This is the stuff of legend to me. I’ve seen videos and heard the stories. There are pictures in my head and unusually for me some small expectation of what I’m about to see. I wouldn’t normally build a mental picture ahead of the day, preferring to rely on reality when I arrive. But today, here in Switzerland, I get to spend time with something and somebody I’ve wanted to meet for six years. Fred Bernhard and his ‘Race-Taxi’. A Porsche 993 Bi-Turbo powered VW T1.
Except of course it’s really not that simple. Well actually it is – sort of.
Already I’m stumbling, bouncing back and forth between much overused words like ‘epic’ and ‘awesome’, trying to harness my enthusiasm for fear of ticking all those journalistic boxes that mark you out as a tired cliché. It’s what the Race-Taxi is though and I can’t deny it. This thing is awesome.
I first saw this video in around 2007 when it was doing the rounds on social media. I can remember thinking that it was a vehicle I needed to track down. I wasn’t thinking about who will print or publish the story – I just needed to know more about the one-of-a-kind creation. Maybe you saw it too? I know a lot of it comes down to the driver, but seriously, when was the last time you ever saw a VW bus overtake a GT3 and an Aston at Spa? Or any race track for that matter? Amusingly, when I refer to the video he tells me that was one of the first times he’d driven the bus and it wasn’t boosting properly, no thanks to a piping problem.
Having raced bikes at a high level for 20 years, Fred knows his way around the racetracks of Europe. He’s also a talented paint and body work man with a penchant for Porsche products. So as much as you can look at a spec list or a pile of parts, what I really wanted to know is how Race-Taxi came about.
First up I should probably show you Fred’s answer to the question: so why a Porsche motor? This is his genuine 964 RS and it too has seen most of Europe’s major circuits and was fully rebuilt a number of years ago. It doesn’t get out much anymore thanks to the Race-Taxi, but it does explain why Fred is such a fan of the flat-six, rear-engined format. The lineage between this and the bus – albeit tenuous – is kind of cool too.
Of course, the original plan was far simpler than the result you see here: a Porsche-powered VW T3 Bus – aka Vanagon to you guys stateside or the more boxy late ’70s to early ’90s shape. The other appealing thing was that a number of conversion parts existed to swap a flat-six motor in to a T3, trouble is Fred decided the shape was too big and bulky for him. So when a rusty split-screen body became available, the plan shifted direction. A simple three-litre motor would be found and slotted in for some cheap fun.
Fred wanted an underdog – a bus with a big engine – but it’s never that simple is it? What you’re looking at is the result of four years work from 2002 to 2006. Essentially it’s a T3 van with the body cut off, with a split-screen van shell that’s been widened 21cm, grafted on, with as much running gear that could be salvaged from a 993 Bi-Turbo as possible.
The way Fred has packaged it all is stunning: the attention to detail here is superb.
Especially as he isn’t working with a rule book, very few known quantities can be applied. Sure there are simple physics of course – keep the weight low and evenly distributed – but this is a van with an engine hanging out the back, so it’s hardly straightforward.
You can see the extra width here. Given the amount of curves in the bus shape, Fred has done an incredible job of keeping it all in proportion. The triple hue paint orange/white/grey paint scheme has been created using all old school VW shades.
I jokingly remarked that the bus looks like it’s poking a tongue out at other cars. Fred smiled and said he’d never thought of that before.
Luckily for me he’s very tolerant of an over-excited Speedhunter who’s over 1000 miles from home.
Aside from the extra girth, there are plenty of clues as to what is going on underneath if you look carefully. The specially ordered magnesium BBS centres and lips are in the Porsche 5×130 PCD, they’ve got an 800kg load rating to cope with the larger body frame on top…
… and run Pirelli P ZERO slicks.
At the back you can see where the panel work has been modified so that the wheels can be removed with ease due to the original restrictive VW arch design not being practical for 18x10s.
