THE BUG THAT ROARS
Turning the clock back to 1956, a Florida enthusiast decided to see what Porsche might have done in period to transform a VW Beetle into a racing car. The result is a wonderful melange of Wolfsburg restraint with Zuffenhausen ebullience
Karl Ludvigsen tells the story of a VW powered by a four-cam Porsche engine
One of the cars that raises eyebrows at the Collier Collection and REVS Institute at Naples, Florida is a grey Volkswagen Beetle, vintage 1956, sitting quietly among its displays of the worldʼs finest racing machinery from Cunningham to Stutz, Porsche to Ferrari. In fact it is an unique creation that is dear to the heart of its creator and curator, the Collectionʼs major domo Miles Collier.
Tracing its origins to the 1970s, the Beetle is the direct result of Collierʼs musings about the motor racing that is one of his many passions. ʻWhat would Porsche have done,ʼ he wondered, ʻif it were asked to build a Volkswagen to race in the Mille Miglia?ʼ Most of us enjoy posing such questions and then working them out on paper, or in mind games. Miles Collier had the determination and the means to create the answer in the metal.
On 26th August 1981 Collier minuted a plan to create a VW Beetle powered by a Porsche RSK engine running through a five-speed gearbox. It was to have suspension converted to coils and dampers at all four corners. Not until 1986 did he have time to take action, but first, he needed a Beetle. Thinking how cool it would be to have a split-window model, Collier chose a 1952 donor vehicle that had seen better days. Judged by his favoured coachbuilder to be too far gone, it was replaced by a 1956 VW which, indeed, could have competed in the Mille Miglia, which was last run in 1957. The Beetle could have had no idea what was about to happen to it.
Porscheʼs first step, Miles Collier realised, would be to lighten the car. There was no point in hauling more heft around the 1000 miles of the Italian race than absolutely necessary. While keeping the original steel platform and basic body, he figured everything that wasnʼt stress-bearing could be lightened. In 1986 Collier shipped his Beetle to the fabled California workshop of Dick Troutman. His work with Tom Barnes is celebrated in the four-door 911 they built for Texan Porsche dealer William Dick and the body of the Chuck Pelly-designed Zimmer 910, not to mention the first Ford Mustang entirely crafted by them in 1962.
Versatile metalworker though he was, Troutman faced a challenge in Collierʼs commission. Front and rear deck lids were to be aluminium, shaped exactly like the originals with their rich curves and central ribbing. Doors, too, were externally skinned in aluminium, keeping their steel inner structures. All four fenders (wings) and the running boards were aluminium, as well. Originally the fenders were left unpainted underneath but later they were coated for protection from stone chips. As a final touch the front and rear bumpers were re-created in aluminium, polished to a high gloss.
All the lightened parts and panels were tributes to the talent of Dick Troutman, who was able and willing to lighten the VW much as Porsche would have done in 1956. Although glassfibre was creeping into use in racing cars, it was not yet part of Zuffenhausenʼs vocabulary.
With work on its new body panels completed, the lightened Volkswagen returned to Naples in the February of 1987. There the technicians at the Collier Museum took the car in hand to equip it appropriately. Where needed the platform frame was strengthened and its attachments to the body made more robust to increase overall stiffness. Containing 24mm torsion bars, at the rear a Porsche 911 torsion-bar tube with its mounts for
“WHAT WOULD PORSCHE HAVE DONE…?”
shock absorbers was installed in the structure to allow the use of the 911ʼs rear hubs and trailing arms. A 16mm anti-roll bar works through short lever arms. Replacing the rubber originals were harder Delrin bushings supplied by Weltmeister Performance Products.
Steering gear was ZF worm and roller from the 356, its track rods positioned to minimise bump steer. The tubes carrying two six-leaf torsion bundles at the front were modified to Porschestyle ride-height adjustment, while the trailing arms were Porsche 356B specification. Below the lower torsion-bar tube a 16mm anti-roll bar of 4139 alloy steel matched the size of the bar at the rear. At all four corners Koni adjustable shock absorbers were fitted, these just coming into use in racing in 1956. Their competition debut, in fact, was in the 1955 Tulip Rally – rather appropriate for Dutch-made dampers.
At both front and rear, the original VW brake backing plates were kept with the addition of screened cooling scoops, modified as needed to accept Porsche shoes. Drums were finnedaluminum RS60 Spyder parts, 11ins in diameter and 60mm wide at the front and 40mm at the rear. Actuating them was a Porsche 356 master cylinder running through VW brake lines. Although sporting Volkswagen hubcaps, the wheels are from Porsche – the only obvious external clues that the car was ʻsomething differentʼ – and the tyres Michelin. These elements supported Miles Collierʼs remark that ʻThe joy of this project is that everything just bolts in.ʼ
His comment applied, with reservations, to the racing Beetleʼs power train. Its engine, Porscheʼs Type 547/5A, did not quite fit the Mille Miglia scenario. A 1679cc four-cam flat-four, it originated from the batch produced in 1963 expressly for use in the Elva-porsche. A feature of this is its horizontal cooling fan, first used in a fourcylinder racing Porsche at Solitude in 1961. Output at its racing début was 183bhp at 7800rpm.
