be openly defiant. This meant her mom couldn’t know when we went out, which meant some amount of subterfuge was required. Sometimes it got quite elaborate, like when we had school dances; I’d have to get a friend of mine to go to her house to pick her up, and then meet me at another location to do the handoff.
I remember having my tall, good-looking Prussian/Aryan-descended friend Charles dress up in a suit once to get her for some formal dance. His pictures are now in that family’s photo album somewhere, a memorial to all the good works beards (stand-ins/decoys) have done for humanity. She was in a shiny red dress and had her hair pulled back, and Charles teased me by saying she looked like a Russian prostitute, like that was a bad thing.
Anyway, beards were only for occasional use; by far the vast majority of the time the precautions taken were far simpler. Jennifer lived on a corner, at the top of a hill, so as I’d crest the hill to pick her up, I’d turn the car off, coast to the corner, turn, then stop on the hilly side street. Jennifer would come out of the house, round the corner, get in my car, and we’d coast down to the base of the hill, where I could safely turn the car back on. Luckily, this was all downhill.
Now, she told her mom she was going out with friends, who would be picking her up in a car, so why was it necessary for me to coast in if her mom wasn’t looking out the window like a hawk, which she wasn’t? Well, the key is in that picture up there: I drove a Volkswagen Beetle.
Unlike nearly every other car on the road, almost anyone can identify an old, air-cooled Beetle by sound alone. If I was like my friends and drove a K-Car or a Buick Century or a Ford Maverick or a Toyota Tercel or whatever, I wouldn’t have had to do this. But, I wasn’t like my friends. Where they got hand-me-down parent cars, I had a very specific desire for a Beetle, so I saved up and bought one when I was 15, before I could even drive.
That first Beetle was a ’68, but was soon crashed (not my fault; dude didn’t yield, though my dad drove by the accident and yelled JJJJAAAASOOOOONNNN like it was my fault, anyway) and then I pulled the engine from that and bought a ’71 Super Beetle from a friend’s sister who neglected to put oil in the engine. Ever. So, I had a ’71 Super with a ’68 engine, making it a rare case where an engine swap gives you less power: the ’68 was a single-port 1500cc engine making 53 horsepower, and the stock ’71 engine was a 1600cc dual-port making a ravenous 60 hp, so I lost seven horses in that deal. Oh well.
[Editor’s note: JT I feel like you’re getting into the weeds a bit here. Carry on. -DT]
Okay okay David. So all of this is to say that the reason I had to undertake this ridiculous clandestine coast-and-grab maneuver over and over is that I chose to drive one of the loudest, most distinctive-sounding cars on 1980s American roads, and if my date’s mom heard that distinctive VW clatter, she’d know immediately that that’s the car of that little Jew I specifically told to keep away from my daughter (because she knew who I was and what I drove).
This all brings us to the question I really want to investigate today: Why does an old air-cooled VW sound the way it does?
While there are many easy answers–it’s loud because it’s air-cooled, and so on–those don’t quite cover it. Sure, that’s a factor, but the unique sound of the VW Type I engine is really a mix of several key factors. Four main factors, I think, and if you’re not doing anything better, I’d like to break them down for you now!
Factor One: Air-Cooling
The fact that a VW flat-four is air-cooled is probably a factor. Air-cooled engines lack the cooling water jacket around the cylinders, which are instead separate, bolt-on “jugs” with finned exteriors. The lack of that sound-deadening water jacket means air-cooled motors tend to be louder if you believe the British classic car insurance company Footmanjames. This isn’t all of the equation, of course, but it’s a big factor, especially for explaining the sheer volume of Beetle engines, which are, of course, loud.
Then there’s the way the engine is cooled – by sucking in a lot of air with a big, hamster-wheel-type fan, set into a large, ducted fan shroud. The noise of rushing air into the fan that then resonates through the thin-metal fan shroud makes up a big part of the background layer of a Beetle’s engine sound.
Factor Two: Body And Engine Layout Quirks
Okay, so we have an already loud engine, and of course Volkswagen was aware of this, so the company took some steps to keep things quiet. But not many steps. Really, the Wolfsburg-based company only cared about keeping the noise down on the inside of the car, so all of the sound deadening is on the firewall at the front of the engine compartment, while there’s none at the rear, on the engine lid.
The engine lid is just a stamped steel shield-shaped body panel. Beetles made between 1970 and 1971 had two sets of louvers on the engine lid, increasing to four sets in 1972. These louvers are just simple holes into the engine bay, with no baffles or anything to impede sounds (though convertibles sometimes had a rain shield). So, from the outside of the car, plenty of sound escapes, and if you’re standing next to a running Beetle, you can likely hear if the alternator/fan belt is loose just from the slapping sounds the belt makes.
