Old VW Beetle fit for long trip?

My sister is being given an antique VW Beetle. I’m not sure what year it was manufactured, but it’s old enough to have antique license plates. In July, we are considering driving it from East Tennessee to her home in San Felipe, Mexico (Baja California), a distance of about 1,800 miles. The car has 70,000 miles on it and has been checked over by a trusted mechanic who says it’s in tip-top shape. It has seat belts, but no other added equipment. We don’t mind the lack of AC and would avoid Interstate Highways, traveling only 2- or 3-hundred miles a day. Is this a great idea, or a recipe for disaster?

It could be the recipe for an adventure. Let’s look at it in real possibilites.
1 The car makes it no problem
2 the car makes it part way and you end up with a repair or 2
3 you tow it.
Do you feel lucky? what is the cost of not driving it? weighs your chances and takes your choices. If I had an extra week to cover any possible problems I would drive it.

Thanks a bunch! We don’t care if it takes us a week or a month to make the trip, so I’m thinking the adventure outweighs the risk factor.

  1. No A/C.
  2. No airbags
  3. No ABS, ESP, etc.
  4. No Power steering, brakes or window.

Why do you want to do this?


Back about 1970, I had a fellow graduate student whose car was totaled, and answered an add for a passenger to share driving expenses from our midwestern university to California. There were 3 people. My friend said that for the first 100 miles it didn’t think he could stand the trip. He said he then became so numb that he got used to the noise and heat and managed to endure the trip. He did find alternative transportation back.

On the other hand, my parents had some friends who drove with their elemntary aged daughter and mother-in-law from a small town in Illinois to Reno, Nevada in a 1956 VW (this was in 1959) and thought the trip out and back was wonderful. In fact, the mother-in-law thought it was the most comfortable auto trip she had ever taken.

The car itself may make it and as luck would have it, there are many Mexican mechanics who can fix those old machines, but with perhaps slightly different parts. I would carry a spare fan belt and a few other easy to carry items (oil filter) just to be sure.

The difficulty I see is with “traveling on secondary roads” in Mexico. The US state department woud take a very dim view of that. You are setting yourself up to be robbed or worse. Even if your sister has diplomatic immunity, and speaks fluent Spanish, I would only travel on major highways (in the slow lane)and rely on the “Green Angels”, the Mexican Highway Patrol and Assistance) to help me with a breakdown.

In the US you can rely on AAA on nearly all roads.

If you doubt what I am saying, get the AAA Mexican Travel Guide book and read for yourself.

Mexico today is in turnmoil in many border areas, so you will want to get through these as soon as possible. Avoid Tiajuana if you can.

Two reasons: 1) Despite no A/C, ABS, ESP, power steering, power brakes, power windows, etc., we think it would be fun. 2) We’re idiots.

Many thanks for your excellent suggestions. Our plan is to cross the border at Mexicali, then stick to the main road from there to San Felipe.

A few of us are so old here we made trips without airbags, air conditioning etc. etc. and survived, that included one lane highways with grass in the middle. It was sure better than a covered wagon, why is it if you don’t have AC and airbags you see imminent death?

I Totally Wore Out Two Volkswagen Beetles, A 64 And A 71 That I Bought Brand New For $2350 Including Sun Roof. I have Logged Probably A Quarter Million Miles In Them.

I’ve worked at Volkswagen dealers a few times in my past history. I still remember many part numbers of parts on these old “antique” cars.

Several of us would drive different vehicles out west every winter to ski. We usually drove 1300 miles straight through to Denver and then from there we went to Vail, Aspen, Arapahoe, Steamboat, Pergatory, etcetera.

I’ve made the trip in Ford Econoline vans, a blue Pontiac GTO Convertible, a Chevrolet Impala, etcetera, all from the 71 Beetle era. Usually 3 or 4 of us made the trip together.

One year there were only two of us and we took my 71 Beetle. My friend is almost 6’ 4" and we took a little luggage and had a rack on the back to hold the skis. We both agreed that of all the different vehicles we had made the trip in, the Beetle was the most comfortable, due to the fact that with nobody in the back, the seats go back quite far, you’re sitting high, and the seats recline.

