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History of the Super Beetle
Story and photography by
Wayne Dean

1968, the Volkswagen Beetle was selling over one million units per year in the USA. The Volkswagen Beetle still remains to be one of the most popular vehicles in the world and also one of the most inexpensive to insure when dealing with Good to Go Insurance. Early in 1968 Heinz Nordhoff, the chairman of Volkswagen AG, was seriously ill but even then knew that the future of the company could not rely on the mighty Beetle forever. The Type 3 Notchback, Fastback and Squareback were not the saving grace that they were thought to be and something would have to be done soon. Sadly, Nordhoff passed away April 12, 1968 before the new Type 4s (also known as the 411 and 412) could come to market; another series that unfortunately missed the mark for Volkswagen. After Nordhoff's passing, Kurt Lotz took over the helm of Volkswagen, which at that time was like a ship without a rudder. There was a lot of uncertainty at Volkswagen as they watched orders for the Beetle start to dwindle.

U.S. automakers had learned a few lessons from Volkswagen, which they had applied to their latest offerings in the compact car market. The new Chevrolet Vega and Ford Pinto gave U.S. car buyers the price, room and fuel economy that was needed at a time when gas prices were rising steadily. The Japanese had also become major competition for Volkswagen. With all the attention that had been given the Japanese imports, Road and Track magazine did a head to head comparison between the Beetle and the Toyota Corolla. Unfortunately for Volkswagen the Corolla did it all better and for less money too. This was embarrassing for Volkswagen as the Beetle lost in every category except perhaps for its charming personality.

Until the new water-cooled, front wheel drive Golf (Rabbit is the USA) was in production, VW decided to re-work the Beetle and bring it up to the standards being set by other car manufacturers. The plan was to reduce the price of the standard Beetle and introduce a new updated model, a Super Beetle. The principal reasons for the development of the Super Beetle was to increase the utility of the vehicle by providing the customer with a larger luggage compartment and greater comfort. These factors were just as important some 30 years ago as they are today. By providing more luggage space, greater overall utility and comfort, the Super Beetle gave Volkswagen customers more choice in the model range of the period and greater choice in the market segment.

The decision to produce the Super Beetle was going to be a costly one. Never before had Volkswagen spent so much time or money on the Beetle. The new suspension design required a new chassis and every panel in the front end had to be redesigned as well. This meant new rounder fenders, a larger wider hood, redesigned front valance, a new spare tire well, changes to other areas of the body and new inner fenders to accommodate the mounting of the new struts. This would be the most costly and extensive revision of the Beetle since it was first launched. It was said that if Heinz Nordhoff was around, the new Super Beetle might have never been built.

The newly designed Beetle was to be called the 1302 Super Beetle. The 1302 designation was chosen due to the fact that car manufacturer Simca already had a model that was called the 1301. The Super Beetle was to be sold in North America with a carbureted 1600cc 60hp engine and available in Europe with the 1600c and a 1300cc version as well. To define the 1600cc model from the 1300cc in Europe, an "S" was added, making the Beetle with the larger engine the 1302"S". Planned for release in August 1970 the new sales brochure stated, "And now the new VW 1302S. The 1600cc Super Beetle. The most powerful, most exciting and most comfortable Beetle ever."

For the first time in the history of the Beetle the spare tire was stored horizontally in a recessed wheel well under the cargo area in the front trunk floor. The jack was moved to under the rear seat and the air pressure powered windshield washer bottle was relocated to the right inner fender. These changes resulted in 9 cubic feet of storage in the trunk, an increase of 86%. When this new space was added to the storage area behind the rear seat, the Beetle finally had the carrying capacity that people wanted. The new 1600cc and 1300cc engines featured dual port cylinder heads for better performance. And to help overcome the problem of keeping the number three cylinder cool, an external oil cooler was added and the tinwork was redesigned to allow more fresh air in. The rear deck lid was increased in size to accommodate the new larger engine and had two banks of five louvers cut into it to help keep the new power plant cool. Crescent-shaped air vents, trimmed with a silver metal edge were added behind the rear windows. These vents were part of the new flow through ventilation system that was added to ensure adequate fresh air to the interior. Another nice touch was the addition of a passenger side vanity mirror to the sun visor. These small touches were part of what Volkswagen hoped the public was looking for.

