Expert Reviews

Final Drive: 1971 Volkswagen Super Beetle

I'd like to think what we're doing here today would really irritate Adolf Hitler. After all 'twas he of the silly 'stache and overbearing megalomania who conceived of the first Beetle, a humpy little economical runabout built for an entirely homogeneous population. Conformity, obedience, docility – a slavish worship of military strength and a suppression of the individual.

Well to hell with that.

Known colloquially as the Salzburg Beetles, the cars were meant to boost VW's sales, sliding through the gravel in European rally stages and right into European driveways. At least that was the theory.

With two fingers up in a flicked-V, this punch-buggy skitters out of a corner and blows an air-cooled flat-four raspberry right in that hateful face. Up yours, you anti-Semitic failed watercolourist!

*skkkrrrrkkk* Oops, that's second, not fourth. Better try that again.

Meet Dave Hord's 1971 Volkswagen Super Beetle, emphasis on “Super.” On the outside, it looks like one of the factory rally-spec Beetles that Porsche Austria fielded in the early 1970s; known colloquially as the Salzburg Beetles, the cars were meant to boost VW's sales, sliding through the gravel in European rally stages and right into European driveways. At least that was the theory.

Dave's car is half a tribute to these little-known machines, half a labour of love, half a bonkers rally-spec machine, and half a faithful old friend. I know that's too many halves to make a whole, but it did take him three separate cars to get enough rust-free sheet metal to build this one.

Out back, there's a professionally built 2.1L flat-four making something like 150 hp, more than twice what 1600cc Bugs made over here. It makes a noise like whackata-whackata-blat-blat-blat-blat-hrrrnnk-hrrrnnk-rrrrrrrr-RRRRRRR-YAAAAAAA! Or wait – that might be me.

The interior is entirely stripped, with a roll cage fitted by Rocket Rally (the shop currently running Subaru Canada's rally team), and a pair of narrow racing buckets of the kind that Dave's had in every one of his previous projects. Wait, how many of these things have you had, Dave?

“Licensed?” Hord, lanky and prone to grinning, pauses for thought, “Um, four. Eight to ten on top of that. For my dad's fortieth birthday we went through the photo albums counting all the Beetles he'd owned, and stopped when we hit fifty Bugs and he was still only thirty-five.”

That's the thing about the Beetle: it gets under people's skins. The most unlikely of phoenixes, this little car rose from the ashes of WWII to become pretty much anything you wanted it to be. Its stablemate, the Type-2 van, remains a poster car for the counter-culture movement of the 1960s, but the Beetle's appeal is even broader, and extends to a certain amount of nuttery. Building a lunatic racecar out of one just makes sense; far from being a symbol of conformity, the Beetle is both a car for everyone and a blank sheet of paper on which to draw your idea of what it should be. This one is the result of a notebook in which Hord jotted ideas and plans for two full years, and then mostly built himself. “It's like slipping into a familiar old sweatshirt,” he says.

I'm half a head shorter than Dave, so the sleeves are hanging down a little here. “Do you need the seat pushed back?” he asks solicitously.

“Does it go back?”

“Uh. No. We don't have the mallet with us.”

Oh well. Click-click-click-click goes the racing harness, on go the aircraft-style headsets, off comes the lock on the three-foot-long emergency brake, and with a farty little grumble, the Rally Bug gets on its way.

At first, it feels a bit like riding a borrowed horse. The steering has no damping, so the racing-style wheel bucks and shimmies in my grasp, like a cantankerous nag taking the bit in its teeth and trying to wrench away the reins. This thing ain't Herbie the Love-Bug – “Hey!” it seems to protest, “You're not Dave!”

I respond by accidentally grinding the hell out of second gear on the Porsche 911 dogleg transmission. Oops.

“Told ya that'd happen,” says Dave cheerily, “Go easy over those train tracks, we don't want to bottom out.”

The Bug parples over the rails, and off onto a road that leads deep into the countryside around Squamish, running to nowhere. After a few speed bumps, there's nothing but rumpled tarmac and mossy trees; it's like somebody ran a paving machine and a line-painter down a creek.

First impression: Loud. LOUD. Why do people like Beetles so much anyway?

Second impression: Oh hang on. Oh my. Oh yes indeedy-do. Whee!

Third impression: You know, there are a lot of places to hide a body around here. Significant glance at Dave. 

But that's not right – this car has something you can't steal. It'd never really be happy with anyone else in the saddle except for the one who brought it up from a foal, so to speak. Not to mention that I don't have any idea what half of these buttons and gauges are for. It's a bit like being handed the keys to a Twin Otter after a five-minute flying lesson. “Here's the stick, there's the throttle, your feet go on the rudders. Go.”

And then we swap seats back and Dave shows what the Rally Bug can really do. Under his hands, a clearly familiar pattern begins to emerge: his left foot slides over for a touch of braking as the front slightly washes wide, the back comes around on the throttle and the little Bug just whangs through the corner like a pinball coming off a flipper. You can feel it through the chassis, a little slide, a little pivot – Dave's grin gets even bigger.

This is the first outing for the Rally Bug this season, and at the end of the run Hord pops the engine cover and reaches in to adjust the all-over-the-place idle. “I love this car,” he says fondly. Because of how loud the past half-hour just was, I ask him to repeat himself.

This bond between man and machine is actually Hord's daily bread these days. Along with his long-time friend Warwick Patterson, a cameraman covering rallying and other racing, Dave founded Classic Car Adventures based on the idea that there might be other nuts out there who'd prefer to drive their classic cars rather than just sit at home buffing their bumpers.

The company started out with their Spring Thaw run in 2010, and this year has expanded to events in Ontario and Colorado. You get all kinds of stuff showing up at the runs: classic American muscle, cantankerous two-stroke Saabs, pre-war Aston Martins, Mini Mokes. The owners are equally as varied, but they do tend to have one common thread.

“Oh, I already know what I'll do for the next one,” Dave says, “But I'll never strip out this car. I'm keeping it for sure.”

Over the past year and a half, Dave's put about fifty thousand kilometres on this car, roving around finding the best roads for his company's events, or just taking an aimless drive like today's. It's an extension of his personality, a bundle of charm and little flaws that eschews restoration and favours individuality. It's a triumph of a personal vision over cookie-cutter concours perfection.

Hitler would have hated it. We love it.