How to hot rod a little bug!
January 1, 2018 8:53 PM   Subscribe

How to hot rod a little bug! I mean, this is a Volkswagen Beetle, and if it is as bored and stroked as much as it can be (and it isn't) it's what, 147cui? Less? For a vehicle a half century old? How can you make a fast car out of that boxer rear-engined antiquated hot mess? Watch.

I mean, this is a Volkswagen Beetle, bored and stroked as much as it can be (and it isn't) it's what, 147cui? Less? For a vehicle a half century old? How can you make a fast car out of that boxer rear-engined antiquated hot mess?


Well, let us show you.


One day, track speed will be about how much battery you can cram into the car without the drivetrain grenading after looking at it funny. Until then, here's a VW air cooled race engine build. N'joy.
posted by Slap*Happy (50 comments total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
 
Those links appear to both go to a big standard engine rebuild. Which is fine, but I don’t think it’s what it says on the tin.
posted by wotsac at 9:05 PM on January 1 [8 favorites]


Well, at least he didn't have (what remained of anyway) a valve stem guide fall out of the (#3? I forget) cylinder when he pulled them off.

Buddy that was helping me fix it up, who had MUCH MUCH more bug experience than anyone in a 20 mile radius, fell into a fit of laughing and gave the traditional response of "Whelp, there's your problem."

Rebuilt the top and away she went. The '62 is still sitting in storage for the move over to our new locale where a electric conversion will be next on the agenda.


Edit: thanks for the vid!
posted by RolandOfEld at 9:05 PM on January 1 [2 favorites]


Eh, those engines seem in much to good a shape. Tt's not a genuine VW bug engine to me, unless it's leaking gasoline onto the hot carburetor.
posted by happyroach at 9:13 PM on January 1 [2 favorites]


The Beetle engine gets a lot of grief, but it's a solid design for what it was. Problem is, most people abused the ever-lovin' shit out of it.

About 20 years ago I did a complete rebuild of a '71 bus engine due to a seized crankshaft - previous rebuilder was, shall we say, "a little too much of a Grateful Dead enthusiast" to do a meticulous job. I was really impressed with the over-engineering. Adding an external oil cooler and a tuned high-flow exhaust system made a noticeable difference in the power, and if I'd had more money at the time I absolutely would have gone with hotter cams, bigger cylinders, and better carbs for an even more significant boost. Now that I'm in a better place financially if VW van prices weren't so stupidly outrageous right now I'd probably give it another try. I really enjoyed driving and camping in that van....
posted by Greg_Ace at 9:42 PM on January 1 [3 favorites]


And this is the manual I would have used.
posted by Greg_Ace at 9:45 PM on January 1 [1 favorite]


Not going to lie, NOT a car person, but that was ALL kinds of quality motor porn!
posted by Samizdata at 9:46 PM on January 1 [1 favorite]


Here I was thinking if you want to put more power down on a VW Beetle you'd put an electric motor in the wheel hub of each of the front wheels, install a small battery, and have them recharge the battery from both cruising and deceleration. Plus you'd get some balance back on the 65-35 weight balance and make the thing less suicidal in its handling.
posted by Talez at 10:00 PM on January 1 [6 favorites]


Having watched the video in the OP: Wow, is that ever a blast from the past! I didn't disassemble the carburetor to quite that extent, but other than that it's pretty much what I did with stock parts...and no fancy specialty tools or engine stands. Just a lot of patience, time, and frequent references to my indispensable guides: the Haynes, Bentley, and "Compleat Idiot" manuals. And now I want to do it all over again, but this time with the aforementioned hot-rod mods.
posted by Greg_Ace at 10:26 PM on January 1 [1 favorite]


And this is the manual I would have used.

I have that manual!

But for the life of me, I can't understand why *anybody* would put that amount of effort into any beetle newer than (USA model) 1965.

