This was the first car in AntarcticaS

One hundred years ago yesterday — December 14th, 1911 — Roald Admundsen and his team of Norwegian explorers became the first humans to reach the South Pole, pulled by sled dogs. But it wasn't until 1963 that the first production car landed on Antarctic shores, a mostly-stock VW Beetle known as "the Red Terror." This is its story.

The first unsuccesful attempts at bringing automobiles to Antarctica were a 1907 Arrol-Johnston and a 1927 Austin 7. Both cars lacked roofs and were remarkably unsuccessful on the frozen continent even after extensive modification (the former was so bad it frequently injured the men trying to repair it).

For the next few decades dogs and motorized sleds were the dominant modes of transport for Antarctica's explorers and later scientists.

By the 1960s, however, it was clear that dogs were on the way out in Antarctica, but the only motorized alternatives were expensive tracked vehicles. Roy McMahon, appointed in December 1962 to lead a year-long expedition for the Australian National Antarctic Research Expedition (ANARE) saw an opportunity when it came time for him to choose what vehicles to take to Australia's Mawson Station.

McMahon went to Volkswagen of Australia and asked for a free car. McMahon knew that an Antarctic Volkswagen would be a great PR opportunity for VW's new Australian-built Beetles, and they decided to let McMahon pick a Ruby Red sedan off the production line. In less than three months and with only a few hundred miles on the odometer, the car disembarked off of the icebreaker Nella Dan onto Antarctica, where it was immediately dubbed "the Red Terror."

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Since the Bug was air-cooled, it had no coolant to freeze, though it needed kerosene-thin oil to stay lubricated in the -62F temperatures in which the car drove. The only modifications to prepare the car were the standard changes VW gave their cars for Northern Europe and a set of "Antarctica 1" plates.

The car faced a bleak landscape: no roads, regular -40F temperatures, and week-long blizzards. Winds, even, put the car to the test.

[Winds]up to 100 mph which more than once turned the doors inside out, overriding the door check-rods and folding the doors against the front hub caps.

Aside from having to straighten out the doors every so often, the only trouble the car had in its 12 months and almost 1,500 miles on Antarctica was that the frame head where the front torsion bars are attached to the floor pan regularly cracked over the wind-rutted ice, snow and exposed rock that defined its driving environment.

In one of his monthly reports back to VW of Australia, McMahon praised the car's ability to handle the terrain.

ON THIS TRIP ICE SLOPES, SNOW FIELDS AND CREVASSED HILLS WERE ENCOUNTERED BUT NO WORRY TO THE ‘RED TERROR'. THE FINAL APPORACH TO FISCHER IS A VERY STEEP SNOW SLOPE WHICH WAS TOUGH GOING DUE TO SINKING INTO THE SNOW, BUT VW MADE IT TO THE TOP.

Some of his cables just speak to how bizarrely wonderful it must have been to drive a car, a bright red car, over the frost-bound landscape for the first time.

HAVE PLEASURE STATING DROVE VOLKSWAGEN TO RUMDOODLE. PERFORMANCE EXCELLENT. INDEED HAPPY MOTORING. McMAHON

That's Rumdoodle airstrip, which the Red Terror visited many times. The bug regularly ferried people and equipment back and forth over the twelve miles between the airstrip and Mawson station. The record time between the base and Rumdoodle was 50 minutes, which gives you a sense of how rough Antarctic terrain is, and why the frame head kept breaking. The car also let the scientists take excursions from base camp out for research, and when the harbor would freeze over and the weather was good, the car pulled skiers and took people out on Sunday drives over the sea ice.

When the car finally made it back to Australia in 1964, VW took the car back, but rather than let it sit in some museum, as one might expect of an eminently historic, scientific vehicle, they took it on the 1964 BP Rally around Australia. The Red Terror won outright! Needless to say, VW promoted the hell out of their little PR masterpiece, and they even put together this short movie from the 1,000 feet of film VW had given McMahon back in December 1962.

Historic as the car may appear, its current whereabouts are unknown. After admittedly "drinking too much schnapps" a group of Australian VW enthusiasts set out an extensive search to find the car in 2002. That search turned up nothing.

If you happen to find a red VW Bug with some curious stickers on its doors please drop us an email.

Photo Credit: Volkswagen Canada