How An Obscure Regulation Led To One Of The Most Ridiculous Details On Air-Cooled Volkswagens

How An Obscure Regulation Led To One Of The Most Ridiculous Details On Air-Cooled Volkswagens

As you know, I’m a man who really loves details. Weird details. Obscure details. Insignificant to any rational human sort of details. And there’s a detail that is definitely insignificant, obscure, and weird and likely bafflingly uninteresting to most well-adjusted humans on just about all air-cooled Volkswagens (except Type 2 buses and trucks) from 1973 on that I’d like to tell you about, if you’ll indulge me. Well, even if you won’t, I’m going to do it anyway, so, you know, hang on.

The detail I’m talking about is one that maybe, just maybe you’ve noticed if you’ve spent a good amount of time in a 1973 and up air-cooled VW, but I bet even if you saw it, you may not have known what it was actually for, or at least guessed wrong.

On my 1973 Beetle, it lives under the dash and looks like this:

Photo: Jason Torchinsky

It’s a little light. A little, dim light bulb mounted in a little swivel that you can move around with your finger. On Super Beetles, which, as of 1973, had curved windshields and dashboards that almost looked like the kind you got in real cars, it was mounted here:

Photo: Mecum Auction

It also shows up on Karmann Ghias and even VW’s high-end Type 4 cars:

Image: Volkswagen

I suspect that most people who even notice these — a much easier job on the Super Beetle — think that these must be some kind of map light. A really small, really dim map light, one that almost borders on useless. But, there it is, and it turns on with the dashboard lights, and they wouldn’t have put it in there unless it was supposed to do something, right?

That’s right. It’s there for a reason, but that reason has nothing to do with reading maps. That reason has to do with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s Motor Vehicle Standards Section 571.101 Standard number 101; Controls and Displays regulation, specifically S5.3.1, the part about illumination.

Those of you who carefully looked at those pages from the Ghia and Type 4 owners’ manuals already know where I’m headed, as the little light is labelled as a “heater lever spot light.”

I’m not going to subject you to the specific, tedious wording of this regulation, but for our purposes here’s what you need to know: the regulation stipulates that all cars must have illuminated controls, and among the controls listed that require illumination are controls for a windshield defogger/defroster.

All air-cooled VWs at this point had their heater and defroster controls mounted on the centre tunnel, between the seats, flanking the parking brake. VW Buses had them dash-mounted, since I suppose VW figured the reach-down distance would be too great on the taller bus. Porsche 356s and early 911s had their heater controls in a similar location, if that helps you not judge the decision too harshly.

Before 1973, these control levers for heat and defrost were unlabeled, with just little balls on the ends. The 1973 regulation stipulated that they be labelled, which is why they had knobs like this from that point on, in America, at least:

Image: Volkswagen/Jason Torchinsky

In actual use, you never looked at these things. You just learned that the one by the passenger seat controlled the volume of hot air (euphemistically referred to as TEMP, but you’re really just opening a flap to adjust how much hot air gets in, not controlling the temperature) and the one by the drivers seat diverted heat to either the floor outlets (front and rear!) or to the windshield. It was easy!

They’re just really simple levers with plastic caps on them. There’s no wiring there or anything fancy like that, but the new NHTSA regulations do specify that the defroster control must be labelled and illuminated. So what’s VW going to do?

Now, if you think VW would re-engineer the heater controls to include integrated light bulbs in the levers or lavishly move the controls to the dashboard, like in some kind of Rolls-Royce, then clearly you don’t know 1970s-era Volkswagen.

No, VW looked at the absolute basic letter of the law and figured out the cheapest, easiest, and still somehow weirdest solution to the problem of illuminating the heater controls: they made a funny little spotlight.

Yes, that little light is a spotlight designed to let you see where your heater and defroster controls are, if you’re willing to completely take your eyes off the road and look down past your shoulder, between the seats.

And, the light does work, sorta. I mean, it’s really dim, and I’ve only ever noticed those levers glowing eerily when I’ve been driving the Beetle on some really pitch-black back roads, but I have seen this thing actually work. Barely.

I suppose nowadays you could replace the little bulb with a superbright LED and have dramatically lit heater controls that look like they’re part of a dramatic scene in a noir movie, but the truth is that it really doesn’t matter. It never mattered.

Air-cooled VW heater controls are really super-easy to use once you know how they work, and you never have to look at them. You just drop your hand down, pull one of the levers up or down, decide if your foot is going to burn off or your face is going to freeze off, and that’s it.

The defroster in my Beetle has always been more like the idea of a defroster, clearing out a pair of arcs of glass at either bottom corner and a fleur-de-lis-shaped blob in the centre that you could look through to drive, if you really, really wanted to. Most Beetle owners, myself included, just kept a rag handy to wipe away fog.

This little heater spotlight, though, I just love it. I love that it only exists because VW had to put it in to meet U.S. requirements, and I love the feeling of regulatory contempt that the weird, minimal-effort solution embodies.

Image: Volkswagen

It was so half-arse that even after engineering it and making the necessary parts in quantity, it’s not present in any VWs that weren’t for the U.S. market, as you can see in that German owner’s manual page above there. If it actually was useful you’d think they’d just go ahead and at least make it an option all over, but, no, because they knew it was the absolute least they could do.

Now I’m thinking maybe I do want to replace the bulb with an LED? Maybe dramatically stage-lit heater controls are just what I’ve been missing?

Anyway, there you go. Now you know something nice and useless!