The older aircooled Volkswagen scene is pretty much where I feel the most comfortable. There I said it – I put myself in a pigeon hole; gave myself a label and told the world. There are a number of reasons for this, ranging from nearly having an early oval window Beetle as a first car, through to owning a beach buggy for nearly 20 years. But when I sit down and think about it, being surrounded by simple flat four engines and curved panels gives me great pleasure. At last, I guess I’m beginning to understand what I really like.
It’s taken me quite a long time to work that out, which is why I wanted to explore the thought with you guys. This realisation dawned on me whilst walking around last weekend’s always-excellent VolksWorld Show at Sandown Park in the UK.
Given that the show is completely rammed during the day I figured we’d be better off taking a quieter, more personal tour of the inside show halls once the doors had closed on the Saturday night. So, if you’re wondering why it looks a little deserted in the pictures, now you know. Given that it was pitch black outside, the massive displays out there would escape me. But everything I needed to illustrate my point was at hand. And the peace and solitude meant that I could take in all the details without distraction.
So why am I not a hot rodder? Or drag racer? Or Japanese car fan? Well in truth, I kind of am. I’ve had some ’40s-era Ford metal, I’ve been down the quarter mile quite a few times and I’ve owned some obscure and not so random machinery from the land of the rising sun. But the VW scene encapsulates all the different aspects I’m attracted to. from all of those movements put together. It’s why I thought I’d try and explain what I find so special about the aircooled world.
Like the VW watercooled scene, the aircooled scene can sometimes look like quite an elitist place, with only the right modifications or model choices garnering respect. Being sat on the inside, I don’t think is rightly true. So don’t worry if you’ve never heard of a Tempo Matador, which is what this low volume production flat bed pick up is. Based around the running gear you’d find under the earliest VW bus, Matadors are super rare and over the last few years have become one of the most sought after finds.
There are many different body styles you can start with and an aircooled VW for every budget. Just like you might begin with an EG Civic and work your way up to an NSX, aircooled ownership is a fairly easy proposition and you’ll never be far from a classified advert that can put you in a drivers seat of one. Models like the Karmann Ghia convertible as seen above, sit a little further up the ladder. Because of the way in which Volkwagen created a floorpan-style chassis and hung the suspension and transmission components on it, the bodystyle could be altered relatively simply, with the same underpinnings doing duty across a range of different models.
The Beetle is of course the best known of these, with over 21.5 million built between 1931 (when the first prototype was made) and 2003 when manufacturing ceased in Brazil. Although it’s a people’s car like the Model T before it and the 2CV, Mini and others since, I genuinely can’t think of any vehicle like it that can be successfully modified in so many ways. That basic curved shape obviously lends itself to running low to the ground, and given that early Porsches used modified VW running gear, adding a set of iconic Fuchs alloys is a bit of a no brainer. Look closer though and you’ll find a whole world of other stuff going on here – the rare trim-mounted mirrors one well-observed additional detail.
At the other end of the spectrum you don’t have to go low and wide at all. This particular display was put together by the Old Speed team, who have discovered and rebuilt, or recreated, vintage Beetle race cars from all over Europe. That’s another reason why I love them – given the numbers the Beetle was built in, they ended up being used in clubman motorsport across multiple disciplines, so there’s a huge amount of proper heritage. From ice to gravel and circuits too, the details here range from original WW2 bomber seats that were used before the bucket seat had been thought of, to low volume supercharger kits bolted on stock 1200cc motors.
I wasn’t born in America, so to me the term hot rodding means taking an everyday car, stripping it back and making it go faster. It feels more natural because of that. Instead of trying to replicate somebody else’s heritage, this is mine.
