© James Mann/Classic & Sports Car
© Classic & Sports Car
© James Mann/Classic & Sports Car
© Tony Baker/Classic & Sports Car
© Tony Baker/Classic & Sports Car
© Marc Urbano/Classic & Sports Car
© Citroën Communication/DR
A breath of fresh air?
Some of the most influential cars in history have used air-cooled engines.
More sophisticated methods of cooling the engine were developed, but air cooling remained a simple, reliable option for a long time.
So let’s celebrate them! Here are 20 air-cooled classic cars to, er, blow your socks off, listed in chronological order.
1. Volkswagen Beetle (1946)
Conceived prior to the Second World War, the VW Beetle arrived shortly after the conflict ended.
With much help from the British Army, car production started with the air-cooled Beetle powered by a 25bhp 1131cc flat-four engine. With the motor mounted in the rear, VW employed metal shrouds to duct air around the cylinder barrels to keep it cool.
From these humble beginnings, the Beetle went on to sell more than 21 million vehicles. It also gave rise to the T2 Kombi and Camper, Karmann Ghia, Type 3, and countless beach buggies, sand rails and kit cars.
2. Citroën 2CV (1948)
Simplicity was key to the design of the Citroën 2CV, so an air-cooled engine was ideal because it did away with the need for a water-cooling system and radiator.
With the engine up front, unlike its German Beetle rival, the 2CV used a large fan to blow cool air over the cylinder barrels.
The 2CV’s engine started out as a 375cc flat-twin, growing to 425cc in 1954 and then eventually 602cc in all models from 1970.
Citroën also used the air-cooled motor in the Bijou coupé, Ami, Dyane, Méhari and Visa. The last 2CV with this engine was made in 1990.
3. Porsche 356 (1949)
It may have been developed by the same man who made the Volkswagen Beetle and shared its layout with the people’s car, but the Porsche 356 was a very different machine.
The Porsche came with an air-cooled flat-four engine, but only the first 49 cars had the same 1100cc capacity as the Beetle. From there on, Porsche developed the motor for more capacity and power.
The ultimate 356 is the Carrera 2, which has a 1996cc engine with four camshafts and produces 130bhp. In this form, the 356 was good for 125mph.
4. Messerschmitt KR (1953)
One of the most instantly recognisable bubble cars, the Messerschmitt KR range used an air-cooled single-cylinder engine from a scooter.
It started off as a 173cc motor in the KR175, growing to 191cc in the KR200. The KR500 used a twin-cylinder 493cc unit with a heady 20bhp – and it could reach 75mph.
The engines in the smaller-capacity KR models could run in reverse, which gave the cars the same four gears going backwards as forwards. To select reverse, you stopped the engine and restarted it by pressing the key further into the ignition barrel.
5. BMW Isetta (1955)
A far cry from the luxurious cars BMW was making in the 1950s, the Isetta proved to be a prescient move as fuel costs became an issue for buyers in the second half of the decade.
Using an air-cooled engine from a motorcycle, the Isetta was offered in 250 and 300 models, with 245 and 298cc capacities respectively.
To cope with the greater demands of powering a car rather than a motorcycle, BMW added a radial fan to the Isetta’s engines. This made sure there was a constant circulation of cooling air to the motor through purpose-made ducting.
6. Tatra T603 (1955)
Tatra’s T603 looked otherworldly compared to cars from the western side of the Iron Curtain.
There was good reason for this, because the Tatra was powered by an air-cooled V8 mounted at the rear of the car, similar to a Volkswagen Beetle.
The 2.5-litre motor was very light, which helped the handling, and large air intakes were sculpted into the Tatra’s rear wings to provide cold air for the V8.
The engine produced 105bhp, which was enough to take the T603 to 100mph thanks to its aerodynamically efficient styling.
7. Fiat 500 (1957)
The buzzy air-cooled parallel twin engine used in the Fiat 500 is core to this car’s appeal.
Its noise and revvy nature make it feel quicker than it is, though with just 479cc in the early model and 499cc in the later versions, it was no ball of fire. However, the simple motor was tough and easy to work on.
The engine was developed further for the Fiat 126 that arrived in 1975, increasing to 594cc and developing a giddy 23bhp.
8. NSU Sport Prinz Coupé (1958)
Where the Prinz was a functional small car, the Coupé was an elegant fastback styled by Scaglione and built by Bertone.
Underneath that sleek exterior still lay the same 598cc air-cooled twin-cylinder engine as the saloon. With 30bhp to play with, neither model was quick, though the coupé could just nudge 80mph.
If the flat-twin engine in the Coupé seemed unusual to buyers, NSU went even further with its Wankel Spider that used a 497cc rotary engine.
9. Berkeley T60 (1959)
The Berkeley T60 took its name from its speed, which was a faintly frightening 60mph in a car so small.
It had an equally compact engine in the shape of an air-cooled 328cc two-stroke twin from an Excelsior motorcycle. It gave a healthy 50bhp, which was plenty in the 363kg T60.
The later B95 and B105 models were also named after their maximum speeds, which were achieved using the air-cooled 692cc parallel twin engine from a Royal Enfield motorcycle.
10. BMW 700 (1959)
The BMW 700 was a very different machine from the Isetta, even if the two both used rear-mounted, air-cooled motorcycle engines.