At least it wasn't the awful bulbous nose-up curved windshield superbug of the 1970s, but once you hit the vertical headlights and horrible big round tail lights it's just not that nice a car anymore.
posted by UbuRoivas at 12:29 AM on January 2


Can’t remember when the headlights changed, but the round taillights were ‘70 and later, I believe. Our various 68’s didn’t have them.

My biggest take away is how easy life would be with a rack.

My dad has had 25+ pre-1975 VWs (10ish during my lifetime), and much of my life has consisted of helping him work on them. Nothing like manually adjusting the drum brakes of a Bug before work because the other Bug had a “dome” light that would come on at 2am and drain the battery. Or adjusting the points on the side of the freeway with a matchbook and a screwdriver.

I did a lot of stuff that would have been sooooooo much easier with a rack.

Also, growing up that way is why my sisters and I have new Japanese cars never ever brake down.

Dad has graduated to trying to install two Nissan Leaf packs into a 90’s prototype electric Chevy S10 he bought from some Tennessee electric company (23 years old, 800 total miles). So I guess there is some more “help me out for a few minutes (really hours/days) on this” in my feature.
posted by sideshow at 12:56 AM on January 2 [2 favorites]


Mmmmm...plenty of far more deserving beetles here.

Although they probably already have pretty decent engines.
posted by UbuRoivas at 1:02 AM on January 2


Why bother? They are slow death traps. A colleague of mine died when his bug hit a tree. No air bags, no anti-lock brakes, no crumple zones give you a safety nightmare, especially with all of the SUVs and pickups rolling around. And then there's the rust. They pollute more, aren't comfortable, have no diagnostics,and don't have any sort of performance without extreme mods.

Yes, there are the heavily modded bugs which are crazy fast on the quarter mile, but those are not daily drivers. I'd rather take a Miata and upgrade that.
posted by coberh at 1:49 AM on January 2 [3 favorites]


Problem is, most people abused the ever-lovin' shit out of it.

That's mainly because a Beetle motor can have the everlovin' shit abused out of it and all that happens is it eventually drinks more oil than fuel. It never actually dies.

After finishing our drive around Australia in Rufus the Wonky Bus, a Kombi with a 1600cc tall (Beetle) motor we bought in Adelaide for $1500, we gave him away to a friend. Christ only knows how much that gift cost him. A lot, I think.

Driving the Gibb River Road with the oil filler cap missing was probably an error.
posted by flabdablet at 2:02 AM on January 2


Why bother? They are slow death traps. A colleague of mine died when his bug hit a tree. No air bags, no anti-lock brakes, no crumple zones give you a safety nightmare, especially with all of the SUVs and pickups rolling around. And then there's the rust. They pollute more, aren't comfortable, have no diagnostics,and don't have any sort of performance without extreme mods.

Mine's over half a century old and still going strong.

Not one single one of the modern cars you fawn over will still be going around at 50, other than serious high end collectibles.

She's perfectly fine & fast enough for my purposes (getting around town) with a 1600 in her and turns heads wherever I go, despite being one of the most produced cars in history (actually the #1, except Toyota counted numerous completely different cars as the same Corolla, which is cheating really). Hardly a week goes by without yet another offer to buy slipped under her wiper.

The realistic feedback you get from the road reminds you of the conditions, and that you are in fact rolling around in a chunk of metal - something that the hermetically insulated cocoons these days spectacularly fail to do (in the name of "comfort").

So you don't speed because you really feel and hear it. When I drive a modern car, in contrast, I'm nought to 60 in a few seconds without even realising it.

And I haven't died yet. In fact, I've never had an accident, either at fault or innocent. Maybe it's just luck, or maybe some of it's because decades of riding pushbikes in traffic, or motorbikes, or driving beetles has taught me something about being aware of the conditions, and situational awareness of what's going on around me.
posted by UbuRoivas at 3:06 AM on January 2 [8 favorites]


Not one single one of the modern cars you fawn over will still be going around at 50, other than serious high end collectibles.
I don't see that as any type of problem. Newer cars are more efficient, safer, have higher performance, are more comfortable, and have more capabilities. Give me an Accord any day instead of an old Bug.

