A Kick Up The '50s
Slow, old-fashioned, unwieldy... Surely a Beetle can't win rallies? Laurence Meredith gets things straight
With its grossly under-powered, understressed, under-the-wrong-lid flat-four engine, the Volkswagen Beetle is perhaps an unlikely candidate for outright victory in international rallying, but featured here is not only the world's most successful rally Beetle but a car which, in a virtually unbroken career that spans nearly 40 years, must also be among the world's most used and abused competition vehicles in the history of the sport.
Originally the property of international rally star of the 1950s and '60s Bill Bengry (who, incidentally, won the RAC Rally Championship in both 1960 and 1961 driving a VW Beetle), UMP 401 has been in the custodianship of Herefordshire rally driver Bob Beales since 1965, and it is in his hands that this remarkable little machine has flourished. By the time Beales started his driving career in the mid-1960s, Beetles had won the East African Safari Rally on no fewer than five occasions, not to mention countless victories and class wins on slightly less gruelling events, the superior traction of the rear engine position paying handsome dividends in the uncharted mud roads of the most difficult competitions.
Having been 'round the clock' three times and on its roof twice, it is surprising that UWP is still almost totally original, apart from the obvious rally mods. And what makes the survival of the 'Yellow Peril', as it is affectionately known, most astonishing is that a good many of the 300,000 miles it has to its credit have actually been clocked up in competition. Bob Beales has lost count of the awards he has picked up over the years with this car, but it was close to 400 at the last stocktake. During the 1960s and '70s there was a long series of class wins and outright victories in a huge variety of events (too numerous to mention here), and Monte Can Challenge 1990 when the historic rally movement came into being during the mid 1980s, the awards just kept coming, including the Welsh Rally Championship victory in 1991 and first overall on the 1992 Targa Rusticana.
On the famous old RAC tarmac road stage between Abergwesyn and Tregaron in mid Wales during the latter event, Beales put up the fastest time of all, using a totally bog-standard 1600 engine developing a grand total of 50bhp! And it's as well to remember that he was against Lotus Cortinas, Mini-Coopers and the Big Healeys.
The three-lettered word most uttered by his contemporaries at the end of almost every historic rallying event today is "how"? How can a Beetle be faster — so much faster — than a Lotus Cortina? The simple answer is that it can't be. But it does have the ability to travel between the start and finish of stages quicker.
Instead of the 1600cc engine — and the 1200 unit it had back in 1958 — the car now sports a 1300cc Okrasa power unit similar to the ones used by the famous Scania-Vabis rally Beetles of the late 1950s and early '60s. It is, therefore, perfectly balanced, has a brace of carburettors instead of the asthmatic standard single Solex, a specially tuned exhaust system and twin-port cylinder heads to improve top-end breathing. But despite these worthwhile modifications and the ability to rev to 6500rpm, there is still only a total tally of 75bhp emanating from the flywheel - half that of a well tuned Lotus Cortina.
Something doesn't quite add up here. There must be something really special about this car somewhere.
Well ... there are a couple of Koni shock absorbers at the rear, but standard Boge items up front. And the rear wheels rims are an inch wider than the stock 4 5in items. Naturally, there's a rollcage — hardly likely to improve performance — and a plumbed-in fire extinguisher system. Ditto. A couple of shapely Cable spotlamps are screwed to the matt-black bonnet, and there's an engine air-scoop atop both rear wings. Big deal. And a front boot which is usually full of spare parts, which are not only useful per se from time to time, but also help to even out the weight imbalance between the front and rear. No performance gains here, then.
No special sticky tyres either. Beales usually runs on the cheapest remoulds he can lay his hands on, irrespective of road surface or weather conditions, because experience has shown that no matter how good the rubber at each corner, a fresh set of boots is required after every outing. As many have noticed of late, historic rallying has become a rather expensive business, and tyres from the top drawer aren't usually part of the overall equation. And Beales still manages to win rallies.
The standard torsion bar suspension must, therefore, have been wildly tweaked. Wrong. Its as 'cooking as the day the good people at Wolfsburg assembled it, complete with swing axles at the rear Swing axles? But aren't they those dangerous things that once sent Ralph Nader and company in the direction of a maternity clinic for the purpose of giving multiple birth? Absolutely, And Beales swears by 'em.
The man himself explains -I have listened to people drivelling on about the supposed vagaries of the Beetle's rear engine weight bias and the inherently flawed nature of swing axles for years, and am at a loss to know precisely what they mean," he laughs.
"In fact, it's the very nature of the swing axle that makes the handling so safe at and beyond the limit.
'Overcook it and you get the dreaded wheel tuck-in — easily dealt with by the judicious use of opposite lock — but if you don't feel what's happening swiftly, I could easily imagine that the Beetle's critics, who were brought up on conventional front-engined cars, could get into a spot of bother from which they would not emerge entirely unscratched."
But we still don't know why this car is so fast, so frustratingly successful. Aha, got it — the yellow paint. Originally destined for a British Telecom repair van, this particularly uncompromising shade must be the ultimate 'go-faster' accoutrement. Simple, isn't it? No. Can't be. When did you last see a BT worker getting a move on?
It would appear, therefore, that this Beetle has more to offer than the sum of its parts. Perhaps it was a Friday afternoon car, as opposed to the dreaded 'Monday morning' car — built with a little extra care and attention. In reality this isn't actually true either...
It turns out that, apart form the buzzy little Okrasa engine, UWP is little different from any other 1958 Beetle. But, like the best Nikon camera, Churchill 12-bore and Gibson Les Paul, they are only as good as the chap at the controls. What really makes the difference to this Beetle is Bob Beales, whose natural talent and years of experience has left spectators and fellow competitors alike wondering ... "how?"
