THE VOLKSWAGEN BEETLE CONVERTIBLE
I acquired my ’78 convertible in 2016, from a young engineer in Melbourne who had imported it from the USA, restoring it and converting it to right hand drive. Its American heritage is revealed by the large front indicators, large ‘impact-absorbing’ bumper bars and the fuel-injected engine. Having never previously owned or driven a convertible, I greatly enjoy open-air motoring, Karmann style (…unless it’s raining, or the sun is too hot, or there is a dead kangaroo nearby!) Ian Robinson
The convertible (or as the Europeans call them, ‘cabriolet’) was part the VW Beetle concept from the start; a prototype Beetle convertible was on display on 26 May 1938 when Hitler announced that the German ‘people’s car’ would be built and laid the foundation stone of what was to become the Wolfsburg VW factory. This convertible was presented to Hitler, who subsequently used it for personal transport on occasions. Amazingly, it survived the war and is now restored in the VW Museum in Wolfsburg.
Following the end of WW11, Wolfsburg was in the British zone of occupied Germany and Major Ivan Hirst was placed in charge of the badly bomb-damaged Wolfsburg factory. In 1946, Hirst commissioned a team to build a Beetle convertible, resulting in both a two-seater and four-seater prototype. Hirst presented the two-seater prototype to his commanding officer, Colonel Charles Radclyffe, as his private car. This vehicle was known as the ‘Radclyffe Roadster’.
In 1948 the British occupying forces appointed Heinz Nordoff, a former Opel executive, as General Manager of Volkswagen. While Nordoff’s primary focus was on developing and selling the Beetle sedan, he commissioned two German coachbuilders to build a convertible Beetle, away from the Wolfsburg factory: Josef Hebmuller to produce a two-seater convertible (similar in appearance to the Radclyffe Roadster) and Wilhelm Karmann, to produce a four-seater convertible (similar in appearance to the 1938 prototype.)
Production of the Hebmuller two seater began in July 1949 but a serious factory fire and subsequent financial problems saw the Hebmuller company declared bankrupt in August 1951, with less than 750 vehicles produced.
The Karmann four-seater convertible had a much more successful run, with production commencing in September 1949 and continuing through to January 1980, by which time some 331,850 Beetle convertibles had been built. The Karmann convertible was based on the Beetle Export Saloon, with Nordoff requiring Karmann to use as many Beetle components as possible. In addition to a number of minor styling changes required by the soft top, the convertible contained substantial body strengthening to compensate for the absence of a steel roof, adding some 90 kg to the weight of the car. Over the years, mechanical and styling changes to the Beetle sedan automatically flowed through to the convertible, so that, soft-top aside, driving a convertible was very much the same as driving a Beetle sedan. Not surprisingly, given the relatively low volumes and labour-intensive production techniques, the convertible sold at a substantial price premium (close to 40%) over the Beetle sedan – a significant price to pay for the joys of open air motoring.
VW Australia sold very few Karmann Beetle convertibles, so they are a rare sight here. A 1961 road test in Wheels magazine concluded that: “VW enthusiasts who also like open air motoring will be drawn to the convertible like girls to mink coats.”(!) One of the highlights of my 2006 holiday in the UK was seeing about 20 Beetle convertibles on a club outing; pretty exciting for a Beetle nut who had only ever previously seen two or three genuine Beetle convertibles. More recently, private imports from the USA (where the convertible was popular, especially in California) have increased the number of Karmann Beetle convertibles on Australian roads.