What’s a semi-auto Beetle?

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.

beige badgeThe 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.

semi auto cutawayThe 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…

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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.

My semi auto

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.

semi auto for sale

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.

interior 2upengine 2up

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…

Ian

The opinions expressed here are the personal opinions of the author and do not necessarily represent the views and opinions of VW Heritage

52 responses to: What’s a semi-auto Beetle?


  1. I have a 1968 semi auto beetle in very original condition as it was my Nan’s from new. Bought from Clifton Garage in Bristol in Feb 68, they told her it was the first RHD imported here (no proof though but never seen an older one). Been off the road since 2007 but always garaged. Needs a new front beam but other than that was sound. Also have a complete spare engine and box from another 68 semi just in case. What’s it worth?

    1. any picture? semi automatic is not expensive, as it is 3 speed not a 4 speed gear box. how much you want?
      i would like to have a semi auto RHD Karmann Ghia , any one can help?
      i got a 1974 stick automatic beetle too, it is very nice condition 1600 cc motor but original front suspension.
      thank you very much.
      Victor
      fwdco@yahoo.com

    2. Chris

      Hi

      I have a type 3 stick shift which needs a new box. Are you in the market to sell the box or box and engine? I am in Bristol if you wish to sell. Thanks Dave

    3. Hi Chris , I’ve just bought a 67 RHD semi auto all in bits as a restoration project. Have you ever come accross a manual that deals with the automatic gearbox.
      Bob

  2. Hi I’ve got a 68 15 manual and I want to change it into a semi auto
    (Had a bike accident and in a wheel chair. Any one got the bits I need please let me no cheers

      1. Hi my name is Geoff and I live near Lincoln. I have a 1968 Karman Ghia stick shift {Semi auto}.I would like to purchase Torque converter oil seals from you if possible I do have a spare torque converter and also a good gearbox which I would sell

      2. Hi.
        I came across this tread when searching for an automatic transmission for my 66 bug.
        I restored the car in 99 and shortly after I had a motorcycle accident and ended up in a wheelchair.
        I kept the car because it is a nice memory of the last car I have restored. I was planning that my kids could enjoy it when they get a license.

        But then I heard about a semi automatic transmission and I got all excited until I found out that the seem to be quite rare.

        Does anyone have one for sale?

        Cheers

        1. Jason are you still looking for a semi automatic beetle I have one for sale in mint condition this also has a factory sliding sunroof (never have I seen another semi automatic with the sunroof) the car is lhd drive and 1500cc engine drives like a dream with no rust

      3. Do you still have the automatic transmission?If so where are you & what do you want for it,complete from flywheel including toque converter?Regards John

  3. I also have a 1973 Karmann ghia autostick and i would like to know if anyone here has the scheme or a drawn of the engine and clutch detailed because i am doing a restauration and all the hoses came to me disconnected. I need to know the correct location of every hose about the clutch (oil and vaccum hoses). If anyone could help me with this trouble, i will be very gratefull.

    Thank you very much.
    Thiago
    thiago.gmiguel@hotmail.com
    PS: I’m from Brazil (sorry about my bad english)

    1. Im wrecking a semi auto car this week
      its a 1500 engine with semi auto
      i only need the chassis
      its been sitting under a house for a few years but drove well before that
      il get it running
      you may have one by now

  4. Hi. There is very little info re the semi automatic beetles. I have one that I believe is a November 1967..I do have all the paperwork/manual etc to confirm this. I have not much of an idea how much it is worth especially as it only has 60000 miles on the clock. I have the original newspaper advert and was told only 500 came across to the UK. Is there a Semi auto group anywhere?

  5. I have a 1969 VW with Automatic Stickshift for sale. New Master cylinder, brakes, carb, fuel pump, plugs, gas filter & lines all replaced. Can send pics if interested.

  6. I have been looking around for a semi auto original beetle. I use to have one when I was a teenager and I miss it. I am 60 now but was about 16 when I drove the beetle. So I have always had my eye and ear out trying to find another. My mom bought it for 400 dollars from a guy named John Hancock who worked for John Hancock Ins Agency. I always thought that was cool. So if any one has one for sale or knows where I can find one. Please let me know…Thanks

  7. Is there a workshop manual available for the semi-automatic box as I have one in my trike and would like to check it out properly

    1. Hi look for a Bentley publication on Amazon I got one for the price of a Haynes manual there is approx 30 pages on autostick repairs

  8. Found this car 5100 original miles mint. Found at estate sale 71 automatic super beetle karmin anyone looking to purchase this please message me starting at 15,000

  9. HI Jose
    I mite be interested in your semi auto gear box.
    Please can you tell me the condition and if it is fully working, and of course the price.
    Thanks

  10. I have a 1968 autostick beetle. The interior was redone and has a very cute color changing paint job. I’m having a problem however with making sure the engine is Original. My engine code is AE456403. Can anyone tell me if this is a 1500cc or a 1600cc. I just ordered a new 1500cc badge, and now I’m worried it might not be a 1500cc. My chassie code is 118361206. Any help would be greatly appreciated. I’m looking to sell the car eventually, but want to make sure I have proper info for the buyer. Thanks in advance. Kelly.

    1. Nov 1967 your chassis came out doesnt look like the 1600 was original then.

      Nov 118 351 958 D0 287 774 F1 281 170 H0 907 854 H5 141 231

  11. I own a 1968 Auto… if your interested I’ve got photos up on Instagram of it (@gloriathebeetle) she’s in pretty good condition for her age, around 70,000miles on the clock which I don’t believe to have been altered

  12. I have gearbox, vacuum, atf tanks, torque converter and flex plate if anyone is interested. I have not worked out a price but I kept them as spares for my 3 autos but I won’t be needed it.

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