1971 Super Beetle: Achievements of a VW Classic

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The year 1971 brought a new reality to Volkswagen, as it introduced a new “Super” Beetle with a new engine to win new buyers it desperately needed.

Volkswagen introduced the 1971 Super Beetle as a new addition to its lineup. The new car was slightly larger than the standard Beetle (although they looked almost identical). It was powered by a more robust 1600 cc air-cooled engine with twin-port cylinder heads and a new oil cooler.

How do you improve on a classic? That was the question facing Volkswagen as the 70s dawned. The German automaker had been breezing along for years, cranking out cars for the masses. By 1971, there were nearly 15 million VW Beetles roaming the earth, and as VW looked to break the record of the Model T in just a few short months, they teased the public with a new “revolutionary” car. The car world began to buzz in anticipation of the new model from VW. So, when Volkswagen released a slightly larger version of the Beetle and called it “special,” most of the country felt ripped off. Let’s look at the VW “Super Beetle” to see if the American public was right to feel that way. Who knows, maybe we’ll answer how one improves on a classic.

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The Factors That Prompted A New “Super Beetle”

When VW introduced its new Super Beetle for the 1971 model year, the German automaker was a victim of its own success. Having sold plenty of Beetles to young American families during the sixties, the company looked forward to continued success as a new decade dawned. However, there were signs that the “love bug” might be losing its connection with the American market. Buyers began to turn toward Japanese imports that were more stylish and less boring than the round egg-shelled Beetle. Impending emissions standards likely would mean the end of the air-cooled engine, and there were growing concerns about the safety of rear-engine cars like the VWs. To counter the growing skepticism of its brand, VW introduced the new ‘Super Beetle” in 1971. The trouble was it looked almost identical to the old Beetle. VW didn’t seem to notice. Instead, they pointed to their years of excellent sales and deluded themselves into believing that America had again fallen in love with the Love Bug.

The Features Of The “New” Super Beetle

When VW advertised the new Super Beetle nationwide, it trumpeted the introduction of a “new revolutionary small car.” While the Super Beetle did have a new engine (1600 cc rather than the old 1500) and new front suspension, 43% more luggage room, and the ability to handle unleaded gasoline. The trouble is that the company offered a modified Beetle with the same boring shape it had for decades. The battle over the airwaves became whether the German automaker could convince the American public that it had changed enough stuff to give the “Super Beetle” a try.

Volkswagen decided to offer the Super Beetle as its premium flagship of the brand. The new Bug was offered in a two-door sedan or convertible model. Since VW expected most Americans to splurge the extra $119 for the Super Beetle, it decided to take the standard Beetle, delete many conveniences, and lower its price. Americans who wanted a reliable people mover without frills could opt for the stripped-down Volkswagen Beetle, while those who wanted more luggage space, night/day mirror, carpeting, dual map pockets, a passenger-side vanity mirror, and a smidge more interior room could opt for the upscaled new Beetle. (The thought was to give buyers more competition for cheaper Japanese models beginning to flood the market).

Engine

As mentioned, all VWs got an engine upgrade for the ‘71 model year. The new 1600cc engine became standard, with twin port cylinders and a modified oil cooler. The engine was still air-cooled, which was horrible for the environment because it released hydrocarbons into the air. With the advent of unleaded fuel, VW modified the exhaust seals to handle the new gasoline type since the old seals needed to be strengthened.

The 1600 cc engine produced 60 hp, and while this motor would never win on a drag strip (it took 16.4 seconds to go 0 - 60 mph), it was enough to move people around. Considering that the ‘71 Barracuda with a 426 Hemi went 5.6 seconds, you can see the issue).

One area that the Super Beetle did excel in was fuel economy. The 1.6L engine achieved a combined 21.08 mpg, according to fuelly.com.

