Home » VW Shoved Wilt Chamberlain Into Little Cars At Least Twice: Cold Start

VW Shoved Wilt Chamberlain Into Little Cars At Least Twice: Cold Start

Cs Wilt Top
ADVERTISEMENT

When it comes to the Grand Volkswagen Timeline, one of the biggest breaks in eras is the switch from the Air-Cooled Era to the Liquid-Cooled Era. The standard-bearers of each era were the Beetle and the Golf/Rabbit, respectively. It’s not widely spoken of in the VW historical community, but one of the most interesting bridges between these two eras was basketball legend Wilt Chamberlain, who VW shoved into their small cars for ads in both air-cooled and liquid-cooled eras.

This started in 1966, with this famous VW ad:

Vidframe Min Top
Vidframe Min Bottom

Cs Wilt 2

Like most of the print ads of the Dole Dane Bernbach VW ads era, it’s self-effacing and funny. The Beetle, quite a small car especially by American standards, couldn’t really fit the 7’1″ Chamberlain, but VW made it clear that if you were a shrimpy 6’7″, you could fit in just fine.

I also like that the copy for this ad describes how you could “sleep an enormous infant” in the luggage well behind the back seat, which is a deeply weird image.

ADVERTISEMENT

The Beetle actually had a lot more legroom than you might guess, because the drivetrain was at the rear, leaving a lot of open volume up front for legs. Plus, the domed shape allows for a ton of headroom as well, so it was a surprisingly decent choice for tall people.

They made a television commercial with Wilt, too:

In the switch to video, they were able to actually show a 6’6″ guy getting in there, Chamberlain’s fellow Philly 76er Bill Cunningham, who looks normal-sized next to the towering Wilt.

What I had forgotten about – or perhaps, scandalously, never realized, was that in 1979 VW brought Wilt back, because, it seems, their engineers had finally developed a small car that he could fit in:

ADVERTISEMENT

Cs Wilt1

And, of course, there was another commercial:

I’ll admit I was surprised that the Rabbit was able to accommodate Wilt when the Beetle couldn’t; Wilt also notes that the Rabbit has more headroom than his Rolls-Royce! I’m impressed; I wonder if it’s because the seats can slide further back? I’d going to guess that legroom behind Wilt isn’t exactly great for anyone with legs more than two atoms thick.

Really, this is a testimony to how well the Giugiaro-designed Golf/Rabbit was packaged; 87% of the volume of the car was for people or cargo! That’s impressive as hell!

ADVERTISEMENT

Cs Wilt 3 Rabbitcutaway

As a really short person, I feel for really tall people when it comes to cars. Being short has plenty of disadvantages, but I love being able to fit into nearly any tiny-ass ridiculous car. Not being able to drive a Beetle because one is too tall would be a nightmare! A nightmare!

Luckily, I think Wilt had a rich and rewarding enough life that he was able to get over that, somehow.

Share on facebook
Facebook
Share on whatsapp
WhatsApp
Share on twitter
Twitter
Share on linkedin
LinkedIn
Share on reddit
Reddit
Subscribe
Notify of
46 Comments
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Ohgodwhyme
Ohgodwhyme
1 month ago

I am a smidge (official Autopian unit of measure) short than Wilt. I do not think there is a single 2-seater I can fit in. I can usually manage to find a position in 4 seater but sometimes the seat has to lean WAY back (cough, Subaru SVX, cough). I have owned some very interesting small cars you would think I would not be able to fit into – 3rd gen Civic hatchback, MK6 Golf. I recall one time parking the Civic and was walking away and some guy just stopped me and pointed to the car and asked ‘Please tell you did not just get out of THAT car’. I get stopped a lot for questioning. 

Tons of fun stories being tall and loving cars. I track/autocross and instruct at car control clinic, driving schools and autocrosses. One time at an autocross, a guy in a Lotus Elise needed coaching. So I jumped in the passenger seat. Well, more like folded myself origami style. My knees were up against my chest and I was looking OVER the windshield. With my helmet on (safety first children!), I probably failed the broomstick test by about a solid twelve inches. Good thing I was friends with the program coordinator. I am sure the insurance company would have had an aneurysm if they saw what we did. 

Plenty of good stories. One day I will share how I pretzeled myself in the BMW M coupe (Z4 version). There was a reasonable amount of doubt as to whether I would ever be able to get out.  I really should have skipped wearing the helmet.

Just to tie it back to the Jason’s article and VW’s marketing, I can confirm that the VW 1st Gen New Beetle has the most headroom of any car I have ever sat in. I have never been in the original version.

Alec Weinstein
Alec Weinstein
1 month ago
Reply to  Ohgodwhyme

I’m tiny baby (6’6″) and man, modern cars are getting worse. My ’75 Monza fits me better than a tC fits me better than a new Z or even some trucks.

