In the first of a new series to track down a brand's oldest car in South Africa, we get to grips with a rather special 1949 Volkswagen Beetle...
For four decades, the car you see here sat in a Volkswagen SA storage facility, but unfortunately not the hermetically cocooned type. The elements – and being stationary for so long – took a toll and this 1949 example of the VW Beetle was looking particularly ropey.
Fortunately, in 2016 (and in line with VW SA’s increased focus on preserving its heritage cars), two employees, Tony Kilroe, the company’s manager of vehicle engineering, and his boss, Jan Schiedek-Jacht, head of product engineering, decided to take on the restoration project. The result would be perfect for the VW AutoPavilion museum in Uitenhage, one that is open to the public and well worth a visit.
As is often the case in restoring classics, once Schiedek-Jacht and Kilroe began taking the car apart, what was initially planned as a light makeover soon turned into a full nut-and-bolt restoration. And they couldn’t tackle it during working hours, either. Undeterred, the dedicated team would clock out of their nine-to-five work day, walk over to the workshop and begin tinkering with the Beetle they had christened “Jan” after Schiedek-Jacht.
With the internet providing a valuable source of information, parts were sourced locally, as well as from the United States and Europe. It helped that, during business visits to Germany, Schiedek-Jacht could pop into the Wolfsburg museum and look over other Beetles of similar early vintage for crucial details, such as the angle of the rear lights. Expertise here in South Africa also proved invaluable thanks to people such as master welder and metalworker Chris Fourie, who assisted with repairing some of the body parts.
The 1,1-litre, flat-four engine was still in pretty good shape, though, and whereas some ancillary parts were rebuilt, the head had never been removed and, remarkably, the little engine did not need to be opened during the restoration. The original 6 V system was also retained to keep Jan as original as possible.
The interior features cloth seats matched closely to the source material, but finding an original three-spoke steering wheel proved difficult. One was eventually spotted for sale on the internet, promptly bought, restored and installed.
That steering wheel might look dainty, but it feels solid and is pleasant to use. The seats are soft and the major controls are more logically positioned than I had expected.
To start Jan, you turn the key clockwise and push a start button to the right. The engine cranks a few times before that typical flat-four sound thrums from the rear. It might have only one exhaust pipe and be 400 to 500 cm3 down on most Beetles we see on the roads today, but it sounds the same.
The view from the driver’s seat is also near-perfect. You sit close to the door and windscreen, so forward visibility is great. There are no side mirrors, but the small rear-view mirror allows for a decent view through the split rear window.
Heading to Graaff-Reinet from Uitenhage, the first glaring difference to modern-day cars makes itself known: the gearbox has no synchromesh. Much to my embarrassment, the next 20 minutes are punctuated by gears wincingly crunched. Eventually, I get the knack of blipping the throttle on up and down shifts while firmly pushing or pulling the thin gearlever to engage the next cog.
Once over the stress of trying not to destroy the ‘box, I realise just how comfortable the Beetle is. The high-profile tyres take bumpy roads in their stride and, while bigger lumps filter through to the cabin, the springy seats cushion most of the blows.
Pace, unsurprisingly, is not a characteristic of an engine that puts out a mere 18 kW and 68 N.m. It can hit 100 km/h – eventually – but it is best cruising comfortably at 80 km/h. Third gear feels especially strong and, when I put my foot down, it’s clear the engine has a healthy spread of torque.
There are some items left on Jan the Beetle’s to-do list. Locating an original fuel tank, the correct shock absorbers and spare wheel, and an original tool kit are among them. A proper rear apron must also be sourced, while the team is searching for period luggage rails and a fuel shut-off tap.
Thanks to the efforts of Schiedek-Jacht, Kilroe and his dedicated team, an important part of VW’s history will now be preserved for generations to come. And the really good news is it isn’t the last project this team wants to tackle...
See Jan in real life: The AutoPavilion is open weekdays and every first Saturday of the month. Adults pay R10 entrance fee; kids under 16 and pensioners pay R5. Visit www.autopavilion.co.za for more info on the exhibits.