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Museum Musings: Best in snow—the Volkswagen Beetle

Fifty years ago, one car dominated the snow (and in Whistler): the Volkswagen Beetle.
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George Benjamin’s Volkswagen Beetle on Alta Lake.

Snow tire season is upon us! Even through snowy and icy conditions, you will see all types of vehicles tackling the Sea to Sky Highway today. Fifty years ago, however, one car dominated the snow, and that was the Volkswagen Beetle.

In the 1960s, Volkswagen touted the VW Beetle as the best car for driving in the snow, and North America listened. In one famous commercial, a Beetle is seen driving through snowy conditions. The narrator asks, “Have you ever wondered how the man who drives the snowplow, drives to the snowplow? This one drives a Volkswagen, so you can stop wondering.”

At this time, most American-made cars were rear-wheel drive and had their heavy engines at the front, resulting in little weight over the drive wheels and thus less traction. Despite also being rear-wheel drive, the Beetle did better in the snow because the engine was also in the rear, giving the drive wheels more traction for slippery conditions. Somewhat surprisingly, the narrow wheels also seemed to help, because the Beetle cut through the snow rather than riding on top.

In 1965, Cliff Jennings bought his 1957 Beetle before heading out west to Alta Lake. It was not a straightforward journey. “When I arrived in Vancouver, nobody had heard about this new area, so I just headed blindly north,” Jennings recalled.

“Two hours later, in Squamish, I got directions and headed up a steep gravel road, arriving eventually at a dead end with a trailhead sign posted to Diamond Head. Back in Brackendale, I hung a right and headed blindly north again on what would now be called a four-by-four road. The first sign of civilization was Garibaldi and Daisy Lake Dam, which the road proceeded over onto a detour around Shadow Lake through huge puddles that nearly drowned my Beetle. Finally, five hours after leaving Vancouver, I arrived at a big slash clearing and a swampy parking lot in pouring rain.” Cliff had made it to the ski resort!

Jim Moodie arrived in Whistler a few months later, once the lifts had opened, also driving up in his Volkswagen Beetle. “People remark about the road being bad nowadays, but the road then, a lot of it was gravel, and so it was a frightening experience if we were smart enough to think about it, but we mostly didn’t,” he said. “I can remember one day driving up and the car simply stopped moving forward. At least that’s what we thought had happened. When we got out to see what was happening, the Volkswagen Beetle was just plowing up a great big snowdrift in front of it so we couldn’t go anymore.” Good in the snow, but not quite a snowplow.

The imagery of the Volkswagen Beetle was so connected to mountain towns that Whistler Mountain’s 20th anniversary poster featured a red Volkswagen Beetle driving off into the sunset. In the iconic Whistler poster, the car is covered in stickers with skis jammed into the bumper. With many people sharing similar memories, it is no wonder the photographs of Volkswagen Beetles in the snow are popular prints at the Whistler Museum. You can see some of the Whistler Museum image collection here.

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