One of the biggest Volkswagen strongholds in the world is America, and within America there is one area, Southern California, where they just cannot get enough of the Bug and its big brother Microbus derivative. Around Los Angeles the humble Beetle succeeded in outselling the Ford Mustang, even when the latter was at the height of its favour with the young: at present when you look around there is little doubt the Beetle is outselling all other forms of transport for the under-30-year-old group. However, the point is that many of these VWs are completely different from the ones you see for the most part in Britain: US-owned Beetles have style and performance in many cases. Even if the owner has been restricted by economics his Beetle will not be standard: a generally accepted “Stage 1” tune seems to be the adoption of 8-in.-rimmed rear wheels and a rowdy exhaust.
In general, the average American VW owner is well content with his steed in production form except for two things—straightline performance and the standard of
interior appointment. If he is at all “switched on” he may have also heard that the handling of the older VWs was interesting when provoked. Allow a short period for this to ferment in his mind and the chances are that he will either buy his next VW ready modified, or convert the existing one.
In this area there are more speedshops and engine-conversion specialists than anywhere else in the world. However, all but three or four of these establishments will deal with the homegrown V8s as well, and only one of the VW specialists is really geared to catch the eye of a potential customer. The name is Engineered Motor Products Incorporated (EMPI) and they are by far the biggest in the Volkswagen accessory and tuning business, both in the USA and abroad.
The company is one interest of a local Riverside tycoon called Joe Vittone, who operates Econo Motors selling VWs, Fiats, Hondas. Datsuns and Subarus on a scale that would shatter an English dealer. For example it is a gloomy month when Vittone does not manage to sell more of the Wolfsburg products than the local GM dealer can shift Chevrolets! Since Chevrolet is the most popular car brand in America, one gets the impression that this middle-aged former Bonneville salt fiats speed record holder, riding various motorcycles, has an above-average amount of drive and business sense.
Vittone started his Volkswagen agency in 1955: in those days the Beetle used to burn out valve guides under the hot local operating conditions. When a guide had burned, the VW owner was obliged to buy a new aluminium cylinder head, because the factory maintained that the head would be damaged by taking out the old guides and inserting new ones. Vittone found a way of doing just this reliably, and by 1956 EMPI was founded to develop various other ideas Vittone had for improving the VW. The most famous item was undoubtedly the EMPI Compensator Bar which, when installed on the Beetle’s swing-axle rear suspension, eliminated the dreaded wheel tuck up which was a problem even in the USA. Having tried turning off a four-lane freeway into a 25-m.p.h. limited “Ramp” semi-hairpin we can report that the art of negotiating bends is still necessary!
Nowadays EMPI offer over 500 items from stock, still specialising in the Beetle, though in the future they expect to offer an increasing number of accessories for the ever-growing numbers of Japanese cars which Vittone and others are selling. Apart from an administration office with full showroom and demonstration facilities (there’s a supply of Empi’s Imp Volkswagen-based dune buggies for those who would like a quick run into the desert close to smoggy Riverside) there is also a racing workshop looked after by Vittone’s 27-year-old son Darrell. In this latter department we found their 2-litre “Inch Pincher” Beetle dragster which covers a standing quarter-mile in 11.8 sec. with a terminal speed of 114 m.p.h. The Weber downdraught carburated engine gives around 210 b.h.p. (SAE), and this straightline activity, plus another 2-litre Beetle set-up for the Baja over the rough events, makes sure that they do not lag behind on development.
As an example of the engine development work they do we had a look at the Baja machine’s engine, which has been prepared to give a wide spread of power. The exact capacity is 1,994 c.c., obtained by using the 88-mm. bore cylinder barrel and piston kit plus an SPG of Germany roller-bearing crankshaft/connecting-rod assembly, as retailed by Empi over the counter. They quote DIN-measured b.h.p. figures for a new 1500 VW at 27 b.h.p., while this single Veber-carburated engine with its long individual tube intake manifolding gives a peak of 74 b.h.p. at 4,000 r.p.m., with 71 brake horsepower available for 500 r.p.m. above and below that peak.
Leaving aside the wide variety of individual non-functional, functional and mechanical accessories that the company sells, Vittone also had a very clever idea: its name is the GTV and it consists of four stages to dress up the VW, improve its suspension and add some useful accessories, such as twin oil-coolers and improved instrumentation in the more expensive GTV bolt-on kits. The idea is so bright because car salesmen make much more money on a car with accessories than a production car, thus the volume of Vittone VW sales is kept healthy. In fact when we were there things were not too good as they had no cars left to sell!
The company offers all the parts that a Beetle owner would be likely to ask for in the engine line. One can choose from Solex, Zenith or Weber twin-choke carburetters, fully-modified twin-port cylinder heads with 39-mm. intake valves and 32-mm. exhausts, pistons suitable for 1,700 and 1,994-c.c. engines and their “normal” compression ratio of 10 to 1, high-lift rocker arms (in short supply at present; they are made in Japan and I was surprised how many other parts come from, or will be coming from, that source), double valve springs for racing use, eight millimetre shorter push-rods to use with the high-lift rocker arms, and a range of camshafts to fit most early and late model units in varieties from vigorous to very vigorous.