The original side vents are still in use and Fred has boxed them internally to add ventilation to the engine bay. There was no way they were ever going to be sufficient for the kind of air needed to cool and feed a bi-turbo motor though.
The major headache with widening the bus was the roof needed to cover it, which meant that one huge, seemingly endless, piece of curved craftsmanship was needed. Fred says that the roof took months of work alone. He’d roll the bus out in to the open to check the lines, then continually chop it up, tweaking the buck to get it just right.
Which of course it now is.
There are so many parts of this build which twist my mind; the dedication and vision needed to work it all out and then actually make it work is amazing. The Porsche mirrors shouldn’t fit in the scheme of things so well, but when mounted this way –with the colour scheme to compliment the lines – bingo.
Okay, so the one thing you really can’t miss are the twin air intakes where the original, rear side windows should be. Fred didn’t go for ‘ears’ to scoop the air in, preferring to keep the original aperture. He’s never had a problem with keeping the engine cool, so his plan worked well.
From the inside you get a better idea of just how large they are. As ducting goes this is pretty serious.
The 993 was the last of the air-cooled 911s and in his quest to use as many OE parts as possible Fred has utilised the air-to-air intercooler you’d have found in the Porsche’s tail spoiler.
With an air of disappointment he points out the two simply made stays which hold it up away from the engine, telling me these are the only non-stock parts he used in the install. As Fred says, when you’re away from home and something breaks you need to be able to go to a dealership and order new rather than constantly fabricating and creating new parts. When I ask if he’s ever had a problem he tells me that it ran great out-of-the-box after the initial perished boost pipe problem. Reliability has never been an issue, no matter how hard he’s abused it on track.
As if it wasn’t hard enough working on a standard Type 1 VW engine, working on the Porsche motor must need the patience of a saint.
Fred does have a fully-equipped workshop to use though, which means turbo access isn’t a problem.
Having owned a 1965 split-screen panel van, I’d like to think I know the lines pretty well. Which is why I’m smiling as I notice another subtle modification – the deck lid which covers the engine is actually shallower than standard.
Look how the exhaust tips are carefully followed by the bumper line. You can see how Fred managed to make the carved Porsche script so convincing too – the small black marks being the remaining metal holding the letters to shape.
Even the retaining clips are simple and almost period, instead of the more common aero-style catches.
I’m in no way an aerodynamic specialist but I think these vents should draw air out of the cabin, although the tumble effect created by such a square back end must almost make them suck in too. Am I getting to carried away with detail? Not really, it’s that kind of build that makes you question everything. The Race-Taxi has this habit of drawing you in deeper.
It’s inside that the game is raised again. In here it’s pure business. Pure race car.
The dash binnacle is pure 993: gauges, electrics, the lot. Once again, Fred’s persistence with the use of OE parts means the engine can talk to the front end and everybody understands what’s being said without need for translation – just like Dr. Porsche intended.
The ignition is of course 993, but Fred has given the key an old school spin, drilling holes in it to ape his favourite Porsche of all time, the 917. Admit it, you’re itching to break out the 4mm drill bit right now aren’t you?
As ever, packaging rears its head here too – just take a good look at that seating position. I ask Fred if I can jump in and he quickly agrees. Sat here I get that flutter in my stomach that makes me feel 10 years old again, it’s incredible. Yes, I’m higher and a touch more upright, but this really does feel like a Porsche – check out the angle of the steering wheel for a start.
Fred has had to work very hard to get everything in here though, because where you’d normally have the rest of a Porsche in front you, that’s the headlight bowl which the footrest is bolted too. At the start I mentioned there were plenty of tuning parts available for the T3 chassis, but Fred hasn’t used any of them as they’re just not good enough for what he needs. He made me promise to keep his sources secret, but the combination of parts that now give him a quick rack and master cylinder that work in this 90-degree to the pedal configuration are inspired. All OE too, from some pretty serious machinery. Did you notice the wooden block behind the accelerator/throttle pedal? It’s finished like that so that it lines up level with the brake pedal, making it more comfortable for Fred to heel-and-toe.
