I was just starting college and my father provided me with a new car. It sold new for $2100 dollars, which was a tidy sum. Its color was Chinese red and it had a sunroof. In a few years it would become my race car.
It was when VWs had air cooled flat four engines. The Superbeetle model did away with the torsion bar in front and went with a strut front suspension. The rear was torsion bar with a fully independent rear suspension. A four speed was all the gears you could expect.
In the first year I played around with better flowing air cleaners than the standard oil bath and experimented with some different exhaust systems. It wasn’t until I decided to get serious with the local sports car club and take up autocrossing that I really looked into modifying the car.
Keep in mind that this was decades prior to the Internet. Doing research on what could be done to improve the VW was demanding and did not produce much information of value. It meant finding every car magazine there was that had an article on VWs. It meant writing away for catalogs. It meant traveling to locate tuners that specialised in VWs.
One of my first challenges was that I knew I wanted to build an engine with plenty of power that would also keep me in the sedan 3 class that I wanted to compete in. I had never built an engine of any kind before. I had read a lot and felt confident that I knew the characteristics I wanted out of the engine and the parts it would take to give me those qualities. I knew that I needed an engine that would rev high. A lot higher than the stock engine could. VW engines were a horizontal opposed layout (like Subaru of today) and had a split case and removable cylinders. Stock you were living on the edge to rev much over 4000 rpm. Above that and you were likely to vibrate so bad that you would pound out the soft magnesium case. In order to rev as high as I wanted I would have to get a counter-weighted crankshaft and have the whole assembly dynamically balanced.
First was the engine case itself. I picked up a new case that had seen improvements since 1971. It had better oil galleries and threaded inserts in the case so the head bolts wouldn’t pull out of the soft alloy of the case itself. I got ahold of some black motorcycle case paint and painted the block. This was to provide as much cooling as possible. They were called air cooled engines, but the oil did a lot of the cooling. With that in mind I converted to a type four oil cooler that had greater cooling capacity. It meant modifying the fan shroud to fit, but it was worth the effort. Added to the case would be a heavy duty oil pump that incorporated a spin on oil filter. The stock VW engine had a simple screen to filter the oil. About all that screen did was catch the scary large contaminates. I also put in a windage tray in the oil sump that was cast as part of the split case. I also added baffling to the oil return at the bottom of the push rod tubes so that oil would stay near the oil pump pickup during hard cornering. I also had some perforated metal screen welded on the plate below the pickup to help keep oil from being pulled away.
This class required that I keep very close to the stock displacement so I used a 69mm counter-weighted crankshaft and 87mm pistons and cylinders. I used an eight pound flywheel and a clutch from a Porsche Carrera. I had the entire assembly balanced at a race shop in Marblehead.
The rods were weight matched as well as the pistons. To do this the pistons were all weighed and the lightest one was found. Then they were put in a lathe and metal was removed until they all weighed the same. The rods were weighed as well, first the large ends and then the small ends and by removing metal were all made equal. This meant that I would be able to rev close to 8000 rpm without damaging the case. It also meant that energy would be transferred into horsepower instead of wasted on vibrating.
I chose a cam shaft with .410″ lift and 286 degree duration. This allowed the engine to have a good idle, yet provided great breathing as the rpm increased. Chrome molly pushrods and heavy duty rocker shafts with equally weighted rocker arms and swivel footed adjusters finished off the valve train. Dual port heads with big stainless steel valves assured excellent breathing. Everything was ported and polished. The stock valve covers that were held on by a large spring clip were replaced with large cast aluminum covers that bolted on.
Bosch made a big blue coil and a mechanical advance distributor called the 019 that I used for spark. The spark plug of the day was Champion UL 82 Y. It was a little colder than the stock plugs. There was not a lot of choices in terms of plug wires so I just used a nice new set. The carburetor was a two-stage two barrel made by Weber.
Headers and turbo muffler came from an outfit called Treuhaft. They also campaigned a Superbeetle in TransAm racing. They were able to provide me with information on the Superbeetle that I never would have found on my own. One of the quirks of the US version of the Superbeetle was that while they came with front disk brakes in Germany they were converted to front drum brakes before they were sold over here. Something about a lack of confidence in the technology by Americans. Treuhaft provided me with the VW part numbers to convert the car back to disk brakes, which was a huge improvement.
I brought the part numbers to the VW dealership (steering knuckles 113 407 311F and 113 407 312F, rotors 311 405 583A, calipers 113 615 107A and 113 615 108A, splash shields 113 407 165) and was told that the part numbers would not work. I told them to order them anyway and a couple of weeks later all my parts arrived – handed over to me by an amazed parts department.
I changed the wheels from the stock 4″ wide rims to a steel Brazilian wheel that was 5 1/2 inches wide so that I could move up to a 165-15″ tire (huge at the time). A larger front anti-roll bar went on as well as a rear one (none came stock). The hub caps were replaced with chrome lug bolts. The transmission mounts were aided by Crown transaxle straps. I had taken the car out for a test ride and gotten air. When it came down it caught on the exhaust and snapped the nose of the transaxle. That wouldn’t happen again. Koni struts in the front and shocks in the rear were the best at the time.
On the inside I installed a roll bar and changed out the front seats for a pair of upholstered fiberglass seats with a six point safety harness. The steering wheel was swapped for a 13″ four spoke leather rimmed model. The rear seat was removed and covered with a simple deck. Type 3 rear brakes were used in the rear and a bias valve was put in to ensure that the fronts locked up first. The original speedometer was replaced with a 1973 model that would read as high as 100 mph. A VDO tachometer told me how high the engine speed was. The shifter was replaced with a short shifter and the rear view mirror was replaced with a Wink wide angle.
It became a flat cornering, high reving, sports car that put 100 hp to the wheels. That was quite impressive for 1973. It also allowed me to dominate the autocross class it was in. It was especially fun on the street to circle a traffic rotary with the engine screaming at over 7000 rpm. It didn’t sound like a VW any longer.
I learned a lot from that project. I also learned that you can fix your errors and do something with the insight gained that you could not have had without experiencing the mistakes.
I had a lot of fun in that car and often wonder if the next owner realized what a gem he had acquired. People still talk to me about that car.