While you have been lucky enough to not have an accident (and of course I wish that continues for you), but if everyone was still driving 50+ year old cars, the automobile death rate would be something like 3 times what it is now.
And there have been many times when I have been stuck behind a bug moving at maximum speed. I remember one ad when VW introduced the new Beetle: "0-60: yes".
posted by coberh at 4:14 AM on January 2 [9 favorites]


Yep. Old cars are absolutely, without question, death traps. Accidents that would be fully survivable with little or no injury in a modern car become lethal in an older car.
posted by Talez at 4:33 AM on January 2 [5 favorites]


Unsafe at any speed
posted by lalochezia at 5:08 AM on January 2


I drove my girlfriend's new '73 beetle on a snowy road once. It ignored my request to turn left, and kept on its chosen path. Fortunately there was road in that direction. Not a good snow car, other than being good at moving from a stop. A friend had clutch trouble in his bug on a cold skiing trip. He'd made the mistake of using the defroster, and a block of ice formed under the clutch pedal so it wouldn't go down far enough to disengage.

I understand they can be made into good dune buggies.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 5:27 AM on January 2


Small on Safety - The Designed in Dangers of the Volkswagen - by Ralph Nader's Center For Auto Safety
posted by rfs at 5:27 AM on January 2


And there have been many times when I have been stuck behind a bug moving at maximum speed.

And so, so, so many times that my bug has been stuck behind some modern behemoth with unfathomably little acceleration or seeming ability to drive at the speed limit before hitting the next traffic light. At least I can nip around them without any trouble. I 100% echo UbuRoivas' sentiment.
posted by Hal Mumkin at 5:35 AM on January 2 [1 favorite]


I echo UbuRoivas as well. My life history is full of dangerous cars: a 1970 Suburban with a non-collapsible steering column that wanted to impale you. You learned pretty quick to keep a safe distance between you and anybody else. A 1973 Monte Carlo where the only valid descriptor is "boat". The 1974 Beetle. And the 1977 Pinto wagon. Of all of those, the Beetle was the most fun. Wind that baby up, run it through the gears (no clutch needed), and get up to "speed" - all the while feeling the tires hitting every bump through the steering wheel. And smearing the frost off the glass because the word "defroster" didn't exist in that car.

I like being hyper-aware of the road conditions and the people around me. An unsafe car doesn't mean an unsafe driver, and worrying about all the other drivers on the road becomes irrelevant when you know where they are and what they're doing - because you can hear them and see them much more keenly than you do in a modern car. Modern cars wrap you up in bubble wrap and that XM radio you like so much is keeping you from hearing sirens and god knows what else.

So yeah, give me a Bug. Great little cars.
posted by disclaimer at 5:57 AM on January 2 [2 favorites]


I loved my old super-bug from my college days in the 90s (it was 20+ years old by then), but I would never want to take a family member for a street ride in one today knowing what we know now about safety.

I am, however, weighing various mid-life crises, and building a replica Porsche Spyder 550 kit car with a hot-rod VW engine, roll-cage and five-point harness for Autocrossing and other amateur race events looks real tempting. I probably couldn't afford the kit from the factory, but there's some half-built or never-built ones on the used market within reach.

What I love about air cooled VW motors is that it's possible to get your head and hands around any given part - You can see how the crank-case goes together in your head, you can see how the pistons and cylinders bolt on, the valve heads and push-rods - it's all meticulously added to the machine until you have a motor that runs. Harley motors are the same way, but I've decided against being a middle-aged biker, being a middle-aged racecar driver/mechanic is cooler.
posted by Slap*Happy at 5:58 AM on January 2 [2 favorites]


Really, if you want to make an old bug Go Like Stink, you pull that boxer 4 out and drop in a high revving motorcycle engine (GSXR or Hayabusa), like what was done with this one. (or a plethora of other tiny cars; Smart's, mostly.)
posted by Xyanthilous P. Harrierstick at 5:59 AM on January 2 [1 favorite]


