I have a vague but well-stored memory of eating some meal as a kid, with the small 12" black-and-white Montgomery Ward kitchen-counter television rotated towards the table, offering its help in freeing us from the horror of interfamilial conversation. It must have been dinner because the nightly news was on, and I think it was Peter Jennings talking about a Volkswagen Beetle that had braved an ocean crossing of some sort. The image of that little Beetle bobbing among the waves seared into my young, gooey brains, and I finally found what it was.
I’d known that Volkswagen Beetles could float a bit before I saw this — there were those old ads, after all:
These ads were a bit before my time, but I’d heard them talked about, seen the Herbie movie where he was forced off an ocean liner and floated in the sea, and remembered my dad’s old ’68 Beetle’s way of popping the other side door open if you slammed a door hard enough with the windows up.
Later in life, I read about other floating VW feats, like the one that, with some minor modifications (move the intake into the rear luggage well, an exhaust snorkel, and a propeller that connected to the crankshaft pulley) crossed the straits of Messina between Italy and Sicily.
I actually got to see that very car in person a few years back at the Volkswagen Foundation’s museum in Wolfsburg. And while it was an incredible thing to see, it wasn’t the same Beetle I saw crossing some patch of rough sea way, way back when.
I’m not sure how I’ve managed to miss the story of that red salty VW, but recently I somehow stumbled onto the same video clip I saw all those years ago:
Only this time, instead of being edited to a few seconds to cram in at the end of ABC’s nightly broadcast as one of those get-a-load-of-this segments we had before the internet provided the world with those in a 24-hour firehose, it was longer, and I could see the crucial identification on this bonkers thing. It had a name: Sea-Bug.
This little bit of information is all that anyone would need now, so I was able to learn the full story, finally.
It seems the Sea-Bug was Australian, a project from the mind and hands of a 32-year-old named Paul Greene. Greene bought the 1964 Beetle for $100, then in 1985 put a shocking $8,000 — that would be close to $20,000 in today’s dollars — modifying it for hard ocean travel.
The body was re-made in fiberglass (I think the original doors were retained, just cut down) and modified to give more of a bow and some other tweaks, though it’s still very much Beetle-shaped. The glass was replaced with 6 mm “hardened glass” which I suppose is some marine thing?
The engine was also updated to 2.1-liters and with a bigger Holley carb, and, unlike the Messina-crossing Beetle, a separate outboard motor was added. In some videos, it looks like a hood-mounted oil cooler was added, and it seems there are some side pontoons that can be added as needed.
Here’s a period video of Paul and his car:
The video claims the VW will do 120 MPH on land, and 10 knots in the water, which is pretty damn impressive, even if I suspect there must be a bit of exaggeration there. But who knows? It does look like it’s hauling Aussie ass in that video.
I remember the news segment I saw at the time treated it like a ridiculous joke, but as I look at this build with fresh eyes today, the one thing I can say is that this is no joke. Greene clearly put a lot of time and engineering into this thing, and being able to get this thing into the open ocean is a big deal.
He actually attempted to go across the Bass Strait from Australia to Tazmania on at least two occasions, a strait which is known for having some very difficult waters. One trip got it about 15 nautical miles in before hitting a sand bar and springing a leak, and another attempt got it about a third of the way — that’s around 100 miles! — but had to abort due to a typhoon.
Incredibly, it looks like Greene still has the Sea-Bug, and is selling it on The Samba!
Holy crap! Honestly, $60,000 seems like a pretty reasonable price for an ocean-going Beetle with a sweet 2.1-liter motor. Do we have a corporate card here? I should look.
The pictures in the ad seem to show that the car’s been updated a few times, and it looks like Greene has been enjoying this thing.
Seriously, I need to figure out how to convince the money people that having this thing is going to rake in traffic. Think of the views we’ll get from my videos as I attempt to sail it from Australia to America!
And the videos of the just-about-certain ocean rescue needed off the coast of Australia! This thing pays for itself!