The History of the Volkswagen Convertible Beetle

(This page chronicles the history of the convertible, includes some pics of Hebmüller and Karmann Convertibles. At the end of the page is a section on the Phases of Development of the VW Beetle Convertible 1949-1980.)

In 1949, two convertible designs were "sanctioned" to build cars by Wolfsburg's Volkswagen. One was a two seater produced by Josef Hebmüller and Son of Wulfrath, (known by some as the Heb) and the other is the better-known four seater Type 15 version, designed and produced for 30 years by Karmann of Osnabrück.

The Heb was also known as the Type 14A and was first introduced in June, 1948. The most noticeable aspect of the car's appearance was that the rear deck looked like the beetle's front hood. Hebmüller replaced the strength of the car that was lost with the soft top by building a stronger windshield frame and placing two Z-section girders under the floor. The Heb showed promise as its design was attractive and functional, but the company's future outlook dimmed when a fire destroyed the factory shortly after it was built. The peak production from the factory was 125 cars in 1950. Two pictures of the more famous Hebs follow.

This version of the Heb is a four seater police car built in the late 40's. Known as the Type 18A, there were two versions of this car that was hand finished by the Hebmüller firm. One style had four steel doors, while most of the 482 of this type made had the canvas "doors." Not having doors provided for easy access, and the auxillary front spotlights added night time visibility, on what was a 6-volt system.

The last Hebmüller Cabriolet was built in February of 1953 and it is thought that only 696 of these cars were ever produced. Here's another example of the Hebmüller Cabriolet's nice lines. It is thought that there are fewer than 100 of these left....

Hebmüller Cabriolet may not have been as successful in spite of the fire due to the introduction of Karmann's four-seater 'vert.. Certainly it was not as stylish, but in those days, practicality was the driving force behind what Volkswagen consumers were buying. As a result, the four seater tended to be the more popular choice of the day.

Karmann had been established coachbuilders since 1901. They had been building simple car bodies for years, and in the 20's moved to steel body construction. By the 30's Karmann was using assembly line production methods and had been producing cabriolets for several European carmakers.

Karmann, like Hebmüller, used a box-like channel piece along the underside of the body to provide necessary structural support for the convertible. In building the convertible top, Karmann used a strong vinyl material for the outside and a softer headliner inside. Between the two was an inch thick padding originally made from rubber and horsehair, and later of foam. In order to allow room for the back seat passengers, the top folded back like a baby carriage's top around the rear body section. Because the louvers that supplied cooling air to the engine were no longer present in the convertible, slots were cut in the decklid. These were vertical until 1957, and then became horizontal for the remainder of production. The cars were more expensive than their sedan cousins, but essentially were hand-made by the Karmann company. They generally were supplied with many features that were optional on the sedans, such as gravel guards, and better radios.

Changes over the years essentially followed the design of the sedan. Modifications in the cabriolet model included a change in the side window frames from polished aluminum to chromed brass in 1954, and, in line with the end of the sedan's oval window, the glass rear window in the convertible was also made larger. All of the convertibles wore a small badge on the front right quarter panel.

karmann badge

In 1961 it changed from a square "Karmann Kabriolett" to a more curved, almost 'boat' shaped "Karmann" version with a six pointed star-like motif above the lettering. Introduction of the 34 hp engine came in the same year (1961) that the turn indicator lights replaced semaphores. The 1300 engine appeared in 1966, followed by the 1500 in 1967 then by the 1600 in 1970. Other changes, such as the changes that came with the super beetles, were no different than the changes in the sedan throughout the years. The introduction of an all steel top frame (wooden bows on a steel frame were used previously) came in 1972 with the Super Beetles. Production of the sedan was discontinued in 1975, and the construction of the cabriolet ceased in 1979. The one thing that remained the same for every convertible throughout production was the running boards.

Ultimately, the car became too expensive to build and sales were not supporting production. By then the rabbit convertible had arrived and after 331,847 Volkswagen Karmann Cabriolets had been built, production ended in January 1980.

