Home » Open-Source Engines: 1969 VW Beetle vs 1974 Chevy El Camino

Open-Source Engines: 1969 VW Beetle vs 1974 Chevy El Camino

Sbsd 11 13 2023
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Welcome back to another week of crappy old cars! Today is a special edition of Shitbox Showdown, for a non-car-related reason. I’ve finally gotten around to decommissioning my fifteen-year-old iMac and moving everything over to my new computer, running Linux Mint. This means that, for the first time ever, Shitbox Showdown is being brought to you via entirely open-source software: operating system, photo editing, web browser, everything.

This doesn’t seem like a big deal to most of you, I know, but it means a lot to me. We here at the Autopian are very pro-DIY, if you hadn’t noticed; wrenching, right-to-repair, modified cars, and punk rock are all very near and dear to our hearts (okay, maybe punk rock is just me). We’re tinkerers, and we know a lot of you are, too. So today we’re going to salute the two greatest tinkerer-friendly engines of all time: the air-cooled Volkswagen flat-four, and the Chevrolet small-block V8.

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But before we get to those, we should finish up with Friday’s odd couple. There was a lot of vocal support in the comments for the Yugo, but it couldn’t pull the votes – the Gambler-ized Mustang took a comfortable win. (You all thought it was likely to be more knowledgeable in the proper times for holding and folding, I guess.) And I tend to agree; a Yugo would be fun to own, for a while, but that Mustang is a blank slate, despite all the mods.

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And speaking of blank slates: Over the years since cars began, lots of different engines have come and gone. Some have been better-suited to modification than others, and some have, by sheer numbers produced, become ubiquitous in gearhead circles. The engines under the hoods of today’s competitors were blessed with both a brilliant mod-friendly design, and massive production totals over a long period of time. You can build either one of them, in fact, entirely from aftermarket parts, with no involvement from the original manufacturer whatsoever. Now that’s open-source. Let’s check them out.

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1969 Volkswagen Beetle – $5,000

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Engine/drivetrain: 1.5 liter overhead valve flat 4, four-speed manual, RWD

Location: Sacramento, CA

Odometer reading: 29,000 miles (rolled over at least once)

Runs/drives? Yep

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Everyone has a Beetle story. Actually, these days, maybe that isn’t true; everyone of a certain age has a Beetle story. Younger folks have a Camry story, or a Civic story, or something, I guess. But I have a Beetle story, and here it is: My dad had a 1969 Beetle like this one, only his was beige. He sold it when I was six, but I have clear memories of it, my favorite of which is him taking me to see Star Wars at the drive-in. I first met Luke and Han and Leia and Darth Vader from the front seat of that Beetle, with one of those big cast-aluminum speakers hanging in the window and a big paper bag of popcorn we snuck in from home on my lap.

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Because of my dad’s car, when I picture a Beetle in my mind, it’s a ’69. So this one looks right to me: Red taillights, simple straight bumpers, no vents behind the rear windows, and front turn signals atop the fenders. I don’t think there’s any such thing as an original Beetle any more, and this one is no exception. It used to be red, it looks like, based on the color of the door sills and edges of the engine compartment. The seller does also say it was in a minor rear fender-bender once upon a time, which might have been when the color change happened.

[Editor’s Note: Also, it has the four-vent engine lid from a ’72-and up Beetle as well, but that engine looks original; I can’t quite tell from the pics, but it may have been upgraded to a 1600 dual-port at some point, but I’d need to look closer. Still an oil-bath air cleaner, though! – JT]

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Assuming it’s stock, which is always a huge assumption with these, this is a 1500 cubic centimeter version of VW’s famous flat-four, making 53 horsepower when new. Much more is possible, of course, with modifications ranging from bolt-ons all the way up to complete custom jobs. Looking at this ad again, it actually doesn’t explicitly say this car runs. But these are dead-simple engines, easy to revive from slumber and hard to outright kill, so even if it doesn’t run now, that’s a minor hurdle.

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Air-cooled Volkswagen prices have gone absolutely batshit insane in recent years, which makes this car seem expensive. But it’s about the going rate for a scruffy, running, rust-free Beetle. Long gone are the days when you could buy a Bug for $100. Volkswagen made plenty of them – 1.2 million in 1969 alone – but all good things must come to an end, and the once-ubiquitous Beetle is now a collector’s item, because fewer and fewer are left every year.

