Driving Used to be Hard: I Drive Classic VWs and their Modern Counterparts

Old cars are hard work. I don’t mean all old cars necessarily, but on the whole, driving used to be much more demanding than it is today. Piloting a car down a road took a lot of work, physically and mentally, and it makes me really glad for all of the gizmos that automakers have put on even the most spartan modern machines, even if it takes away some of the connection that drivers used to feel for even the most pedestrian of models. How did I learn that? By driving a handful of models from VW’s impressive heritage collection during the 2020 Passat event in LA.

What is it about these vintage machines? It’s not the lack of power, though that might be your first guess. Even the 1949 Beetle, now the oldest vehicle I’ve ever driven, with just 25 hp from the 1100cc flat-four, had what I’d call enough power to handle the city traffic it saw. But I’ll get back to this in a bit.

The afternoon started with the car I thought would be the most fun (it was). The car that really cemented Volkwagen as a sporting brand in the mind of most of today’s enthusiasts. The Mk 1 Rabbit GTI. The first Golf/Rabbit to wear the red stripe and create the hot hatch segment.

The GTI’s 1.6L four fires up with a growl, one that’s a lot louder than I was expecting. Turns out that even for VW, finding an original exhaust for an ’84 can be tough. But ignore the noise and it’s a free-spinning, happily revving engine. More eager than the current turbo engine, even if it makes less than half the power.

In a car this small and light, though, it’s enough to be peppy. And it gives you plenty of opportunities to really give that five-speed box and golf-ball shifter a workout. Rowing up and down the gears with a directness you’re hard-pressed to find today. It’s one of the things that is really special about all of these older models, and it showcases one of the other differences between cars now and cars then. Today we’re in a hurry. Always connected, always on, always rushing to the next thing. These cars don’t want any part of that. Rush a gear change (especially on the oldest cars) and you’re never going to find that ratio you’re searching for. Take a moment, finesse it into the next slot, show some mechanical sympathy, and everything clicks into place. If you want to unwind, head to a canyon with a vintage manual box. You won’t be able to help but to slow down.

Because it weighs next to nothing, the GTI is nimble and tossable. And it rides great because of the big fat sidewalls. If you’re looking for body roll, you’ll find plenty. It’s from an era when stiff didn’t mean better. So maybe the tires aren’t at an optimal angle with the road, but who cares. It’s more fun. Against this, the excellent modern GTI feels like you’re driving a bank vault.

If you’re wondering how this relates back to old cars being hard, because this sounds pretty glowing so far, it’s because this is the newest of the old cars on hand. It shows these problems the least. It’s the air-cooled era where the age of the car starts to really get in the way of driving the cars.

First, though, the OJ. Original Jetta. A Rabbit with a trunk, this one, a 1982, made a whopping 76 hp, and in this example, linked to a three-speed auto. I have to admit that even with just 76 hp, this three-speeder is nicer than just about any modern nine or 10-speed. It really can’t be in the wrong gear, because there are only three to pick from. And the mechanical mechanism means there’s no hunting, just picking the right one. Sure the ratios are wide, but EVs have just one speed, and we’re all fine with that, right?

Like the GTI, this one is tiny, connected, and tossable. Though a bit less tossable and direct than the sporting one. Most impressive is the visibility. Remember what it used to be like when you could reverse without fear of crushing puppies, trash cans, or a Chevrolet Suburban that was somehow hiding in your eight-foot-wide C-Pillar? The Jetta sure remembers. Still, it’s easy to see just how much people (and cars) have grown over time in this spartan yet cramped interior.

Now back to the original. A 1949 Beetle, just like mother used to make. The first Beetles to go on sale in America. A split-window rear, this is a gorgeously simple shape. Tiny taillights, no mirrors, an even smaller exhaust pipe. No adornments, no fancy trim, just Beetle. I’d like to frame it and hang it on a wall. Put one inside every modern design studio, next to whatever next week’s launch SUV will be.

Inside, this is just as simple on the outside. Two pedals (that’s right, the gas is more of a handle that your foot presses than a conventional pedal, something that stuck around in the air-cooled VWs for years) a gear shift, a hand brake, the steering wheel, speedo, start button, and three knobs that don’t seem to do anything. I was afraid to touch them. No power steering, no power brakes, so they don’t do much of anything until your foot is on the floor. Want to turn the wheel? You’d better be rolling, because if you’re stationary nothing’s happening, and if you’re rolling it’s still going to be tough.

