Buick-In­spired 1959 Bee­tle

Robert Free­man’s 1959 Bee­tle Takes “Bug­gin’ Out” to New Heights

Hot Rod - - Contents - Thom Tay­lor John Jack­son

hNo, you didn’t pick up Hot VWs mag­a­zine by mis­take. This is HOT ROD, so re­lax. Be­hold Robert Free­man’s “Ber­lin Buick,” chris­tened as such be­cause there’s a whole lot of Buick wrapped in that Volk­swa­gen shell. Robert has wanted a mid-en­gine Volk­swa­gen since he was a kid, and this is the man­i­fes­ta­tion of that child­hood dream. The key to this fan­tasy ful­fill­ment was to find the right peo­ple to help with the hard stuff, and that hap­pened when he took the old Bee­tle body with a sun­roof grafted some­time in its ugly past to Gary Brown at Browns Metal Mods in Port Ley­den, north of Syra­cuse, New York. Robert ar­rived seek­ing only a top chop for the body he’d owned for 15 years to kick off what would be a two-year build. When Robert con­fessed he was af­ter a mid-en­gine bug with Amer­i­can V8 power, Gary sug­gested the 215ci Buick would be per­fect be­cause it’s light, nar­row, and there’s still a ton of speed parts for the lit­tle alu­minum ter­ror. He also of­fered up his shop’s ser­vices, and the rest is Deutschamerikaner syn­chronic­ity.

The diminu­tive 215ci Buick has been a go-to en­gine for tight en­gine con­ver­sions since the 1960s. In­tro­duced in 1961, it’s light­weight and 4.24-inch bore spac­ing com­bined with 3½-inch bores make for com­pact­ness that’s just part of the rea­son it’s a pop­u­lar en­gine swap. Only in pro­duc­tion by Buick for three years, the rights to the de­sign and tool­ing were sold to Rover in Eng­land, which kept it in pro­duc­tion un­til the mid-1980s, find­ing its way into MGs and Land Rovers, among other Bri­tish mar­ques. In 1961 it was the light­est-weight, masspro­duced en­gine made: 315 pounds.

Robert’s en­gine has seen some mas­sag­ing per­formed by Jack Di­neen, in­clud­ing cus­tom flat-top pis­tons in­creas­ing the com­pres­sion to 12.5:1, a pol­ished stock crank, and adapt­ing a 1999 Buick oil pump with bored gal­leys and cham­fered oil holes. The heads are later Rover 4.0 heads with stain­less valves. A Sch­nei­der flat-tap­pet cam was used with 0.484-inch lift, 0.305 du­ra­tion at 0.050, and 106 lobe-sep­a­ra­tion an­gle. In ad­di­tion, Chevy small-block valvesprings were used. Up front, a dou­ble-roller chain keeps things in sync.

Crown­ing the Buick is the Hil­born stack fuel in­jec­tion us­ing a Hol­ley stand-alone EFI sys­tem with cus­tom BMM fuel rails, a FAST reg­u­la­tor set to 47 pounds, and ACCEL

in­jec­tors. An MSD Pro Bil­let distrib­u­tor and MSD coils con­trol the spark. Ex­haust is dra­mat­i­cally han­dled with Browns-built zoomies. Cool­ing things off are twin Davies Craig wa­ter pumps and cus­tom twin SPAL ra­di­a­tors.

Of course, all of this power has to be har­nessed, but not with a weak VW transaxle. A new Men­de­ola four-speed was adapted to the Buick with a Kennedy Engi­neer­ing bell­hous­ing, en­clos­ing a Stage 2 Kennedy bil­let­steel fly­wheel. The Drive­shaft Shop cre­ated the 8-inch 930 CV drive axles, spin­ning ET Clas­sic V alu­minum 15x12-inch wheels and 15x4-inch ETs up front, mounted with 345/50R15 Nitto Drag Ra­di­als and Fire­stone 145SR15 tires, re­spec­tively.