We had no problems with the car during the trip and got about 30 MPG out of the little 10 gallon tank. If your sister’s car really is in good shape then the trip should be a piece of cake.

There’s no air conditioning, but Old Beetle drivers know that the vent wings (little triangular windows on the doors ahead of the large roll-up door window) can be opened all the way so they’re backwards and they will blast outside air on the front occupants, and although sometimes it’s hot air, at least it’s moving.

Keep in mind that the old Beetles called for oil changes at 3,000 mile intervals and valve adjustments at 6,000 mile intervals. You should carry oil strainer (there is no oil filter) gaskets (2 per change) and valve cover gaskets (2 per adjustment) and find facilities familiar with Bug maintenance. The engine should have time to get quite cool before a valve adjustment.

Have fun. I wish I was going for a nostalgia ride.


There Is No Oil Filter. There Is A Cleanable Screen.


Thanks CSA.

Added: You must be referring to US models; the oil company I consulted to in South America had 800 Beetles in their fleet and they all had oil filters which were changed every 1500 kilometers. Latin America is a lot dustier, and Mexican VWs may also have oil filters.

The US record for driving a Beetle was likely established by a social worker in Alabama in the 60s-70s. She compiled nearly one million miles on one and wore out 3 engines. Her area was rural, and small towns.

I think she was featured in a VW ad.

Thanks, CSA, especially for the tips on oil strainer and valve cover gaskets. I fondly remember the vent wings on our family car when I was a kid in the '50s.

I’d say go for it, but there are a few minor things that should be headed off to prevent a possible major problem.

Replace the fuel lines. Easy, cheap, and many a VW has burnt to the ground because of not doing this.

New generator belt and properly adjusted. The belt operates the engine cooling fan and a broken belt can roast an engine.

Keep a close eye on oil consumption because oil leaks are a way of life with aged air cooled VWs.

Inspect the valve lash and pay special attention for any what you might call “disturbingly tight” exhaust valves. This could point to “valve stem stretch”. A stem will only stretch so far before the head of the valve pops off and when this happens there will be a catastrophic bang followed by the need for a new engine.

On a lighter note, these cars are about as simple as it gets when it comes to maintenance and repairs.

Many thanks, ok4450.

I can’t say much about the Beetle, but everyone else seems to have covered that. What I can say is I have driven from Upstate NY to Phoenix AZ several times, and I love it more everytime I go. There is something about the open road and adventure. And since you guys seem to have all the time in the world, you should really make the best of the trip and stop and see the sites. Hope all goes well for you two; enjoy the ride!!

If this car is a 40 Horse then try to avoid the hills, although I know east TN through eastern OK has their share. Anemic is the word that comes to mind. I’ve owned half a dozen air cools and one of my favorites was a '61 model with a 40 Horse engine.

Reliable car, lot of fun to drive, 41 MPG flat on the floor, and other than no gas gauge (never came with one), the one big detriment was hill climbing and strong headwinds. Just don’t expect to go barrelling over the top at the speed you were traveling on the flat.

If the car is a 67 or newer then it will be noticeably better at least but what the heck. I’d take a slow scenic trip on the backroads (still do most of the time) any day of the week over the Interstate system, which is a boring curse on civilization in my opinion.

Good luck and do let us know how it turns out. I would suggest two accessories. First is a book called How to Keep you VW Alive. I can’t recall the author, but you will enjoy just reading it and it will help you out if you do have any mechanical problems. Second is a cell phone incase there is a problem.

I would really miss the A/C, but other than that, it would be a fun trip.

This Sounds Like You’ll Have A Very Dry Trip, But Remember, You’ll Have Drum Brakes On All 4 Wheels. Do You Remember What Happens To Them When You Go Through Standing Water ?

Should you go through any standing water puddles just remember to pump the brakes a few times to make sure they work and / or to dry them out before you need to use them to stop.