First of all, this car has a name. Of course this car has a name. This lovely, citrusy 1972 Volkswagen Type III Fastback is named Edna, after the archetypical Little Old Lady that was the previous owner of the car. That human-Edna sold car-Edna to Joy Ivy eight years ago, when the VW had only an astounding 15,000 original miles. Joy paid $4500 for the car, which, for a car this old and this lightly used, is a steal.
Let's just get this out of the way right up front, as well: I've been smitten with this car for a long time. I've seen it buzzing around the neighborhood for years, and I was thrilled when I finally accosted the presumably terrified owner in a parking lot. I think she maced me. But it was worth it. This is one of the most pristine, original VW Type IIIs I've ever seen. Yes, it has a few tasteful modifications (older style bumpers, wheels, some tint) but everything is done with impeccable taste and respect.
I'm sure readers of this site know what a VW Type III is, but most of the people Joy encounters when driving have no idea. She said it usually either gets called a Bug or a Volvo. And, really, the styling is sort of in between the more common Beetle and a Volvo Amazon. The Type III was supposed to be VW's upmarket Beetle, a place for buyers to go when they felt they've outgrown the Beetle's austerity.
Joy, a graphic designer, takes staggeringly good care of this car. She's sort of like a curator, because she knows how rare a really unmolested automatic Fastback is. Everything's there — the padding in the rear luggage area, the stickers in the doorjamb, the cardboard trunk liner, hell, even the original owner's manual. Seeing this thing is like taking a vivid orange pill and waking up in 1977 or something.
It now has 44,000 miles on the unrebuilt engine. You know how long it's been since I've driven a factory-original air-cooled VW engine? Being able to drive this around my neighborhood is like someone letting me check my email on a pristine PDP-11. But louder.
(Full Disclosure: I wanted to drive this orange wonder so much, I car-stalked this woman for months. Readers should probably have better manners than I did.)
Mechanically, it's pure air-cooled VW, but with some significant changes. The engine's block is shared with the Type I, but it got to 1600cc before the older siblings, and, in 1967, became the world's first mass-produced car to have electronic fuel injection, giving it a staggering 65 HP. Up front, the Type III got disc brakes and better torsion arms, while out back the whole engine/transaxle assembly was mounted on a dampened sub-frame to keep noise and vibration under control.
Most of Joy's friends think she's a bit crazy, and wonder how she gave up her Mini Cooper for this antique. Deep down, I'm sure Joy realizes those so-called friends are dead inside, like her neighbors that complain that the Type III smells up the garage with the heady aromas of gas and oil. Screw them. This thing's an eye-grabbing little jewel, and I have tons of respect for the woman who cares for it so well, and, more importantly, drives it every day.
I've always loved the look of Type IIIs. Sure, they're a little stogy, in a sort of vaguely British and Volvo Amazon kind of way, but I think it works. And I really like the Fastback version, since it was such an uncharacteristically trendy move on conservative VW's part. Usually, they weren't swayed by what the new Barracuda or Marlins looked like, but I guess everyone cracks at some point.
The Type III, as an upmarket, updated Beetle, has some pretty significant changes. The biggest change is, of course, the body, which dispensed with the grampa-story-triggering runningboards for a full-width ponton body. It's handsome and uncluttered, and the Fastback look evokes Porsche 911/912s of the era as well. This could be a 911's nerdier older brother, the one who's always putting up bail money for the Porshce.
This one is made after a 1970 facelift that lengthened and squared-off the ends of the car, to get more luggage space, and also incorporated new heavier bumpers that almost nobody liked as much. Joy's replaced those bumpers with more classic ones that include overriders and rubber-faced bumper guards. I think the older bumpers look great on the facelifted Type III. That, some nice period Empi wheels and a slight amount of lowering and tinting make a really great-looking overall package. Especially in that orange. I don't know the VW factory name for the color, but I think Unashamed Orange sounds right.
This car has that unusual visual mix of sporty and stogy, and the resulting frothy concoction is all charm. And I want to chug it.
Moving the standard Beetle-type interior upmarket is pretty damn easy. You pretty much can do almost anything, which is right about what VW did. There's actually a real dash instead of the Beetle's front windowsill, and there's three round, attractive hooded instrument clusters inside them. Volkswagen, already reeling from the impossible luxury of a dashboard clock, had to pull themselves in a bit, so most of the switchgear comes right off the Beetle. Oh, and they couldn't ever allow the horrible decadence of having two separate turn-indicator arrows, like some filthy libertine, so the arrows blink in unison here, just like on a Bug.
I mean, there's even a folding armrest in the back seat. Who was this built for, the Kaiser?
Sitting inside the Fastback feels great. The dash is uncracked and pristine, there's lots of vivid orange painted metal surfaces to keep things from becoming a sea of black vinyl, and the unmarred white headliner and long, arched roof make for a very open, airy cabin. It feels good to be in there, and with vast side and rear windows, visibility is excellent. Joy's replaced the steering wheel with a nice period Empi one ('72's stock VW wheel was kind of an ugly plasticky thing) which is a good touch.
