I’ve never made a secret of my lifelong affection for the humble Volkswagen Beetle. I bought my first one at 15, before I could even drive, and they’ve been a part of my life since. I’m not under any illusions about them, though; they have perhaps the most troubling origin story of any mass-produced car, especially for a foreskinless fella such as myself, and even by 1980s standards they feel pretty agricultural. And even if love is blind, it’s not completely stupid, which is why I need to call out what I always thought was one of the worst design choices of most pre-1968 Volkswagens. This is important, people. And timely.
I should mention that what I’m going to show you isn’t exclusively a Volkswagen affectation; there were other cars that did this, but VW has to have produced – by far – the most cars that did this. Here’s what I’m talking about:
See that? It’s the fuel filler. And it’s right there, in the trunk.
Beetles had the in-trunk fuel filler since the car was designed in 1938 until its first major and comprehensive update in 1968. Other VWs like the Karmann-Ghia and Type 3s did it as well, as you can see here:
…and, here are a few other cars that used this method, like the Fiats 500 and 600, the DeLorean, and the legendary Mercedes 300SL Gullwing, though that one may be more a result of its racing heritage (a lot of ’50s and ’60s race cars had a fuel filler located in the trunk, directly on the tank). Porsche 356s have an in-trunk fuel filler, too, because of the Beetle-derived origins of the car, and those finally got an external flap with the 356C in 1964. I’m sure there are more out there, but these are some of the more common ones.
So, here’s my problem with the in-trunk fuel filler, in case it isn’t completely obvious: it’s way too easy to spill gasoline all over the stuff in your trunk. Plus, in case you’re like my dad and have no sense of smell (that’s actually true, and it’s why he couldn’t be a chemist like he wanted. Though he occasionally did stink) I should inform you that gasoline does smell. Strongly. I’ve carried a slightly leaky gas can in the trunk of my car and the resulting gasoline smell was powerful and lingered for what seemed like weeks.
If you’re on a road trip, let’s say, with your VW’s trunk packed full of your duffel bags, and you stop for gas and accidentally drip some gas onto your luggage as you’re lifting the nozzle out, then you’re going to smell like gas for your entire weekend at the lakehouse. This scenario must have happened countless times over the 1950s and 1960s, right? How could it not?
I just don’t get it. At first, I thought this had to be for cost-cutting reasons, since Beetles were, you know, very cheap, but that doesn’t explain why VW continued to use this method on their more up-market Type 3s or Karmann-Ghias? And, if the cost of routing the fuel filler to the outside of the car was really so prohibitive, then how come other very inexpensive cars like the Citroën 2CV and BMC Mini and Renault 4 and old Crosleys and so many others managed to pull it off?
This is one of those design decisions that, in hindsight, is absolutely baffling to me. Why was this considered okay? The potential for a minor mistake to become a colossal, whole-trip-ruining fuckup is just far, far, too great. Remember, these cars were sold in an era before automatic-shutoff gas pumps, so think how easy it would be to put the pump in, set the hold open latch (those have been in use since 1957, letting a gas station attendant clean your windows or whatever while your car gets filled up) and walk away, only to come back a few moments late and the pump is ejaculating gasoline all over everything in your trunk. This had to have happened many times.
On most cars, the worst that would happen is that you’d spill gasoline down the side of your car, which you’d wipe off with the windshield squeegee between the pumps, and then you’d dry off. But in a trunk-filler car like an old Beetle or 356 or Fiat 600, if you had any luggage in there, you and whoever else was in the car with you would be royally, flammably fucked.
It’s just so unforgiving. It’s like an error magnifier, where it can take a minor mistake and elevate it to the level of disaster. Who wants that?
Anyway, VW finally took care of the problem in 1968. But I still have to ask why the hell it took them 30 years to solve this very obvious deficiency. I reached out to Volkswagen in 1955 to issue my complaints (I yelled at a gravestone in New Jersey of someone I’m pretty sure worked at VW of America in the PR department from 1953 to 1966), and I’ll update you when I hear back.
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My mom’s first car was a light blue Beetle. The constant fuel smell in the trunk is why this story brought that car memory back. Lurching and stalling while learning to drive was enough sloshing to keep fresh fuel drips in the trunk at all times. I would have been four. Thanks for bringing it back.
Really not all that baffling at the time. Leaded gas, carbs, no catalytic converters, not even charcoal filters for the fumes. You were used to cars smelling like gas and it didn’t seem out of the ordinary.
