VW is still Baja Bug bombing
It started the way every dumb, dangerous, pointless, glorious, godforsaken adventure should start: with the clink of glasses in a Mexican hotel room that reeked of booze. Then a couple of guys climbed into some kind of cockeyed psychedelic hot-tub-on-a-roller-skate and bounced into history. Today, 50 years later, their many disciples, the desert weirdos who get excited about inhaling mouthfuls of dust at 60 mph while undergoing traumatic spinal compression and trying to keep from biting through their tongues, are still telling the tale.
Indeed, one of those original guys is here, telling his tale as a few of us sit rapt, having just shaken all the cobwebs loose by pounding over a couple dozen rocky miles in some vintage desert buggies that are still very much racing. There’s been a debate as to whether it’s more fun to climb in through the roof of a super-light and super-cheap single-seater or roll in the relative comfort of the 1000-pounds-heavier Bug. But there’s one thing that all parties agree on: Whether sluicing through deep sand or scaling a steep, broken hogback, 65 horsepower is not a lot.
Bruce Meyers, now 91, takes us back to the deep Kodachrome era of 1967. Then, nobody wearing any kind of official uniform gave a damn if you ambled over the border into Baja and got lost amid the boulders and boojums, chasing up the washes and old Indian trails in search of colonial missions and ancient conquistador mines and living entirely feral because exactly none of your friends complained about the iMessages you weren’t answering or the Instagram posts you weren’t tagging.
Although his first passion was the sea, Meyers, creator of the Meyers Manx, found and fell in love with Baja in the early 1960s, joining a small movement of shade-tree engineers who were stripping down old Volkswagen buses and Beetles to create adventure buggies for exploring the places where Darts and Impalas dared not tread. By the spring of ’67, Meyers and his friend Ted Mangels found themselves in the aforementioned Hotel Los Arcos in La Paz, declaring over drinks that oh, well, what the hell, they should try to beat an old motorcycle record for running the 750-mile length of Baja.
The ensuing 34-hour and 45-minute scramble from La Paz north to Ensenada nearly destroyed Meyers’s “Old Red” buggy as well as its two dusty, dazed occupants. But they drafted a press release to let the world know about it. Concurrently, a florist and off-road hobbyist in the San Fernando Valley named Ed Pearlman was forming the National Off Road Racing Association (NORRA), and organized Baja racing gasped its first breath of filthy glory.
Way off in Wolfsburg, Germany, the people’s carmaker was present at and integral to this birth 50 years ago, although at the time Volkswagen of America responded by threatening legal action against Meyers and NORRA if they attempted to connect Volkswagen in any way to the 1000-mile race they were planning. Alas, things change, and what was considered outlaw counterculture back then is now seized on by corporate suits—perhaps a bit hungry for positive publicity—as a treasured legacy to be exalted.
So VW invited a few media friends to the California high desert to hang out with Meyers and drive some Beetles and buggies that, but for a few electronic knickknacks such as GPS and some LED lighting, could have run in that first Mexican 1000 back in 1967 without turning many heads. There were only four classes in the first race; last year, in the modern successor, the SCORE Baja 1000, there were 34 classes, with the nearly stock Beetle buggies running down in Class 11. (The simpler Class 9 single-seaters can run, but only a severe masochist would enter one in the 1000.)
“These are 50-year-old cars with 50-year-old everything for parts,” explained Josh McGuckin of Project Baja, a group of Colorado friends who built a couple of winning Red Bull Soapbox Race contenders before a viewing of the celebrated 2005 documentary Dust to Glory suddenly changed everything. Getting completely hooked, they invested seven years and about $25,000 tweaking and perfecting their blue-and-white 1970 Bug with its essentially stock 1600-cc flat-four. When we met up amid the stubborn desert scrub and decomposing hills outside Barstow, California, Project Baja was about to head to Mexico to compete in the 2017 edition of the Baja 1000. The group’s best finish so far? “Three hundred miles,” said McGuckin proudly. “A Class 11 only finishes every other year or so,” he said.
Not wins. Finishes. Since 2012, exactly three Class 11 Beetles have finished the Baja, out of 28 starters. Anyone who has watched in-car YouTube video of a Class 11 knows why. These are not the mega-dollar Trophy Trucks running at three-figure speeds while floating effortlessly with NASA-tech suspensions over what Meyers and Mangels used to call the “Oh My Gods” and the “Super Awfuls.”