And, the big trick, of course, are the two trunks. Improving luggage space was a big deal to VW at the time, and boy did they do it. By mounting the fan directly on the engine's crankshaft and redesigning the cooling system, they managed to make an engine about the size of a suitcase. It's pretty amazing, really. This allowed for the traditional VW front trunk and one over the engine at the rear.
If you're wondering about that heel over there, it belongs to Achilles, and it's also this. This is the part that gives the Fastback's name the irony everyone wants in their car names. It's slow. Most of the blame goes to the crude but workable full-automatic gearbox VW put in a few of these, but those 65 horses in the engine room don't get off scott-free, either.
From a start, it's not really that bad. Say, from zero to eight feet. Then it bogs down a bit, and then picks up in the 30-45 range. As long as there's no hills. I took it up one of the steepest hills I could find around my Silver Lake neighborhood, and floored it was doing about 17.
That said, in most real-city use, it's fine. You drive it with the understanding that its a more gradual sort of momentum-gathering, and it's absolutely usable.
I feel a little bad about this part, because this was really the only place where the car had any issues. Normally, the disc brakes work quite well to stop the leisurely progress of an automatic Type III, but Joy's car had a slightly warped brake rotor, so stops were punctuated with a bit of unrequested steering-wheel induced dancing. So I had to knock a point off for that. Once that new rotor's in there, braking should be just fine.
This is the part that really surprised me. So much of this car felt like enhanced, bigger Beetle. The design vocabulary, the knobs, the materials, the smells — that I was expecting a Beetle-level of noise and vibration. But there wasn't.
Much like the interior of the car, when it comes to improving on the Beetle's ride, that's a pretty low bar to beat. By mounting the drivetrain on a subframe, there's remarkable little vibration from the flat-four, and with the pancake engine tucked ay low in the car and under padding and a big empty volume of trunk, the air-cooled clatter isn't an issue at all. Really, after decades of Beetle driving, I was very impressed.
I know my number here will be controversial, but hear me out. Yes, it's rear-engined and can oversteer dramatically in the right circumstances. But, if you go in knowing that, and actively like a car with some oversteering characteristics, the Type III offeres some interesting benefits: the center of gravity is pretty low. That engine is a flat rectangle, mounted low. There's double-jointed axles at the rear to prevent swing-axle type tuck-in and other issues of similar rear-engined cars, and the torsion bars up front are solid round bars, not the leaves that were used in earlier Volkswagens and Porsches.
So, I'm giving it a six because while the handling technically isn't great, it can be entertaining, and there's enough improvements in there to keep it from being a deathtrap. And, it's too slow to really get you in that much trouble, anyway.
Early 70s automatics are never particularly good, and this one's no exception, really. The most positive thing I've heard about this transmission is that the friction was so low you could turn it with your hand out of the car. So it didn't steal as much power as it could have.
But it does steal those precious few ponies, and for driving, the manual is vastly better. But — and this is a big but — this automatic, in this car, is perfect. It's part of the charm of the car, it really pretty rare, and it likely kept someone's grandkids from hooning the shit out of the car back in the early 90s. Plus, the odd lift-to-shift lever in the car and the little chrome gate are pretty nice.
This car is extremely usable. Two good-sized trunks, decent interior room for you and three or four (in a pinch) pals, light steering even without power assist (though the owner insits it tones her arms a bit), and a very relaxed, easy driving style — this is a stylish, effective way to get around town without giving in to some boring modern econobox.
If you examined the puddles under this car, you'd find a nice rich puddle of thick transmission oil/ATF and right next to it an equally sticky mass of raw character. This car is charm-saturated. The vivid period color, the pleasing period-ish mods, the overall immaculate, preserved quality of it, while still being a usuable daily driver and not some garage queen, it all adds up to a very appealing package.
You could be the King Idiot of Planet Stupid with no idea what a car even is and see this object and understand, immediately, that this is something that somebody loves, dearly. And seeing something like that always makes you feel great.
Volkswagen Type IIIs are very collectible, but in a niche sort of way. The general public isn't really aware of what they are, but among air-cooled VW people they'll always have a strong following. As VW's first attempt to go upmarket, they have historical value, and their unusual under-floor-rear-engine layout makes them stand out from many other similar cars of the period. Much of the mechanicals and some interior and trim bits are shared across the VW air-cooled family, making restoration easier, though body and glass parts are getting trickier to get. The Type IIIs are pretty rare nowadays, with the Squareback wagons the most common, followed by the Fastbacks, then the Notchbacks. Automatics of any of these are even rarer.
I'd think this would be quite a collectible car, though I'm pretty sure there's not a chance in hell Joy is parting with hers. This was a huge treat to drive around even for a little bit, and I'll be a little happier in general knowing this orange Fastback is still puttering around. And, so you know, I'm adding 5 points to the overall score just to reflect the incredible, original condition it's in. So there.
Volkswagen Type III Fastback