Beetlejuiced: These are the craziest VWs ever made

Volkswagen’s new rallycross-ready Beetle GRC is not even close to being the wildest Bug ever. When specs of the car dropped earlier, there were gasps of astonishment: 544 horsepower! Zero to 100 kilometres per hour times under three seconds! Six-speed sequential manual transmission and all-wheel-drive!

Line that up to the current VW Beetle sitting in your local dealership, and it all sounds pretty impressive. Heck, stack those figures against the upcoming 290 hp Golf R and it still sounds like the sort of thing to turn a driver into a bug-eyed lunatic.

But let’s hop in our air-cooled time machine and wander back through the years. Sure, the VW Beetle is best known as the People’s Car, but here’s what happens when the people in question are just plain crazy.

The Inch Pincher

Beetlejuiced: Hot Rod VW's

The EMPI Inch Pincher had a pretty cool tow rig.

Imagine giving up your daily-driver econobox so Sebastien Vettel could borrow it for a spec race. That’s pretty much what happened to Darrell Vittone when F1 star Dan Gurney decided he wanted a go at the Grand Prix of Volkswagens. Gurney owned a 550 Porsche Spyder he’d bought from Joe Vittone, Darrell’s dealership-owner father, and thus a bright-red ’56 Bug found itself thrust into the spotlight. It was just the beginning.

Aside from dealing in VWs and Porsches, Vittone Sr. had found himself a niche market in selling VW performance parts, something that Volkswagen of America couldn’t be bothered with: the company was called “EMPI” for Engineering Motor Products International. His son’s car was fairly stock, with just 36 hp under that rear lid, but such would not be the case for long.

Gurney ran the car successfully, winning the ’63 event with ease – this despite race officials forcing him to cover up his tachometer as he was so much faster than everyone else. Next year some engine tuning was allowed but a few of the engine modifications didn’t pass muster. Non-stock valve springs meant that the first-place trophy had to be surrendered, an irritation that saw Vittone give up on the race-circuit and head for the dragstrip.

Beetlejuiced: Hot Rod VW's

The EMPI Inch Pincher was the original hot-rod VW.

With a new 1700cc engine swapped in and some weight-savings, the little red Beetle lined up at the lights to guffaws from the V8 hot-rodders. Soon, laughing time was over. The Bug was quick at first, laying down a 14.9 second elapsed time, and it just kept getting better.

Running the new lightweight BRM alloys and powered by a supercharged 1600cc engine, the Inch Pincher was soon handing Chevys and Fords their heads on a platter. It now went through the traps in 12.7 seconds, an admirable elapsed time even by today’s standards. The moniker “Inch Pincher” was bestowed because the little Bug could get so much speed out of so few cubic inches.

Two more variants of the Inch Pincher would be built from the ground up, but the original car disappeared into the mists of time. An original door was found recently, which whipped the air-cooled VW community into a fever pitch; with countless wins under its belt, the Inch Pincher blazed the way for thousands of VW hot-rodding enthusiasts, encouraging many to take up a wrench and start cranking on that Beetle.

However, when it comes to draggin’ ‘wagens, there is one Bug that’s even more insane.

The Black Widow

Beetlejuiced: Hot Rod VW's

The Black Widow had a rocket-powered rear axle. Yes really.
Supplied, Turbonique

On a dragstrip in California, Tommy Ivo’s four-wheel-drive, quad-engined Show Boat drag-rail lumps up to the line opposite a flat-black Volkswagen Beetle. Ivo’s colossal creation is powered by four – four! – Buick nailhead V8s, for a total of 1,720 hp.

That’s nearly thirty litres of displacement spinning four nine-inch-wide slick tires down the dragstrip, dispatching the quarter-mile in just over nine seconds. It’s earth-shaking, ground-pounding, teeth-rattling thunder of a sort not usually seen outside of the blister pack of a Hot Wheels.

The homely little VW that faces down this leviathan of speed has a nifty flat-black paintjob, and fairly large rear tires. Aside from that, we have a completely unfair showdown: not so much David vs. Goliath as David vs. Godzilla, and a Godzilla that’s been huffing straight nitro-methane to boot.

The Christmas tree dragstrip light count down the ambers; three, two, one, GO! Ivo’s insane Frankenstein monster shoots gouts of flame from its shortened headers – and the ‘Bug promptly smokes it down the dragstrip, clinching victory with a 9.36-second pass. That was in 1966, and that’s a time still good enough to blow the doors off a Bugatti Veyron, a LaFerrari, or a McLaren P1. In a Beetle!

Beetlejuiced: Hot Rod VW's

The Black Widow bug met a sad, but somewhat predictable demise.
Supplied, Turbonique

The trick up the sleeve of Roy Drew, the charismatic driver of the Black Widow, was emblazoned in proud sponsorship script down the side of the victorious Bug. “Turbonique” it said – so what was that exactly?