While the fuel filler was a puzzling aspect there was one other element to the fuel system that was a bit different. My brother had really old beater from the 50’s. Not only did it have the trunk filler, it had no fuel gauge. You simply ran it until it ran out of gas, then you reached down and flipped a lever and you ran on the reserve tank, about a gallon or so. This was standard on the early bugs. So aside from putting a stick in the tank, the only way you knew how much gas you had was when it sputtered and died. No, no sight guage, or little tube with gas in it to show level, you just had to run out of gas. Ah, the Germans, legendary engineers.
The 356Bs got external fuel filler in late 1961 with the introduction of the T6 body style, which is recognizable on the flat bottomed “mouth” and slightly larger windows. So my July ’62 has it. Which is nice.
Old Beetles without fuel gauge had to have a straight fuel filler, so you could get the stick down there. But it should really have changed, when the fuel gauge dash board came. Wasn’t that also around 1961?
I always loved those mechanical cable fuel senders. Just so simple!
And the Type 2 got one, already when the Barn Door was phased out.
But VW is just the most conservative car company. Don’t change anything unless a lot of people complain. Same mindset got them to continue with dirty diesels for as long as possible.
Honorable mention should go to the Trabant, where you also fuel it under the front hood, right above the engine! But in a Trabant I guess your luggage gets smelly anyway 🙂
Money? Simply the cheapest way to go.
I had an Austin Healey 100 with the gas filler cap under the rear trunk. The car also had a mechanical catch trunk rod on the other side from the filler. Problem was that the catch worked better than the release, and gas station attendants back in the day would try to close the trunk with the catch still caught, creating a nice lever effect to be d the trunk where the trunk rod attached. Had a hell of a time getting everything straightened out and lined up when I painted the my car.
Pros: Lower cost. Safer in a crash (I know, we’re talking about a Beetle, but still), weather proof, improved theft resistance, much lower cost (tank is simpler (lower cost), body stampings simpler, no fuel flap and associated hardware, reduced assembly time. Friendly to left side and right side pumps.
Spills? Ask me (a motorcyclist) about fuel spills: They rarely, if ever, happen, even on today’s sloppy pumps.
Cons: Everything else. Putting the fuel tank in the front passengers faces / over their legs is not a swell idea.
Contradictory and Supportive history: Our ’63 Bus not only had an external fuel flap and filler, but it was a locking flap, with a little four-sided key that clicked into a latch behind the driver’s seat. So the security thing is real. Oh, and my ’72 Super Beetle had a lock for the fuel flap — it was inside of the glovebox, so fuel theft / vandalism were real fears for VW.
In the case of Type 3’s, the later models with the filler flap on the fender suffer the problem that the rubber vent bits of that area are exposed to the stuff coming off the tire and VW stopped making replacement parts long ago. Water enters the fuel system this way. There is an home-built aftermarket supplier for this, but my earlier squareback doesn’t have that problem at all.
The biggest problem is that in locations where attendants are required to fuel up your vehicle, not you, I still have to get out of the car, to their objection, to open the hood to show them where the fuel goes.
I see you live in New Jersey or Oregon. 🙂
Typical German engineers. In the same vein as Corporate’s response to VW America begging for cupholders (You have no business drinking while you’re driving), if you don’t spill gas while you’re filling up it’s not a problem.
Our Jaguar XJ6(s) always had the smell of gas in the trunk
Yeah, the tee-connection between the two tanks often got leaky. I read how some owners just converted into a full-time Y-connection instead of the switchable one, to eliminate the leaky valve and not have to worry about switching between tanks. Works great except if you park on a sideways slope (like in a parking garage) with full tanks. Gas will naturally drain a bit from the uphill-side tank into the downhill-side one, and if they’re full enough the downhill-side tank will overflow out the gas cap.
From an old gasoline commercial (sunoco I think)
“Is that 93 octane you’re wearing? “
Would it be there to prevent fuel theft?
Gas was super cheap back then. It probably wasn’t worth it to steal it.
Gas was frequently stolen back then. No matter how cheap gas was, there were always teenagers too broke to buy it.
Until locking gas caps became common in the 1970s, it was practically a teenage pastime to siphon out enough gas to go cruising on the weekend. The more clever kids would take only a gallon or less from each car, hoping that the owner wouldn’t notice the next morning.
As a child, I remember often being told on Saturday morning to go check how much gas was in the car or truck, because Saturday was family trip day, and it was almost normal for some to have been pilfered in the night.
My dad was never happy about it, but never too angry about it either, unless it made us miss prime fishing time. There were a few young adults around the neighborhood, and he was sure he knew which ones were doing it, but it didn’t matter enough to stop until gas prices went up with the oil crisis.
His eventual solution to preserve prime family trip time was to screw a huge bolt in the open mouth of the fuel filler neck under the cap that could only be removed with an equally large socket. It was too much trouble for regular use, but worked nicely for the nights before family trips.