The accelerator is touching the center tunnel, the left front tire is where your leg wants to be, and the seat will slide back approximately zero inches. It’s bolted to the floor. Want to move it, the car’s minder tells me, get the wrenches.

In a modern car, applying the pedals means a movement of your ankle, or maybe your knee. Here, you’re pivoting from the hip with both legs at the same time. I’m going to assume you’re sitting down while you’re reading this, so we’re going to do a simulation. First, pick up your right foot, without moving your knee. It should stay at about 90 degrees. Then, when your foot is about a foot from the floor, pivot your knee outward to about 45 degrees from your body. Keep your foot in the same place, though. Now do the same with your left foot, and your left knee. Only this time your left knee should be touching your right. Now you can press down the clutch pedal, which does all of its clutching in the first inch of travel. So hold your left foot up from your hip while you ease the gear lever in and push on the tiny accelerator pedal as you bring your left foot back up to fully engage the clutch.

It’s about as easy as it sounds. Don’t forget this four-speed doesn’t’ have synchros, so you’ll be doing that TWICE with every shift. And at 25 hp there are lots of shifts. Now you know why I’m having trouble bonding with these old cars. People back then were either tiny or too hung up with the novelty of not walking to mind the horrible ergonomics. I suppose that after half a decade of war, an iffy clutch was a breeze. And it beats the heck out of a horse. I will say, though, that it was hilarious to watch all of the other drivers immediately come to a complete stop in the same spot on the one hill on our drive route. Time for second gear? Time to stop and roll backwards as an air-cooled engine roars. As much as an understressed 1.1 can roar.

In a world where the alternative was walking, it’s not hard to see the appeal here. Today, though, maybe I just need more time with it to experience the charm. And a few days of moving the seat and re-bending the pedal arms. Maybe I just need to lose a few pounds and a few inches of height.

Next up was a very early prototype for the ID. Buzz. Only they called it a 21-window and it wasn’t electric. This one, it’s easy to see the appeal. Like the old bug, I could stare at this shape, and creamsicle paint, all day long. But since my diet is more flour power than flower power, I can’t fit between the seat and the near-flat steering wheel. My head is also into the headliner. Sliding in and out of the hip-height seat is a breeze, though. Once again it’s stunning just how much cars have changed in half a century. Of course, look at cars 50 years before this one was made, and they aren’t even really cars.

The bus is slow, and it’s cramped, but you still feel more connected to it than any of the modern vehicles. That’s missing the point of this thing, though. The reason why the bus is so valuable today is the feeling you get just from looking at it. It’s impossible not to smile, and while I have little to no personal connection with the 1960s, I can’t help but think this is one groovy ride, man.

Getting into a 1979 Super Beetle convertible, the last year of the original Beetle to be sold in the US isn’t the time warp I had expected. The seat’s more comfortable, but the pedals are still in the same place as the original. Which means that it’s cramped. Syncros in the gearbox and double the horsepower makes it a whole lot more fun, though, and this convertible seems perfectly at home here in southern California. Top’s down, surf’s up, the buzz of the air-cooled flat-four in my ear, and this is the first of the bunch I could see my putting in my own driveway. Sorry, original GTI. Jumping from this into the New Beetle Turbo convertible is like being transported through time. It’s massive, it weighs what feels like five times as much, and it has four times the horsepower. Plus it’s an automatic. Sorry, old Beetle, it pains me to say this, but I’ll take the New.

The one we’re really here for, though, I suppose, is the 1977 Passat. Sold as the Dasher here, this is the one that started the Passat line, though it’s really an Audi 80 and it’s clearly Audi when you look at it.

This one actually feels like a modern vehicle, just scaled down. There’s enough interior room, the gearbox works well despite the tiny shifter, the clutch is normal, and with just under 80 hp it’s quicker than some modern econoboxes. Give me a new stereo with a cable for Spotify and I could drive this one to work every day. Plus since it’s watercooled, I won’t have to worry about staying warm when it gets chilly out.

Is there a link between the two, letting you know that yes, Passat new and old are the same family? Not really. There’s just that feeling that these are something different from your average family sedan. Especially if you remember that the average family sedan of 1977 was the Chevrolet Impala, a vehicle that absolutely dwarfs this car, and that the average family sedan today is an F-150. It’s definitely a neat feeling to drive a brand’s history, and see what made Volkswagen what they are today, but after just a few hours of classics, I’m hot and exhausted, both physically and mentally, as well as from the pungent exhaust fumes from these old carbed cars. I’ll take the modern cars, please.