This blog chronicles the glory days and ultimate swansong of the Beetle that my brother, Dean, had originally acquired in 1973.
Main picture: The VW Beetle before being modified
Herbie Rides again
Just as The Love Bug featuring Herbie had a sequel in 1977, Herbie Goes To Monte Carlo, so too did Dean’s uninvited guest have a remake at the same time. How this came about was that I had a project that I never finished to upgrade a 1966 VW Variant Station Wagon. It had a 1600cc motor which I had sorted and a 12V electrical system, all of which I proposed to fit in the Beetle. Our Herbie might not have gone to Monte Carlo but it went to UCT from PE and back many a time and quite respectfully, or disrespectfully depending on your point of view.
Herbie 2: The Little Car That Could
I decided to convert the Deans’ Beetle to a 12V system and used all the Variant’s instrumentation including its clock and fuel gauge. The larger fusebox was installed and the wipers converted to 12V operation by the simple expedient of fitting a suitable resistor. The headlights now made driving at night a viable proposition.
I bought another completely scrap Beetle of younger vintage for R100 just for the gearbox/rear suspension and the front suspension. Andre Fourie helped me tow this car home late one dark night when we hoped the cops were abed. The reason was that it would improve the separation of the rear wheels by about 3-4” and hence its cornering ability.
At this point I must digress a bit. The beauty about the Beetle was the ability to mix and match across the years and the models. Just about everything can be bolted on and bolted off. In addition the engine is extremely light and simple to remove. I could remove it singlehandedly and only needed one other person to install without a block and tackle. This time I had the new challenge of changing the gearbox and front suspension. Both are integrated units with the former including the halfshafts and hubs – rather heavy. In my own inimical way, I eschewed asking for help and did it alone. In the case of the gearbox, it was a case of loosening all the bolts, whereupon the gearbox would lie in place in its wishbone support. With the car precariously supported on bricks I slid under the gearbox at which point the games began. Lying under gearbox, I slid it out of the wishbone and onto my chest. All that remained now was to wriggle out from under its crushing weight and then to drag it out from underneath the car. Installation of the replacement followed the opposite procedure. Removing and refitting the front suspension assembly also required a similar exercise that was a combination of Pilates, yoga, weightlifting and contortionism. Swearing and the enjoyment of grease and dirt were also useful.
I also proposed to use the Variant motor as it was now quite hot. It had twin carbs and I had modified it to a sportscar compression ratio of about 10:1 up from 7.7:1. The problem was that the Variant motor was flat with the fan at the rear of the motor, facing rearwards. No problem. The Beetle got a half a Baja Bug treatment with a rear chop and nice raucous Beach Buggy exhaust pipes were fitted.
I was good to go.
Herbie 2: St Christopher Works Nights Too
One lonely Saturday night, while at UCT, found me inspecting the contents of a number of beer bottles at the pub in G block, University House Res, wishing that I had a girlfriend. Well I had, but Liz was 750km away. What’s the use of a girlfriend like that? At about 10pm I got tired of watching the darts players and decided to take my other love, the Beetle, for a ride. A spin around the roads of the Upper Campus was guaranteed to get the adrenaline pumping and metabolise some alcohol. Upper Campus is halfway up Devils Peak and the roads there were made for aspirant boy racers as it comprised a series of parallel straights, connected by tight right angles bends at the ends. It was perfect for the Beetle as although it didn’t have a good top speed, it had a very respectable acceleration and cornered nice and flat with a nicely controllable oversteer. It had the further advantage of being absolutely deserted at night with narry a sign of security like it is nowadays. You could be a right Top Gear tosser and no one would even know and the cops couldn’t touch you being private property.
Above: Near fateful night of adrenaline
After I got bored with being a tosser, I headed off back to Res. I screamed off down Woolsack Drive and aimed to do a crunching stop at the Tee junction on the top of the Baxter Rd bridge. Things went nicely as I slipped onto the off ramp at about 80kph, slammed the car into 3rd and stomped on the brakes. Disaster. After a brief hesitation, the brake pedal just plunged to the floor. I later found that a corroded pipe had burst, and being only a single braking circuit, it meant that was there was not even a glimmer of brakes. The only thing slowing me down me down was the third gear and the corner approached too fast to reach for the handbrake. I knew that if I didn’t make the corner, I would burst through the Armco and drop about 20ft on the other side – not an inviting prospect. My upgraded suspension saved the day again as I hauled a left handed broadside at about 70kph. Much chastened and embarrassed yet again I slowly threaded my way through the quiet roads around the residences.
How many slings and arrows of outrageous fortune did I still have to suffer?