1974 Chevrolet El Camino – $3,500

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Engine/drivetrain: 327 cubic inch overhead valve V8, three-speed automatic, RWD

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Location: Ridgecrest, CA

Odometer reading: 34,000 miles (rolled over at least once)

Runs/drives? Indeed

One, eight, four, three, six, five, seven, two. That sequence of numbers is cast into millions of intake manifolds, usually just behind the water outlet for the thermostat. It is the firing order of Chevrolet’s legendary small-block V8 engine. This cast-iron marvel was introduced in 1955, and lasted for more than forty years, in more than a dozen displacements (if you count aftermarket combinations of bores and strokes that Chevy never officially built), installed in everything from trucks to family sedans to Corvettes.

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This “Colonnade” era Chevy El Camino was probably originally equipped from the factory with a small-block V8, but it wasn’t the one under its hood now. It now uses a 327 cubic inch V8 from 1967, backed by what’s almost certainly a Turbo-Hydramatic 350 automatic transmission. The 327 was an extremely common small-block size during the ’60s; it’s the same 4-inch bore as the 350 that followed it, but has a shorter 3.25 inch stroke instead of 3.48 inches. More importantly, like just about any small-block Chevy ever made, it bolts right up to the same mounts and bellhousing, and can use all the same aftermarket parts. If Lego made a car engine, it couldn’t be more interchangeable than a small-block Chevy.

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This El Camino runs and drives just fine, the seller says, and has had some recent work done to keep it that way. The seller says it cruises along at 70 mph at low revs, due to tall rear axle gearing. In the ’70s, before the widespread adoption of overdrive automatic transmissions, carmakers would raise the rear axle ratio (smaller numbers) to lower engine speeds and increase fuel economy. This made for sluggish acceleration, but nice relaxed cruising.

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This El Camino looks like it’s in good shape overall, though once again, someone thought flat black was a good idea. If it were up to me, I’d be trying out one of the many backyard DIY painting approaches out there. This car originally had a great deal of chrome trim on it; the seller says the window trim for the doors is included, but the bed-edge trim is MIA. I bet reproductions exist if you really want.

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The beauty of these cars is that either one of them is just a starting point. Any level of power you want simply bolts in, right in place of whatever is there right now. Or if you want to keep the status quo, any one of hundreds of parts suppliers stand ready and waiting to keep them going. They’re different beasts, built for different purposes, but they’re both old enough that they’re just playthings anyway. Which set of toys are you playing with?

(Image credits: Craigslist sellers)

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Donald Petersen
Donald Petersen
7 months ago

I was truly on the fence, wanting both about equally, having grown up liking Beetles but loving old V8s and having always wanted an El Camino even though this one isn’t a great year, although they’re both smog exempt which is huge, and I was seesawing back and forth until I realized that the Bug wasn’t asking $3K as I’d originally thought, but a stout $5K, and that tipped me solidly into the Chevy’s lap. I can get similar Bugs for cheaper with just a modest bit of patience, but I haven’t seen a running El Camino this cheap in ages. I’d get it if I were working.

Mr Sarcastic
Mr Sarcastic
7 months ago

As I was reading this it occurred to me that a better healine for these two would be Sammy Hagars, (I think) I can’t drive 55, for 2 different reasons. The small block Chevy wants freedom to run 70 mph and the 55 hp VW couldn’t achieve 55 mph if you dropped it from a helicopter.
So Chevy.

Last edited 7 months ago by Mr Sarcastic
Slow Joe Crow
Slow Joe Crow
7 months ago

The cosmetics of the El Camino made me vote VW. Also Beetle engines are ridiculously easy to remove.
If it had been an 80s El Camino I would have voted otherwise since I like the quarter window styling and proportions better.

FuzzyPlushroom
FuzzyPlushroom
7 months ago

This time I’m not voting against the objectively-slow-basic-and-old-fashioned European economy car… but I did vote for the Elco. The price is right, the body’s dinged up enough to use for Truck Stuff now and then but nice enough to be worth respraying/rolling/sponging (again, like the 2002 the other day, I suggest orange or green tractor paint), the interior appears mostly intact, and if you’re Californian, it still has its likely-original blue plates and it’s old enough to be smog-exempt.

Plus, I’ve always wanted one.

Edit: Pretty green on the Beetle, though. Shame the clearcoat hasn’t held up. Come to think of it, I could’ve run a find/replace on my comment on the 2002 versus the cute blue Trabant…

Last edited 7 months ago by FuzzyPlushroom
Kevin B
Kevin B
7 months ago

I had a ’69 Bug when I was young, broke, and stupid. It had that godawful “Automatic Stick Shift”, making a slow car even slower.

