Volkswagen Beetle: 1960s Original Vs The Modern Revival

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When VW released its modern revival of the Beetle, it was desperate to recapture the aura of the original Love Bug, but why didn’t it succeed?

The VW Beetle (Type 1) was a compact car first marketed and sold in the US in 1951 until 1979. The VW Bug was a rear-mounted air-cooled 1.2L four-cylinder engine creating 36 horsepower. The ‘98 Beetle had a front-mounted 2.0L I4 motor producing 100 hp. The new Bug ended production in 2019.

Americans couldn’t get enough of the Love Bug for much of the sixties. The quirky little compact flew off dealer lots as consumers were “thinking small.” The car's appeal lay in its affordability, simple design, and excellent fuel economy. When the Bug became a symbol of peace for the anti-war and environmental movements, more and more Americans joined the cause to make the Beetle the best-selling vehicle of all time. By the decade's end, the VW Beetle was everywhere: on screen as an adorable race car, on television floating in the water, and plastering itself in every newspaper and magazine nationwide. So, when the Beetle died in the seventies, VW waited over two decades before bringing it back. Initially, VW hoped the Bug’s revival could bring back the glory days, but it didn’t happen. Let’s examine the original to the revival version to see if we can explore why the modern VW never had a chance to succeed.

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The Volkswagen Beetle 1960s Vs. Modern Revival

Any comparison between the early VW Beetle and the later version introduced in 1998 is a lot like comparing apples to oranges. The two vehicles are completely different, sharing a similar shape and badge but little else. Let’s look at how the two vehicles are compared and contrasted.

Both Volkswagen Beetles Had Their Up And Downs

The VW of the 1960s was a little rear-wheel drive compact that tore up the roadway. It wasn’t powerful (producing only about 40 hp) or particularly fast (top speed of 68 mph), but it was dependable, fuel-efficient, and made a statement when driven. It was the car that many baby boomers cut their teeth on learning to drive (chosen chiefly by parents who wanted a car their teenagers couldn’t speed down the road with).

Despite its incredible popularity during the late fifties and early sixties, the original VW had a rocky start. Only two models were sold when it was first imported into the US in 1949. Many Americans were still plagued by the atrocities of the Third Reich during WWII and felt that purchasing a VW would reward the enemy that American GIs had just finished fighting. Many Americans wanted nothing to do with the “Kraut car.”

But to VW’s credit, it continued to market and support the compact in the American marketplace. The affordable price of $1,525 appealed to a growing number of young Americans, who loved the simplicity of the design and the economy of the small engine. By the end of the fifties, over 300k units had been sold, and the Bug had become firmly entrenched in the American landscape. Sales took off in the early part of the 1960s. By 1972, VW had manufactured 15 million Bugs, surpassing the Model T as the best-selling production car ever.

Unfortunately, the wonder of the moment wouldn’t last. As sales plummeted during the ‘70s, VW was hampered by increasingly stringent emission controls and safety regulations. The company decided that modifying the Beetle to meet the new objectives was simply too costly, so they killed it instead of fixing the Bug.

After a hiatus of twenty years, VW decided to bring the Beetle back, only this time as a FWD front-engine vehicle. Initially, fans of the old Bug were excited to see its return, and sales were brisk. The car got better fuel economy, went faster and farther, was safer to drive, and had more features than the original. To make matters even better, the company had retro-styled the third-generation Beetle with the same quirky style it had used three decades before.

During the next decade, VW would sell over 1.2 million units by 2010, but sales began to suffer shortly afterward. The body style was entrenched and becoming outdated, and Americans turned toward other imports with more to offer. Even though Volkswagen tried to keep the iconic compact alive for another nine years, by 2019, the car was only selling around 16k models a year for the last three years of its production.

Dimensions Between the Two VWs

The original VW Bug was a compact car with a length of 160.2 inches with a wheelbase of 94 inches. The Beetle has a stance of 60.6 inches and a height of 59.1. With a weight of 1600 lbs, the car sat four (although the back seat was extremely cramped).

By contrast, the new Beetle had a length of 161 inches, a width of 68 inches, and a height of 60 inches. The modern version has a wheelbase of 98.9 inches.

Power and Fuel Economy

The 1960s VW was a rear-mounted 1.2L four-cylinder engine that sent power to the car's rear axle. The engine produced about 40 hp and 65 lb-ft of torque. The car had a top speed of 68 mph and could do 0 - 60 mph in about half a minute (36 seconds). While VW increased the engine displacement to 1600 ccs by 1970, the hp didn’t rise much (60 hp), but the top speed went to 75 - 80 mph. The fuel economy of the VW Bug was 19.4 mpg combined. By 1970, the figure had risen to 22.1.

Item Specification
Engine 1.2L Four Cylinder
Powertrain RWD
Horsepower 40 hp
Torque 65 lb-ft
Valves Eight
Compression 7.2:1
Bore Size 3.0 inches (77 mm)
Stroke Size 2.5 inches (64 mm)

The New Beetle has much more power. The inline four-cylinder was placed in the front of the car, powering the FWD car. The 2.0L four-cylinder engine produced 115 hp (the Turbo-diesel got only 90 hp). The car had a top speed of 115 mph and could blaze down the track in 10.9 seconds. The car also had 33 mpg combined, which was exceedingly better than anything the original could ever hope for.

Item Specification
Engine 2.0L Four Cylinder
Powertrain FWD
Horsepower 115 hp
Torque 122 lb-ft
Valves Eight valves
Compression 10.0:1
Bore Size 3..25 inches (86 mm)
Stroke Size 3.65 inches (92.7 mm)

Interior Features

To describe the interior of the 1960 VW Bug as sparse would be an understatement. There were none of the amenities that customers have grown used to today. It included an AM radio, a couple of side mirrors, and a vent that drew heat off the engine and could melt your toes if it worked.

The New Beetle had power seats, air conditioning, a heater (this one worked), and an AM/FM stereo. Customers could choose options like leather/leatherette seating, CD player, cruise control, and power windows. Many initial reviews remarked about the spartan nature of the New Beetles interior (and its use of plastic knobs and dials). Still, compared to the original's metal dash and cold decor, it was lightyears ahead.


One of the reasons that the original VW Bug failed to generate sales in the seventies is partly due to an expose that hit the bestseller list in 1967. The book Unsafe At Any Speed: The Designed-In Dangers of the American Automobile rated the VW bug as one of the most dangerous vehicles on the highway. The book forced the government to tighten safety regulations, requiring car manufacturers to install features like safety belts, emergency flashers, and head restraints.

The VW Bug was sparsely made, and it wasn’t until 1967 before seat belts were added. The following year, VW installed a collapsible steering wheel/column.

By contrast, the modern VW had numerous safety features protecting the driver and passengers. Dual airbags, crumple zones, pre-tensioning front safety belts, and headrests for front and rear seats were just some of the standard features.


The base price for the 1960 VW Bug was $1,525 (roughly $15,749.00 in today’s dollars).

The 1998 VW was priced at $15,200, around $28,500 today.


VW Group sold 117,868 units in 1960, and sales continued to increase to 399,674 in 1968. By 1978, VW sold less than 10k of the Beetle. In comparison, the modern version sold 107,090 units, a high of 167k the following year. By 2017, VW sales had fallen to 17k.