BigThingsComin
BigThingsComin
1 month ago
Reply to  Ohgodwhyme

I’m similar size to you and have a similar auto backstory. I’m also nearly 300 lbs. One Elise owner wanted me to instruct from the passenger seat. Got about halfway though the course and a loud crack came up from the seat. I had cracked his expensive aluminum bucket. Oops! But he asked for me specifically. His fault.

Gregory A Hasselbach
Gregory A Hasselbach
1 month ago
Ben
Ben
1 month ago

Luckily, I think Wilt had a rich and rewarding enough life that he was able to get over that, somehow.

I imagine he did, but as a merely “normal” tall person I have great sympathy for anyone around 7′ who doesn’t make it big as an athlete. At a measly 6’5″ I have a hard time fitting into a lot of seats – airlines, buses, entertainment venues, you name it, I probably don’t fit in the seats. If you don’t have the kind of money where you can get things custom made for you it must be a nightmare to be much taller than me.

Brandt S
Brandt S
1 month ago
Reply to  Ben

Agree 100%. I’m “only” 6′-3″ and have a miserable time in stuff designed for the masses. My problem is not so much legs, but torso. So I almost never have enough headroom in I’d wager 80% of vehicles. Salesmen always say “you know, the seat can go lower” after I’ve already put it onto the floor.

Myk El
Myk El
1 month ago
Reply to  Ben

If you’re outside that normal size window in either direction, you really feel the world just isn’t made for you. I’m not, but my mother was very short to begin with and age has made it worse. At least tall folks don’t have trouble reaching that one sock in the back of the dryer, but getting low enough to do so might be trouble.

Angular Banjoes
Angular Banjoes
1 month ago

This is incredibly strange to see this, because just last night I accidentally fell down a Wilt Chamberlain rabbit hole. A rabbit hole wherein I discovered that he drove some custom built contraption called the Searcher One. I’d never heard of or seen that thing before. Long way from a Beetle, that’s for sure.

BigThingsComin
BigThingsComin
1 month ago

That’s quite a piece of automotive history!

Last edited 1 month ago by BigThingsComin
Swirl Of Embers
Swirl Of Embers
1 month ago

My (non-car-related) Wilt story. He used to work out at the gym I attended. Just quietly sat in a corner most of the time doing curls with 100lb dumbbells. But one day a loudmouthed guy I worked out with (kind of an asshole, really) managed to bench 300 pounds, and proudly asked Wilt if he could do that. Wilt looked over and quietly said: “Probably twice that.” Well, Loudmouth did not believe it and demanded proof. So the whole gym got excited and we loaded a bar with 600 pounds of iron. Damn thing was bending in a curve even on the rack. Wilt ambled over, got underneath, grabbed the bar, grunted slightly, and benched it perfectly. Whole gym went silent as he dropped it back on the rack. Wilt nodded to himself, said: “Yep, thought I could,” and went back to his barbells. Unfortunately this was before cellphone cameras, but damn, it was impressive. Those long arms held more muscle than you’d expect.

Brandt S
Brandt S
1 month ago

Funny thing about Wilt. My uncle owns his ’82 Lamorghini Countach. Wilt Chamerlain was the original owner. My uncle has photos of him in the car – barefoot with the seat removed in order for him to be able to drive. I’m still not sure he could actually drive it since I can barely get myself into the passenger seat at 6′-3″.

Brandt S
Brandt S
1 month ago
Reply to  Brandt S

Commenting on my own post because I somehow misspelled “Lamborghini”. What is my problem!!

AssMatt
AssMatt
1 month ago
Reply to  Brandt S

Seems like the Autopian should develop a proprietary autocorrect for car makes and models. Wouldn’t help much with certain Lexi and BMWs etc but the computer should know you mean Lambo even if the keyboard doesn’t!

Brandt S
Brandt S
1 month ago
Reply to  AssMatt

haha yeah. Looks like I missed a couple “B”s in that post. I blame the unfamiliar keyboard I’m using at home…

AssMatt
AssMatt
1 month ago
Reply to  Brandt S

I guess AutoAutoCorrectPian would be redundant; my brain didn’t notice the typo until you pointed it out. But it’s always better to point out one’s own failings than let somebody else do it!

Bungalow Bernard
Bungalow Bernard
1 month ago
Reply to  Brandt S

Wow, I wouldn’t have believed he could do that. The guy is huge but 600lb is incredible.

Ranwhenparked
Ranwhenparked
1 month ago

Remember when Buick tried to recall these ads by squeezing Shaq into a LaCrosse? That’s not a small car, and he did not look comfortable, seat all the way back and knees up past the steering column

Canopysaurus
Canopysaurus
1 month ago

My dad used to call the way back space in our VW bug the Beetle Bailey after the historic Old Bailey criminal courts building in London, implying that we kids were being sent to jail when consigned to that space. Dad was funny.