No way in Hell would I want to relive that experience.

Mr Sarcastic
Mr Sarcastic
7 months ago
Reply to  Kevin B

Amen, while slow car fun is a thing it doesn’t happen in a 55hp Beetle

CTSVmkeLS6
CTSVmkeLS6
7 months ago
Reply to  Mr Sarcastic

My 1st car 1983 Renault Alliance. 5 speed, 1.4L with 64 injected ponies. It was as slow ‘racing’ as my friends AMC Eagle. Buddies with small block G-bodies would walk us and actually hold 70 on the highway… I somehow miss that old slow crap

Mr Sarcastic
Mr Sarcastic
7 months ago
Reply to  CTSVmkeLS6

Got to agree again

Mr Sarcastic
Mr Sarcastic
7 months ago
Reply to  Mr Sarcastic

Yes

Myk El
Myk El
7 months ago

I could use such a thing as the El Camino. But I lack the space and it couldn’t replace anything in the current fleet.

Last edited 7 months ago by Myk El
Millermatic
Millermatic
7 months ago

Both, please. The first car I ever drove was a bug. I was 14. It’s also the first car I ran into a ditch. Also at 14.
Same drive, in fact.

My grandfather had an El Camino. Loved it.

Mr. Fusion
Mr. Fusion
7 months ago

Well this Showdown brought some very specific memories. After my parents got divorced in 1977, my dad bought a 1975 El Camino in beige, and my mom bought a 1974 Super Beetle in forest green.

We had been living in Albuquerque at the time, but my dad moved back to California, and so I spent a LOT of road trips in the passenger seat of that El Camino (and sometimes in the bed — my dad had a sleek shell installed on the El for most of his ownership). Meanwhile, when back home, my mom took me to school & back in the Super Beetle. There was also one road trip with four people, and the Beetle was stuffed to the gills.

While the Beetle was surprisingly comfortable, the El Camino proved far more hardy, so it gets my vote today. I can’t remember what engine it had, but I do know that my maternal grandfather’s beloved 1968 Impala had the 327, and he treated that car like it was his youngest child. He finally had to give it up in the late 1980s. I will always remember the GM 327 V8 for that reason.

Last edited 7 months ago by Mr. Fusion
Salt Cedar
Salt Cedar
7 months ago

You’re just gonna say you got a computer without telling us, the gaggle of nerds, what specs you have? Shame

Ricki
Ricki
7 months ago

I usually just go with my gut on these, but today I just had to look and see what people were saying first, because I just couldn’t decide. I initially balked at the price of the Bug, which people brought up, while also considering the Fun Factor. The El Camino is obviously a tinker’s dream, but the body is a black hole in more ways than one. So comments, ya let me down.

I think I have to go with the EC just on price and, at least in the US, parts availability. It’s just a Chevelle with a box. I don’t think there’s a more supported aftermarket platform in the industry. Cheaper to buy, cheaper to build, cheaper to maintain*, and none of the “quirks” of a rear-engine car that barely cracks 60mph. Harder to street park, though.

*I mean, except for gas.

Soso Tsundere
Soso Tsundere
7 months ago

I want to paint that El Camino a rich, deep sparkle red so it looks like a bowling ball. Then redo the interior with leather and shag carpet and find an 8 track to install.

Mike B
Mike B
7 months ago

These are both kind of shitboxes, but I’ll take the Elky. It’s more useful, and already being primer black I can just spray-paint a skull on the hood and call it the “HELL Camino”.

Drive By Commenter
Drive By Commenter
7 months ago

El Camino here. That car is useful as it is. Pulling up Jeg’s or Summit will get anything that engine could ever need. For the paint go wild with $200 of Plasti-Dip and some bedliner.

Mr Sarcastic
Mr Sarcastic
7 months ago

Can I get more info on plasti-dip?

A. Barth
A. Barth
7 months ago
Reply to  Mr Sarcastic

This Donut Media video is pretty good; it’s about 17 minutes long and goes through the Plast-dip process.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=anLkqccD1oo

Mr Sarcastic
Mr Sarcastic
7 months ago
Reply to  A. Barth

Looked good seems way too wide

Mr Sarcastic
Mr Sarcastic
7 months ago
Reply to  A. Barth

Thanks

DadBod
DadBod
7 months ago

My (future) wife drove an El Camino, we went to the drive-in on our first date. So duh I’m voting El Camino.