Part of Volkswagen's master plan was to bring the handling and ride of the Beetle up to North American standards with improved front suspension and updated rear trailing arms. MacPherson strut-coil springs were coupled with transverse control arms and a better turning radius was one of the results. This strut front suspension also offered precise steering and a comfortable ride. This type of independent front suspension was used by a number of manufacturers at the time and continues to be used widely to this day. The new suspension was lighter than the traditional torsion-beam design, the inner fenders were now heavier and the anti-roll bar was made much larger. The chassis frame head had to be substantially modified and made flatter to accommodate the new suspension changes. This suspension setup was similar to that used on the Type 4 Volkswagen. In the rear, double-jointed half shafts were introduced. These were formerly only available on the Beetle with the semi-automatic transmission. The 1302 would now handle more like a Ford than a Beetle.

The first Super Beetle sedan rolled off the assembly line on August 11, 1970 for the 1971 model year, during which some 700,000 were manufactured at Volkswagen plants in Wolfsburg and Emden. The 1302 sold surprisingly well despite Volkswagen enthusiasts giving it mixed reviews, with comments like ugly, swollen, bulging and pregnant. With optional air conditioning for only $267.00 and a semi-automatic transmission for an additional $139.00, the Beetle was now offering creature comforts that would help boost sales. Having Volkswagen's excellent reputation for quality and value dating back to the 1950s didn't hurt sales either.

The 1970s were also the beginning of the special edition Beetle. With models such as the Sports Bug, Sun Bug, Love Bug, Fun Bug, Winter Bug, La Grande Bug, Champagne Bug and overseas, the Jeans, Big and City models. One special edition for 1971 was the Jubilee Beetle, celebrating over twenty million total Volkswagen sales worldwide. This was one of the first special editions that were based on the standard Beetle and the 1302 Super Beetle. More than 35 different special edition Beetles were to follow, with even more being produced in Mexico today. 1971 also meant the end of the standard Beetle convertible. Until production ended in early 1980 all convertibles produced would be of the Super Beetle variety.

1972. Volkswagen was busy pushing the Super Beetle with a 14-page full color sales brochure with a cover that read, "The Super Beetle. The older it gets, the better it gets". The 1302 was available in seven colors while the standard Beetle came in only four colors and had a 4 page black and white sales brochure. The second year of the Super Beetle brought with it some changes to the already new design. To increase visibility the rear windshield was enlarged by 4 cm or 11%. This was to be the last time that the rear glass was enlarged and now compared to a Split window or Oval window Beetle the rear glass was now massive. The wiper switch was moved to the right side of the steering column for convenience and the vents in the rear engine lid were increased in number. Volkswagens' obsession with keeping the engine cool now required a massive 26 louvers. These were grouped in four unequal banks at the top of the rear engine lid.

Continuing Volkswagen's strategy of offering people more luxury, there was now a shelf installed behind the rear seat. This cover could be hidden away or extended over the rear storage area in an effort to keep valuables away from prying eyes. A new flat design 4 spoke plastic steering wheel was added to the interior. This was to help prevent injury in case of an accident and came complete with the Wolfsburg emblem in the center. To help keep the flow through ventilation draught free, a pair of vents where added to the dash complete with tiny directional regulators. Back in the engine compartment a diagnosis plug was installed. This would encourage the customer to bring their Beetle back to their local VW dealer for service. The dealer could then hook the Beetle up to a special (VW only) computer analyzer, automatically check a number of areas on the car and print out a report.