Col Lingus
Col Lingus
1 month ago

Thanks for the memories. We had many VW bugs over the 1960s.
Good on the ad saying to stow a rug rat in the rear behind the back seat.
At times my folks would cram all of the family into a bug.
Five kids, (four boys, and little sister into the spot behind the rear seat.)
Thank God my Mom got a new VW Bus in 1966.

Last edited 1 month ago by Col Lingus
Strangek
Strangek
1 month ago

I like how they bragged about there being more legroom in the front of a Beetle than there is in the front of a limousine! I’m a big time baller, so I’ve only ridden in the back of limousines, but I’m impressed nonetheless!

Fuzzyweis
Fuzzyweis
1 month ago

Yep, loving cars and being normal tall(6′) can be tiresome. This is why when everyone says the answer is always Miata, not for me, unless I like looking over the windshield all 30s goggles and scarf style.

MATTinMKE
MATTinMKE
1 month ago
Reply to  Fuzzyweis

I’m 5’6″, and if I had a Miata I’d still rock the goggles & scarf.

Brandt S
Brandt S
1 month ago
Reply to  Fuzzyweis

Yep, 6′-3″ here and cannot even get into a Miata. I tried to get into Fiat’s version at a car show once and couldn’t contort myself to even sit in the seat!

Trust Doesn't Rust
Trust Doesn't Rust
1 month ago

VW originally wanted Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to star in the ads but he was too busy being a commercial airline pilot.

IRegertNothing, Esq.
IRegertNothing, Esq.
1 month ago

Surely you can’t be serious?

Jack Beckman
Jack Beckman
1 month ago

He is, and don’t call him Surley.

Col Lingus
Col Lingus
1 month ago
Reply to  Jack Beckman

Or Shirley?

Fuzzyweis
Fuzzyweis
1 month ago

Look kid, he’s busting his butt running up and down the court every night, tell your old man to go sit in that VW.

AssMatt
AssMatt
1 month ago
Reply to  Fuzzyweis

The court, what is it?!

Squirrelmaster
Squirrelmaster
1 month ago

We have clearance, Clarence.

Roger, Roger, what’s our vector, Victor?

10001010
10001010
1 month ago

It’s an entirely different kind of flying, all together.

Trust Doesn't Rust
Trust Doesn't Rust
1 month ago
Reply to  10001010

It’s an entirely different kind of flying.

Ham On Five
Ham On Five
1 month ago

Hold the Mayo

Flyingstitch
Flyingstitch
1 month ago

The “enormous infant” line would be a coffee-through-the-nose moment if I drank coffee. Well-done bizarro touch. And I love the shade they throw at Ford and Chevy in the Rabbit ad. Tossing them in like an afterthought. Not even on par with Renault!

StillNotATony
StillNotATony
1 month ago

All right, everyone who has ridden in the little compartment behind the back seat of a VW Beetle, as an infant or otherwise, say “Aye!”

Aye!

Last edited 1 month ago by StillNotATony
10001010
10001010
1 month ago
Reply to  StillNotATony

Aye

Lizardman in a human suit
Lizardman in a human suit
1 month ago
Reply to  StillNotATony

And now the movie Mallrats comes to mind. I can’t get the continual vw beetle references out of my mind.

10001010
10001010
1 month ago

It’s safer than sitting down on an escalator

Terry Tait
Terry Tait
1 month ago
Reply to  StillNotATony

Aye, we lived out in the country, our family of four would take the neighbor and her son to town for work/school. As the smallest I rode in the far back. 6 people in a Beetle was a daily occurrence for us in the mid ‘70s.

Andy Individual
Andy Individual
1 month ago
Reply to  StillNotATony

Aye. All the way up to around 10 years old. My two younger siblings were part of the first gen child car seat generation. Those seats were huge. There was no way a third person could fit in the back seat. In fact my dad had to pull one of the the car seats just so I could get in and out of the cargo hold.

StillNotATony
StillNotATony
1 month ago

Clearly, you were the favorite, right?

getstoneyII (probably)
getstoneyII (probably)
1 month ago

“Luckily, I think Wilt had a rich and rewarding enough life that he was able to get over that, somehow.”

Welp, I’m not sure about whether some of the community here knows this, but it’s pretty common knowledge that he had over 20,000 “somehows”* during his career.

There is a reason his nickname was “The Stilt”. lol.

*to quote Shane Gillis…”Don’t google that” (at work, anyway).

Phuzz
Phuzz
1 month ago

I’m sure you mean he did over 20,000 miles in a Beetle convertible right? He’d fit ok into one of them.

Jb996
Jb996
1 month ago

Yes, He definitely spent a lot of time shoving himself into tiny spaces.

Taco Shackleford
Taco Shackleford
1 month ago

10-9-8- 76ERS!

46
0
Would love your thoughts, please comment.x
()
x