The intricate cage that links the highly modified T3 floorpan to the extended split-screen bodyshell was of course crafted by Fred. Every tube has a small inspection hole drilled in it, so that the internals can be rustproofed. And because Porsche does it…
Another nod to the Porsche 917 is the gearknob, which Fred had two of made in lightweight wood. Again a non-obvious choice which makes me smile and admire the depth of passion in the bus. Oh and yes, he still has the other one as a spare.
One thing Porsche hasn’t done very well until recently is cater for four fully grown adults. But this is the Race-Taxi and the idea for taking passengers was always there because of the available space. When Fred was talking to the man from Recaro, he also thought it would be a good idea to get involved with the project. As if it wasn’t off-the-wall enough already, imagine having this much fun with your mates in the back. Those double doors come in very handy when Fred’s taking people for rides.
The dry sump tank is mounted in between the seats, to keep as much weight as possible centralised.
With fuel entering the bus via the front passenger door aperture, modifications had to be made to the shell where the door opens. It would normally be flat inside the original bus, but here you can see it’s raised. Fred prefered to do it this way instead of chopping the doors down to keep the external lines correct.
And correct it is throughout. The original door handles are light and work just fine, so why not keep them? They must be the fastest split-screen handles in the world.
Of course, with 993 brakes on all corners and Pagid pads and fluid that is changed after every outing, the bus stops as well as it goes. Bilstein has been instrumental in creating a bespoke set of coilovers for the Race-Taxi, working closely with Fred, because – let’s face it – how do you create a baseline spec for something like this?
The bus was built to drive – and not just for a couple of volatile laps either. Fred will hit a circuit for four or five hours pausing only to change passengers and take on fuel. You can see he gets a genuine kick from sharing the bus with whoever steps on board.
From this seat Fred says the Race-Taxi has really opened up so many things to him. From that first video, numerous people sought him out and invited him to events all over Europe, and he’s taken every opportunity that’s been presented.
The bus has proven itself reliable for a number of years now, with minimal tuning needed. By now though another power upgrade will have taken place, lifting it up from the 400-odd hp it had before to around 550. If a mind like Fred’s can come up with such a concept and then see it through so successfully to reality, just where does it go from here? Fred tells me the Race-Taxi may well be for sale in a year or so, as he has other vehicles he’d like to build and would need the funds to do so. As much as I’d hate to see the pair parted, can you even begin to imagine what’s in his head? No, me neither. I can’t wait to see it though.
Fred Bernhard’s Race-Taxi Bi-Turbo Bus
1995 993 Bi-Turbo, exhaust removed after cat, custom mount intercooler, ESR Racing parts dry sump kit, original fuel tank, aeroquip hoses
Sachs race clutch, Cup differential with 60% lock, 996 GT3 six-speed manual gearbox to get cable shift with custom cable, GT Cup shifter with 917 replica gearknob, custom-made driveshafts
VW T3 with custom parts, custom made Bilstein coil-overs, Eibach springs, T3 anti-roll bar, polyurethane bushes throughout, 993 Bi-Turbo rear anti-roll bar with custom made adjustable slide design like a Porsche 908, original Bi-Turbo discs with Pagid pads and DOT 5.1 brake fluid changed after every event
BBS Magnesium centres, custom order with 800kg loading for each wheel, 8.5/10x18in, Pirelli P Zero slick tyres
Custom-built shell 21cm wider than a Type 2, carbon roof, Macrolon windows, laminated glass front windows, custom profile front arches, removeable rear arches, grey/white/orange are old VW colours, air intakes in place of rear side windows
993 Bi-Turbo dash pod, 4x Recaro bucket seats, 4x Schroth harnesses
Roland Zbinden, Andreas Weibel, Bruno Widmer, Jorg Hoffman, Christian Schluter
For more info, build up pictures and video go to Fred’s website.