The 80’s Vanagons were the most preposterous. The traditional pancake in the back, with a radiator in the front, and a whole lot of plumbing connecting them.

if VW van prices weren't so stupidly outrageous right no
I sold my 84 Westy ten years ago for 3k. I still cry sometimes.
posted by sourwookie at 6:11 AM on January 2 [2 favorites]


My parents like to regale me, with a peculiar mix of pride and contempt, about their love for the original VW Beetle. Apparently it was a major source of pride for my father, the consummate car guy, that he was able to keep their '72 Bug on the road as long as he did. (A less driven man might have devoted the time and money it took to repeatedly rebuild the engine into buying a car with four doors. Or seat belts. Or heat. But I digress) . Somewhere, there exists the greatest Volkswagen photo ever taken: my mother, carrying my 1-year-old self on her hip, eight months pregnant with my younger sister, standing a safe distance from the (t)rusty old Bug that had just caught fire in the driveway. Flames billow out the front windows, testimony to the fuel hose that VW inexplicably decided to save on costs by using a particularly brittle mix of rubber. On her face is a look; not of disbelief or fear, but rather of grim resignation mixed with a frisson of hope that this would finally be enough of a setback that Dad would not be able to get that damned car back on the road.

When the new generation of Beetles came out in the late 90's, Dad bought the first diesel one to clear EPA regs for the United States. He seemed almost disappointed that they built it with both a heater AND a defroster--doesn't match the spirit of the original. 300K miles and 20 years later, it's still on the road.
posted by Mayor West at 6:16 AM on January 2


The car in the video is called a '73 but it has pre-'68 bumpers and is missing the "crescent moon" vent behind the back windows that appeared ca. 1971.

My familiarity comes from helping my uncle replace exhaust systems on his '67. I was 12 or so and had nice skinny arms and way more flexibility than he did so it was my job to snake my hands into the engine compartment to line things up and put nuts on bolts. He had to eventually sell it when he was ticketed for having an "unsecured headlight" thanks to rust.
posted by tommasz at 6:20 AM on January 2


I have too many childhood memories of us being broken down on the side of the road to ever have a desire to own an old Volkswagen, but I do like how they are basically adult Legos, with almost every part easy to work on and change.
posted by Dip Flash at 6:32 AM on January 2 [3 favorites]


pull that boxer 4 out and drop in a high revving motorcycle engine (GSXR or Hayabusa), like what was done with this one.

To be fair, the car in the video you linked is less a Beetle with a GSXR motor in it than an entirely custom built track machine made heavier with Beetle panels.
posted by flabdablet at 6:56 AM on January 2 [1 favorite]


Yeah, there's not much Beetle left on this one either.

This one with a Subaru boxer swap at least has a reasonable amount of Beetle left in it.
posted by Xyanthilous P. Harrierstick at 7:13 AM on January 2


I would dispense with the rebuild and just go for the Herbie paint job.
posted by lagomorphius at 8:22 AM on January 2


Thought this was about adding racing stripes and such to an actual living insect; not sure if disappointed or relieved.
posted by The otter lady at 8:35 AM on January 2 [1 favorite]


My first car was a '72 Beetle and it wasn't a bad little thing, but truly no one should drive a car with an air-cooled engine in Sacramento traffic in the summer.

Nearly twenty-three years later and I still freak out about overheating cars (granted it didn't help that the car after the Bug was a Honda with a chronic radiator issue).
posted by elsietheeel at 9:38 AM on January 2


At first that black beetle looked like Adolf Hitler's car, when it was finished it looked like his punker grandson's car. What an abomination, really. But OK, I have an 85 Westy. That initial rebuild film brought a tear to my eye. I want my car to know them. But then again, I want my car to know a body shop, and I want my car to give up the secret of that tunk, tunk, tunk knock that increases with acceleration, but doesn't knock coasting. Must be the steering pump, or some loose bolt on the alternator, maybe. Man that film of the rebuild, that was, next to Blade Runner, my favorite film of the year! I have new axle, new back wheel bearings, new back brakes. So I bought my beast in 2006. My grandson is a total car freak. He has asked me twice, Grandma, what is your dream car? I say, "I am driving it, honey."
posted by Oyéah at 9:57 AM on January 2 [2 favorites]


First car was a 1969, a 16th birthday present. Wish I kept it but I needed to pay for my first college term, and I couldn't afford a parking spot at the university anyway.

