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.

Vidframe Min Top
Vidframe Min Bottom

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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Brooks Fancher
Brooks Fancher
8 months ago

El Camino. I love utes and have in the past owned a 72 El Camino and a 78.

Voeltzwagen
Voeltzwagen
8 months ago

Not that I need another air cooled VW in my life, but what the hell. Beetle it is.

Scott
Scott
8 months ago
Reply to  Voeltzwagen

I’ve only had the pleasure of owning one air-cooled VW… a ’79 camper that I bought in Brooklyn and took on a summer trip to Alaska and CA with a buddy. TONS of memories (mostly all good) from that trip. 🙂

I’ve never had a Beetle or even driven one. I have ridden in one and I’m aware of the somewhat agricultural feel of an entry-level car the beginnings of which date back to the better parts of a century ago.

Despite this, I want one. This one looks fine to me, more or less. $5K seems a bit dear (yes, I know the market is still sorta insane) but I’m not into the El Camino, so Beetle it is.

PS: how is it that the Beetle’s headliner is still up? Is it not original (seems pretty clean) or are they rigid instead of glued-on cloth? I don’t think I’ve ever had a car more than 20 years old where the headliner hasn’t starting drooping.

Last edited 8 months ago by Scott
Voeltzwagen
Voeltzwagen
8 months ago
Reply to  Scott

The headliners are typically vinyl, but there are aftermarket cloth (tweed) versions available.

It’s been 20+ years since I’ve installed a headliner so my memory is a little sketchy. (Installing new headliners is a pain in the butt, and I’d probably never attempt it again.)

There’s several bows threaded through along the seams to keep the headliner up. The short of it is: you get it hung via the bows, then use a hair dryer or heat gun to make the vinyl more pliable, then pull everything taut and glue around the window frame and pillars. The glued ends are hidden behind the window seals and other interior trim pieces.

So you won’t see a saggy headliner, but they tear very easily, especially if they’re old and not as pliable as they once were. That’s where you’ll sometimes see sections hanging down.

ETA: the original style vinyl is perforated, that’s why once they tear, the rip just keeps going.

Last edited 8 months ago by Voeltzwagen
Farty McSprinkles
Farty McSprinkles
8 months ago

I went with the Beetle. Something about the body lines of that El Camino don’t look right. Combined with the flat paint, I bet that thing has more bondo than metal. Also, I just like Beetles.

Chewcudda
Chewcudda
8 months ago

El Camino, because it would be easier to add air conditioning.

StillNotATony
StillNotATony
8 months ago
Reply to  Chewcudda

You and me, dude. You and me.

Richard O
Richard O
8 months ago

I too, have some Beetle stories, but none of them are favorable. Between the chirping sound of the engine to the poor heater performance, I’ve grown to detest the things. (And the Thing.) Make mine an early malaise ute.

Chewcudda
Chewcudda
8 months ago
Reply to  Richard O

Engine chirp is easy enough to fix with a “quiet pack” exhaust swap. That heater tho, I agree with you.

Canopysaurus
Canopysaurus
8 months ago

The El Camino needs a tranny swap, but that’s doable. I’m voting for Ute-topia, today.

Last edited 8 months ago by Canopysaurus
Brooks Fancher
Brooks Fancher
8 months ago
Reply to  Canopysaurus

Not only is it doable, it is quite easy on that era. I have done it on a 72 El Camino and wham bam it is in and going down the road.

Alan Christensen
Alan Christensen
8 months ago

I voted for the El Camino only because I’ve had a Beetle before. Been there done that.

Cyko9
Cyko9
8 months ago

The El Camino is closer to the right price. Cheap enough to do what you want, use it, & let it go later. The Beetle is closer to “gotta keep it” money, though it isn’t bad for a starter.

Hotdoughnutsnow
Hotdoughnutsnow
8 months ago

All in with the Beetle. Like he said; dead simple to work on.
Also, not a big fan of the later El Camino; if it was mid-late sixties, then it would be more appealing.

Squirrelmaster
Squirrelmaster
8 months ago

I like the Beetle, but I don’t like that particular Beetle for that asking price, as there are ones in nicer shape for that price local to me. Therefore, I’m going with the El Camino, which isn’t my favorite body style of El Camino, but does appear to be a reasonably clean slate to start with to make a fun, cheapskate muscle cruiser.

Manwich Sandwich
Manwich Sandwich
8 months ago

Beetle for me. In my view, if I’m gonna get an old car, it will have a manual. Because old slushboxes really suck the fun out of driving old cars.

If that El Camino had 4-on-the-floor or even 3-on-the-tree, then it might have gotten my vote.

Stig's Cousin
Stig's Cousin
8 months ago

The Beetle is my favorite car of all time, but I am going to vote for the El Camino. Beetle prices have gone up, but I think I can do better for the money. I semi-regularly see late ’60s Beetles in daily driver condition for around $6,000 to $8,000. I would rather spend a bit more money to get a nicer car or spend less money to get something that is more of a project. If the seller were open to negotiation, though, I would be happy to pay $4,000 for this Beetle. I usually don’t worry that much about $1,000 when considering whether a classic car is a good deal, but given how regularly Beetles come for sale (there are 4 currently on my local Craigslist) I don’t feel a need to overpay on a car because it is available right now.

Also, $3500 for a solid running El Camino that isn’t rusty seems like a good deal. I also like the flat black paint. I don’t like flat black on new cars, but it looks great on beaters.

A. Barth
A. Barth
8 months ago

Beetle, please!

There are no pics of the floor pans or heater channels, which is a concern, but overall it looks like it would clean up pretty well. This is the first Käfer I’ve seen in a long time that appears to have the heater boxes, et al still intact so it’s something of a surprise.

