Here's a story I've been meaning to tell since I started writing for Jalopnik: how it came to be that I love junkyard-built, low-budget, primered-out heaps so much. You can blame this '58 Volkswagen!
Even now, 25 years after Hubert The Hatred Bug went to The Crusher, its corrupting influence over me remains strong. Though somehow I've managed to become a solid-citizen homeowner by my 40s, I've never owned a car that cost more than $1600 (if you're going by initial purchase price), and my current daily driver is a beat-to-shit 17-year-old Honda Civic DX… which is actually one of the nicest cars I've ever owned. I can look at a basket-case hot-rodded Sprite with no electrical system whatsoever in my driveway and not even flinch, because I've been here before! The main difficulty I have with telling this story is the near-total lack of photographs of my first couple dozen cars; I finally shook down my relatives for the few you have here, and even resorted to scanning a shot out of my high school yearbook. That means you're going to get way too many words and not enough pictures here, but that's how it must be.
Yes, Alameda High School, 1984. This photograph really illustrates the difference between the kind of social group you associate with when you drive a hideous beater, versus the kind you get when you drive a nice shiny version of the same car. On the left is my Beetle, decorated with Led Zeppelin-esque graffiti and the words "Dave's Still Smokin'" (a reference to some deceased stoner friend-of-a-friend, presumably still firing up doobage in the afterlife). I'm wearing an ironic Ernie-&-Bert Shirt and peering out through the ragtop opening, while my buddies are all seriously geeked-out rejects, flexing muscles, fat rolls, and/or icky cutoffs, and destined to be the unemployable punk drummers and bitter conspiracy theorists of the future. Meanwhile, my preppie classmates pose by (future wealthy realtor) Nancy's showroom-condition '72 Beetle (which she called "Herbie" and labeled as such when signing my yearbook), in their bound-for-success sweaters; even through the crappy halftoned yearbook printing, you can smell the optimism in their attitudes. It's like they know that Reagan and Bush I are going to grease their path to success over the next decade or so, and they're totally geared up for it. And why wasn't I standing on the right with those folks, as should have been my birthright? Well, it all started with a phone call to Sweden…
In the summer of '83, I managed to get shipped across the ocean to spend a month or so with a family in southern Sweden. I was having a great time, as you might imagine a 17-year-old would, and I even got to indulge in some car-geekery by taking a trip up to the Volvo Museum in Göteborg. After a few weeks, a phone call comes from California: it's my mom, with some garbled story about a "$50 Bug with a Porsche engine" that my friend Scott had found, and did I want him to get it for me? Scott (the shirtless guy flexing on the roof of my car in the yearbook photo) lived with his survivalist blacksmith father in a crumbling East Oakland shop, with a Hell's Angels bar on one side and a junkyard on the other. The allegedly Porsche-engined Beetle was some sort of one-day-only sale deal at the junkyard; Scott figured it was perfect for me, and my mom agreed. A little family history here: my mom learned to drive on a '55 Beetle with a Porsche 356 engine, thanks to her ice-racing father, and always felt that setup was a great combination. I already had a total beater '67 GTO and a $50 1969 Toyota Corona at the time, but what the heck? "Sure, buy it and I'll pay you when I get back," I said.
It turned out that the "Porsche engine" was actually a VW Type 3, as used in the Volkswagen Squareback and Fastback; this engine has a crank-driven fan instead of the belt-driven "doghouse" fan setup used on the Beetles and Transporters (even though I didn't get the Porsche engine, I did get a pair of Weber 34s instead of the Bobby Bosch fuel injection originally put on the Type 3, thus making the $50 investment worthwhile right there). How do you make this engine fit in a Beetle? Easy- just hack off most of the rear body behind the back window, to make a sort of a crude parody of a Baja Bug. And that was just the start of the carnage. There wasn't a single bit of wiring left in the car. No instrument panel. No interior. No cover on the huge ragtop sunroof. The brakes didn't work. The pan was mostly rust. Bondo everywhere in adobe-thick layers, including over rust holes. Still, I loved it right away, much more than the Corona and the GTO (which I soon sold for five times what I paid for it). A week or two of trial-and-error electrical work (melting wires are no problem when your car's interior is all sheetmetal), and I had the engine running, much to the dismay of the neighbors (who discovered that a Type 3 with dune-buggy megaphone-style straight pipes sounds like the World's Loudest Chainsaw in action). A few trips to the junkyard and I had brakes (after a fashion) and a driver's seat, and I was ready to start collecting the largest number of fix-it tickets ever issued to any driver in Alameda history.