The ball-joint front-sus­pen­sion beam was nar­rowed 6 inches, with dropped spin­dles and mod­i­fied shock tow­ers all com­bin­ing to get the Bee­tle low and rid­ing smoothly. RideTech Shock­wave shocks are at the cor­ners. Browns at­tached all of this to the stock VW pan that has been re­in­forced with tube rails front to back. Brakes are 8-inch JBugs up front and Wil­wood 8-inch rears, ac­tu­ated man­u­ally, with stain­less lines and

fit­tings through­out.

All of this gave the Ber­lin Bug a stout foun­da­tion for the body mods Robert had fan­ta­sized about, which were all ex­e­cuted by the Brown broth­ers: Gary, Luke, and Dy­lan. Things got go­ing with a 4½-inch top chop, then roll pans were fab­ri­cated for both the front and back, along with rolled fend­ers, which were left stock width. Both the (former) en­gine lid and trunk lid were smoothed and also peaked. The run­ning boards were elim­i­nated, and the doors were con­verted to rear hinges with elec­tric pop­pers. All of the door cor­ners were rounded, an ode to 1950s cus­tomiz­ing where no straight lines or cor­ners were al­lowed. The stock bumpers were split, nar­rowed, and tucked tight to the body. 1957 Buick sidetrim sweep was frenched into the body sides, and 1953 Buick “Venti-port” port­holes were added that now func­tion as ex­haust ports. Em­blem­pros cre­ated all of the Ber­lin Buick chrome badges.

Af­ter all of the body mods were com­pleted, Browns blocked it out, gapped all of the shut lines, and shot a combo of PPG

Tonic Brown and Gin­ger Beer, buried in four coats of clear.

In­side, a rollcage, fire sys­tem, and belts were all in­cor­po­rated. A 1949 Buick dash was sec­tioned to fit and dash-to-door sur­rounds were fab­ri­cated. The port­holes, trim to match the ex­te­rior, shift knob, and shift boot bezel are all the hand­i­work of Mike Ripp. A 1949 Buick steer­ing wheel was cut down to fit the stock VW ring, and one-off Clas­sic In­stru­ments gauges fill the Buick dash. Stock VW seats were cut down for clear­ance, and Rich Perez at RP In­te­ri­ors in Horse­heads, New York, cov­ered ev­ery­thing in beige leather.

There are many pit­falls and de­tours that can kill such an in­volved project like the Ber­lin Buick, but when ev­ery­one is on the same page and the owner has a con­cept in mind, then unique and im­pact­ful ve­hi­cles such as this can be the re­sult. As Robert’s VW at­tests, the wildest cars are yet to come.

01] It all looks so nat­u­ral and like it was pro­duced this way when you see it shiny and fin­ished, but hun­dreds of hours went into plan­ning and fab­ri­cat­ing so it looks that way. Robert says there is no tire-rub­bing or mys­tery noises and that he plans on...

01] The en­tire car is a combo of Buick and Volk­swa­gen, which is no more ev­i­dent than in­side, where a 1949 Buick dash was mod­i­fied to fit the bug and the steer­ing wheel is a mashup of Buick and Bee­tle. The gold shift knob is by Mike Ripp. 02] The Buick...

[ The “Ber­lin Buick” hides its mo­ti­va­tion well, with the only hint the wide ET Clas­sic-V rear wheels and Nitto Drag Ra­di­als. Wheel­tubs were fabbed by Browns Metal Mods, which did vir­tu­ally all of the body mods, body prep, and paint. Col­ors are PPG...

Robert Free­man orig­i­nally pur­chased the 1956 oval-win­dow Volk­swa­gen body for $1,000, then spent years for­mu­lat­ing his mid-en­gine plan. The tucked-in stock rear bumper in­cor­po­rates 1959 Lin­coln bumperettes hous­ing the round tail­lights. The stock lid has...

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