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.