The Super Beetle was Volkswagen’s effort to update the aging, iconic Beetle that had performed remarkably well in sales for a decade, but had begun to slip with the influx of economical Japanese imports. The automaker updated the front suspension and offered features to comply with U.S. safety standards, but the tepid engine was relatively unchanged. The 1974 Super Beetle may have represented the zenith of the Bug’s popularity, but its days were numbered.
From 1965 to 1973, the Volkswagen annually either flirted with or surpassed the 1-million mark in sales. Its best year was 1971, when VW sold 1.29 million Beetles and Super Beetles. The model year 1971 also marked the debut of the Super Beetle. Sales remained strong in 1972, with 1.22 million units sold; in 1973, 1.20 million bugs were sold. About this time, the rapidly changing auto industry showed Volkswagen that Honda and Toyota were making serious forays into VW’s market share. Even U.S.-made products like the Ford Pinto and Chevrolet Vega threatened VW’s dominance in the small-car market. VW’s rivals sold cars for less money. So in 1971, Volkswagen updated the bug with the Super Beetle. The Super Beetle was slightly longer, with wider and rounder fenders in front to accommodate an updated suspension system and to give owners more luggage space.
Volkswagen identified the 1973 and later Super Beetles as the 1303 series, and introduced the curved windshield that gave 42 percent increased visibility. The 1303 also had a padded dashboard to satisfy new U.S. safety standards. The 1974 Super Beetle’s bulbous nose and curved windshield had little impact on the overall dimensions of the vehicle. It sat on a 95.3-inch wheelbase and measured 160.6 inches long, 62.4 inches wide and 59.1 inches tall. It cleared the pavement by 6.3 inches. It stilled tipped the scales at less than a ton, with a 1,918-pound curbside weight rating. Its fuel tank held 10.8 gallons.
Output was dismal, even by early 1970s standards.The Super Beetle came with a 1600 cc, horizontally opposed, four-cylinder engine -- used since the 1971 models. It generated 60 horsepower in the U.S., compared to just 50 horsepower in Europe. It had a compression ratio of 7.5-to-1, a 3.03-inch bore and a 2.71-inch stroke. The engine was air-cooled. Mated to the engine was a four-speed manual transmission. Volkswagen recognized this engine's limitations and in 1974, began producing the water-cooled inline four-cylinder Golf with a smidgen more horsepower.
Construction of the rear-wheel-drive 1974 Super Beetle featured a chassis with a separate body. The front suspension was an independent system with MacPherson struts, anti-roll bar, coil springs and trailing arm. At the rear was an independent system with a semi-swing axle, torsion bar and trailing arms. A conventional worm-and-roller system served for steering.
Fuel efficiency for the Super Beetle was excellent, given the gasoline shortages that plagued the United States as the 1974 VWs debuted. It could earn up to 32.5 mpg, although 28 mpg was more common. Its top speed was nothing to write home about, at 81 mph. It reached 0 to 60 mph in a leisurely 18.3 seconds.
- VW beetle engine image by penimages from Fotolia.com