This Isn't Even Volkswagen's First Diesel Disaster

Illustration for article titled This Isnt Even Volkswagens First Diesel Disaster

Volkswagen certainly has done a dazzling job of turning their entire line of TDI diesel cars into a steaming, heaping pile of beaver shit with their duplicitous emissions fudging-system, but it’s nice to know this isn’t the first time diesels have bitten them on the ass. The first time was, of course, much simpler.

Way back in 1951, the Korean War was making gasoline unsettlingly difficult to acquire, while Diesel fuel remained nice and cheap. Volkswagen decided, logically, that adapting their bread-and-butter product the Beetle to diesel would be a pretty good idea.

To figure out how to do it, Volkswagen turned to their research and development arm, also known as Porsche. I think the firm may have produced some other, unrelated works you may have heard of.


Porsche designated the assignment Project 508, and set about to figure out how to convert the Type I engine to a compression-ignition system.

Illustration for article titled This Isnt Even Volkswagens First Diesel Disaster

The modified engine dispensed with a carb and instead had a simple diesel-injection system. The cylinders and block may have been beefed up a bit to withstand a diesel’s inherently greater compression, but overall the engine was only around 50 lbs heavier than the stock 1300cc engine it was based on.

It also made less horsepower — between 23 and 25 HP, as opposed to the gas Beetle’s mind-bending 36 HP or so. The engine was like other diesels of the era in that is was noisy, idled rough, and spewed lots of gritty black smoke.


It was like if someone took a look at an early Beetle and said “Say! You know what this car needs to be? Louder and slower! Oh, and if it can belch a black miasma from it’s blowhole, fantastic!”

This first VW diesel was not exactly a success. Porsche built two test engines, installing one into a stock split-window Beetle body and the other into a Type II van. They even replaced the radio with a glow-plug starting system. The pair of butt-mounted, air-cooled, diesels were driven a combined total of 30,000 km or so in testing. 30,000 very slow Km.

Illustration for article titled This Isnt Even Volkswagens First Diesel Disaster

The testing results of the VW Diesel Beetles was not great. The oil-burning Beetle would go from 0-60 in, well, 60, and drivers found the extra unfamiliar noises irritating and confusing. In fact, the one existing Diesel Beetle was stolen from a parking lot and driven all the way to the Swiss border, where, finally, the thieves abandoned the experimental car, deciding that they’d rather have something faster, less noisy, and producing far less smoke. Like, maybe, a horse on fire.


Decades later, Porsche decided to resurrect some old, diverse products and experiments to commemorate Porsche’s 50th anniversary. Plans and pictures for the Diesel Beetle were found, and Porsche hired an engineer named Robert Binder to re-create the old diesel . The result is charming and historically fascinating, but it’s still not quick. Sure, the MPGs were significantly higher than a stock Beetle (around 40 MPG), but it was still brain-achingly slow, setting what might be one of the slowest Nurburgring ring laps ever.

The original VW Diesel problem seems so simple and innocent now — it’s just slow, loud, and ungainly. It’s not using complex computers to cheat the EPA and consumers or anything like that, so by current standards, this Beetle is one charming Diesel failure.


It’s almost enough to make one nostalgic for the simple old days of the slow-ass, filthy diesel. Almost.

(reproduction pictures via Auto Bild)

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You know, the diesels VW put out in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s weren’t all that much better.

In high school I drove a bone-stock ‘70 Beetle that I used to drag race against another kid in his ‘79 (maybe? can’t quite recall) Rabbit diesel.

Those were some epic battles, well matched, and we didn’t even really have to worry about the cops, because unless you really paid attention you couldn’t even really tell that we were racing. Until one day the Rabbit blew all its engine internals out the tail pipe. He may have triumphed in a few battles, but I won the war.