On February 17th 1972 the 15,007,034th Beetle was sold. Volkswagen had now claimed the world production record for the most produced single make of car in history. It was a 1302 Super Beetle that took the honors beating the 60-year-old record set by the Ford model T. This was an important mark in automotive history and that very car was donated by Volkswagen to the Smithsonian Museum in Washington DC for permanent display in the industrial section. In recognition of this special occasion Volkswagen equipped six thousand Super Beetles with a blue metallic paint scheme, special 10 spoke pressed steel wheels, and gave it the title of Marathon Beetle. This "European only" Beetle was the World Champion or Der Weltmeister as it was called in Germany. The Super Beetle was the global winner and was also being manufactured in South Africa though none of these vehicles were ever exported.

In the U.S. Volkswagen released 1,000 units called the Baja Champion SE. This model was to commemorate the Baja off-road race successes from 1967 to 1971.The Baja title came from the desert races that are held each year in the Baja California region of Mexico. The fact that the Baja Champion edition was a 1302 was ironic because any Beetle that would have competed in this race would have used the tried and true torsion bar front end that had been in service on the standard model Volkswagen since 1935. For any would-be Volkswagen purchaser that wasn't lucky enough to get one of these limited production Baja's you could buy the dealer-installed option package for $129.95. Included for that low price were side body decals with the Baja name, mag wheel style hub caps, a special shifter, Bosch fog lights for the front bumper, walnut colored trim for the dashboard, bumper guards and chrome taper exhaust tips.


1973. The cover of the 8-page color brochure for the Super Beetle read, "The '73 Beetle. All small cars are not created equal", a fact that Volkswagen had proven with years of constant improvements to the Beetle. The updates that took place with the 1302 were just the beginning in the plans to modernize the Beetle. In 1973 Volkswagen took a huge step forward with the introduction of a new and improved Super Beetle called the 1303. Most of the changes that had taken place on the Beetle were done for function and style, but a new windshield was added for completely different reasons. To comply with proposed U.S. safely regulations regarding the distance between passengers and the front windshield, Volkswagen introduced the new sharply curved front glass to the 1303. This panoramic windshield gave a remarkable 42% increase in visibility and improved the aero dynamics of the car as well. It also caused a change in the shape of the front hood and the roofline. The new shortened hood lost its traditional VW circle logo and gave the car a "pregnant look" in the transformation.

The 1973 Super Beetle had VW purists rubbing their eyes when a redesigned, full sized, padded dashboard replaced the traditional flat one that had been inside the Beetle since 1958. This new dashboard was designed to house future air bags and to improve ventilation inside the car. By using an air vent channel that stretched from side to side near the front windshield a greater volume of fresh and heated air could be delivered to the occupants. The single gauge still remained but now was housed in a plastic binnacle in front of the driver. Other switches were moved downward, directly inline with the radio and right at the driver's fingertips. The glove box in the new 1303 was a good size but for some reason was divided into smaller compartments. Unfortunately for coffee drinkers everywhere the glove box lid would no longer open fully to double as a beverage tray. There was also a new fuse box located centrally for easy access in case of an electrical failure. In the rear of the Beetle were the largest taillights ever installed on a Volkswagen, and most likely any other car of that era. These soon earned the nickname "elephant's feet" in VW circles and were thought to be ugly compared to the stylish "tombstone" taillights that preceded them.

One well-known special edition for 1973 was the beautiful Sports Beetle. For an additional $250.00 this 1303 Super Beetle came with distinctive red and black stripes that encircled the car. The tapered tail pipe tips, trim, door handles, wipers and bumpers were all given a matt black finish and 5 ½" silver Lemmertz GT wheels with radial tires were installed to complete the package. The Sport Bug's sales brochure featured black headlamp rings although some of the cars were fitted with the standard chrome ones. The interior came with sports bucket seats, a leather sports steering wheel and gearshift knob, how sporty!

The new and improved Super Beetle was also being produced outside of Germany. With its importer UNIS, Volkswagenwerk AG set up the joint venture TAS Tvornica Automobila Sarajevo in Yugoslavia, with its headquarters in Vogosca. TAS started off by manufacturing replacement and series parts for Volkswagen. After a period of one year, on November 10th, 1973 assembly of the 1303 model started in the new factory. Production capacity was a mere 20 cars per day. Meanwhile in Australia the 1302 had been produced from 1971 to 1972 and was called the Volkswagen S. The 1973 to 1975 Australian built 1303 was called the Volkswagen L; all had 1600cc motors with front disc brakes as standard equipment.

