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What to Look for When Buying a Classic VW Beetle/Bug


Buying a VW Beetle

If you are a classic air-cooled Volkswagen lover like I am, then chances are that you either own, or are looking to buy, a classic VW Beetle. The Volkswagen Beetle, or Bug as called by many people, has been a favorite around the world for decades, and is one of the longest production cars in existence, starting in 1938 and ending in 2003. Herbie the Love Bug is the most popular and well known Beetle in the world. His first appearance was in Disney's 'The Love Bug' in 1968. Herbie was my first glimpse at a Beetle and my obsession has continued ever since.

What to Consider First

One of the primary items to consider when shopping for your Beetle is, are you looking for a car that you can drive right away, or a project. Another thing to consider if it will be a project is, how involved do you want to get and how much money are you willing to spend?

There are plenty of these great little 'Bugs' still roaming around the world, many in great shape. Some, not in such great shape. You just need to weed out the bad apples.

I will go over some key points of interest when shopping for your new 'Baby' and provide helpful links to give you the most information before you buy.

Driver or Project?

The first thing that you need to decide when looking at a Beetle, is whether you want to buy a driver, that you can purchase, and not have to do much but maintenance, or a project, that will need some TLC before it hits the open road.

Drivers of course will have a much higher starting price tag initially; however, you will need to check things over really well. This choice is more for those that are either not inclined to do body work, or mechanical repairs. Don't fret though, the Beetle is one of the EASIEST of cars to work on and there is a vast amount of information available to help you do so. I will discuss that later.

Buying a project can be a little tricky. But if you know what you are looking for, you can find yourself a very good deal. Projects vary in severity; from just needing an engine all the way to being a complete 'rust bucket'. Decide how much labor you are willing to put into the project, inspect the areas of interest as outlined below and go from there. Many VW Beetles are left to rot even though they have a great deal of potential; Especially pre 1967 models.

Prepare Yourself

When looking at a Beetle, take a few things with you, whether you are looking for a driver or a project, they will be very useful.

  1. A small awl or screwdriver: This will help you find the bad rust areas of the car. If you see a spot that looks bad, give it a poke. If it goes through, well, there will be some welding involved.
  2. Small magnet: This will help you discover an overabundance of body filler. The magnet that I use will not stick to metal that has much more than 1/8 inch of filler on top of it.
  3. Small flashlight: You'll need it to check out areas under the car.
  4. Socket set and a large crescent wrench: These are handy in the engine compartment.

You may also want to take along a battery, a small can of gasoline, some starting fluid, and jumper cables. You would be surprised at how much these will become useful when looking at a Beetle that has been sitting in the weeds for a few years.

Areas of Interest (RUST)

When you start looking the car over, pay special attention to several areas. Rust can hide in many places, and if you see a 'bubble', there is usually more rust to come. Here is a list of major areas to check:

Heater Channels

Heater Channels

1. Heater Channels

This is one of the first places to rot out on a Beetle. Since the car is air cooled, heat must be transferred to the front of the car through the rocker panels just below the door. Since these are constantly moving hot air, condensation occurs during cool down. A prime area for rust to form. Look primarily above the jack support of the car and poke and prod if you can. Check all the way to the front.

Quarter panel rot

Quarter panel rot

2. Quarter Panel Behind Side Rear Windows

When manufactured, Volkswagen put either a bag of filler material or expanding foam inside the quarter panel to reduce noise and also as a vapor barrier from the engine compartment to the passenger compartment. This filler or foam collected condensation and run-off water (especially on 1970+ models with the small crescent vent behind the rear windows). Major evidence of rot will appear as bubbles in the paint. The larger the bubble, the larger the problem.

Package Tray Rot

Package Tray Rot

3. Rear Package Tray

Just behind the back seat of a Beetle is the Package tray. Since the trunk is rather limited, this is extra storage for passenger items like luggage or groceries. You will need to be able to lift any covering that is on this area to inspect properly. If you can't lift the covering, the just apply pressure straight down onto it in as many places as possible. If you hear any 'Crunching' sounds or worse, if your hand goes through, then the tray will need replaced.

Floor Pan Rot

Floor Pan Rot

4. Floor Pans

This is probably the most common repair area of Beetles. It's fairly easy to detect rot in any of these areas, but the most common is under the battery, which is under the rear seat. Also lift the floor mats if possible to check for more. Replacing the pans can be done in a weekend if necessary.

Rear cross member of my own Beetle project.

Rear cross member of my own Beetle project.

5. Rear Cross Members

Under the back seat is the rear cross member, where the body is bolted to the chassis. The heater tubes from the engine compartment come through this area to feed the heater channels. This area will sometimes rot out from road dirt collecting on the underside and holding water. Rot here should be easy to detect but feel around the area behind the heater tube since it's not as easily visible.