Mr Sarcastic
Mr Sarcastic
7 months ago
Reply to  DadBod

And how did the wife vote?JK

Gubbin
Gubbin
7 months ago

Beetle for me. Too many fond memories of VW-obsessed friends growing up, and that silly roof rack totally makes it.

Nycbjr
Nycbjr
7 months ago

being an IT geek I love todays theme of open source lol, I really like Mint, used it a number of years before switching back to MacOS, Cinnamon is really awesome.
That said, the ElCam is calling to me.

Austin Vail
Austin Vail
7 months ago

Something about Chevy smallblocks nowadays gives me red flags. It’s available as a crate engine from Walmart, and that’s oddly appropriate I think. Chevy small block V8: The official engine of Walmart. Also…

Chevy smallblock V8: The official engine of keeping Autozone in business.

Chevy smallblock V8: The official engine of “This car came from the factory with a straight six, but I swapped it.”

Chevy smallblock V8: The official engine of “This is my 1970 Toyota, I Chevy smallblock-swapped it for reliability. Ran when parked, bring a trai-”

Chevy smallblock V8: The official engine of your HOA hating your guts.

Chevy smallblock V8: The official engine of EVERY CRAPPY RAT ROD at your local car show.

Chevy smallblock V8: The official engine of your cousin Jimmy who thinks a mullet is a personality.

Chevy smallblock V8: The official engine of “BUY AMERICAN!”

Chevy smallblock V8: The official engine of cutting your muffler off to make it louder without realizing it sounds like crap.

Chevy smallblock V8: The official engine of “bought it as a father-son project!” and letting it sit deteriorating.

Chevy smallblock V8: The official engine of front-engined Corvairs.

Chevy smallblock V8: The official engine of high school shop class.

Chevy smallblock V8: The official engine of three-speed automatic transmissions.

Chevy smallblock V8: The official engine of three-speed automatic transmissions in cars that originally had a manual.

Chevy smallblock V8: The official engine of “Oh, it’s just a smallblock.”

Last edited 7 months ago by Austin Vail
Austin Vail
Austin Vail
7 months ago
Reply to  Mark Tucker

There’s a meme in Lemons circles of SBCs being unreliable… I think part of the issue is that it’s THE entry-level classic car engine. So yeah, if you buy a good car with an SBC that’s been maintained properly, it’s probably pretty good. But anything affordable you find with a SBC nowadays was probably owned by a newbie amateur mechanic learning as they go but not really taking the time to do things properly, and every single part of it is sketchy.

I do have a neighbor with a ’66 Chevy truck built as a low-budget hot rod, and he’s rebuilding a 350 for it (currently has a 305 under the hood), but he’s doing it properly and has plenty of wrenching experience already. That one will be fine when it’s done.

I think part of the issue is that the SBC is no longer the best bang for your buck performance-wise like it used to be, as the LS V8 took its crown. Now, if you’re running a SBC, it’s because it’s cheap and easily replaceable. If you want more performance out of it, you can either get an LS and do it properly, or do janky cheap mods to the 350 and make it unreliable and sketchy, and sell the barely running result on FB Marketplace when you realize your mistakes.

Last edited 7 months ago by Austin Vail
Mike B
Mike B
7 months ago
Reply to  Austin Vail

There’s a reason the SBC is so common – it’s one of the best engines ever made. Yes, it was offered in many different vehicles, and swapped into countless others, but that’s a testament to its versatility. Same goes for its grandkid, the LS1.

Mr Sarcastic
Mr Sarcastic
7 months ago
Reply to  Austin Vail

Walmart much like other mail order sites like Amazon just offers their huge site to sellers and never touches the motor just takes a bite like the mafia. But it does pressure a lower price.

TOSSABL
TOSSABL
7 months ago

I’ve had Beetles, but never a SBC—much less in a Camino. Easy choice for me

Gilbert Wham
Gilbert Wham
7 months ago
Reply to  TOSSABL

Ah, but have you heard a beetle with an SBC in it? Cos that’s eminently doable if you try.

TOSSABL
TOSSABL
7 months ago
Reply to  Gilbert Wham

Oh, yeah: walking up on it and hearing the chop is almost surreal. Watching it at throttle as the overlap becomes effective is downright scary.

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