Then there’s the fact that, because it’s a horizontally-opposed engine set low in the rear, the cylinder heads on either side are actually just exposed to the world. They’re under the fenders, sure, but you can see them if you squat down and look past the rear tire, and that also means all of the valve chatter and noise you can hear really well outside the car, since you’re just a valve cover away from those valves. And, the pushrods to actuate the valves are on the bottom of the engine, in little metal tubes, and I’m pretty sure you can hear them doing their thing, too.
I think these factors give a lot of the clattery texture of the Beetle’s sound.
Factor Three: The Exhaust System
The exhaust system is a huge part of why Beetles sound the way they do, and forms the fundamental aural rhythm of the car. I had a stock exhaust setup on my ’71, so that’s what I’m going to explore here; aftermarket setups can change the sound significantly.
The most interesting thing, I think, has to do with the muffler design. VW’s engineers had the goal of making equal-length exhaust header pipes for each cylinder, so that means the cylinders to the front of the engine (3 and 1, towards the front of the car) get their exhaust gases to the muffler via J-shaped tubes (usually inside the heat exchanger units that provide cabin heat) while the two rearmost cylinders, 2 and 4 are much closer to the perpendicular muffler, so they have header tubes inside the muffler that criss-cross on the inside.
So, that means that on the two-exhaust-pipe muffler, cylinders three and two exit closest to the left tail pipe (if you’re facing the rear of the car) and cylinders four and one exit the right one. The cylinder firing order of the Beetle is 1-4-3-2, so that means there’s a pattern that goes RRLLRRLL with two pulses on each side, as opposed to a maybe more expected and even RLRLRL type of pattern.
This double-pulse per each pipe gives the Beetle its distinctive putt-putt rhythm.
Factor Four: Exhaust Tips
So this seems like a tiny detail, but it’s really one of the most important parts of the distinctive Beetle sound. It’s all about those little “pea-shooter” stock exhaust tips, about the size and shape of a 10x enlarged chrome cigarette. Inside these exhaust tips is a perforated metal sleeve, with a slight gap between the perforated inner cylinder and the outer chrome cylindrical shell.
Something about this setup gives the VW’s exhaust pulses an extremely noticeable whistle/chirp note, a sound that’s sharp and cuts through not just the rest of the Type I’s cacophony, but almost everything else on the road, and I think this sonic element is why Beetles can be heard and ID’d from so far away. This video (which features a ’71 Super Beetle, just like my old one!) gives a great example of the sound:
If you want to hear how it sounds without the stock pea-shooter tips, you can hear it in that same video right here, when they run the car without the tips on, which is why this video is so ideal to illustrate this. Without the tips, a lot of the other sound elements are there, but that distinctive whistle is missing, and you can hear just how crucial it is.
All these factors are important, though; while those tips are maybe the most obvious factor, if you popped them on the end of a Honda Civic’s muffler, you still wouldn’t be able to sneak up on anyone expecting a Beetle. However, that said, I wonder if I had changed exhaust tips if that would have been enough to fool Jennifer’s mom? I was too stupid to think of it back then, so I guess I’ll never know.
If I’m honest, part of me kind of liked the cloak-and-dagger quality of it all. And, when it came time, as it almost always does in teenage high school relationships, to break up, I thought if I told Jennifer that I didn’t want to lie to her mom anymore, it would be a cleaner, kinder way to do it.
It was not. At all.
Her mom did tell me that, no, I can’t see her daughter, but that was hardly the easy out I thought it might be, because, of course, I was an idiot. So, it didn’t really end that well, but, you know, I was 16.
Now I can look back on all of this with amusement, and while I have no idea where Jennifer or her mom are today, I can at least take some comfort in knowing that an anti-Semite’s daughter and I did all kinds of depraved things in the back of a loud VW Beetle, which I’m certain her mom would have been livid to know about. So that feels good.
Plus, it forced me to really understand why Beetles are so loud! That plus being defiant to a bigot feels pretty win-win to me.
My dad bought a 914 in 1975. I was six. For a guy who survived the Holocaust, to buy a German car was a bit of an issue, and the car definitely had its revenge. (Think not starting the first day he had it, and repeating this act of defiance throughout its existence, all through my years of driving it – “L’dor V’dor”)
My in-laws (the Romanian Click and Clack), also Holocaust survivors, had a service station on Telegraph Rd. I’d bring in the 914, and they wouldn’t want to touch it. My father in law famously said (and you have to do this with a Romanian Accent – think Triumph the Insult Comic Dog):
“What are you doing with this G-d Damn Nazi Car? Why don’t you get a good car like a Buick or an Oldsmobile? I’ll fix this G-d Damn car for you, I’ll push it into the G-d Damn Detroit River!!”
