EVER heard of a V8-engined VW Beetle? No? Well, Dick Vermeulen built just such a monster 52 years ago. The then-20-yearold from southern Queensland decided to slam one of Henry’s flathead Fords into the back of the German ‘people’s car’, using a borrowed oxy-acetylene welding set to cut out the mating plates to fit the stock transaxle. Sure, this cast-iron lump hung way out behind the back wheels, creating an arse-heavy problem, but Dick solved that with a couple of solid sandbags up front in the boot. Went real well, too, until a TD Cortina finished up on the VW’S roof!
I have known Dick and his wife Fran for a very long time, when we both got into old-car racing. I have huge respect for this incredibly talented self-taught engineer. He began as a baker, but graduated to building race cars at the rate of one every five weeks, working long 14-hour days with his incredible stores of energy.
All of these flathead-powered, two-seater race cars are called Henrys. Each one takes 500 hours to build, but are now racing all over Australia, allowed to compete in historic events by CAMS, since they were all made using prewar pieces. There are now 19 of them, with a replica roadster half-built already to make 20.
Dick began this new project three weeks ago – out of bed at 3am every morning to start work in his self-built shed. “I had a couple of 1934 chassis rails, an engine and a gearbox, so I figured I had better put it all together before I died,” he reasons.
Dick admits to being on the wrong side of 70, but makes almost every damn thing for his cars himself, including modified mechanical stuff and the sheet-steel bodies, which are mostly culled from panels with the right curves that he finds at the local wreckers. Things like truck mudguards to form tail sections, and a Volvo roof to make door panels for the new roadster.
As a sideline, Dick creates motorhomes and refits caravans, and builds big sheds when he needs them. In one shed bay sits another VW, almost unrecognisable as a cut-and-shut bare chassis. It was built 25 years ago when he needed a machine to cut his property’s lawn and couldn’t buy a decent ride-on mower. So he made one – which then turned into several – shortening the platform chassis and making a centre-pivot front axle to fit 12-inch wheels. Then he cut a foot out of each rear axle to fit Kombi step-down hubs, adding two seats and a small bent-pipe steering wheel. The underfloor cutting head is driven via an extra crank pulley and a long belt. He designed all that himself, and still uses this to cut his grass.
A few months ago, Dick diversified into making a stroker crank for yet another flathead Ford engine. “I just wanted to see if I could do it,” he explains. “You can buy new stroker cranks now, but I figured I could weld one up and make my own.”
He began by making offset centres to swing the heavily counterweighted, 3¾in-stroke cast-iron crank in his old belt-drive lathe, making the footlong cutting tools to clear the counterweights and taking half an inch off each paired big-end journal on the inside, before building up each pin with weld. He used a MIG machine feeding high-carbon wire to build up a quarter-inch-thick layer of new metal around the pins, aiming to increase the stroke of the old crank out to a full four inches, stretching engine capacity from 239ci to 286 with an 85.95mm bore size. This job took four full days from start to the completed lathe-finished offset pins, with the final fineground bearing-ready surface completed by a local engine reconditioning shop.
Ford’s stock conrods were clearanced with an angle grinder to miss the counterweight cheeks, then balanced on a set of scales that Dick borrowed from a paint shop. The crank went into a bored sidevalve block, Dick adapting VW 1600 pistons to suit the longer stroke by reaming the gudgeon bushes 7thou oversize and fitting Teflon buttons.
Breathing was improved through a set of 289 Falcon intake valves and an Isky 400 high-lift cam; a pair of decked finned-alloy 9:1 Edelbrock heads got bolted on; and triple Stromberg 97 carbs on an Edelbrock manifold finished off the newly rebuilt engine.
It’s already been installed into the ’34 roadster chassis. Behind it is a cut-and-shut Ford Blitz bellhousing bolted to a modified three-speed Falcon ’box, converted from a column-change to a floor-shift, the drive going back to a prewar Ford diff, modified to take 28-spline Falcon axles and 12-inch brake drums.
Dick and Fran now live in his parents’ old concrete-block house. “Married Fran 50 flaming years ago,” the engineering genius laughs, “and I’ve been putting up with that old bag ever since!” Long-suffering Fran hits him and smiles, while Dick just laughs and rolls another smoke.
IN ONE SHED BAY SITS AN ALMOST UNRECOGNISABLE VW, BUILT 25 YEARS AGO WHEN DICK NEEDED A MACHINE TO CUT HIS LAWN AND COULDN’T BUY A DECENT RIDE-ON MOWER – SO HE MADE ONE