For tractability the Weber 48IDA carburetors were fitted with smaller 40mm venturis. Stainless-steel equal-length headers fed small mufflers at the sides which fed into the ends of the main silencer placed transversely at the rear. From it projected two innocent-looking Vw-style exhaust pipes. The Collier team estimated 160- to 165bhp from the flat-four with these restrictions, tuned to come in at lower revs to suit road use. Idle
“THE JOY IS THAT EVERYTHING JUST BOLTS IN…”
was set high at 1800rpm to provide sufficient oil flow to the crankshaftʼs roller bearings under street-driving conditions.
The need for a dry-sump oil reservoir was met in elegant style. A corrosion-resisting Ternplate finish protected a custombuilt rectangular steel tank in the right rear of the interior behind the fold-down rear-seat squab. Its eight-quart contents were poured through a filler under a neat lid in the bodyʼs rear quarter. Aeroquip lines from and to the engine and tank ran forward to two oil coolers behind scoops hidden under the front fenders. Also with period-correct Ternplate protection, a 21.1-gallon steel fuel tank resembled the tank in the racing 356 Carrera GT.
Details of the installation included a thermostat and filter in the oil lines, while fuel delivery was by twin Bendix electric pumps. A smaller and lighter alternator replaced the original Bosch dynamo, with the ignition being a capacitor-discharge system courtesy of Texas-based Perma-tune Electronics, a long-established specialist in systems for Porsches. Neatly disguised at the base of the dashboard were digital indicators for oil pressure and oil temperature.
The innocent-looking gangly Beetle shift lever was connected to a five-speed Porsche transaxle equipped with a 4.43:1 final drive and ZF limited-slip differential. Californiaʼs Sway-a-way Racing Technology made bespoke half-shafts with splines that married differing universal joints. While the outboard joints were of early 901 Porsche design, the inner joints were a later design to suit the ZF differential.
Had Porsche actually prepared a Beetle for the Mille Miglia it would not have taken the trouble that the Collier
team did to create an interior that so magnificently concealed all the goings-on underneath. As originally built the front seats were pure Volkswagen, but later replacements were 356 Carrera GT buckets trimmed in authentic red VW vinyl. Carpeting throughout was to 1956 Volkswagen standards. The original VW speedometer looks unchanged but its 80mph now indicates 8000rpm for the Porsche four. These were final touches on a car that weighed only 1782lbs, just 239lbs more than an unmodified Volkswagen Beetle.
The change of seats was a result of increasing confidence by Collier drivers in the handling capabilities of this beatified Beetle. They were there ʻto help driver and passenger stay put,ʼ said Collier collection chief Scott George. ʻThe handling is good with some body roll but for narrow Michelin tyres itʼs tractable and fun to drive. Acceleration would be similar to, and possibly slightly better than, the Carrera GT. Some of the most fun is the great sound it makes and the expressions on faces of those who see it on the road.ʼ
ʻStart the engine and everyone in the vicinity knows this is no ordinary Beetle,ʼ said Classic Porsche contributor Delwyn Mallett. ʻA lusty roar from the exhaust reverberates off nearby buildings. The exhaust system does very little to suppress the fabulous sound of the four-cam and the car surges forward as the engine note takes on a glorious, grin-inducing metallic snarl. From 2000rpm to 8000rpm this Beetle pulls like a, well, like a Porsche Carrera! ʻThe GT brakes are real stoppers,ʼ Mallett continued. ʻWith most of their weight out back the early Porsches and Beetles were renowned for their light steering and this car, perhaps because of its alloy panels, seems even lighter than normal on the front end.
ʻItʼs quite apparent that this VW GT has levels of grip and handling that would astound owners of ordinary Beetles. Itʼs at least on a par with a 356.ʼ
At rest and in action this remarkable hybrid radiates its sympathetic blend of Porsche technologies. If not exactly what Porsche would have built for the Mille Miglia, it is certainly what Porsche would have built with its tongue in its cheek.
Well beyond the senses of humour of Wolfsburg or Zuffenhausen, it bespeaks the special passion that Americans feel for the products of those two dynasties. CP
“SOME OF THE MOST FUN IS THE GREAT SOUND IT MAKES…”
Above: Amazingly well concealed beneath the VW Beetleʼs rear lid is its Porsche Type 547/5A fourcam engine of 1.7-litre capacity, producing better than 160bhp in road trim
Above: At first glance this is a 1956 VW Beetle like any other. The only giveaway of a quite different character is its set of rather more aggressive wheels and tyres
Below left and right: Although the Beetle-porsche was originally built with standard VW seats, a change to 356 Carrera GT buckets was made to hold occupants in place. Oil temperature and pressure digital readouts are mounted below the speaker grille. With the 80mph speedometer converted to an 8000rpm tach, the interior ʼs innocence was convincing