Well, it was possibly the most insanely dangerous device ever fitted to any car, let alone a funny little German economy car with a curb weight under 800 kilograms. It’s called the Turbonique Drag Axle, and it operated thusly. Under normal driving, this modified rear axle allowed power to pass through the front part of the differential in the normal manner. A small protuberance growing off the rear portion of the housing added no more than 50 kg, and contained, well, it contained a solid fuel rocket booster. Flip the ignition switch and light the candle, and suddenly 1,300 hp would be transferred directly to the rear wheels. I’m going to have to say this again – in a Beetle!

Sadly, Turbonique’s entire catalogue of new and interesting ways to die soon found itself the victim of red tape, liability, and reliability issues, and then the Black Widow crashed, going airborne at 300 km/h. It rolled end-over-end through the traps at the dragstrip, but incredibly, Roy Drew walked away.

 The Newman ’63 Convertible

Beetlejuiced: Hot Rod VW's

Would you suspect this cute little bug to have monstrous V8 power?

Many people are familiar with Paul Newman’s legitimate motor-racing abilities, and a few more know of the pair of unique Volvos he and David Letterman had built. These were real sleepers with supercharged V8s lurking under their hoods, their humdrum station wagon bodies lulling muscle car owners into a false sense of security, and then lighting them up at the track.

Newman also had a VW Beetle.

It was a convertible, bright-red in colour, given to him in 1963 after he lent his name and face to an advertising campaign for the company. At the time, the cheery VW was a favourite among those who loved the little car for its efficiency and simplicity. Folks didn’t mind that it took a little longer to get places, because the Beetle was just such a sturdy little car. The star of Cool Hand Luke had other ideas – he stuck a V8 in it.

The build was performed by Jerry Eisert of California, an experienced manufacturer of racing cars for the Indy series. He swapped in a mid-mounted 351c.i. Windsor V8 cranking out some 300-plus horsepower, bolted in a 5-speed ZF transmission like that found in a Ford GT40, and fabbed up a one-off custom suspension that replaced the VW’s swing-axle rear-end with essentially a contemporary racing setup. The result looked like a convertible Bug, but it drove like an open-wheel Indy car.

Newman delighted in blowing the doors off ‘Vettes and the like in his cute little car, and frequently showed up at track days to take a little wind out of the sails of blowhards in Shelbys. The Bug wasn’t just a straightline machine at all, but could carve up the apexes provided there was a skilled driver at the helm. Newman certainly had the chops to get the power down.

Typical of the actor’s philanthropic nature, the car was donated to Chaffey College in Riverside, Calif. Here, automotive students worked on the car and kept it in good running condition. It recently passed into private hands, was fully restored, and offered up on eBay for a cool quarter-million dollars.

The Fittipaldi Twin-Engine Beetle

Beetlejuiced: Hot Rod VW's

Two engines are always better than one.
Supplied, Quatro Rodas Classicos

Rally enthusiasts probably already know about Volkwagen’s successful campaigning of several specially-prepped cars in the early 1970s. These were known as the Salzberg Beetles, and they performed admirably, as befits their rugged nature. Fitted with reworked engines making close to 130 hp, they were capable of scampering over any sort of terrain.

Pretty neat stuff, but let’s talk about a rallying VW Beetle that’s a little more unhinged.

Brazil has always had a special affinity for the Beetle, and the country has produced any number of top-level drivers as well. Thus, the happy combination of winning Formula One driver Emerson Fittipaldi and one of the zaniest Volkswagens ever.

In the 1960s, Volkswagen had a quite successful racing series called Formula Vee, utilizing simple VW mechanicals to make small open-wheel race cars for the budget-minded racer. Fittipaldi’s family was involved in both the Vee cars and other VW tuning, so the Beetle seemed a natural fit when building an entrant for a challenging local thousand-mile endurance race. However, the other cars entered were champions like the Ford GT40, or purpose-built prototype racers. How to compete in a 36 hp economy car?

Beetlejuiced: Hot Rod VW's

One of these things is not like the other…
Supplied, Quatro Rodas Classicos

Well, first off, we’re going to need to upgrade that engine. And, to be on the safe side, maybe we should have two of ‘em.

Fitting two tuned-up VW motors to create a 3.2L flat-eight engine, the Fittipaldis bolted in the five-speed out of a Porsche 550 Spyder and cobbled together a tube-frame chassis weighing just 500 kg. They built a basic firewall and some very rudimentary concessions to safety, and then decided that 260 hp wasn’t enough. The conjoined engines were bored out to 2.2L each for a combined power output north of 400 hp, and this beast of a Bug was let loose on the track.

It didn’t win, and in fact it didn’t quite finish the entire thousand miles of Guanabara. However, for multiple laps, mostly done sideways, the humpy shape of a VW Beetle diced it up with low-slung LeMans champions and open-cockpit racecars. It was a sight twice as comical as any Disney movie featuring Herbie the Lovebug could hope to be – proof that nothing’s as crazy as real life.

After the car bowed out of the race, it was stripped down for parts. A sadly ignominious end, just the same as many of the machines on this list: perhaps they were all just too crazy for this world.

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