1974. The last Beetle rolled off the production line in Wolfsburg to make room for the new Golf model. As usual, Volkswagen brought out a few more changes for the Super Beetle. U.S. regulations now required that every car be able to withstand a 5 mph front and a 2½ mph rear impact, and sustain no damage. To comply with this new hurtle Volkswagen added what were called self-restoring energy absorbing bumpers. Impact-absorbing shocks were added to the now thicker steel front and rear bumpers to accomplish this task. To ensure the front occupants were wearing their seat belts an ignition interlock was installed so that the car could not be started unless the front seat belts were fastened. Some inventive owners found out that this system was quite easy to disable by merely unplugging the sensors under both front seats, so much for technology! To improve handling under hard braking the Super Beetle now had a negative kingpin offset. Also in 1974 the old style generator was finally replaced with a modern alternator and new type of alloy was used to improve the cylinder head life.

The 16 page sales brochure featured both standard and Super Beetles. On the cover was a picture of a red 1303 Beetle floating in the ocean with the caption, "The VW Beetles. Built better than ever." This would be another year for the special edition with the introduction of the famous Sun Bug. Available in standard, 1303 sedan and convertible models, the Sun Bug was painted a beautiful Hellas Metallic Gold and came fully loaded. Stamped silver sports wheels, Kamei tunnel console, a sunroof with wind deflector (Sedan only) and wood finish dash panels were just some of the goodies that came with this special edition. The seats had special Nut Brown upholstery, as did the matching door, side panels and loop pile carpet. There was a Sun Bug logo on the gearshift knob and one that was installed on the engine compartment lid by the dealer. The sales brochure for the Sun Bug even had the words to a song written especially for the car entitled "Let a little sunshine into your life" by Keith Konnes. The lyrics for the song went like this;

Fresh air and scenery. It's all there and it's all free. Open your eyes, it's there to see.
Let a little sunshine into your life!
Keep your disposition from draggin' in a golden Sun Bug from Volkswagen.
Even make a short trip set your heart a waggin'.
Let a little sunshine into your life.
Sun Bug Beetle or Super Beetle opens up a window to the sky.
Sun Bug convertible goes the whole route so you can wave at the world as you go by.
Great gas economy, easy on the world's ecology. That's the Sun Bug philosophy.
Smile your way through problems and strife and let a little sunshine into your life.

Why this song never made it to #1 will remain one of life's little mysteries.

Improvements were once again in order for the Super Beetle in 1975. The worm and roller steering box was replaced by modern rack and pinion steering and improvements in the rear end geometry where made. The engine case would now be made from a better alloy classified as AS21 and the twin tail pipes that had been on the Beetle since 1956 had now become only one.

Again U.S. regulations forced Volkswagen and other car manufacturers to clean up their act pollution wise. Unleaded gas would be the new diet for the Super Beetle as computerized Bosch L-Jetronic fuel injection was added. This boosted the Beetles fuel economy from 25 to 33 mpg. A silver "Fuel Injection" logo was added to the rear engine lid where the traditional Volkswagen script had been for years. Beetles produced for California sported a catalytic converter under the now bulging rear apron, and pretty soon all the States would require one.

1975 produced a number of special edition Beetles as well. One of which was called the La Grande Bug. This 1303 Beetle was basically a reworked Sun Bug, minus the logos and some of the trim. The sales brochure for this one proudly exclaimed, "You don't drive in it, you arrive in it" with a picture of a uniformed chauffeur in front of an elegant mansion along with two La Grande Bugs, one with its sliding steel sunroof open.