Fender Mounting Area Rot

Fender Mounting Area Rot

6. Fender Mounting Areas

All four fenders on a Beetle are bolted to the body, with a rubber strip separating them from the body. This area likes to collect dirt and grime, and eventually, rust if not attended to. If rust is not evident on the surface of these areas, check inside each fender well with a flashlight.

Spare Tire Well Rot on my own Beetle project.

Spare Tire Well Rot on my own Beetle project.

7. Spare Tire Well

The trunk seal can only do so much to keep water out of the trunk, and eventually they do go bad. Make sure that if there is a spare tire in the spare tire well; remove it and check for rust in the trough below it. Water will collect in this area and rot it out. *** Note that on a Super Beetle, the spare tire lays flat instead of being upright.

Bottom of Framehead

Bottom of Framehead

8. Frame Head

The Beetle frame is a pretty interesting creature. It consists of a long 'tunnel' that runs down the center of the car, which is the bulk of the support for the suspension and drive train.

At the front of that tunnel is the 'Frame Head' which is where the front suspension, or beam is bolted on. It's slightly triangular in shape and is directly below the gas tank. Usually you will see rot in the bottom of the frame head first. Note that Super Beetles do not have a beam, but instead have a MacPherson strut setup, though the frame head is still prone to rust.

Front Firewall / Toeboard

Front Firewall / Toeboard

9. Firewall (front)

The panel that separates the passenger compartment from the trunk sometimes rots out at the bottom. This is from moisture finding its way either through the heater channels or through the trunk and sitting in the bottom. This area is most easily seen by removing the gas tank, but can also be viewed from under the car. Rust usually starts in the bottom outside corners where it meets the heater channels.

Strut Tower

Strut Tower

10. Strut Towers (Super Beetle Only)

Under the trunk lid, you will find the front strut towers. Found only on the Super Beetle model, these areas sometimes rot out causing the front suspension to be weakened. This area needs to be solid for the car to be safe. Replacement parts are available if it is rotted.

This covers most of the real rust problem areas on the classic aircooled VW Beetle. Please note that this information may vary a bit by year, but for a general guide, it is pretty accurate and should provide you with a very good starting point.

Type 1 Beetle Air Cooled Engine

Type 1 Beetle Air Cooled Engine

The Aircooled Engine

After sitting a few years, classic Beetles can be a little hard to start. The owner may tell you that the engine was rebuilt just before it was parked. This however doesn't necessarily mean that the engine is usable. Aircooled Beetles utilize a horizontally opposed flat four cylinder configuration. If water creeps into the motor via the carburetor or other entryway, it can easily make it's way to the cylinders and cause them to rust to the piston rings. The valves are also prone to damage from this as well.

Visually inspect the engine to see that there are no apparent missing pieces. I looked at a Beetle once that the previous owner said was running just a few months before. When looking at the engine, the carburetor was missing. I finally discovered that over time water condensation had gone down through the intake manifold and rusted one of the pistons to the cylinder.

Take the spark plugs out of the engine and squirt a few shots of WD-40 or other penetrating oil into each cylinder. Then, using a large wrench, try to turn the motor at the crank pulley. If it doesn't turn, the engine has some major issues and will most likely need to be rebuilt or replaced.

Try and start it! If the engine turns freely, and it appears that all of the components are there, then go for it! This is why you brought the battery, gas, starting fluid and jumper cables! You may just find that the engine runs fine.

After you get it started, check for smoke coming from the exhaust, or any odd noises. Knocking or heavy pinging noises are BAD.

Back Side of Fuse Block

Back Side of Fuse Block

Beetle Wiring

The fuse block on a Beetle is located inside the trunk on the driver's side just in front of the stereo speaker (if it's still there). Check to make sure all of the wires are plugged onto the block and all relays are present. Also check to make sure there are no brittle wires or burned wires. Rewiring a Beete is a pretty involved project. If needed, there are quite a few sites that sell wiring harnesses for Classic Bugs.


Ok, so if all went well here, then you have a pretty good understanding of where to look on a classic air-cooled VW Beetle for problems and how to detect them. Remember to never take anyones word that a vehicle is in great condition no matter how it looks. YOU be the judge.

Here is another useful article to read before you buy an Old School Beetle:

  • Buying a Classic VW Beetle : "My all time favorite car has to be the Volkswagen Beetle. What is not to love about these little cars. I think my love affair started with this car when my mother took us to see Herbie, The Love Bug at the drive in. I was hooked."

Please comment on this article to let me know if it was helpful to you as well as any additions that you think I should make.

Thanks for reading!!!

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

© 2009 Eric Hartman