The first thing I discovered about my new ride was the magic of the Power-To-Weight Ratio. Sure, that engine was probably making something like 60 or 70 horsepower (depending on how much help it was getting from the Webers and straight pipes), which doesn't sound like much until you realize that the 1958 Beetle came from the factory weighing just 1,609 pounds, and mine was completely gutted and missing much of the body. The transaxle was geared for 36 horsepower, and this combination meant that I suddenly had the quickest-accelerating car in town… for about 2 blocks. And it wasn't anything like the smooth torquey rush you got with a big V8; a hard launch with my Beetle was more like being inside a 55-gallon drum strapped to the nose of a Hound Dog missile fired into a burning oil refinery. The word "brutal" was the word most often used by my friends foolish enough to ride in the "passenger seat" (a small plywood stool screwed into the rusty floorboards), and few of them would take more than one ride. The pan would flex and vibrate so badly under acceleration that my eyeballs would jiggle out of focus, and everything got a lot
worse better after I installed some VW-to-GM wheel adapter plates that allowed me to install 235/80-15 tires on '56 Olds wheels (complete with Olds hubcaps) in the rear; this "improved" the car's off-the-line grip enough that I could almost get the front wheels to leave the ground (I was able to get enough weight off them that the car would be nearly impossible to control, a real plus for a 17-year-old hoon). It wasn't really possible to drive it on the freeway, since the engine would be screaming near redline above 60 and the ductwork that enabled the Squareback to get cooling air to the fan was nonexistent, meaning the thing would overheat in a matter of minutes. Minor problems, compared to the joy of driving the most notorious car in town!
Then I bought as many junkyard off-road lights as I could find at the local junkyards, rigging them up on the hood and fenders… after that, a PA system from the legendary Quinn's Electronics, which meant I could blast my very favorite song at the time (Frank Zappa's "Stick It Out") for all the world to enjoy… then, of course, a dozen or so random car horns, all this crap controlled from an instrument panel made from street-sign aluminum and studded with dozens of toggle switches and cryptic indicator lights. What I really wanted to do was install a pair of toilets for driver and passenger seats, complete with water tank and pump so that they'd actually flush onto the pavement, but I couldn't figure a way to keep the sloshage from being too maddening, plus there was the shards-o-porcelain crash danger issue. Meanwhile, I was letting anyone who felt like it decorate the car, which went through numerous paint jobs, graffiti-bombings, decal schemes, etc. There was the Led Zep deal you see here, followed by a Dead Kennedys theme, and then it ended up with a Great Gatsby mural on the doors, for reasons that probably made perfect sense at the time. While all this weirdness made me pretty much radioactive in the eyes of all the Cyndi Lauper-esque AHS girls I lusted after at the time, it was still totally worth it. Unfortunately, all the photographs I have come from a single month, prior to the car reaching its true zenith of
lameness awesomeness; can you see why I'm such a sucker for the 24 Hours Of Lemons?
Then I realized that, while the car was pretty quick, there was more power to be had in that engine. I made a deal with a Baja Bug-owning classmate for a set of used pistons/cylinders to get displacement up from 1600cc to 1835cc, and sent off for some Brazilian dual-port cylinder heads and the ubiquitous Bosch 009 distributor. While I had the engine apart, I painted all the various pieces of sheetmetal different bright colors and painted the menacing cooling fan (which was most effective at keeping tailgaters at bay) a screaming Day-Glo yellow. I was never able to get the registration straight on the thing (the junkyard guys who sold the car didn't have any paperwork on it and gave it the VIN off another Beetle they were about to crush), which meant that I spent a great deal of time standing in line at the DMV and explaining the situation to disapproving cops. Oh, it was great fun, and I somehow avoided a horrible, fiery death driving the thing.
Then it was time to head off to college, 430 miles to the south, and there was no way Hubert The Hatred Bug was going to survive the I-5 journey. I sold the engine, planning to build up another, even hairier one, and parked the car in the Martin family back yard. Unfortunately, my long-suffering parents grew tired of looking at Hubert out the kitchen window, refused to believe my promises that I'd be back to claim it someday, and finally pushed the engine- and license-plate-less Beetle out into the street to be towed to The Crusher by the APD.
So, that's why the 20R-powered Austin-Healey makes perfect sense as my personal Hell Project; it's the same sort of funky, stripped-down/overpowered rig that I've been yearning for since The Crusher ate my '58!