Sales for the Beetle had dropped by almost half in 1975, from 791,023 the previous year to only 441,116 and it didn't look like it was going to get any better. Although this may still seem like a huge number of cars compared to today's sales figures, Volkswagen had been selling over 900,000 Beetles annually since 1964 in the U.S. alone. In February 1975 Tony Schmucker took over as chairman of Volkswagen and decided to end production of the 1303 sedan and direct more resources to the newer products. Only the Super Beetle convertible and a standard Beetle sedan were to continue and for how long was anyone's guess.

In September 1975 the new Golf Gti debuted at the Frankfurt Motor show. Its powerful water-cooled 1600cc engine put out 110bhp. That was more than double the horsepower of the Super Beetle. It seemed that the writing was on the wall for the European production of the Beetle, as more plants were needed to produce the newer models that Volkswagen had based their future on.

1976. The 1303 sedan had faded into history but the 1303 Super Beetle convertible remained. The MacPherson front suspension, full sized instrument panel and panoramic windshield that characterized the Super Beetle Sedan continued on in the convertible. In 1976 there were very few convertibles being produced by U.S. automakers. The Super Beetle was one of the only choices for those who wanted the open-air experience. Worldwide demand started to increase again, so the order was sent to Karmann in Osnabrück to increase production of the convertible from 33 to 50 units per day. The increase in sales sparked the release of one of the most popular special editions, the Triple White convertible. White was Germany's national racing color so this 1303 came with Alpine white paint, Opal (white) upholstery and a white convertible top.

U.S. sales for the convertible had been increasing by over 5,000 units per year since 1974. And in 1977 the Champagne Edition was Volkswagen's latest special offering. Like the Triple White this Beetle was painted Alpine white with Opal upholstery, but this time it came with a light ivory (or light sand) colored top. There was a gold stripe that was applied just above the running boards on each side of the body, a rosewood dash insert, sports wheels and even white wall tires. The 1303 Super Beetle convertibles were some of the nicest equipped Beetles ever. So Volkswagen decided to make it even better with the addition of a rear window defroster and adjustable front headrests.

On January 19th, 1978 European production ended for the standard Beetle sedan at the Emden plant, but the convertible was to continue at the Karmann factory for a couple of years more. The 1978 sales brochure read, "Once again, Volkswagen promises you the sun, the moon and the stars". However, articles in magazines had people speculating that 1978 would be the last year for the popular convertible. This forced an increase in production to keep up with the demand for the soft top. Colors available were Chrome yellow, Mars red, Barrier blue and of course Alpine white. The Champagne edition was back as the Champagne II and for the first time ever it included a Blaupunkt AM/FM radio, quartz clock and a burled elm wood appliqué on the dash.

Volkswagen surprised everyone in 1979 when the convertible returned for yet another year. The new federal safety and pollution guidelines had been delayed and that allowed the Beetle to pay North America its final visit. The very last one page brochure for the Super Beetle simply stated, "After 29 years, millions of Beetles, and countless improvements, the 1979 Convertible is still a very sensible way to flip your lid."

All of the options that were on the Champagne edition Beetle were now standard equipment. The Super Beetle was now the only four-seat convertible for sale in the USA, and at $6,495.00 was still a very good deal. The last special edition Beetle produced was fittingly called the Epilog convertible or simply the "Triple Black." This rare Beetle featured black paint with a matching interior and top. The Epilog was produced to show the special bond between the first Kdf-Wagen convertibles assembled at the Karmann plant 40 years prior to this date that were also painted black. Included for the $200.00 extra that the Triple Black option cost, was an AM/FM radio that was added to the other standard equipment.

The news started to spread that this was finally the last year of production for the Beetle convertible. This created a huge backlog of orders at the Karmann plant. Production that was supposed to end July 31st 1979 was kept up until January 1980 to fill the thousands of orders that poured in from around the world. But on that fateful day (January 10, 1980), the last Super Beetle, a triple-white convertible, rolled off the production line and into history forever. This car can be seen today on display in the Karmann museum in Onasbrück Germany.

Super: 'sü-p&r [adj] 1. excellent, extremely good, wonderful 2. extra good or large of its kind. 3. above, beyond or over.

  

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