The automobile shown above circling a German test track is this year's most important passenger car news from Europe. It is the long-awaited VW-1500, big brother to the preposterously successful beetle called the Volkswagen. Three years in the making and introduced to the U.S. this week, the VW-1500 is larger, faster and, consequently, more expensive than the standard Volkswagen. It does not replace the smaller car. Rather, it is meant for the expanding class of prosperous Germans who have left beetle-income days behind. The car will not be exported to Volkswagen-loving America for a number of months—perhaps not until 1963. What is expected to be a solid market at home will first be satisfied. Initial production will be 300 daily; within a year that will be raised to 500—a figure still far below the 3,400 a day for the beetle.
As a glance at the picture reveals, the VW-1500 looks quite unlike the tiny bug it joins in the market place. The body shell is distinctly Italianate, resembling Pinin Farina coachwork, which has become almost a European cliche. Farina's crisp, modern look-alike designs clothe the Fiat 2100, Peugeot 404 and MG Magnette.
Beneath the VW-1500's good-looking, if conventional, skin is a brand-new engine. Like the Volkswagen's, it is air-cooled, rear-mounted and possessed of four horizontally opposed cylinders. But it has an ultracompact "suitcase" shape that permits considerable luggage space above it. The beetle has nothing in the rear but its stinger. The rear trunk, in addition to the front compartment beneath the hood, gives the VW-1500 a cargo area rivaling that of other cars in its price range: German Fords, General-Motors-built German Opels and DKWs.
The VW-1500's engine displaces 1,500 cubic centimeters, hence its name. It produces 53 horsepower at 4,000 rpm, 13 hp more than the Volkswagen's 1,200-cc. engine, and a top speed of 81 mph, an increase of some 10 mph. Although both cars are identical in wheel-base (94.5 inches), the new one is 6.3 inches longer and 265 pounds heavier. Old Volkswagen buffs will be saddened to hear that, like the upcoming 1962 beetle, the VW-1500 has a fuel gauge and no reserve fuel tank—which was a somehow endearing quality.
The Russians disdained it
Needless to say, the VW-1500 marks yet another plateau in the upward course of the world's most remarkable automotive firm. It was Adolf Hitler who, executing one of his few constructive ideas, ordered the German engineering genius Ferdinand Porsche to design a low-priced people's car. A manufacturing plant and a new "Strength Through Joy Car Town" rose at Wolfsburg on a trans-German canal in Lower Saxony. Before real production could begin Hitler's war intervened. Allied bombers clobbered the plant, which was turned to the production of jeeplike military vehicles. After V-E day the conquering British occupied Wolfsburg and got the plant going again, but British automen, who could have had the Volkswagen design as war booty, turned up their noses at it. Even the spoils-happy Russians, who were camped only a dozen miles away in the eastern zone, disdained it. And so at first did the present managing director, Heinz Nordhoff.
Nordhoff had bossed GM's big Opel truck works. After the war he implored GM to rehire him, but having built trucks for wartime Germany (although he was not a member of the Nazi party), he was not acceptable to the American firm. Thus of all the ironies interwoven with the Volkswagen story none is more delicious to Germans than this—that a. German GM man longing for but denied the shelter of his corporate home should, beginning in 1948, revitalize Volkswagen, direct it shrewdly to immense success (a million VW cars, buses and trucks will be built this year), make it America's top imported car (half a million registrations so far, including 160,000 last year) and, in so doing, help induce GM and the other Detroit manufacturers to build small cars in self-defense. One of them is of course GM's rear-engined Corvair, which pays the Volkswagen the sincerest form of flattery.
Quality control has always been one of Heinz Nordhoff's long suits, so it is no surprise that the VW-1500 appears to be very well made. Nor is it odd that the car is pleasant to drive; motor sports enthusiasts, including some Grand Prix drivers, have long admired the standard Volkswagen's nimble ways.
Driving the VW-1500 myself at Wolfsburg recently, I found it perky and confidence-inspiring. Acceleration was reasonably brisk, brakes were equal to hard usage and the car was stable on corners taken at speeds far above sensible rates for street and highway driving. My only reservation was that the foot pedals were rather awkwardly placed. Because of the front wheel housing they are set to the right of the ideal position, which is directly in front of the driver.
Like the standard VW, the VW-1500 is wisely equipped with bucket seats in front; few automobiles, regardless of price, seat the driver and the passenger to his right so comfortably. Seat backs lock in place when the doors are closed. The bench-type rear seat is contoured for two passengers but can squeeze in three adults for short trips.
An extremely desirable car
Front windows roll down, but the rear ones are merely hinged wings. The windshield is not flat like the beetle's but is conservatively curved. Dashboard instruments are well arranged for convenience and visibility. The floor-mounted parking brake and shift lever are within comfortable reach. A hinged lid forming the floor of the rear luggage compartment completely conceals the engine. In addition to the basic two-door sedan, there is a neat, compact station wagon.
All in all, the VW-1500 appears to be an extremely desirable car for the price—6,400 marks, or 1,600 U.S. dollars, for the sedan in Germany, perhaps $2,200 in America when it is finally marketed here. Americans buy so many of those $1,600 beetles, however, that the Volkswagen people are in no hurry to jump in with a new model priced as high as our own popular compacts.