The air-cooled engine

It’s the very heart of everything we love. We’re talking about the air-cooled, flat-four engine, produced in its millions between 1936 and 2006. It’s been behind – literally – all the Volkswagens that matter most dearly to us, and its simplicity and rugged nature have made it a mechanical legend far outside VW circles. Critics may sneer at its lack of refinement and power, and say it sounds like a bag of nails, but few other engines of its era had such inherent reliability and cruising ability. It just did its job, and got you there.

We’re all pretty familiar with Volkswagen’s air-cooled engine in our own vehicles, no doubt having got our hands dirty on one countless times. However, it’s also ended up in a number of other places, some of which you might not expect… It was Porsche design office engineer, Franz Xaver Reimspiess, who designed the engine during the 1930s. His cheap, basic yet robust motor had a capacity of 984cc and put out just over 24bhp. Over the years, it grew to 1584cc (or 1970cc if you include the Type 2 and Type 4 variants) and a lot more horses were unleashed. Yet it remained true to its original spirit of being sturdy and simple. From 1950 to 1991, Volkswagen made the engine available for industrial and other commercial uses, too. Not that this was the first time it had found itself elsewhere. During the war, it was used to power a rear propeller on a motor glider, and Ferdinand Porsche also stuck it in his Type 175 Radschlepper Ost, or four-wheel-drive military tractor. But not for the main power, they had a 6.0-litre air-cooled engine for that. They needed Beetle engines, split in half, as starter motors, just to get them going. But once Volkswagen started selling the engine separately, the floodgates really opened. It found its way into other manufacturers’ cars and also bikes, trikes and dragsters.

One British daredevil, Alan Jones, enlarged one to 2.2 litres, then supercharged it, installed it in a motorbike and, running methanol through it, managed to travel at 178mph by the end of Santa Pod’s quarter mile. That takes guts! Somewhat more pedestrian were Swedish-built ‘Snow Trac’ caterpillar vehicles, trolley buses – with VW engines so they could operate without electrical power from overhead wires – snow ploughs and even combine harvesters. The Thredbo ski resort in Australia used Beetle engines to power its ski-lifts, and elsewhere ‘down under’ also found a use for them in remote opal mines, serving as air compressors to run jack hammers and other equipment. Water-cooled engines just wouldn’t have withstood the hot, arid conditions. There were boats and hovercrafts as well.

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