There’s the fun factor too – that ability to make people grin and wave when you pass by. How many other cars invented 50 years ago can claim to have remained unchanged, yet still be current today? The dune buggy is one, and I call it that rather than a beach buggy because the man that gave birth to the simple GRP body tub that bolts on to a shortened Beetle floorpan was at VolksWorld during the weekend…You can do what you want
Sometime in the next few months I hope to bring you a full interview with Bruce Meyers – the man who created the first dune buggy in 1964. He’s 88 years old now and like your grandad, who once upon a time would tear up the town and cause mayhem whilst making everybody laugh, Bruce is still as sharp as a razor. The story of how this iconic little car came to be is fascinating. The fact that one is sitting just outside my office is another reason why I love the scene. When I was younger with just a few tools and even less knowledge I could still make changes and have a sense of satisfaction from working on it, rather than just maintaining an everyday vehicle.
That’s the key to the VW scene for me – as common as the base models are, people are what make them all so different. Sure, there are the tried and tested modifications I’ve hinted at, but the innovation and style that I constantly come across really inspires me as a car guy to look outside of my own areas of interest and try new things. To not be afraid, as chances are it will work. The Gatling gun-style exhaust on Adrian Bird’s hot rod-style Beetle is just the start of a whole host of exquisite custom touches.
A laser cut registration plate with retaining bolts drilled and wired so that they don’t undo. Overkill? No way! I love it. It’s the this kind of thing that kept me pouring over the Beetle, even though I’ve seen it many times before. Who knows, did I miss an update? Or new trick?
There’s so much to love about this radical project and Adrian is a long-time owner and builder of some incredible VWs. That fact alone goes to show there is always something new and fresh to do. Like Paddy said in his Ultimate Dubs coverage (where incidentally you’ll find an overall picture of the Gonzoline Special), there’ll be a feature on this at some stage in the future!
Just as people grow cars do too, and you get to see that in the VW scene just like you would in any other. This Beetle has been around a while, featuring in this Stephen Brooks film. It sits on the ground thanks to air suspension, but it was the fold-out, top-hinged safari-style windscreen that caught my eye. It’s the kind of thing you would have seen on cars of the ’20s and ’30s, then on VW buses in the ’50s. Another trick mod that at first you might not realise where it came from.
Stance has become somewhat of a dirty word to some people, but as Paddy explained last year. it’s simply the way a vehicle sits. It’s just become a byword for extreme fitment and aircooled scene is one of the most natural placed to find what most people consider outrageous ride heights and camber angles.
Dino has shown us VIP cars running wild camber over the years, but where did that originate? Here? Who knows for sure, but if you want larger diameter wheels and tyres under standard body work, it works. This is the natural effect of lowering a Beetle on its standard suspension. Did you notice how it looks like there’s no front wheel in this picture?
Now you can see it. I’m not going to try and explain how the suspension works – one day I’ll show you instead. But would it surprise you if I said you can get this low, fairly simply and inexpensively? Narrowing the front beam also means you can tuck the wheels right up in the wings, which really do lend themselves to the modification.
Matt Edwards’ ’56 oval window Bug does have a secret though, and it comes in the form of air suspension. Nitrogen-powered at that. So where you once might scrape your suspension away, with a little technology you now can ride easy over all kinds of terrain.
Are you starting to understand why I love the aircooled VW world so much? The headlamp has been replaced on Mark Pascoe’s genuine right-hand drive oval with what appeared to be a piece of mirrored glass. Maybe it’s a nod to the wild drag cars of the ’60s, when the Beetle faced up against the mighty V8s of the SoCal tuning scene.
The miles, eras and worlds these machines have traveled through have shaped their destiny, but there’s always something new you can discover. Innovation is out there if you look hard enough…Detail, everywhere…
So what do I like the most? What are the trinkets that catch my eye? It’s all the little details. When you think about the different aircooled models, you’re still only starting with a limited number of canvases that end up here. So it’s what’s been added that I love to discover. ‘Seaside Neil’ is a pinstriper and artist based in the UK who calls upon a wide range of traditional influences. His crash helmet is almost too good to wear!
His own Beetle is a perfect example of leaving well enough alone and adding only what is needed. The sun-bleached paint couldn’t be replicated by any amount of clever processing – there’s always a tell tale if you look closely enough. So when he found this perfectly patinated shell, he left it as nature had defined and simply added some period racing mags and cool yellow headlights.
