Classic air-cooled Volkswagens make great collector cars: They are mechanically simple and easy to fix.
Parts are easy to find, and so is the knowledge to fix them—there’s almost no problem you can run into that a thousand other owners haven’t experienced. Best yet, as far as collectible cars go, they are real bargains. Here are 10 affordably priced classic VWs.
The classic original Beetle
There are about a million reasons why the Volkswagen Beetle is a great collector car. First, there are a lot of them—these cars were unbelievably popular when new, particularly in California, the land of the rust-free car. Their simple air-cooled engines are easy to work on, parts are plentiful, and while they may not be fast, they are good fun to drive. You’ll find all kinds of Beetles on the market, from clapped out projects to near-perfect restorations—a Beetle for every purse and purpose, to paraphrase GM boss Alfred Sloan. Watch for rollover damage on pre-1968 Beetles, and be wary of the 3-speed “automatic stick shift” semi-auto transmission—it can be a headache for the uninitiated. Take your time and shop carefully, and you’ll have no problem finding your perfect Bug.
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The Beetle Convertible
If you live where the sun shines, why not opt for an open-top Beetle? Buying a rag-top Volkswagen means you’ll be spending more money on both purchase and restoration (though you’ll be gaining more in resale value). But the manual tops don’t add much in the way of mechanical complexity, and as with the hardtop Beetles, parts and know-how are plentiful. And prices are reasonable: Older, perfectly restored cars can close in on 20 grand, but there are plenty of functional fixer-uppers to be found in the $4,000 to $10,000 range.
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The Super Beetle
If you’re planning to use your Volkswagen as a daily driver, consider one of the 1971-or-newer Super Beetles
. These bugs are easy to spot by their curved windshield (as opposed to the flat glass found on regular Beetles) and windshield wipers that point to the right instead of the left. Supers have a MacPherson strut suspension that opens up more room in the trunk. And since they are newer models, they benefit from the largest engines, bigger windows, and the double-wishbone rear suspension, which isn’t prone to rollovers like the swing arms found in older Beetles. Supers are available in both hardtop and convertible body styles, and prices generally don’t differ from regular Beetles, so there’s really no downside to buying one.
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Dune Buggies and Baja Bugs
Back in the day, people delighted in modifying Beetles to do all sorts of things for which they were not originally intended, and off-road use was a biggie. With the engine mounted over the drive wheels, Beetles had great traction in sand and mud, and the metal floorpan provided good protection for the mechanical bits. Some unbolted the Beetle’s body and fitted a fiberglass dune buggy shell; others cut away the fenders, bumpers and bodywork to create a “Baja Bug”. Whether you plan to take it to the dunes or just drive around on the street, these cars are a lot of fun, and aside from race-prepared cars, prices are in line with other Beetles. Search eBay
for Dune Buggy and Baja Bug, and look among the Classic Beetle
ads as well.
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Volkswagen called it the Type 181
, but the American market called it The Thing—probably to add a bit of levity to the car’s roots (it’s based on the Kubelwagon, the vehicle that the German Army rode into battle in the Second World War). The Thing combines the Beetle’s rugged mechanical bits with a boxy open-top body that lets in lots of sunshine and provides lots of space for your friends. A fully restored 181 can fetch $15,000 to $20,000 or more, but we were pleasantly surprised by how many we saw that were trading firmly in the low-to-mid four-figure range.
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This was Volkswagen’s first sports car, though with the Beetle’s anemic air-cooled engine, such terms are relative. The Karmman-Ghia is a good-looking alternative to the Beetle, and aside from a more cramped cabin, there really are no disadvantages—mechanically, they’re virtually identical to the Type I Beetle
. Karmann-Ghias are available in both hardtop and convertible versions; the latter up the fun factor as well as the price—something to consider, as Karmann-Ghias tend to command much higher prices than Beetles. As with the Bug, beware the complicated clutchless manual (billed as the Automatic Stick Shift). It’s a nifty bit of German engineering, but it can also be troublesome to keep up.
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The Fastback, Squareback and Notchback
The Type III was Volkswagen’s first real attempt to build a car that was more conventional than the Beetle. It used the same basic powertrain and suspension
as the Beetle, but its more conventional lines gave it more interior space. The Type III was sold in the U.S. as the Fastback and the Squareback wagon, and many two-door “notchback” sedans, while not officially sold in the U.S., were imported by individual owners.
Though the engine looks similar to that of the Beetle, there are differences—the cooling system is different and some use Bosch D-Jetronic mechanical fuel injection, which increases complexity. This, and their increased scarcity, makes them a better fit for experienced VW collectors
. Hint: When searching, try all of the car’s names: Type III, Type 3, Fastback, Squareback, and Notchback.
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The Type 4
With the raging success of the Beetle, it was hard to imagine Volkswagen building a car that was a failure—but fail the Type 4 did. Sold in the U.S. from 1971 until 1974 as the 411 and later the 412 (search for both terms), the Type 4 was supposed to be a luxury-oriented VW, but VW completely misread the American luxury market.
In a day when big Cadillacs were still top of the heap, the 411 was simply too small and too slow. They sold poorly when new and are even more rare today, but if you can find one, the 411 and 412 are interesting footnotes in Volkswagen’s colorful history.
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Officially known as the Type 2, this beloved icon of the 1960s also makes a wonderful and practical collector vehicle (though think twice as using them as family cars, as they are very slow and offer very limited crash protection). The Type 2 is one of the few air-cooled VWs offered with an automatic transmission, though they are rare (and even pokier than the manuals).
As with the Beetle, you’ll find Type 2s in all prices and conditions, from whimsical hippy buses to show-ready restorations. Cargo versions and pickup trucks are rare and interesting variants, though they are hard to find as imports were largely curtailed in light of increasing import tariffs in the 1960s
. And if you like to camp, check out the Westfalia editions; they’re expensive but they make great micro-RVs. EBay
has a category for the Volkswagen Transporter, one of the Microbus’ official names, but be sure to search for Type 2, Bus and Microbus—and don’t overlook its boxy successor, the Vanagon.
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The Porsche 914
This is the Porsche sports car that was almost
a Volkswagen. The original plan was to sell the four-cylinder version of the 914 as a Volkswagen and the six-cylinder cars (914-6) as Porsches. After much internal turmoil, the cars came to the U.S. as Porsches, despite the use of a Volkswagen engine (though it was coupled to a Porsche 5-speed gearbox).
Though not terribly fast, 914s are exceptionally well balanced and big fun to drive, and they are popular as autocross racers. Prices for original six-cylinder cars can be sky-high, but four-cylinder cars are much like Beetles: You can find $300 basket cases, $25,000 showpieces, and plenty of serviceable cars in between.
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