Years later, the first car I bought with my own money was a 2001 New Beetle.

Now I have a Miata (of course!). But you get the gist of my preferences.

There is no substitute for a hyperaware driver behind the wheel of a non-autonomous vehicle. Newer cars can be significantly safer in an accident -- for the driver. All these newer cars with 300+ horsepower in a family sedan, however, means you are putting drivers in tanks with the ability to cause more damage than ever before.

I may drive small cars, because they are nimble and have saved me from getting into an accident by simply making sure I am no longer in that situation with a quick flick of the wheel, but I will happily save my Miata for back roads and wine country fare if it means my city streets and highway drivings are in autonomous vehicles and all the drivers out there who don't actually enjoy driving but need the vehicle for practical reasons are safely ensconced in their cocoons with a computer chauffeur. And I will have one, too.
posted by linux at 9:58 AM on January 2 [1 favorite]


I have a little too much of Beetle engine knowledge stuck in my head. When they did the cut to the guy poring over a book and holding the distributor, I knew that he was trying to figure out how to set top dead center.

The car in the video was a weird mix of years. The engine hatch was from a 72 or later (4 sets of vents, the outside two larger). The bumpers with from pre 1969, but the mount is wrong for that year and there are no air vents on the front fenders. The tail lights were from 73 or later (which means the fenders were too). It does have a curved windshield, which puts that at 73 or later. The narrow trunk means it's not a Super Beetle (the whole thing was widened slightly to accommodate MacPherson struts on Supers).

The video says 1973 and I agree. At some point they put on older bumpers.
posted by plinth at 10:03 AM on January 2 [2 favorites]


Recently seen online: The only reason I would buy a VW Beetle is so kids would punch each other every time I drove it.
posted by Greg_Ace at 11:43 AM on January 2 [2 favorites]


Oh, and the other thing I forgot to mention about the rebuild I did - all the sheetmetal sheathing really matters for proper airflow! I replaced all the missing pieces during the rebuild, and even before I set up the external oil cooler the engine's running temperature was noticeably lower.
posted by Greg_Ace at 11:53 AM on January 2 [1 favorite]


Watching this video and coveting very badly this sort of access to a proper car lift, I'm reminded of my ongoing curiosity as to why there aren't auto repair coops, or at least not in my neck of the woods (Bay Area). I understand that it's a larger capital investment up front (though, I don't know, the laser printer in the maker space I go to doesn't exactly look cheap) but it doesn't seem so much more difficult as to be universally impractical. I keep longing for this, because jack stands in the parking lot create a much lower threshold above which a fun project turns into annoying tedium.
posted by invitapriore at 1:41 PM on January 2


invitapriore, it’s not a co-op, but the closest thing I have found in the Bay Area is Pit Row in Santa Clara. You can rent time on a lift, and they provide a decent compliment of tools that should cover most uses. I put new springs on my car there, and it was so nice having a lift to work on. It is not geared towards long-term projects though, storage fees are a bit high so you are limited to stuff you can do in a day or two before it gets cost-prohibitive.
posted by inparticularity at 3:21 PM on January 2 [2 favorites]


Recently seen online: The only reason I would buy a VW Beetle is so kids would punch each other every time I drove it.

What do you mean kids? I still have a running debate with my caregiver over the rules of Punch Buggy. He called my 92 year old grandmother over it. She unfairly and unreasonably sided with him.
posted by The Almighty Mommy Goddess at 6:18 PM on January 2


Oh man I loved my beat-up '72, and drove it in San Francisco for eight years, after a not-quite-retired German factory-trained mechanic rebuilt its engine (for almost nothing; like maybe $200). Nobody else I let drive it could find second but that car felt like a second skin to me. I always felt safe in it - except on very windy days on the Bay Bridge, when it nearly achieved lift-off - because it had such great pickup and was so small I could evade any situation. In 2000 the state of CA sent me a check (for exactly the amount I'd bought it for) to get it off the road and I moved on.