On the inside there’s more perfectly observed period additions. A Grateful Dead air freshener. A bucket seat that’s seen action for decades already. Add some ’60s magazine clippings to the door panels and it’s good to go. You might be wondering what that is in the background. Looks rough, huh?
That’s because it is. Pulled from an Irish peat bog the body – or what’s left of it – is a circa ’53 oval. Instead of hiding the history, the builders have created a frame work for the battered shell to sit on, before adding steampunk-inspired details throughout.
The front bench seat was created from one Beetle bonnet, and copper from an old watertank was formed to create details all over the car. When I asked if it was street legal I was told that in Ireland a car of this age doesn’t need a vehicle roadworthy test. So, err… that’s a yes then? Yes!
For some the approach is more subtle. This is bulkhead on a really beautiful Type 3 variant or ‘square back’, where normally you’d be looking at a fuse box and other ancillary parts, not a clean, yet standard looking panel and meticulously fabricated and chromed fuel line.
Looking under the inner wing of the same build revealed just one ostentatious touch. I don’t think it’s genuine, but it wouldn’t surprise me if it was.
So whether it’s wild creation, period or unique modifications – like I say, I enjoy them all. These Commando tyres stood out for me though. They are fitted to Frenchman Jacky Morel’s genuine Meyers Manx buggy, and having only travelled 5000km from new in the late ’60s they are wonderful survivors and couldn’t be replaced even if you wanted to. Too old to use perhaps, but very cool.It’s a what?
Like I said back at the start, I’ve got a lot of history with air-cooled VWs. I’ve owned quite a few and done a lot of things in them over the years. I’ve also worked for VolksWorld Magazine in the past, so I’ve had the pleasure of discovering and writing about many of them too. So what keeps it all fresh for me? There’s the details as I’ve shown you of course, like those you’ll find in this stripped out period build Ghia race car. Hand-formed alloy bomber seats? Yes please.
Then there are things* like this. This one build that debuted at the show sums up the crazy passion, borderline insane dedication and attention to detail put in one single vehicle. This is what keeps it fresh.
*Bearing in mind I know there’s a model the Americans refer to as a Thing!
What you’re looking at is a Mactra Terra, produced in New Zealand on the Beetle floorpan (which you can see here in black). This one came up for sale on New Zealand’s buying/selling website trademe.co.nz. Some dealing later and it was on its way to a new owner called Tom Gotta in Germany. His history is deeply ingrained in VW culture, so like all of us, he was looking for something different. What makes me smile is he paid NZ$350 (approx US$300) for a rundown oddball that nobody else wanted. Then shipped it half way around the world!
After a mammoth amount of work, now it’s a top 20 winner at VolksWorld. The 1776cc twin Weber 40IDP-equipped motor will send it down the drag strip soon enough. Because that’s what you do with an obscure farm truck, right?
That wasn’t enough for Tom though, he needed more. And once again it’s in the detail that I find the devil. Check out the speedo. See anything odd? Well it’s been restored with the 120 turned upside down, but the rust has been left on the inside of the bezel so that it appears all original.
Then there’s the rear bumper bar. That’s some pretty rough welding, huh? Well maybe, but that was done on a farm in New Zealand by an unknown hand many years ago, so it forms part of the history of the Terra. So it stays.
It might be kind of ugly, but what a cool story. It’s a common theme in the VW scene – the eternal underdog that comes out on top.
The ugly duckling that steals the show and makes you look and stare.
Yes, sometimes they can be glitzy and loud, which is cool. That’s the wonderful thing about the variety of styles, approaches and methods. They’re all valid.
So I think that’s why I like the aircooled scene so much, because it really does have something for everyone. That means I can get my fix of pretty much any facet of car fandom I want. They all fit together and nobody is excluded.
As Bruce Meyers told me at the show, “It’s got to be fun. Because if you’re not having fun you should be doing something else, right?” Right on Bruce, well said. That’s what it’s all about and long may it continue! You want some?