boxer engine

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Warning to VW Engineering (Air Cooled)

To this day I am simply amazed at how many people I hear saying how remarkably simple and easy a Volkswagen is to work on. I don’t want to say it’s not true, but I have suspicions. Give me the courtesy to let me explain because I have worked on a few beetles repeatedly.

I absolutely love the concept of the beetle and its uniquely German engine. This being said I absolutely hate the learning curve and specialty tools that come along with these geniuses’ so-called perfectionist designs. Let’s get something straight, at one time having an air cooled car was an advantage as radiators were inefficient and unreliable. Those days are long gone and if you insist on going air cooled, welcome to some of its peculiarities.

There are huge gains to this being the core of the design while also having some trade offs. A conventional American V8 weighs about what, 500 lbs? Well this flat four at 1600cc weighs about 250 lbs. No engine lifts are needed. Take out four bolts, lift the car, and BAM your engine is sitting right in front of you. It’s extremely easy for reinstallation and can usually be carried by 2 people. Though, let’s just say it wasn’t all that uncommon for your VW boxer to be stolen in some third world countries.

Being air cooled requires less plumbing and less hardware. Clean and simple is always a good recipe for engine designs. That just means there are less parts to go wrong. Some even consider the engine to not even have a true head and block design. It’s really just a crankcase with the four cylinders sticking out of its finned sides. 

Engine placement is also key, and most know that true beetles had their engines in the rear like Porsches and Corvairs. I’m looking at you “New Beetle”! Having the engine in the rear can provide better grip for the rear tires and oversteer while cornering, but it can also be tricky at the limit as all 911 owners are well aware of. Its rear position eliminates the need for a separate transmission, driveshaft, and differential package. Whether you get a swing axle or IRS, we instead get a transaxle that further saves weight and complexity.

The bug is very light rounding out about 1700 lbs, but their are limits to its air cooled efficiency. They’re not very powerful engines and some say the smaller single port variety are torquier than its bigger bore brethren. It can be a nimble cruiser or a shredding go kart depending on your build.

The exhaust and “dirty air” heater system are extremely simple to install, and I have no complaints about them. The majority of the engine is nicely bare when kept stock but a nightmare to work on when stuffed with modifications. Look at the pictures of the single carburetor engine versus the dual carburetor engine bay. It’s tricky just to reach the rear spark plugs with the single carburetor. Good luck getting to them when you convert to a dual carburetor setup!

I could keep going for hours, but I think you get the picture. There are huge advantages while also tackling trade offs. Is it worth all the trouble, yes and no. You should realize before getting into building one that every aftermarket part that you could possibly think of is available but at a price. I’m talking financially but also motivationally. Only you know if you have the patience for all its peculiarities because afterall, it always was and always will be a niche vehicle. Ultimately it’s a love/ hate relationship with VWs and me, but I promise not to give up.

- Jon Tong

P.S. I have a recent Volkswagen alternator conversion to bitch about too!

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Ferrari 365 GT4 BB, 1971. Designed by Leonardo Fioravanti at Pininfarina, the “Berlinetta Boxer” was first shown at the 1971 Turin motor show though it did not go on sale until 1973. It was Ferrari’s first 12 cylinder mid-engined road car as Enzo Ferrari had felt that a such a configuration would be too difficult for his buyers to handle. Only 387 of the original 4.4 litre flat 12 BBs were produced making it the rarest of all Berlinetta Boxers