Like an old sports jacket, the car has become part of him; he has moulded it around his unique driving style, and has reached the stage where it will respond perfectly to his every whim. Despite the abuse that this poor or car has endured — and many of the battle scars are still in evidence — the body feels as strong and solid as ever. The doors still close with Volkswagen's characteristic 'thunk', and surprise of all surprises, the cabin remains so air-tight, that you have to open a window before the doors will close properly.
The original front seats were swapped recently for a pair of hip-grinding bucket items fitted with integral safety harnesses: both are essential in competition, but make getting in and out in a a hurry an absolute pain. And the rollcage's sideimpact bars don't help much either in this respect. Once installed, the driving position is perfect, although by comparison with modern cars the dead flat windscreen appears to sit perilously close to your face. Down the years contemporary road-tests reveal that journalists particularly dislike the bottom-hinged pedals. The majority found them awkward and almost impossibly difficult for toeing and heeling but as any seasoned Beetle campaigner knows, they are actually extremely well positioned...
As this car was converted from 6 to 12 volt electrics some years ago, the engine fires into life with a flick of the ignition key — the ignition switch is quaintly located in the centre of the dashboard close to the ashtray — and, as there are twin carbs with short manifolds, this Beetle suffers from none of the carburettor icing antics which afflicted the standard cars for so many years.
The engine idles nicely at around 1100rpm, the familiar and characteristic air-cooled clatter, din from the cooling fan and burbling exhaust note filling the cabin excessively and intrusively until everything has warmed up properly.
Once on the move — and getting it away from rest is not actually that easy on account of the high-lift camshaft and heavy double-cable throttle pedal this cocktail of German know-how is quite amazing. Nothing much happens below 3000rpm, but once the tachometer needle reaches this magic figure, the benefit of the Okrasa engine goodies are clearly apparent, and a far cry from a Beetle in standard tune.
Select bottom gear, full revs, bang the clutch in and the tail end squats hard on the ground, nose up in the air, the remoulds chirping from a second before they bite hard. And away. Grab second quick before the bloody thing blows up, and third, back to second for a tight left-hander, floor the throttle again, tuck the nose in tight and no double about it — this is a Beetle. Out comes the tail end, catch it on opposite lock — gently — snick into third, peak revs and into top. It's absolutely fabulous.
With such a close-ratio gearbox — and the Porsche-designed synchromesh system still ranks as one of the best — the stick needs to be stirred constantly, but its so smooth and positive that changing up or down is rarely wearying. Change down a cog from top, engine screaming — but never harshly — into a nice sweeping corner, dab the brakes momentarily, throttle hard down again and the rear gives notice that its beginning to take the strain. I let it drift, not daring for a moment to ease off the juice — Beetles tend to Torville & Dean if you do — and just a hint of steering input sees the old girl safely and comfortably through. Beales is right; everything about the swing-axle suspension system really is predictable. The trick is to ignore the rumours and get on with it. Around the beautifully smooth, twisting roads of the Radnor Forest in mid Wales, the Beetle was in its element, the chassis proving more than a match for the power of the engine. It's a user-friendly little beast, provided you remember that everything about it is unconventional and back-to-front And as Beales says: "If you discover even a hint of understeer, you're not driving it properly."
Where a real improvement could be made, however, is in swapping the front drum brakes for the disc set-up featured as standard wear on the 1500 Beetle from 1966. Unfortunately, though, this little tweak is not permitted under current historic rally regulations. One of the inherent drawbacks of most rear-engined cars is that under heavy braking there's a tendency for the front wheels to lock themselves up, especially on wet roads; but with a little practice you soon learn where the limit is.
With such a small steering wheel — a bendy alloy-spoked item — the steering is on the heavy side at parking speeds, but feels all together on the move. And in any case this Beetle only rarely travels at parking speeds. One final bit of fun -the road from Llanfihangelnant-Melan down to Builth Wells. What a riot! By this time I'd got the hang of what Bob had been gassing on about. This is a spectacular driver's road, and one for which you need energy. There's hardly a straight anywhere, and flicking from one bend to the next was just a slippery blur, the engine note either on 'full song' or dead as the throttle was closed.
Drifting, sliding, slipping; really travelling, playing with the shift lever, concentrating hard, the Beetle really is a handler, and as we dropped into Builth for a well-earned cup of tea. I felt pleasantly drained. Naturally, I never discovered the top speed on public roads, but Bob assures me that 105mph is quite easily attainable on long sections of road. And I have every reason to believe him. Bob entered this car for the 1990 Monte-Carlo Challenge and, as he says, "You don't really appreciate the joys and difficulties of slipping and sliding until you've encountered thick ice in the Alps." On that occasion Beales was running with the leaders until petrol fumes escaping from the filler cap overcame driver and crew and dropped the car down to 30th position. A pity, but Beales has had his downs as well as ups, and this was one occasion when victory as out of the question.
One day this famous old Beetle will surely give up the ghost and refuse to go any further. How it's lasted so long is probably attributable in the first instance to legendary German build quality. Second, it has been maintained properly, and when bits break — as they are apt to do from time to time — original equipment spares have replaced them.
Never will UWP win a concours contest; it isn't that kind of car and its owner isn't actually sure what a tin of polish is. But for as long as Bob retains his enthusiasm for rallying — and it shows no sign of abating — it is highly likely that the Beetle will continue to pick up pots. Bob reckons that the car has become so much a part of his life that it will probably follow him to the grave. But that ain't going to happen for a long time, which is why historic rally fans will be able to enjoy the sight of this magical driver/car combination in the years ahead.