Phases of Development of the VW Beetle Convertible 1949 - 1980

1949 - Production starts on June including an 1131cc 25 hp motor; as of October delivered without a starting crank, roller type gas pedal.

1950 - As of January, thickening between headlights and fenders, as of April hydraulic brakes replaced mechanical brakes driven by cables. In June an ashtray was placed over the starter button.

1951 - Vent openings put behind the front fenders in April; Wolfsburg arms on the front hood; telescopic instead of strut shock absorbers, stronger generator. In November, armrests for the rear seats were discontinued.

1952 - In October, 2nd, 3rd, 4th gears were synchonized; front vent windows added. Other features included a new dashboard design, a glove compartment with a door and push button; brake lights were now at the top of the taillight housings; bigger windshield wipers; turn signal lever and starter button was moved to the left of the steering wheel.

1953 - In January, an oil bath air filter. March brought an ashtray with a small handle integral with the dashboard: in December an 1192 cc 30 hp motor, automatic and controllable instrument lighting, combined ignition and starter lock.

1954 - A resin instead of nitro finish, two sun visors, a top boot without a fold in the seat, and new seat upholstery came in May.

1955 - August of that year brought a muffle with two tailpipes; new easier to grip steering wheel with deep spokes; bent gearshift lever; wider front seats; seat backs adjustable to three positions, new leatherette interior upholstery with borders; rear lights mounted 6 cm higher; Karmann Ghia coupe production begins in August.

1956 - As of July, tubeless tires, in September, brass instead of iron top fastening pins were used, in October a side view mirror became standard.

1957 - A steering wheel with a horn ring, turn signals now turn off automatically and flash beginning September. In August the roller pedal was changed to a gas pedal, vent louvers are now horizontal instead of vertical, the windshield grew almost 8 percent, and the rear window by 45 percent and longer wiper blades were added. Karmann Ghia convertible production begins August 1.

1958 - Ivory disc wheels in January. February 15 brought front and rear bumper protectors in the US version.

1959 - Steering wheel with two spokes and a deep hub, door handles with locking knobs, removable rear wall with window, 180 instead of 160 watt generator.

1960 - Beginning in March, cords were added to the hollows of the top seams. In August the 34 hp motor was added, as well as screw on top catches, the speedometer went from 74 to 87 mph, and a windshield wiper - washer system was added. In November, the front directional light changed from white to amber.

1961 - Changes in May brought a combined tail-brake-directional lights in a two section design. July brought a gas guage, and November brought a conical gearshift with a small knob.

1962 - Improved hydraulic brakes, and a bigger fuel line in the cylinder head?

1963 - Horn ring changed to a button; VW hubcab emblem is no longer painted, seats now have synthetic instead of wool upholstery. October brought bigger directional lights on the front fenders.

1964 - Windows got bigger.

1965 - Improved front axle, defroster vent in the center of the dashboard, pierced wheels.

1967 - Vertical headlights, new bumpers, fuel filler cap on the right front sidewall, new door locks with inside locks, dashboard padding, dual - circuit braking system, shorter shift lever, safety steering column. (I think this was European version... weren't these 68 changes on US models? In fact I think most of the changes at this point on were different between Euro and US spec cars.)

1968 - Interior hood release, opening rear window of safety glass, top catches at the sides of the top frame.

1969 - Additional fresh air vents on the hood.

1970 - Larger trunk space; additional fresh air vents on the dashboard; spring front suspension; 1.6 liter 50 hp motor.

1971 - Slightly changed engine hood, now with 26 louvers, safety steering wheel with four spokes, new windshield wiper washer lever on the right side of the steering column.

1972 - Completely new dashboard, strongly arched windshield, big round taillights.

1973 - Beetle convertible only available as Type 1303 LS. (Super Beetle)

1974 - Front directional lights set in the bumper, convertible only available as Type 1303, black exhaust pipes.

1975-79 - No major changes except in color changes.

1980 - Beetle convertible production ends January 10.

Taken from VW BEETLE, by Clive Prew; Smithmark Publishers; 1990
VW BEETLE CONVERTIBLE, by Walter Zeichner, Schiffer Publishing Ltd., 1989