I love aircooled Volkswagens. I should—in theory—hate Paul Nelson’s car, but I can’t. It’s a Mazda Miata under a Type 3 body, and I ain’t even mad.
The nice thing about aircooled VWs is anything you want to do to them can be done within the aircooled universe. Need more power? Swap on bigger cylinders. My favorite race car of all time was a VW Type 3 Fastback with a Type 4 engine swap. I wouldn’t say I’m a purist, but I like how much you can do to an aircooled VW while keeping it an aircooled VW.
Nelson, however, is in the process of dropping a 1968 Volkswagen Type 3 Fastback onto a (slightly lengthened) 2000 Mazda Miata chassis. I just keep staring at the photos of this thing and laughing. It’s total blasphemy, but that’s why it’s perfect.
“I guess the seed for this kind of madness started about 17 to 18 years ago when a coworker said that he was going to put a small block Chevy in his 240Z using a Jags That Run kit,” Nelson told Jalopnik via email. “My mind was blown and I’ve been obsessed with doing a motor swap project ever since.”
Originally, he wanted to pick up a small pre-1975 project like a Datsun 510 or MGB GT that would be exempt from Californian smog testing. (Readers outside of California will not understand how surprisingly important that is.) Then he’d just swap in Miata suspension and whichever engine tickled his fancy. He already had a 2000 Miata, so he figured everything would be a bit more familiar. But then he realized, hey, that whole Miata he had just lying around wouldn’t be worth too much if he sold it. And that’s how, about a year and a half ago, an idea was born.
Datsun 510s kept rising in price, and the MGB GT was a bit narrow for what he had in mind, but the rear-engine, rear-wheel-drive, aircooled and sufficiently old 1968 Volkswagen Type 3 hit the sweet spot. A mostly rust-free salvage-title Type 3 was acquired and that’s when the fun part began.
One of the most interesting things about old VWs is that their bodies ride on a pan that unbolts from the bottom. You can just lift the whole body shell off of the chassis. That’s what gave Nelson the idea of simply swapping out the Type 3's floor pan for the Miata’s—firewall, wiring harness, functional air conditioning and all.
It’s not an entirely original idea—there’s a Volvo P1800 out there swapped onto a Miata chassis, and a clever BMW 2002/Honda S2000 mash-up. But that such crazy car combos exist gave Nelson the confidence to go through with this Type Threeata idea.
First, he’s getting the hard parts out of the way: all the fabrication work needed to toss a Type 3 onto the mismatched under-bits of a Miata.
“The easiest part of these two vehicles being mashed together is that their inner bodies are almost the exact same width pinch weld to pinch weld,” Nelson said. “All I had to do was trim the fat, so to speak.”
It was hard for him to chop up the Miata he’d enjoyed for years, but he said it had to be done for something much cooler to take shape. The Miata chassis went on a homebuilt chassis jig Nelson made so he could cut it in half along a seam that runs along the floor behind the seats. From there, he slid the back chunk of the car back about five and a half inches to match the longer Volkswagen wheelbase and joined the two halves of the car back together.
Like in the Miata, the battery will sit in the trunk of the car, on the passenger side. The fuel tank also sits back there, in the Miata’s usual location.
Paul ran one-inch by three-inch rectangle tube along the whole chassis to lower the hollowed-out Volkswagen body onto. This also helped shore up the door sills from the Miata, which had to be trimmed to half their height to fit inside the Type 3 doors.
Everything didn’t match up completely perfectly, so more fab work had to be done.
Nelson plans to box in the gap between the rear crash bar of the Miata and the end of the Volkswagen with metal. A 3/4-inch hex bolt in the crash bar was welded in to allow a spot for a tow ring screw in from the outside, behind the license plate.
Up front, the Miata was a little bit longer than the Volkswagen, so the front of the frame horns had to be trimmed back slightly to fit under the Type 3 body. Like the rear, a hex bolt was welded in to add a tow hook behind the license plate for track use.
The hardest part so far has been the dash and the area around where it meets the door and windshield. It all had to be reshaped to ensure the HVAC worked properly without sucking in water, debris or engine air. The Miata’s windshield wiper motor will eventually get tied into the Volkswagen wiper linkages so everything looks relatively stock on the outside.
The extra parts even went on to help with other peoples’ projects, so you can’t even fault Paul for hacking up two extremely good cars. Members of the Bay Area Miata Drivers Club and other local enthusiasts called dibs on the surplus Miata parts. Team RA Motorsports called dibs on the nose and front fenders. The Volkswagen pan—complete with a good fuel tank, EMPI wheels, transmission and the 1.8-liter engine from a Porsche 914 somewhere along the way—went to a father and son project.
Honestly, my only disappointment is that I didn’t get the 914 engine for my Type 4.
Nelson’s car is a little over halfway done, with just finishing out non-structural metal, painting and all the little details left to go as far as bodywork goes. Right now, he’s trying to figure out how to hinge the ex-frunk hood around the engine he wants in there: a slightly more powerful 2.4-liter GM Ecotec one.
Nelson plans to use this franken-wagen as a daily driver, so the Miata’s HVAC, airbags and other accessories will stay. It will also see some track time, because let’s be honest, that’s basically required if you have a Miata. Once all the fab work on the body is done, he plans to do the Ecotec engine swap using a kit from EcotecMiata.ca.
He originally considered keeping the Miata’s original 1.8-liter engine as it already had an M45 supercharger added to it, but the Ecotec swap isn’t too expensive, and won’t have the heat and reliability issues.
Ecotec engines are a popular Miata swap lately because they offer a nice, reliable boost in power, and doesn’t require any modifications to the Miata’s subframe to shoehorn in. It works just fine with the Miata transmission and its Torsen differential, so those will stay in place on Nelson’s car. In the end, he’ll end up tuning the new engine to somewhere around 200 horsepower and 200 ft-lbs of torque. That’s about quadruple the power that the Type 3 originally had, which was about 53 hp.
Since all the suspension and interior is Miata, there’s a lot of available parts to go on it: Flyin’ Miata V-Maxx Xxtreme coilovers, Flyin’ Miata roll bars and also some Jass Performance Miata dashboard dress-up parts.
When it’s done, one of the only exterior mods that will give away what’s been done to the Type 3 will be a set of black 15" x 8" 949 Racing 6UL wheels, two-inch fender flares to cover the meatier 205-width BFGoodrich Rival tires, and a grille cut into the normally grille-less Type 3 nose to keep the new Ecotec engine cool and fed with air. The patina on the Type 3 body is lovely, so Nelson says he may spray over it with clearcoat, or alternately, paint it all gunmetal grey.
Other than that, this could be the ultimate sleeper. Nelson plans to keep the exhaust fairly quiet, such that you’d have to be really close to notice that it’s not the usual sputtery sound of a pancake four-banger.
Best of all, it’s been a surprisingly budget friendly project.
“I haven’t really been keeping a running cost of the boughts/solds but after all of it is said and done, the single most expensive part of this whole build will be the motor swap kit, followed by the mess of seals and windshield and stuff I’ll be getting from ISP West,” Nelson explained.
You’d have to be the biggest purist killjoy on the planet to not love this rad little sleeper and if that’s you, laugh! Live a little. Lighten up. Stop and smell the burnout smoke. Shut off the computer, go outside, and consider stuffing a Cummins 4BT up the butt of a Beetle or something. It’s good for you.
We’re featuring the coolest project cars from across the internet on Build of the Week. What insane build have you been wrenching on lately? Drop me a line at stef dot schrader at jalopnik dot com with “Build of the Week” somewhere in the subject line if you’d like to be featured here.