Saturday, September 1, 2007

Tourist-delivery 1500S Squarebacks and option M249

The VW Fastback and Squareback were officially introduced to the U.S. market for the 1966 model year, but many VW 1500s found their way into the country before that, most through the gray market or as personal imports. These cars had to be individually modified to U.S. specification by the importer in order to be registered for use in the U.S. The tourist delivery program, however, offered a way for an American consumer to buy a real factory-built U.S.-spec 1500 before the official introduction. This 1965 brochure confirms that a Squareback could be delivered to a U.S. port through the program:

[Images courtesy of The Samba]

Interesting that the name "Squareback Sedan" was already in use well before the Squareback's official U.S. introduction. The main reason for the unusual name was to avoid confusion with both the VW Station Wagon and the Plymouth Valiant (the Squareback was known as Variant in Germany and most of the rest of the world), but it also worked well with VW's advertising of the time, which focused on the unconventional or ironic aspects of VW's products. "From the people that brought you a station wagon that looks like a bus, a sedan that looks like a station wagon."

U.S.-spec tourist-delivery 1500s, most if not all of which were Squarebacks, are similar to Canadian-spec 1964–65 models. They can be identified by the lack of side marker lights on the front fenders, sealed-beam headlights, dual-pole front indicators, and red tail light lenses. (The Canadian cars were usually if not always equipped with a gas heater too.) We used to own this one, a 1965 model:

It was an all original low-mileage car that we bought from the estate of the original owner. It came with all the original paperwork including one of the tourist delivery brochures pictured above.

A relatively little-known feature of these cars was option M249, a detuned version of the 1500S engine that allowed the cars to be run on regular octane gas. Bill Stone's Volkswagen 1600 Guide (Sports Car Press, 1966) explains:

"When VW considered the U.S. market for the big VW, it was faced with a quandary about its engine. Clearly, the 1500N was too gutless for U.S. tastes and traffic. Yet, with the Beetle's hard-won reputation for economy, could U.S. motorists be offered the 1500S engine—an engine that demanded premium gas? It seemed not. The solution to this problem was a clever compromise: a detuned 1500S engine—retaining the dual carburetors, but lowering compression to a point where the car would run on regular gas. Only 3 horsepower were lost in the detuning process."

These engines substituted the 1500N flat-top pistons for the 1500S's high-compression dome-tops, effectively lowering the compression from 8.5:1 to 7.8:1 and allowing the use of regular gas. They looked outwardly identical to the standard 1500S engines except for a metal plate attached to the crankcase breather stand and a letter "N" stamped on the case.

To avoid confusion, the standard high-compression 1500S engine cases were stamped "R" in 1964 and 1965, as this chart from the VW Workshop Manual shows (the highlighting is mine):

[go here for more information about M249 that has recently come to light]

But unfortunately there is a lot of confusion surrounding these engines, partly because VW's documentation of their existence was vague. For some reason VW decided to repurpose M249 as the option code for the automatic transmission in 1968, and later versions of the VW Type 3 Parts List deleted most of the information about the lower-compression 1500S. I would be interested to know how many U.S.-spec tourist-delivery Squarebacks were produced in 1964–65. I would guess a few thousand at the most, but maybe as few as several hundred. At this point there are very few original un-rebuilt examples still on the road.


Aaron Britcher said...

Good research. I am the owner of an Australian delivered 9/9/64 1500 'S' 312 in Velvet Green. One of the options on this car was the M249 engine. I only just rebuilt that original engine less than 1000 miles ago. The engine still wears it's M249 tag. I ran into the same issue as you did with VW- M249 is automatic on later versions. I ended up convincing the VW man in Wolfsburg that they had used the M option earlier for the car's 'birth circificate'.

Scott said...

Interesting. Was M249 common in German-built 1500S cars bound for Australia? In the U.S. M249 was deemed necessary primarily for marketing reasons, since you could buy premium fuel anywhere. Was high octane fuel not always easy to find in Aus back then?

Suzanne said...

We just got one of these 1966 versions. It was fun to read the information that you had on it. What a joy they are!!!