WHICH OFFERS THE MOST SUMMER FUN?
We’ve already touched on these cars’ timeless looks, but it’s not until you park them side by side that you appreciate just how similar they really are – both have headlamps set in to bulbous front wings, spindly bumpers with overriders, quarterlights in the front windows, shiny hubcaps set on steel wheels and protruding rear wings. The fact that the cars in our photos are two-doors only serves to emphasise their inherent likenesses.
The biggest difference between the two is, of course, the presence of a front grille on the Minor, which immediately tells you which of these cars is front-engined and which is rear-engined. Although both are quite basic, the Beetle somehow doesn’t appear quite as austere, perhaps because of its jollier paint and additional chrome around its windows and rear screen.
It’s easy to appreciate why the Minor was so popular with driving schools in period – a learner couldn’t hope for a more user-friendly machine in which to hone the art of driving. Much of this is down to the Minor’s rack-and-pinion steering, which is both light and precise – something you can rarely say about small cars of the 1950s and ‘60s. The steering wheel itself is nicely angled and even small inputs inspire a reaction at the road wheels, a lack of slop further aiding a sense of complete control.
The Minor’s four-speed ‘box changes gear smoothly and precisely, and while first is sometimes difficult to engage when stationary, releasing the clutch and trying again finds the gear easily. The driving position is such that the driver has to lean forward to shift from second to third gear, but these are minor grumbles. In all other respects changing gear in a Minor is extremely straightforward.
The suspension is quite stiff on both cars, which certainly aids stability, but the Minor is positively supple compared to the noticeably firmer, allindependently-sprung Beetle, and as such you do tend to feel slightly more roll in the corners and bounce over rough surfaces. Each has extremely comfortable seats, however, which do a lot to dampen out the road vibrations that their respective suspension set-ups don’t.
Handling on both cars is neutral. Oversteer is said to be a problem for the Beetle, particularly in the wet, while the Minor can suffer from understeer and occasional axle tramp if you come back on the power too quickly following a bend. But play sensibly at real-world speeds and there’s no sense of either stepping out of line.
It’s surprising to discover that you can use the full rev range to get the most out of the Minor’s modest performance; the A-series engine remains smooth – if quite noisy – even at higher revs, especially compared to the Beetle. There’s no rev counter, so you have to tune into the engine note, which results in initially overly-sympathetic short-shifting. Keep going, though, and you soon discover that the A-series is just as flexible at low engine speeds as it is at higher revs; it’s sufficiently geared for both genteel around-town driving and pressing on to keep up with modern traffic.
The initial impression when moving from the Minor to the Beetle is that the German product boasts greater heft; it’s chunkier and feels better nailed together, with absolutely no rattles or clonks. If that’s to be considered a positive, then sadly the driving position is not. The less angled, more upright position of the steering wheel is doubtless a result of there being less space for front seat occupants. Nonetheless, both cars feel airy inside thanks to their large front and rear screens and thin pillars, all of which greatly aid visibility. The Beetle’s pedal arrangement polarizes opinion, though, comprising a rail on the floor from which the pedals sprout. They’re nicely spaced but feel high and badly angled – it’s particularly problematic with the heavy clutch.
Where the Minor’s A-series engine doesn’t feel overly stressed, thrumming along roads at 45mph,
‘Neither really seemed to change much during their long production runs’
the Beetle’s flat-four is truly under-stressed. Unlike the Minor, there is nothing to be gained from exploring the top of the Beetle’s rev range; doing so gives the impression of acceleration tailing off and the car being desperate for the next ratio. This is especially true of first and second gears, which seem to have been designed specifically for low bursts of acceleration. Lots of gearchanges and relaxed revs is the approach most appreciated by the little Volkswagen.
Like the Minor, the Beetle feels extremely stable on the road and its steering is just as praise-worthy, providing plenty of road feel through the steering wheel. It might be as a result of the engine being behind the driver, but the turn-in feels far sharper on the Beetle, though it’s woeful in comparison to the Minor in terms of parking manoeuvres; the Minor has a much smaller turning circle.
The dual-circuit brakes on the Beetle are a lot fiercer than those on the Minor, so much so that you have to be deliberately much measured in how you apply force to the pedal.
The Beetle’s buzzy-but-not-busy air-cooled flatfour ‘wuffle’ is, of course, at the heart of its appeal. That’s not to say that the Minor’s evocative gear whine and trademark exhaust parp on the overrun aren’t delightful, but the Beetle’s engine noise is somehow more appealing. The Volkswagen’s more conventionally-positioned single instrument gauge – in front of the driver – is probably more intuitive than BMC’s preferred spot in the centre of the dashboard, too.
As you’ve probably guessed by now, whether or not either of these cars appeals to you is very much down to personal taste and preference. Despite being very different in their specifications, they are very much two sides of the same coin – and you won’t know which side you prefer until you’ve driven them both.
Both cars are quite firmly sprung, but the Minor’s set-up has a little more give than the Beetle’s.
Minor has ample room for four. Gearshift is generally good, though finding first can be tricky and shifting from second to third requires the driver to lean forward.
The Beetle is noticeably more cramped up front than the Minor and its driving position isn’t as comfortable, but placement of the simple gauges is more intuitive.