Transmission

The standard 4-speed manual transmission was offered on the Super Beetle, but customers had the option of the 3-speed semi-automatic. The stick shift had been offered since 1968 and grew increasingly popular among buyers. The system allowed drivers to feel like they were driving a manual due to the shifter, but since shifting only required lifting the foot off the gas pedal rather than operating a clutch, it was much easier to drive. (Many a teenage driver learned to operate a VW Beetle with a semi-automatic transmission).

Exterior

Regarding dimensions, the Super Beetle was about 2 inches longer with a 1.4-inch wider stance. The new dimensions allowed the car to have a smaller turning radius, which Volkswagen was quick to point out was one of the reasons the company considered it revolutionary.

The 71 Super Beetle maintained the same shape as the old standard Beetle, although a new MacPherson strut front suspension allowed for 43% more room in the trunk (front). The designers laid the spare tire flat under the trunk’s floor, which accounted for the additional room.

The Super Beetle was offered in one of seven exterior paint colors for the sedan and six for the convertible. Paint choices were Sapphire Blue, Kansas Biege, Clementine Orange, Elm Green, Marina Blue, Shantung Yellow, and Iberian Red. (Canary Yellow replaced Shantung Yellow on the convertible).

Interior

The Interior consisted of front driver and passenger seats with a small, narrow rear seat area. Since the roofline of the Beetle sloped back toward the engine compartment, the back seat was often cramped for any adult who tried to sit there. The rear seats were accessed by pulling a locking lever on the front seats' side, which leaned the front seat back forward.

Volkswagen did offer a gas heater (an option), which used a gas-fed heating mechanism to provide instantaneous hot air. The heater unit was located in the front truck hold area. The seating was basic cloth, with leatherette trim (although leatherette was an option). The dashboard consisted of a large center speedometer with an odometer and fuel gauge. Warning lights were available for the oil temp and battery.

The L package provided several options that the regular Beetle might not have, which included carpeting, map pockets, and a passenger-side vanity mirror. Other options were air-conditioning for an additional $267, leatherette seating for $37, semi-automatic transmission ($139), and AM/FM radio ($25). Other options included a luggage rack for the roof, a tow hitch, white wall tires, and a solid walnut shift knob.

Safety Concerns

Several months after the 71 SB was released, a book was published that created a stir across the nation. The book Small-On Safety: The Designed-in Dangers of Volkswagen was a treatise on the built-in dangers of driving a VW. The book was based on extensive research from Ralph Nader’s consumer watchdog group. The book concluded that the VW Beetle was the most unsafe vehicle on American roads, and the Microbus was so dangerous that it should be banned altogether.

The book did result in Senate hearings the following year, which resulted in a governmental mandate not to charge the customer for recall repairs. Automakers like Volkswagen had a history of charging customers to repair the cars when a recall was issued, so that practice was banned.

Production

The new Super Beetle sold well, even though the automotive press didn’t like it much. According to Hagerty, sales fell to 331,941 (sales for 1970 in the US were 378,222) even though sales increased worldwide. Sales for the 1972 - 73 Bugs would rebound, but just two short years later, sales had dropped in half. The Super Beetle simply could not produce the sales it needed. In 1979, the Beetle was retired from the North American market.

The Specs Of The 1971 Super Beetle

The specifications for the 1971 Super Beetle are listed below.

1971 Volkswagen Super Beetle Specification
Production 331,941 (Beetles and Super Beetles)
MSRP $1,899
Seating Capacity 4
Doors 2
Engine 1600 cc Flat Four-cylinder
Cooled Air-cooled
Transmission 4-speed manual (standard)
3-speed Semi-automatic (optional)
Weight 1,780 lbs
Length 161.8 inches
Width 62.4 inches
Height 59.1 inches
Wheelbase 95.3 inches
Spare Tire Yes
AirConditioning Optional
Interior Seats Cloth (leatherette optional)

About THE AUTHOR

Matt Lane

Matt Lane

My name is Matt and I've been around cars all my life! I have owned and worked on many different classic vehicles, so I started this site to share my experiences. If you're new to classic cars, then this website is for you.

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