The Beetle is a basically a blank slate for whatever the owner wants to do. I would return this one to its original red, because why not, and swap the engine for more power. It’s nice that the seat covers are new, but I think the front seats would be replaced with something more comfortable and breathable. We see you, seller: putting a t-shirt over a vinyl seat doesn’t transform it into a cloth seat. 🙂

I believe that is indeed a dual-port engine: the pic just below JT’s editor note seems to show two curved runners on the left side of the engine. The seller claims “Engine has made in Germany parts” which is a little odd but okay.

And I don’t want an El Camino. I don’t hate them, it’s just… meh.

Geoff Buchholz
Geoff Buchholz
8 months ago

Unlike a lot of people, I don’t have a “Beetle story.” There are Karmann-Ghias (Karmanns-Ghia?) and Buses in our family car tree, but not a Type 1. So I was all set to vote for the Bug … but man, I love the Colonnade era, and Elcos are legit. So it’s the Chevy today, and the fact that it’s basically in primer already means I can recreate one of those super-cool two-tone paint jobs!

XLEJim700
XLEJim700
8 months ago

I’ll take the “Bullitt” Beetle.

Clark B
Clark B
8 months ago

I’ve already got a Beetle, so El Camino for me. Although if that bug is rust free (guessing it is by location) and runs well, the price isn’t terrible. Maybe a little on the high side especially in rust free California.

Amusingly I learned to drive in my 1972 Super Beetle, and my mom learned to drive on an El Camino. I’ve had the bug since I was a kid, which is how the both of us learned on cars from the 70s–the Beetle was 37 years old when I turned 16.

Captain Muppet
Captain Muppet
8 months ago

My first car was a free 2CV, which automatically made me resent the much faster big-engined Beetle all the flashy not-quite-as-poor-as-me kids drove.

I’m learning to appreciate Beetles thanks entirely to Torch loving them so much, but a matte black El Camino is a much better fit for me. I’d buy it with my own money if I was moving to the US today.

Chronometric
Chronometric
8 months ago

I like this design of El Camino but I have never forgiven GM for placing the brake lights in the bumper where they can’t be seen. For that reason, and because I seem to be a bit of an air-cooled fan (no pun intended) these days, I’ll take the crusty overpriced Beetle.

SAABstory
SAABstory
8 months ago

sudo apt-get update Beetle

Nycbjr
Nycbjr
8 months ago
Reply to  SAABstory

Nerd comment of the day!

IRegertNothing, Esq.
IRegertNothing, Esq.
8 months ago

I would leave the matte black on that El Camino alone. It gives off such a strong DGAF attitude that suits the car perfectly. You’ll cruise slow and enjoy V8 sounds while not worrying about how a Honda Civic would smoke you at the track. Who cares? You have a cheap cruiser that will last forever as long as you don’t wreck it. Beetles do nothing for me, so I’ll save a little money and let the slacker vibes flow in the Chevy.

10001010
10001010
8 months ago

Linux Mint FTW! I’ve been using it for home and work since Ubuntu switched to the Unity interface. I just couldn’t bring myself to work with that sidebar. Thank geebus for Clem and Cinnamon.

Anyways, today I really really wanted a both option.

Nycbjr
Nycbjr
8 months ago
Reply to  10001010

yeah I agree with this, I used LM with Cinnamon for many years before I switched back to MacOS. Good job Mark!

OverlandingSprinter
OverlandingSprinter
8 months ago
Reply to  10001010

I use computers running Mint, Windows 10 and an Macintosh Air daily and a Chromebook when I’m in an environment where I don’t care if the computer survives. Different tools for different tasks. I don’t understand religious fervor over operating systems.

We must have switched to Linux Mint at the same time because Unity’s release in 2011(?) was a WTF moment for me.

10001010
10001010
8 months ago

No religious fervor for me, I use the other OSs as necessary at work but linux is my preferred daily driver. And of the wide range of linux distros I’ve come to prefer Mint for desktop use so I find it nice when I see someone else choosing it as well.

Unity and Gnome3 hit at the same time and both were WTF moments for me. I was googling around the forums looking for some way to get back to Gnome2 when I found a post suggesting LM and Cinnamon, I gave it a try and never looked back. While Mark Shuttleworth was doing his best impersonation of Steve Jobs and trying to shove something we didn’t want onto us Clem was in the forums listening to what people actually wanted and delivering it. As a result LM has only grown in popularity. I mean, Ubuntu will always be Ubuntu and doesn’t seem to be going away but by not listening or at least offering an alternative desktop (that is not KDE) they lost a lot of us to Mint. At the end of the day though, no matter what distro/desktop folks go with, I just like to see them embracing Open Source software.

MATTinMKE
MATTinMKE
8 months ago

My first car was a 75 Chevelle with the same front end as this El Camino. It was a great car, with a 350/2 barrel and a pea green vinyl top. That being said, I voted VW just for a new experience.

Cheats McCheats
Cheats McCheats
8 months ago

Both? Yes, BOTH!!!

Cheap Bastard
Cheap Bastard
8 months ago

“the once-ubiquitous Beetle is now a collector’s item, because fewer and fewer are left every year.”

And – I’d think – the number of people who have the desire for such a lawn ornament are fewer and fewer too. There are so many better clunkers to have the HOA get upset about, why bother with this?

Last edited 8 months ago by Cheap Bastard
Shop-Teacher
Shop-Teacher
8 months ago

The Beetle looks nice, but I can’t say no to a running driving El Camino that doesn’t appear to be a rusty pily for $3500.

Cheats McCheats
Cheats McCheats
8 months ago
Reply to  Shop-Teacher

Finding a decent Camino runner these days for a decent price is a lot harder than finding a bug.

Shop-Teacher
Shop-Teacher
8 months ago

Yep. They made a lot less of them, and they mostly got run hard.

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