What we have here is a 1949 Volkswagen Type 14A Hebmueller cabriolet, one of the 696 examples that were built between 1949 and early 1952, when Hebmueller went into bankruptcy. The Heb is a little bit of a time machine of the 1930s, right down to the semaphore-style turn signals in the front quarter panels.
Indeed, our enthusiast of Beetle style felt transported to a time when she might have taken a snapshot of the car with her own Kodak Brownie camera. (Look, is that a Junkers Ju52 trimotor overhead?) The long arc of the rear engine cover shows us that Karosserie Hebmueller went to some expense to create a true special-bodied car instead of a quick and dirty chop-top.
This particular car came into Volkswagen’s hands recently after sitting in a Florida museum for thirty years, and it shows evidence of a restoration during the 1970s. Then as now, it is very small: the VW Type 1 sedan (a.k.a. the Beetle) from which the Heb is derived measures 160.2 inches overall on a wheelbase of 94.5 inches. With its reinforced platform, the Heb convertible probably weighs more than the Type 1’s 1600 pounds.
This smallness is the essence of the Beetle’s charm because everything is perfectly scaled to the human form. You sit comfortably upright in the fresh air, holding the slim rim of the steering wheel with your fingers. The pedals are hinged at the bottom, which was customary then but seems like an ergonomic nightmare now. (Especially, our style enthusiast reports, if you’re wearing high-fashion shoes.)
The upright windshield and the proximity of the steering wheel to the dashboard remind you of a Porsche, which should be no surprise since the Porsche 356 was built on a Beetle platform, and these design cues endure even today in the 991 version of the Porsche 911.
The Beetle engine seems impossibly exotic for its time, an air-cooled, 1131-cc flat four with a magnesium crankcase, cast-iron cylinder liners, and cast-aluminum pistons and cylinder heads, not to mention a dedicated oil cooler. The little engine would fire up readily even in snowy February since there was no risk of frozen coolant. Of course, it makes only 30 hp SAE gross (25 hp by German DIN measurements), but you have to remember that the European gasoline of the time had a very low rating, perhaps 60 octane, and you can’t expect much power from a compression ratio of 5.8:1.
The Heb’s Type 1 engine is free-revving in the way that modern VW engines still are, even the 2013 Beetle TDI convertible’s 140-hp turbocharged diesel. All the horses check in by 3300 rpm, but you rarely rev much past the torque peak of 49 lb-ft at 2000 rpm. The distinctive whir from the engine reminds you of a windup Schuco toy car spinning up to speed. Of the four nonsynchromesh gears, the Heb loves third gear best, just like the modern diesel Beetle convertible. While 60 mph is possible, the old car is happiest between 35 mph and 50 mph. (Eliminating worries about cockpit air turbulence and reducing the need for the obligatory postdrive brushing of hair, our style enthusiast notes.)
The recirculating-ball steering isn’t very precise, but then again the rough-riding 5.20 x 16-inch bias-ply tires aren’t capable of much. Plan ahead when it comes time to stop, because the cable-action four-wheel drum brakes will remind you of dragging your old Chucks on the ground when you were riding that 1969 Marx Big Wheel.
By Michael Jordan
Photos by Andrew Yeadon