Motoring: ... but the prototype is still crawling along

If you fancy Beetle style, but not the new price tag, hunt down an original. Just be wary of the year, warns James Ruppert
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BEETLEMANIA. THERE is no other explanation for it. The queues for the all-new Volkswagen Beetle are stretching into the next millennium, both in the UK and worldwide. When it finally arrives in Britain in the new year, it will be expensive and left-hand drive. No wonder potential buyers after some style and fun are starting to take a closer look at the original model.

No other car this century has cultivated such devotion, passion and sales, the latter in excess of 22 million. Surely 22 million buyers can't be wrong? An objective opinion would be that it was slow, cramped, noisy, and had potentially lethal handling. Then again, it was relatively cheap, had simple mechanics and was well built, easy to drive with light controls and an unburstable, air-cooled engine.

Never mind all that: no other car looked so distinctive and lovable, or remained in constant production for more than 50 years. A survivor, style icon and design classic, it doesn't matter what you call it: just say the word Beetle and everyone knows what car you are referring to.

If you've decided that a Beetle is for you, and I would drive one first before making a final decision, be aware that there are millions to choose from, and it pays to be choosy. There are probably more bodged and broken Beetles on sale than any other classic, and the secret is finding a sound, rust-free original, or one properly restored.

Prices have remained stable, which mean high. Good examples are rarely less than pounds 2,000, but expect to pay around pounds 3,000 for a very tidy and usable 1300. Most in demand though, are the Cabriolets which command prices in the region of pounds 7-pounds 9,000, providing they are factory originals and not an owner DIY hacksaw job.

First choose your model; as a rule, the later the better. I'll spare you the very long history lesson except to say that by 1980, when production had moved to Mexico, every one of the Beetle's 5,500 parts had been changed except for the metal channel which contained the boot and bonnet sealing rubbers. So although they look similar, Beetles have changed.

Enthusiasts will hanker after split rear-window models built until 1953, then the oval window models, which stayed in production until 1958. Trouble is, those models, and anything up to 1966, had barely-adequate six volt electrics. There were five different engines used in the Beetle and the larger 1300cc and 1585cc units from the late Sixties and early Seventies are best for keeping up with modern-day traffic.

So leave the really early versions to the purists. Nostalgia isn't what it used to be, and neither are old Beetles. When in doubt, buy from an established specialist, use the guidance of the owner's clubs and get an expert to help you check a potential Beetle out.

In the first instance, though, even the novice can spot whether a Beetle is worth taking seriously. Not surprisingly, rust is the model's biggest enemy. Look everywhere: pull up carpets and look closely around the wheel arches, wings, in the boot and around the suspension. The engines are reliable but prone to oil leaks and overheating. Interiors are generally hard wearing.

The good news with mechanical failures is that parts are relatively cheap and plentiful. Body panels, especially for the later models, are not a problem either. However, a full restoration by an expert is going to cost a lot of money. It is better to buy a a Beetle with sound bodywork but a failing engine, rather than the other way around. Try and look at plenty of Beetles: the more you see, the more familiar you will become with their faults and the differences in condition. I know - I've looked.

Grundy Mack, a classic car dealer in Huddersfield, had a great value convertible, imported from Italy, for just pounds 4,995. A blue 1966 model import at Grange Classics near Banbury was in excellent condition for pounds 2,950. So there are bargains. But I also saw some rubbish from pounds 800 in the local paper.

If looking for an old Beetle is too much trouble, then how about a brand new, old Beetle fresh from the Mexican factory? Beetles UK Ltd supply the latest specification, classic-shape examples with a modern 1.6 litre fuel-injected engine for just pounds 7,995 on the road. Why bother with a modern, pseudo Beetle which is only a rebodied Golf, when you can buy an original in perfect working order at half the cost?

Grange Classics, 01295 712777; Grundy Mack, 01484 450446; Beetles UK Ltd 01454 228999