Herbie 2: VW v. Datsun
I think it was my 3rd year September vacs when my friend, Mike Spiers, invited me to stay over at his parents’ holiday house on Leisure Island in Knysna. Liz was due to fly up from PE and Mike’s girlfriend, Nicky, also went down. She drove a big fuck-off BMW 5 series while Mike drove his Datsun 120Y station wagon. I couldn’t lift with him as his car was full of diving stuff. Somewhere around Riversdale, Nicky got tired of us and blasted off into the distance. It was earlier evening just after Mossel Bay when Mike signalled me to pull over. His car’s radiator was blown. No problem – I towed him the 100 odd kms into Knysna but the Beetle sounded increasingly erratic the further we progressed. Night had fallen when we thankfully pulled into his parents’ house.
When we stopped, I saw that Mike’s windscreen was covered in oil and he told me that my beach buggy pipes had been glowing red at the engine junction but he hadn’t wanted to tell me otherwise I would have stopped – bastard. The engine had got so hot that oil just pissed out everywhere. The reason was that the Variant motor picked up its cooling air from the rear. In the Variant it is ducted there. In my installation it was in a partial vacuum. This was normally OK but with towing Mike so close, the two cars tended to act as one and the air flowed over both of them creating a larger vacuum at the air intake. The increased load didn’t help one bit either.
The great thing about an aircooled engine is that it doesn’t overheat in the conventional sense. There are no head gaskets to blow so it will just get hotter and hotter until it catches alight. We hadn’t reached that point but we came pretty close judging by Mike’s observations. But the high heat does allow the light Al block to relieve some of its casting stresses and distort (hence the oil leaks) and the tappet clearances to change, hence the misfiring.
With the addition of a bit of oil and the resetting of the tappets we were ready to slay dragons again.
Herbie 2: Hop-a-long Cassidy
In the second half of my fourth year, Herbie was feeling its age. It had broken an engine/gearbox mounting and so pull offs become a finely judged exercise with the engine shuddering and the car bouncing. To compound this, the floor pan eventually rusted away around the driver’s seat causing it to wobble and rock quite precariously about a hinge at the rear formed by the only bit of unrusted floorpan. This now made pull offs an exquisitely judged procedure which I had down to a fine art. I would rest most of my weight on the right hand side of the seat as it was more stable there.
I coped with the situation as I had little use for the car what with a girlfriend in the flat and all, so it didn’t bother me until one day I had to do a hill pull off at some traffic lights.
I messed up. My normal impeccable judgement got screwed in my complacency and I did the most monstrous kangaroo hops you have ever seen. It was a perfect example of an unstable resonant system that I had just completed studying about in ME406, Mechanics of Machines.
As I pushed the accelerator, the car accelerated and the seat leant backwards which pulled my foot backwards. The car then decelerated and the seat leant forwards and I inadvertently increased the pressure on the accelerator, etc, etc, etc, etc.
I hopped around the corner and was so embarrassed that as soon as I had hopped around the corner I grabbed the handbrake to put an end to everything. I immediately dived under the car, pretending that something had just broken and I waited until all possible witnesses had disappeared before I got back in the car and carefully slunk my way home. Needless to say, my hand had been forced. I wasted no time replacing the mounting and pop riveting some pieces of steel onto the floorpan again.#
The Beetle was good to go on its final adventure.
Herbie 2: From Dust to Dust
The Beetle was much loved but suffered an ignominious demise. On its final trip back to PE, packed to the gunnels with Liz and all our stuff, we headed out at about 11 0’ clock at night. We struggled into the teeth of a Black South Easter. At the final hairpin bend at the top of Sir Lowry’s pass, the car was suddenly exposed to the full force of the wind funneling through the gap which ripped the bonnet loose and slammed it into the windscreen. It was quite a hairy moment as we were doing about 80kph, it was pitch black and gouting down and I couldn’t see out front while I tried to negotiate the hairpin. I managed to bring the car to a stop on the corner by looking out the side window. The window shaped imprint in the bonnet wasn’t that bad but the reaction at the pivots when the bonnet suddenly stopped against the windscreen pulled the dash down and left a gap across the bottom of the window. We plugged the gap up with tissues, roped the bonnet down and got home with water leaking into the car. This was serious panel beating beyond my capabilities and anyway I was off to the army.
I removed the motor and some personal things – the St Christopher, the wooden doorhandle and gear knob – and left it parked forlornly on the pavement. Just before I left for the army I phoned some scrap dealer to pick it up from the pavement. I thought he would treat it with respect. He summarily smashed both side quarter windows, passed a chain through and dragged it onto the back of his lowbed.
I truly shed a tear. We had come a long way together and we had both changed beyond recognition. It was now quite sporty with a chopped back and a souped up flat VW Variant motor with dual carbs, adjustable shocks, stiffer anti roll bars, a special anti-sway system at the rear and a new paint job. I too had changed but whereas I had a bright future, it only had the knackers yard to look forward to.
RIP my trusty friend.