But yep, that VW sound gave me plenty of warning to get my act together before my dad got into the house…
The other engine I can recognize is the Chrysler Slant Six. A neighbor had one when I was a kid. It must be the design of the exhaust manifold because a couple months ago I heard one in a parking lot and the memories came right back.
Then VW “replaced” the Beetle with the Mk I Golf/Rabbit which does not chirp. Rather it RINGS. At least mine (1.5 l 8-valve) does. Like an old Western Electric telephone at times. What is it with VW?
My dad, a physician, had a beetle for a DD through most all of my childhood. One of his patients ran a VW shop in a nearby town, and really only worked on the older stuff, so Dad asked him to put one together for him. I believe it was a 74, but not completely sure, as the whole car was really a hodge-podge of parts thrown together from the guys lot full of parts cars. Anyway, it was a fun car to learn to drive in. I had always loved Herbie as a small child, so I was ecstatic when dad told me he was getting a Beetle, only to be completely let down when it arrived because it never had that distinctive Beetle ‘chirp’ sound. I’m 45 this year, and I’m still kind of pissed off about it actually.
Those stupid pea shooter exhaust tips! I have owned several VW bugs over the years. One time I was in Mission Beach, San Diego cruising my 1967 Beetle. It had a larger engine, dual 48 IDA Weber Carburetors and a dual quiet pack style exhaust. The carbs were louder than the exhaust. I too was young and dumb once. While cruising, I turn the corner onto Mission Blvd by the famous “Little Dipper Rollercoaster”, mash the throttle and dart up the street and promptly get pulled over by a motorcycle cop. He cites me and also mentions that my car is not stock because it should have the little pea shooter exhausts and my exhaust is too loud. Of course, I didn’t argue with him. Telling him that the combined four barrels of two 48 IDA carbs is what was really the reason it’s loud would not have been a good idea for me. I took the ticket and slinked off as quietly as I could…
This is likely one of the most Torchy stories ever written, however, without mention of tail lights, it only gets a 9.5/10.
LOL…she might not have been a car person but anti-Semites would have assumed that Jews didn’t drive Volkswagens.
My own memory of an air cooled VW was when I was a young kid. We had no car but my father had borrowed a 1952 split window (not valuable at the time). It was much slower than my diesel Smart as I recall. We were driving on an Irish country road when an enormous pig strolled out in front of us.
We hit the pig.
The pig got up with some superficial scratches. The VW lost most of its front end..both headlights, fender, trunk lid. I never did end up buying a beetle, though I do enjoy bacon.
Excellent article. It’s a shame they took out that Pioneer radio and swapped it out for a piece of junk.
Thank you Jason. I know well the sound of which you speak. For a while in the late 70’s my mom had a VW 412. I would be up to all sorts of ‘things I should not be doing’ after school and I was always confident I could effect a quick cover-up because I could count on hearing hear coming up the hill two blocks from our house. -And, in the back seat depravity category…. my first automotive purchase was a 1971 Westfalia camper. In the year that it took me to actually get a license the engine gave running up but my girlfriend and I discovered that with the back bench converted into the bed the rear grab handles straps were ideally situated to make almost ideal improvised gynecological exam straps. To this day the smell of old VW interior makes me vaguely horny.
Amd I thought I was the only kid fascinated with the mystery of the flat-4 VW Beetle exhaust sound. I was just never as smart as Torch to put the pieces together.
I can die in peace now.
Hitler builds a car. Jewish guy buys it and revenge-shags wasp-girls in it. I like the theme!
So much to unpack here… So Torch and I are about the same age, both drove (and still have) ’71 Super Beetles in high school, and dated girls with bigoted parents (B/W racist instead of anti-Semite, as far as I know…). I too employed the beard-pickup strategy many times. We didn’t wind up together in the end, either, but I learned a lot about myself from the experience. Plus, I feel every technical detail from this post in my soul.
You are truly a kindred spirit, Torch. Don’t ever change, don’t ever stop!
Two things: 1, The headline makes it sound like you have a teenage girlfriend*now*. Two, have you ever noticed how a Subaru with a bad muffler sounds a lot like an air-cooled VW? I think the boxer design must have a lot to do with it, because that’s about the only thing the two have in common.
I thought Beetles sounded like Beetles because, well you know, they are Beetles.