The Beetle’s manual gearbox has always been admired for its pin sharp precision changes, but for those who wanted to give their left leg a rest, there was the option of the semi-auto. But how did the ‘Automatic’ Beetle work, and what was it like to live with? We have the answers…
Introduced in 1968 and made available on the 1300 and 1500, the semi-auto Beetle was a peculiar beast. With its inherently more stable double jointed driveshaft type independent rear suspension instead of the conventional swing axle, it handled better than the manual Bug of that era. But apart from that (and its rarity) – it’s always remained something of an enigma.
The most obvious difference inside, of course, is the fact that there is no clutch pedal. The gear lever itself looks stock, but there’s only four positions; three forward gears (L, 1 and 2) and reverse, arranged in the conventional H-pattern. Because the torque converter is able to apply power over a wide rev range, only the top two gears are used for normal driving, with ‘L’ only being needed if starting on a slope or tackling tight parking manoeuvres.
The engine can only be started in neutral and when cold it idles much faster than when warm, so before engaging gear the brakes have to be applied to prevent the car lurching forward. As soon as the gear lever is moved, a solenoid in the top sends an electrical instruction to disengage the clutch. When a gear is selected, the accelerator is pressed and the torque converter takes up drive, with first being good from rest up to 55mph. Position 2 takes you right up to motorway cruising speeds. If the oil temperature warning light glows, however, it’s telling you to drop down a cog. You don’t need to take it out of gear when at rest, although you do need to keep a foot on the brake to prevent ‘creep’. If you’re used to driving a manual Bug, it’s all a bit unnerving…
I once owned a Diamond Blue 1968 F-plate 1500 semi-auto. I bought it from a friend, not because I was too lazy to change gear but because it had only done 80,000 miles and was straight as a die. I seem to remember paying £1,200. Bear in mind that was back in the late 1980s – hence the slightly iffy quality photo of it here.
To be honest, I never got used to the transmission. It was a novelty, but to be honest I always quite liked changing gear in my Beetles. Moreover, the fact that it was always revving like mad, as if the clutch was slipping, totally blunted the usually perky 1500’s performance. Being so good bodily, I briefly looked into the prospect of converting it to manual. Apparently, I wasn’t alone because a home mechanics magazine in the US was inundated with similar enquiries and eventually documented the process. But given the amount of work involved it simply wasn’t feasible and it was sold, I think, to buy a Cabriolet.
A rare option new, surviving ‘stick shifts’, as they call them in the States, are rare in the UK. However, we did spot the low mileage example (above and below) for sale in Cleveland here.
It looks better than my one did 30 odd years ago – and the odometer reading of 52,000 miles is very low. If you’ve always wondered what it’s like to drive a semi-auto Beetle and you’ve got £20,000 to spare, then this could be the perfect opportunity…
The opinions expressed here are the personal opinions of the author and do not necessarily represent the views and opinions of VW Heritage