Old­est in SA: 1949 Volk­swa­gen Bee­tle

The first in a new se­ries to track down a brand’s old­est car in South Africa, we start with this ’49 Volk­swa­gen

Car (South Africa) - - CONTENTS - BY: Wil­helm Lut­je­harms Wil­helm­l_­car­mag PHO­TOS: Duwyne Aspel­ing

THE BACK STORY

For four decades, the car you see on these pages 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 VWSA’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 nuts-and-bolts 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 USA 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.

BE­HIND THE WHEEL

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 rearview 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 changes 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.

03 01 In­stru­ment clus­ter fea­tures only a speedome­ter. 02 Tiny rear lights would be out­lawed to­day. 03 “Semaphore” in­di­ca­tors pop out of the B-pil­lars. 04 Driv­ing po­si­tion sur­pris­ingly com­fort­able thanks to the soft seat­ing. 05 Pe­riod re-up­hol­stered cloth seats. 06 The spare wheel and fuel tank (an orig­i­nal unit is be­ing sourced) sit in the front. 07 Note the dainty sin­gle ex­haust pipe. 08 If you look care­fully, you'll see the hooter be­hind the bumper. 09 1,1-litre is easy to ac­cess and re­pair. 010 Leg­endary split rear win­dows on early Bee­tles.

In­ter­est­ing fact More than 21,5 mil­lion Bee­tles were man­u­fac­tured, with pro­duc­tion com­ing to an end in Mex­ico only in 2003.

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