For the 700, BMW used its super ‘boxer’ twin with horizontally opposed cylinders. It made 30bhp and could take the 700 to a top speed of 75mph.
At launch, the 700 was offered as a coupé to begin with, followed by a convertible and saloon. In the end, more than 180,000 were sold and formed the solid financial base for BMW to go on and develop its Neue Klasse cars.
11. DAF 600 (1959)
DAF was better known for its trucks until it launched the 600 in 1959. It used a 746cc flat-twin with air-cooling and it was mounted up front to be in a stream of fresh air.
With 32bhp, there was nothing remarkable about the engine, but its continuously variable transmission using V-section rubber belts was very unusual.
This transmission meant the flat-twin engine had to work hard to get the car up to a decent speed, but it then settled back to much lower revs to maintain that pace. It also meant the gearbox had simple Forward and Reverse gears.
12. Panhard PL17 (1959)
Panhard was a company determined to do things its own way and this included using a flat-twin air-cooled engine in its big-selling PL17.
It started out as an 851cc motor, but the capacity was reduced to 848cc in 1960 to conform with French vehicle taxation classes. A Tigre version with a twin-choke carburettor improved power to 60bhp.
Even with the modest power of the flat-twin engine, the aerodynamic shape of the Panhard meant it could return 40mpg and reach 90mph.
13. Chevrolet Corvair (1960)
Chevrolet adopted a radical approach to taking on the tide of sophisticated foreign models being imported into the US, and the Corvair was the result.
It used a rear-mounted 2.3-litre flat-six with air cooling. The engine started with a modest 80bhp, but a turbocharged version offered 150bhp in the Spyder convertible.
Some grumbled about there being no V8, but it was the first-generation Corvair rear suspension that caused the real grief. The swing-axle design could lead to snap oversteer, though this was addressed in the second-generation car.
However, consumer confidence was dented and the Corvair withered on until production ended in 1969.
14. Abarth 595 (1963)
Abarth was already very handy at tuning humble Fiats by the time it introduced the 595 and its derivatives in 1963.
Using the simple Fiat 500, Carlo Abarth’s outfit increased capacity of the air-cooled parallel twin engine to 593cc and eked out 30bhp from this modest capacity.
In a car weighing just 500kg, that sort of power was enough to make it lively and the later 695 offered 40bhp. This made the Abarth a worthy rival to the Mini Cooper.
15. Porsche 911 (1964)
Porsche stayed with air-cooling for its new 901 sports car, which quickly became renamed the 911 as Peugeot already had dibs on the original name.
The cooling system might have been the same, but the engine was a new 2.0-litre flat-six, which is now synonymous with the 911.
Power grew with every new version of the 911, and Porsche also introduced the 912 with the 356’s old four-cylinder as a cheaper alternative.
Although the 912 was less powerful than the 911, less weight over the rear axle made it a better-handling car.
16. Trabant 601 (1964)
Trabant 601s streaming out of the former East Germany is an abiding image of the fall of the Berlin Wall.
They were powered by 595cc two-stroke, air-cooled engines that started life in 1964 with 22bhp. In 1969, the unit was updated and produced 29bhp, which could see the Trabant to a top speed of 65mph.
However, further development of the 601 was deemed unnecessary by the communist government of East Germany, so the 601 remained a wheezy time capsule until the end of its production in 1990.
17. Suzuki Fronte 360 (1967)
Suzuki built its first car in 1954, but the Fronte was a more serious effort in 1967, albeit one made to meet Japan’s stringent kei car rules for size and power.
As a result, the engine was a 356cc two-stroke twin-cylinder design that used air cooling, which was no surprise given the firm’s expertise in motorcycle engines.
What was a surprise was a publicity stunt where Stirling Moss and motorcycle racer Mitsuo Itoh drove a pair of Frontes flat out in Italy between Milan and Napoli. They averaged 76.08mph over the 750km (469-mile) route.
18. Honda 1300 (1969)
Everything about the Honda 1300 suggested it conformed to normal car design practice of the period.
It had an inline four-cylinder petrol engine driving the front wheels through a four-speed manual gearbox.
However, that motor was air-cooled, which used a fan attached to the flywheel to pull cold air over the engine.
Experience with this technology led Honda to develop its air-cooled 3.0-litre V8 for the RA302 Formula One car.
19. Porsche 917 (1969)
Possibly the most exotic air-cooled car ever made, the Porsche 917 is certainly one of the fastest having been timed down the Le Mans Mulsanne Straight at 241mph.
The flat-12 started out with a 4.5-litre capacity and it was formed from a pair of flat-six motors from the 911 model.
Later cars grew to as much as 5.0 litres and developed up to 630bhp. Turbocharged versions for the CanAm series went on to make an astonishing 1100bhp.
The 917’s engine was notable for many things, among them the large fan on top of it that drew hot air away from the motor.
20. Citroën GS (1970)
The GS from Citroën was a bold new car for the arrival of the 1970s, and with it came a new air-cooled flat-four engine.
This design put the weight low in the chassis and the GS handled well, even if there was a fair bit of body roll on its hydropneumatic suspension.
The original 1015cc was replaced in 1973 with a 1.2-litre unit and then a 1.3 for 1979.
The four-cylinder motor only produced 55bhp in its original form, but the GS’s slippery shape allowed it to reach a top speed of 92mph.