Now a friend is selling her old VW van (with a Porsche engine, she says) and you know, it's tempting. But I'd love to have a little beetle again.
posted by goofyfoot at 6:21 PM on January 2


For me, the nice things about the van were that I had a wonderful forward view (and the big side mirrors helped for everything else), the seats were reasonably comfy, it was easy to install a great stereo system, and it was dandy for camping in. Also it had lots of storage for tools, which is always a plus with older VWs.... Since it was big and boxy and relatively underpowered - though after my aforementioned rebuild/improvement it could comfortably do 60-65 mph for hours without overheating - I wasn't tempted to be in a big rush and push it too hard. So trips were relatively relaxing; I just sat there in my comfy seat listening to music and enjoying the scenery as I puttered along.

Oh - and since it was a Westy, it had jalousie windows on both sides; I loved those because even if it was raining as I drove they could be cracked open a bit for ventilation without people in the back seats getting wet (critical in Florida summers), and they had screens, which was very handy when camping. I guess the pop-top had windows as well, but when I got the van the canvas was completely rotted and I never had the money to replace it so I pretty much always left the top closed.

The downsides were, of course, that it didn't like crosswinds, and your feet were right up against the front of the vehicle so there would be zero protection for your legs in the event of a crash. So, y'know, I just...didn't crash into anything. As someone pointed out upthread, the prospect of maiming or dismemberment concentrates the mind wonderfully.
posted by Greg_Ace at 6:53 PM on January 2 [1 favorite]


In the interest of fairness, I should also point out that it was quite easy to injure oneself and/or tear clothing on the very sharp corners of open jalousie window panes if one wasn't careful when walking around the van or closing the sliding side door. And I have a scar or two to prove it.
posted by Greg_Ace at 7:00 PM on January 2 [1 favorite]


So I bought my beast in 2006. My grandson is a total car freak. He has asked me twice, Grandma, what is your dream car? I say, "I am driving it, honey."

This among many reasons is why I really enjoy having you hang around Metafilter.
posted by Slap*Happy at 8:03 PM on January 2


Also, have another shop look at the replaced axles. Sometimes they're too long, meant for a later model vehicle, and this can cause the CV joint to go bad, hence the "tunk-tunk-tunk" noise under acceleration, and if you listen close, there may be a "click-click-click" noise, much softer, when turning sharply at low speed.
posted by Slap*Happy at 8:08 PM on January 2 [1 favorite]


And if that's the cause, and you've been hearing it for a while without having gotten stranded on the side of the road yet by a failed CV joint, you can thank VW's over-engineering tendencies. I've rebuilt both Subaru and VW CV joints; although older Subarus are famously robust, not only are the VW's ball bearings like bowling balls compared to the Subaru's marbles, the VW's race and cage parts could conceivably outlast cockroaches in the event of a nuclear holocaust. In a hundred thousand years, alien archaeologists will be unearthing and marveling over still-functional VW CV joints.
posted by Greg_Ace at 9:54 PM on January 2 [1 favorite]


Still, get it fixed.
posted by Slap*Happy at 10:09 PM on January 2 [1 favorite]


Indeed. I may have been exaggerating just a tad about the surviving-nuclear-holocaust part.
posted by Greg_Ace at 10:27 PM on January 2


In a hundred thousand years, alien archaeologists will be unearthing and marveling over still-functional VW CV joints.

Fuck that noise. They'll be unearthing and driving fully functioning Beetles with hundred thousand year old CV joints.
posted by flabdablet at 7:37 AM on January 3 [1 favorite]


Only a hundred thou on the clock? A baby. Go a million, easy.
posted by flabdablet at 10:24 AM on January 3


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