The first thing you notice when you climb into a old Beetle are the doors. Calling them thin is a bit of an understatement. They seem to exist simply because doors are required, not because they would stop anything larger than a wayward cyclist. They shut with a not-so-reassuring click, and if you put any force into shutting them the car shakes. The seats are the kind of thing that the 1960's auto industry built, without any kind of headrest, because safety is overrated. Having exclusively driven modern cars, my mind started to conjure up NTSB crash test videos of 1960's Chevy Malibu's crumpling like tin cans.
The Beetle I was driving belongs to my friend's grandfather. He was kind enough to let me drive it on the twisty back roads of Bodega Bay, California. This particular Beetle is a ’61 ragtop – and other then a small dent and some rust on the bumpers, it looks like it just rolled out of the showroom. One of the most charming aspects of the Beetle is its simplicity. It has four knobs in the interior – headlights, wipers, radio, and heater down by the gear lever. Seat belts were added, and it was converted to a 12-volt system rather than the original 6-volt system.
None of the technical stuff matters when you drive the Beetle on a back road. I've talked to plenty of enthusiasts about the sensation of speed and how fun it can be to drive a slow car fast. The most common fun car that enthusiasts talk about is not surprisingly, the Mazda Miata. A slick shifting manual, a decent helping of body roll, and a drop top help make driving a Miata at 40 feel like 50. Screw that, driving a ‘61 Beetle at 40 feels like 80. The speed is irreverent – not just because you don't stand a chance of breaking any speed limits without a runway's worth of straightaway, but because the wind noise and clattering make you feel like you are going stupidly fast when you would be hard pressed to pace a UPS truck.
I spent the better part of the day driving the Beetle and it put a smile on my face the entire time. The engine is louder than most modern sports cars and it battles with the road noise and wind for attention. It's absolutely glorious. You don't care about lateral G force or pushing the car to it's limit, it's just pure fun.
Modern car culture is so obsessed with horsepower and zero to sixty times that we forget the most important part of any car is how it makes you feel. The Beetle, with its 40 odd horsepower and suspension that has a mind of its own is the most fun I've had in any car this year. People like the Beetle. Mustang owners and Camaro owners wave at you. Even Jeep owners break from the cult to let you in. It is a car that makes you feel good, and makes people around it feel good. Isn't that what a fun car is all about?