Car of the Week: 1956 Volkswagen Beetle

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1956-VW-5

Story and photos by John Bellah

Bill Guettler has had a love for Volkswagen Bugs ever since he was a teen. He bought his first oval-windowed Beetle when he was a 14-year-old newsboy, using it to deliver papers in Wichita, Kan. Over the years, he has owned several Bugs, including a new 1969 and a 1971 Super Beetle that met its demise while tangling with a transit bus.

Guettler’s connection to his 1956 VW goes back to the mid 1970s when he spotted the oval-windowed Bug at a used Volkswagen lot in Downey, Calif. He gave the Bug a cursory once-over and in talking with a salesman, a gulf of $50 existed between the asking price and what Guettler was willing to pay. Guettler offered the salesman his business card, which the salesman initially refused. Guettler then forced his business card on the salesman, telling him to use it to light the pilot light on their heater when winter came, and then he drove off.

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Once back at his office, Guettler’s secretary said the dealer had called and would meet his offer half-way. Guettler called the dealer back and said if the 20-year-old VW Bug would start, move forward and backward under its own power and the stoplights worked, he would buy it. His secretary drove him back to the dealership and they agreed on $225, even though only one stop light worked.
Although an inner tube from a big earth mover served as a sunroof cover, the Bug was complete.

Driving home, Guettler detected some transmission issues among a slew of other items that needed correcting. Once home, a closer examination showed numerous other issues, such as a missing steering dampener and rear shock absorbers, crimped brake lines, and somewhere along the line, the front suspension had been replaced with a unit from a newer model.

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When Guettler checked the cylinder compression, he found it wildly varied from 100-110 lbs. on two cylinders to a dismal 55 lbs. on another. Guettler suspected the car had been sitting for a long time and added a gallon of diesel fuel to the tank and at the next refill, added another gallon. This helped free the stuck rings and somewhat evened compression.

The transmission was a different story — first and second gears gave up the ghost one night on Guettler’s way home from work. He dropped the original gearbox and re-installed a rebuilt unit.

 

Primitive beginnings

Early VW Bugs were somewhat primitive, with the basic design going back to the 1930s. First imported to the United States in 1949, these early Bugs had a split rear window which was later changed to a slightly larger oval window in 1953. For the 1958-and-later models, Volkswagen considerably enlarged the rear window. Mid-’50s VWs had 1192cc air-cooled four-cylinder engines that developed 36 hp, and first gear on the transmission was unsynchronized. These cars didn’t even have a fuel gauge! Drivers had to pop the hood, open the gas cap and visually check the fuel level.

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There was auxiliary fuel available by turning a lever near the throttle, which supplied an extra 1-1/2 gallons of fuel — usually enough to reach the next gas station. Improvements to later VWs produced more horsepower and added a fuel gauge and fully synchronized gearbox, plus incorporated emission controls, seat-belt/shoulder harnesses and other mandated safety features. While most of the auto industry had long changed over to 12-volt electrical systems, VW was one of the last 6-volt holdouts; it wasn’t until 1967 that the company changed over to 12-volt electrics, but still with a generator charging system. Alternators would finally come to VWs in 1973.

 

A Bug with many lives

Over the years, Guettler upgraded his Bug by installing a 40-hp engine with a big-bore kit and a later-vintage, fully synchromesh transmission. He rebuilt the front end and replaced the headliner and sunroof. During that time, he was driving the Bug 25,000 to 30,000 miles per year.

Guettler completely restored the Bug in 1982 and began allowing his daughter, who lived in San Francisco, to drive it a few years until she purchased a new car. The Bug then went to another daughter for the next few years. Afterward, Guettler retook possession of the Bug and for the next 15 years it mostly sat in his garage, save for an occasional spin around the block. By then, the old Bug was almost as rough as when he first purchased it.

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Three years ago, Guettler undertook another major restoration and upgrading project. He drove all around southern California securing new running boards, doors, chrome, fenders and other body components. A 1600cc, dual-port engine with electronic ignition and high-performance exhaust system was installed. The electrics were upgraded to a 12-volt system with an alternator. The front suspension was overhauled with upgraded shock absorbers. One of the really tough items to replace was an original-type outside rearview mirror for the right side. Other upgrades include three-point safety harnesses, soundproofing, upgraded headlamps, radial tires, a rare Bendix Sapphire 1 radio and speaker, shift lock to prevent theft and a new speedometer. Inside, a new driver’s seat frame was installed and decked in new upholstery. The Bug was repainted and new glass, where needed, was installed.

In his 40 years of ownership, Guettler estimates he has put almost 300,000 miles on his Bug driving throughout California, and it has never let him down. He says it has been a joy to drive and work on.

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One thought on “Car of the Week: 1956 Volkswagen Beetle

  1. bobyar2001

    I had a domestic 1954 Beetle, bought for 350 Marks (about $100) in 1971. The insurance cost $300 a year! It had mechanical/cable brakes, no safety glass and no synchromesh. Stopping it was like stopping a truck. When I first got home, I was driving an American car (with no power brakes) and instinctively stepped on the brake pedal so hard the car went screeching sideways in the road. That little car took us all over West Germany, but I really wasn’t sad when I sold it to another GI for $50 because it was such a chore to drive. The ones they imported to the US were miles ahead in safety and other features.

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