Volkswagen has managed to recover pretty well from the horror that was Dieselgate, even managing to grow a bit in the process and, as a result finding themselves in a pretty good position for an upcoming electric future. Even so, that doesn’t mean they’re likely eager for another big scandal, which is part of why I’m so baffled at what I’ve discovered. Because I’ve discovered something that, while I’m not going to say scandal just yet, is certainly baffling, and it has to do with a very lovely car in Volkswagen’s fleet of classics.
If you’re not aware, Volkswagen of America maintains a small fleet of immaculately-maintained and restored classic Volkswagens that they occasionally bring out to car shows or let eager, grimy journalists like me drive.
They’re quite generous with their cars, which is why I have been able to get lots of seat time in their glorious old Microbus and their lovely little Karmann-Ghia, which they recently loaned to our own Erin Marquis.
Volkswagen has always been great about their classic fleet, which, again, is why I’m so baffled by what’s happening. You see, in a thinly-veiled attempt to curry favor with our new Editor-in-Chief, Rory Somebody, VW loaned him their beautiful restored black Beetle. They informed Rory that the Beetle was a 1964.
Rory, most likely trying to make me jealous and hurt, sent some pictures of him and his lovely family enjoying the old Bug, and that’s when things started getting weird.
The car was absolutely immaculate and perfectly restored. It was a perfect example of a 1964 Beetle—or was it? You see, despite’s VW’s insistence that this car was a 1964—I had Rory confirm that’s what he was told, multiple times, and other articles with the same car from other outlets refer to it as a 1964 as well—I believe this car is, in fact, from 1963.
Yes, that’s right. I do not believe this is a 1964 Beetle, and I will explain why to you, right now, because you have a right to know.
One of the pictures Rory sent was of the front of the car, and, after loading up the cassette with the 1964_BEETLEDATA.DOC into my brain, something felt off. I asked Rory to take a closer pic of the front indicators for me, which is when I saw it: they appeared to be 1963-shaped indicators with amber lenses instead of the 1963-spec clear lenses.
In the American market, 1964 was the year the front indicators became amber, and U.S. cars got a slightly re-shaped indicator, with a wider lens and squatter proportions. You can see an example of it on the fender of that time-capsule 1964 Volkswagen with 23 miles that sold for an insane amount of money a while back.
Now, this one I wouldn’t say is absolutely definitive, since Euro-spec Beetles I think retained this smaller indicator lamp and had the amber lens, so perhaps that’s what’s happening here? Volkswagen’s otherwise American-spec heritage Beetle has Euro front indicators? That’s possible, I suppose.
In 1964, Volkswagen made a switch to “aerated vinyl material” after using nonporous seat material. The pictures sent clearly show the older style material. Again, this doesn’t necessarily prove anything, as it’s possible VW re-upholstered the car and decided against using the period-correct material.
Okay, this one is by far the biggest visual difference between a 1963 and 1964 Volkswagen Beetle, and the car Volkswagen sent to Rory—a car they claim is a 1964—very obviously has the 1963 design.
In 1964, Volkswagen made the license plate light housing wider. It went from looking kinda like a cartoon robot’s nose to looking like a cartoon robot’s mustache. It’s not a huge change, but it’s pretty obvious, visually, and, when it comes to VW decklids (a full breakdown of which VW could have availed themselves to right here) this counts as a pretty significant change.
The upshot is that the one on the car loaned by VW to Rory is very clearly from 1963.
I’m not just making these things up—Volkswagen themselves will support my claims based on their own literature. Look, this is from VW’s own What Year Is It? brochure from 1971:
If it had a steel sunroof, then I could comfortably say that yes, the car is from 1964 and just, bafflingly, has many parts from a 1963. But it doesn’t. It does seem to have a 1964 steering wheel (without the full horn ring) but that’s as swappable as any other part of the car.
So here’s the problem: either Volkswagen has incorrectly identified the year of their prized heritage Beetle or, for some reason, I cannot guess at, has decided to restore a 1964 Beetle to make it look visually like a 1963 Beetle, while at the same time insisting on referring to it as a 1964.
Maybe it is a 1963 Beetle, but for some reason they want to avoid references to 1963? Did some weird shit happen in Germany in 1963? Were they particularly ashamed of Germany’s 1963 Eurovision song contest entry, Marcel?
Or maybe they just really preferred Germany’s 1964 entry, Man gewöhnt sich so schnell an das Schöne:
That’s not really conclusive. I can’t really figure out what’s going on here—the car, even if it is built on a 1964 pan, has been restored to 1963 specs, not 1964. I can’t imagine VW’s heritage people aren’t aware of the differences, so there has to be a reason.
What are you hiding, VW? Are you sending us a message? Are you okay? Do you need help? What the fuck is going on here?
I have reached out to Volkswagen on multiple occasions, and, incredibly, I have yet to hear back. I’m officially worried now. Maybe someone should go check on Volkswagen North America to make sure they’re okay.
In the meantime, I’ll update if I hear any explanations from VW. But they had better be good.
UPDATE Friday, Aug 14, 11:00 AM: I’ve just been on the phone with Mark Gilles from Volkswagen, and I’m afraid I may have made his life a bit harder. It seems he sent me some emails regarding the Beetle that I, somehow, never got, which is concerning as it suggests outside influences may be conspiring to keep this a mystery.
Happily, however, we spoke on the phone today, and Mark was able to settle the issue: even if it looks like a ‘63, it is a ‘64.
As many suggested, the answer lies in the chassis numbers, and the blurry lines of model years back in the day. Here’s the official statement from VW:
“Volkswagen is shocked and outraged that its 1964 Beetle is, in fact, a 1964 Beetle. We have launched an internal investigation into how a car built in early 1964 could possibly have been built with parts that are more usually seen on a 1963 vehicle. However, we feel that the explanation may have got lost in the sands of time.”
Volkswagen restored a series of these 1964 Beetles known as “Max” and produced five of them. VW determined that 1964 was the ideal year for an iconic Beetle based on some arcane calculus, but I think that’s a reasonable enough pick. I’d have gone for ‘66 myself, but I get it.
These are the chassis numbers for the restored Beetles:
Beetle / Max 4
Beetle/ Max 1
Beetle/ Max 2
Beetle/ Max 3
Beetle/ Max 5
These are all 1964 cars, four built in January and February of 1964, and even one built in 1963 but as a 1964 model year, which started in August. They simply used leftover 1963 parts, as was not that uncommon at the time.
So, yes, this is a 1964 Beetle, though visually it absolutely appears to be a 1963 Beetle. Personally, I’d consider it a 1963 Beetle built in 1964, but I’m comfortable saying that the mystery is solved, and VW is technically accurate in that this car was built in 1964.
I’m just happy the truth is out there now, and we can all get on with our lives, somehow.