The bolt-on kits to increase the displacement of the 1,300, 1,500 and 1,600-c.c. engines consist of the 82-mm. roller-bearing crankshaft, balanced and complete with connecting-rods and bearings (£126), or the 82-mm. big-bore cylinder barrels which give 160 c.c. increase on their own and come with four pistons and pins for £37. Finally, for a charge (all our prices are for the USA) of approximately £128, the 88-mm. super big-bore cylinder barrels which give 2-litres when used with the roller-bearing crankshaft.
There are two firms in Britain I know of which can get EMPI parts, but if you seriously want some of their parts I would suggest contacting EMPI direct at PO Box 1120, Riverside, California, 92502: their full scale catalogue costs $2 and I would allow at least a further dollar for posting that mammoth work across the ocean! The two companies in England which have successfully procured parts are Speedwell at Chesham (who did a marketing deal with EMPI some years ago) and Skyspeed, who have a couple of shops in the Feltham area of West London. The respective telephone numbers for the British firms are – Chesham 6961 and 01-890 1180.
We were lucky to drive Mr. Vittone Senior’s personal car, which illustrates the amount of equipment that can be supplied and represents around £1,870 of best Beetle: at least I think that’s what the Public Relations man said, but even his normal efficiency may have been obliterated by the healthy racket of the 160-b.h.p. power unit! Incidentally, that much power in the tail of a Beetle, loaded down with accessories and the 1,994-c.c. kit, is enough to propel it from a standing start through the quarter-mile in a claimed 14 seconds dead. This means a terminal speed in the region of 100 m.p.h., and enough acceleration to put all but the best American Super Cars (e.g., 7-litres plus of a bulky Chrysler, or similar full-sized machine) fractionally behind one. We could not check this fully for ourselves, but independent magazine tests show times of 15.5 seconds for the quarter-mile and speeds in the 86-m.p.h. area, or under 15 seconds without a fan belt—which is NOT a good idea for everyday use!
To obtain this sort of power two Weber 48 IDA carburetters were used together with the equipment we described for the engine earlier on, and some other parts as well. The gearbox featured closer-ratio 3rd and 4th gears and the overall final drive ratio was calculated for American conditions, providing a top speed in the region of 110 m.p.h. The suspension is as is featured in the most expensive GTVs (Hmmm . . . I wonder what Alfa Romeo will say about that label!), with new 19-mm. anti-roll bars front and rear, Koni or Bilstein adjustable shock-absorbers, and 14 x 5-3/8 in. wheels with 185-section radial ply tyres. The interior had some very useful features indeed, with tachometer and auxiliary instruments mounted in front of the driver: in fact, our car had a prototype three-dial layout, but production cars have three different sizes of instruments, which are not all that easy to see.
Bucket seats, even for the rear, also form part of the inside story with the traditionally sombre matt black so hallowed by some enthusiasts and those who strive for the “GT” look. We were always told that it was the English who demanded planks of wood strewn around their car interiors for decoration, but now it appears that EMPI’s young customers have gone overboard on simulated wood to complete the decor of dashboard and doors. Naturally the same material was used to finish off the expensive Nardi steering-wheel: apart from that the steering is one of the few parts of the car to remain as the German designer intended. To the average American enthusiast I should imagine a different looking and better performing Beetle is really rather like possessing a properly executed model car is to an Englishman. It is a toy, and the regular driver sadly commented to the author that he was unable to get the quicker Camaros and Mustangs to play at drag racing on the road! However, he was presumably rewarded by the looks we received from the owners of six, seven and even eight-litre battle cruisers who were accelerating on their air-conditioned way up into the popular desert hideouts.
In fact “our” immaculate orange VW would appeal very strongly in this country (the pin-striping effect is strictly an optional stick-on item) as it handles in a very flat and sportsmanlike fashion, with reserves of road-holding that are quite extraordinary considering the saloon’s unfashionably high roofline. Accelerating hard from a standstill will leave black marks on the tarmac, while the engine howls delight as one approaches the 6,000-r.p.m. mark, where it is best to change gear in the interests of engine life. The car we drove had covered 35,000 carefully serviced miles, the only sign of the distance it had covered being a howl from the gearbox on releasing the throttle.
The gear-change was among the car’s best features because the company’s EZR control lever was fitted. The latter component does not affect the standard linkage back to the gearbox, but acts by offering increased leverage via a revised fulcrum point, so the movement between gear positions is nearly halved, whilst a collar on the lever makes it much easier to select reverse. On the West Coast of America this improved gear-change device costs a little over £5, so even with import taxes and cut for the British importer, it’s certainly the most practical idea for a VW.
The brakes were up to coping with an attempted 80 m.p.h. suicide dive from a Freeway turnoff. When we had recovered our composure we asked the Public Relations gentleman what had been done to make the car stop in Porsche style. His reply was that the 1970 Microbus models have power-assisted front disc brakes and these had been installed. This modification certainly worked, but I believe late model Volkswagens have disc brakes that work well anyway.
Altogether an enjoyable, if surprisingly raucous, machine. However, that wasn’t quite the end of the story, for we followed “Mr. PR” out to the hills up above the smog of Riverside: this time he was driving his own 1,700-c.c. version, while we had a cooking 5-litre 1969 Mustang. The surprises were that the VW made the Mustang breathe very hard to keep up in a straight line, whilst the Mustang astonished local hill residents by staying on the road and definitely within contact cf the agile Volkswagen around the hairpins. All the same, we came to prefer European/Japanese cars for the twisty bits of the USA, though pleasantly surprised at the improvement American manufacturers have made throughout their sporting-car ranges.—J. W.