My dad was notoriously cheap, and he greatly appreciated this feature on his tan ’67 (by FAR the best year, btw).
That car my folks bought new, was one in which I learned to drive, was rebuilt by my brother and his son, and was recently sold by that grandson, finally exiting the family.
That’s worth considering: pretty much >everything< was rationed in what was left of Germany for several years. The ethos was pretty much, ‘Just make it work’.
That was my first thought as well. Don’t air cooled VWs have to use high octane fuel? (relatively speaking, for example VW Things required Premium)
Low compression ratio -> Low octane requirement.
25hp from 1194cc = not much compression. Which you could also feel when turning it over on the dynamo wheel. So no to your question 🙂
I’m wondering how many smart asses who owned these before ’68 reveled in the chance to pull into a full service station and say “fill ‘er up!” and then ask “What the hell is tak’n ya so long?” when the attendant can’t seem to find where to put the gas in.
Well, in the ’60s you’d have to be quite the N00b at the service station if it’s your first time gassin’ up a Beetle. One probably buzzed in the first ten minutes you worked there.
Not only that, but those fuel caps aren’t sealed. They just vent to atmosphere. Too extreme an angle, a hard stop with a full tank, or anything else that can get the gas up and through the baffles in the cap, and you don’t even need to make a mistake while refueling.
I used to DD a ’57 Karmann Ghia. I sold it to a guy several states away, and he had it picked up by a Russian dude with a truck. The guy gave me ZERO warning he was coming, and so it had a full tank of fuel when he arrived. He then loaded it at a pretty extreme nose up angle, and drove it a few thousand miles. When it arrived, the interior was completely soaked in gasoline to the new owner’s chagrin.
I love Beetle articles, I find more and more information about them thanks to Jason and make appreciate mine more and more. My 1973 Super Beetle spills gas if I make a right turn like I stole it, maybe its time for another gas cap haha btw something I just found out why the heater hoses were not attaching to where they are suppose to go, the shipping plugs were still there from the factory, I was getting no good heat and its cold already in Michigan, tires are from 1999 and idk what else can be still original lol
And it’s crazy that Porsche and VW stopped doing this earlier but went back to it for the 914 (along with the spare tire-powered washers).
I recall a VW guy I knew that explained that VW engineers tended to not change what worked. I have to guess people did not admit to spilling fuel or the complaints were overlooked.
Or because back then if you spilled fuel you accepted it was your fault. Now if you do it it is the designers fault.
Thought this article was going to be about the spare tire powered window washer, disappointed.
That I both love and already wrote about! https://jalopnik.com/the-spare-tire-windshield-washer-system-in-old-volkswag-1829875552
This is a German design. Why would you spill gasoline into your trunk? That would be unacceptable.
“…and old Crosleys…”
Well, not the old ones, only the newer ones.
It’s great. They had to fabricate a (giant) fuel filler for Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo because it was a major plot point. Herbie didn’t have one in previous movies (Tennessee even opens Herbie’s trunk in The Love Bug to give him gas) and was magically gone for the next one. Fun.
I bet it was because of the german minimalistic/bauhaus history. The fuel filler is a maintenance item, and it was shoved into the trunk with all the other maintenance items. It wasn’t so much emphasizing usability, but instead minimalism/purity. Exterior of the design was “pure” they didn’t want to cut a giant hole in it and have an ugly filler cap sticking out of one side, like the mini.
I recently picked up a 72 Bavaria and the fuel filler is behind the plate, and man, it’s a bummer crash tests ruined that location, because it has a lot of advantages; you never pull into a pump on the wrong side, the exterior is cleaner and symmetrical, etc. Kind of lame how unimaginative modern fuel/charging ports are.
I’m assuming your favorite filler is like the 55(?) caddy because of its flip-down taillight, and I know how much you appreciate them?
Hey, Aptera’s going for a charging port behind the plate, at least.
If there’s any chance you frequent another forum about…German autos, you might appreciate Captain Muppet’s comment at the bottom of this article:
Just make the filler a bit longer, snake it under the fender, and you can create a hidden fuel door under the turn signal!
Considering their cost cutting with things like using the spare tire air to power the windshield washer it doesn’t surprise me that they left it in the trunk. They would have to have a different hood, a water seal or a door and that could have cost a few marks at the time. Then I think it was just the ‘it’s the way we do it’ sets in and they never bothered to change it
Hold on. Is that an extra fan belt conveniently integrated into the spare tire. That’s neat!
“Here. You’re gonna need it.”
And never let a non-vw-owner drive your bug unaccompanied, or you’ll get it back with a blown engine, cause they ignored the idiot light! 🙁
Oh yeah, I love the fan belt on the hubcap clips. SO GOOD