Project Beetle Rebirth: Picking An Engine

I've been getting lots of questions about the state of my Beetle since its recovery, and I'm finally happy to say insurance companies have been dealt with, checks have been cut, and work is about to begin. My Beetle will be back on the road, better, faster, and yellower than ever.

So let's start with the biggest question: the engine.

That yawning chasm in the back of my Beetle was, of course, the source of the biggest loss when my car was stolen. I had been running a well-rebuilt 1600cc dual-port motor, with an 009 distributor and a slightly more sporting exhaust system, but, really, the engine was very close to stock. It was reliable enough (generally) and even had a bit of spunk if you knew just how to cajole it, but it's still an archaic 60 HP (at best, by the book— really, probably closer to 50 HP) mill.

Project Beetle Rebirth: Picking An Engine

So, when I found the car had been relieved of all the oily bits that made it go, while that was quite a blow, it was also an opportunity. I did indulge in all sorts of wild and inane speculation and daydreaming about engine options, but in the end I had to figure out a reasonable compromise between money, time, reliability, and fun. And that process of compromise is really what this is all about.

So, even though this will be quite air-cooled VW specific, I hope that the thought processes of picking an engine for a vintage car will at least prove somewhat relatable. The restrictions, I think, are pretty universal: money, time, and usability.

As far as money goes, my insurance carrier, State Farm, actually came through with a fair amount of money. Not lavish, but absolutely do-able, and that was much better than I was expecting. They actually appreciated the difference between a "classic" and "a 40 year old shitbox" and that made all the difference. I did have to do some emergency surgery on my old, blind dog, so that did take a chunk out of my Beetle-rebuild fund, but I think I can still accomplish my goals.

Time is a tricky one. I've got a job, a kid, other project cars, and a few big side art-related projects, so time is always at a premium. I decided I wanted to maximize what I could spend on an engine by doing at least the installation on my own, but, realistically, I probably can't take on any really insane conversion projects. I want to get my Bug back on the road, and save my futile time-hole car work for my Reliant Scimitar.

Usability is even trickier. My Beetle is my daily driver, so I need a high degree of reliability. Bone-stock is usually the answer to that question. But I know I'd kick myself if I didn't take advantage of this opportunity to give the Beetle some sort of performance upgrade. Whatever I end up with will have to be reliable, but with a decent extra something.

So let's start with the crazy ideas, because I absolutely had them. I'll limit these to the ones I at least considered enough to do a bit of research about before I abandoned them. Other ones, like electric power conversion or pulse-jets were numerous, but far too stupid to list. Here's the mildly-less-stupid list:

• Fiat TwinAir: I actually did consider this, because I like the idea of the engine, and even at 80 HP would be a nice power upgrade. I went so far as to ask some Fiat engineers if they'd sell a crate version of the TwinAir, and they looked at me like I was nuts. I figured being the first to put one in a Beetle would be worth all the radiator plumbing and adapter-making costs.

• Subaru Boxer: This is a popular conversion for old VWs, and since it's a flat-four design as well, it fits with the overall character of the car. I was impressed with the Keropi-themed Subaru-powered Beetle I saw at LeMons this year, and this is a very well-documented and established route. The power increase could be quite significant, but that introduces its own set of issues, since I'm not sure how much I trust the rest of the car with, say 150 HP. I do have a disc brake upgrade, at least.

• Porsche 356: Bolts right in! Nice power boost (could be up to 90 HP) plus still air-cooled so no pain-in-the-ass radiator and plumbing to try and add! The big downside is that I'd have to give up at least two of my three kidneys to get one.

So, after indulging all the silly pie-in-the-sky ideas I took a long hard look at my insurance check and calendar and decided that I'd stick with some manner of air-cooled Type I VW engine.

I was fine with that decision — I like driving one of the few air-cooled cars left on the roads, and there's a whole lot of options available for more potent VW engines. There's three main ways to do it: more carbs, bigger, and turbo. Or all of those. People have been building 200 HP+ VW engines for a long while now, but I just want a little bump. Usually, you trade reliability and longevity for crazy power, and I'd like both of those things. So I want to focus on a small power boost, say 10 HP or so above stock.

For a mild boost like that, you don't really need to go the turbo route, fun as that is. You can go up in size a bit, since, like they say, there's no replacement for displacement, to a slightly bigger 1641cc or a very patriotic-sounding 1776cc. The 1641cc uses thinner cylinder walls to get the boost which impairs cooling, so I'm going to skip that. 1776cc engines have a very good reputation, but the cost bump for a 1776cc longblock is pretty significant. So what else can I do?

Project Beetle Rebirth: Picking An Engine

I decided to look back to the original source, and see what Porsche himself did when he wanted a more potent VW engine. If you look at the early 356 engines, the most obvious difference is two carbs instead of one. Porsche kept that twin carb approach all the way up to when carbs gave way to fuel injection. There must be something to that.

Turns out there is. The original VW engine was designed to be pretty robust, but to make sure that robustness translated into practical, economical motoring (the goal of the People's Car, after all) the engine was effectively choked by the carburation. The carb on the basic VW engine design acts as sort of a governor, keeping engine speeds low and longevity high.

Project Beetle Rebirth: Picking An Engine

So, if you open up the breathing there a bit, you can get some more power out of the same displacement engine. Which is exactly what Porsche did. Plus, the stock VW intake manifold is pretty long, with a central carb having to send its sweet, sweet vaporized fuel all the way to either side of the engine. A twin carb setup puts the carbs nice and close to the pairs of cylinders they're serving, keeping things more efficient. So that's what I'm going to do: get a twin-carb 1600cc engine.

And, happily, I found a place right nearby in Pasadena that does just that. The shop, Kaddie Shack, specializes in the formerly unloved Kadron (Solex) carbs. They were once the bargain carb setup, but years of fine-tuning and experimenting mean that the folks over at the shop have figured out how to make these really work well. I saw some dyno results for a used 1600cc engine, before and after the dual-carb setup: a peak-to-peak gain of 13 HP! That sounds just right.

This past weekend I went to the shop and ordered my engine. The shop itself is great in that way only performance VW places are: a certain old-school California laid-back attitude, neighborhood kids hanging around getting free advice on their project Beetles, and an employee with a 140 HP screamer of a Beetle around back.

I sat down with Jeff, the guy who runs things, and specc'd out my engine: 1600cc, dual carbs, Pertronix electronic ignition system (see you in hell, points), and a nice little header exhaust. I'm very excited. My little Beetle's going to have a nice little kick now.

Sure, I'm talking about around 70 HP at best, which in any other context is pretty laughable. But it still sounds pretty good to me.

Oh, and I did get a ride in that 140 HP Bug as well. They were delightedly telling me about how they were embarrassing brand-new Mustangs ("They had paper license plates and everything!") at the dragstrip in that 1700 lb, stripped-out '63, and I knew I had to feel what that's like. After they found a passenger's seat for me, the car's owner took me for a ride.

Project Beetle Rebirth: Picking An Engine

It was like a normal Beetle at first, but louder, since all padding and seats and carpet were gone. Then we got to an open stretch of straight road and he put the roller pedal all the way down.

It sounded like a dragon was gargling a dozen chainsaws behind me, and the Beetle lurched forward with an impossible burst of speed. Seriously, I haven't felt anything like that outside of the Panamera and GT-R press cars I've driven. It was terrifying and exhilarating. That flat windshield inches from your face, all those building and trees whipping by as the car picked up speed — incredible. But I think I'll be fine with my optimistic 70 HP.