No, a Class 11 is a banging, crashing, brain-jangling death march of destruction, the occupants praying that the car falls apart slightly slower than the miles tick past. In 2016, a couple of local boys from Ensenada managed meaning that not only were they averaging a mere 27 mph, but they were also enjoying life as a couple of bricks in a Maytag dryer for an agonizing 15 hours longer than did the crew of the overall winner.
Yet race on these old Beetles do. In trying to please Herr Hitler, Volkswagen’s founding fathers unwittingly gave birth to a natural off-roader, at least by the 1960s standards that Class 11 attempts to honor. The steering is light and easy because the air-cooled flat-four engine, not a heck of a lot more complicated than a twisted rubber band, lies heaviest on the rear axle, exactly where traction is needed. The independent trailing-arm rear suspension that came in with later Beetles takes the abuse of ruts and rocks with steadfast durability and, compared with the cruder swing-axle rear suspension of the Class 9s, a modicum of compliance.
After some brief discussions as to whether it’s better to work up the ladder of civility or work down, I start in the 1500-pound Class 9, flipping open the roof hatch, standing on some part of the aft-mounted fuel tank that doesn’t mind being stood on, and dropping with a drunkard’s grace into the driver’s seat.
Five grand buys you a decent Class 9, which is a purpose-built single-seat racer that marries a VW powertrain and earlier swing-axle suspension to a tube-frame structure. Thanks to tight rules intended to hold down costs, there’s precious little you can do to improve this Bug. It eats its front ball joints every race, but replacing all four costs about $80. The transmission, the weakest part of any VW-powered buggy, might last a couple of weekends before the ring and pinion murder each other, but owners get good at changing those, and the bits are cheap. The stock 1600-cc engine runs 8.5:1 compression, and a decently built unit tends to go all season without complaint. Class 9 is what racers call “a claimer class,” meaning anyone can buy anyone else’s engine for $2500, which discourages cheating. Obvious cheating, anyhow.
The tires might last until they turn to concrete, but racers shave down the outside shoulders on the fronts to prevent “side bite,” or the tendency of the front tires to suddenly dig into a rut wall, which produces an alarming whip of the steering wheel that can dislocate a thumb. I head out on a marked seven-mile course, feeling my way through the short-throw four-speed gearbox. First and second are the most important gears; third is the cruise gear over the soft sand for a newbie like me; and fourth, at the speeds I’m going, just causes the engine to fall out the back. A Class 9 can do 70 mph but almost never does.
The first part of the course is a sandy track that the blatting buggy likes very much, the bindweed and the bladderpod and the creosote rushing past as a green and beige blur while the wind blows through the nonexistent windshield to ruffle my cheeks. But then I hit some Super Awfuls—long, rocky stretches where the flimsy body rattles against the tube frame like hurricane shutters in a Category 4, and the speed drops to a crawl. Quickly you learn not to drive with your fingers anywhere near the spokes lest you get the nun’s ruler across them. With just six inches of front suspension travel and seven at the back (Trophy Trucks have up to 40 inches), the Class 9 has to take the rough stuff slowly else your insides get churned into human smoothie. The local desert races where the Class 9s tend to show up in force run about four hours; the drivers must be made of iron.
By prearrangement, the photographer has staged himself at the one Oh My God on the course, a prominent whoop-de-do where the buggies can catch real air. I give it a solid goose, and suddenly the little yellow sand banana is weightless, the sensation of leaving the ground accompanied by a brief but delicious shot of adrenaline. Following the instructions, I keep my foot on the throttle through the low arc so the ring and pinion won’t snap on landing. The car rejoins the trail with a gentle sigh of the suspension, and off it squirts. Okay, a few of these on a course plus some long sand runs might make four hours of the rest of the crap worth it.
So this is Baja! Well, not exactly. More like, this is Barstow and the famous Slash X Ranch and all the places where local small-time off-road races got started and are still run today. McGuckin’s highly developed Beetle is more Baja, and climbing aboard his Class 11, I realize this is a whole different ballgame.
“They are equal parts capable and incapable,” he said, meaning, basically, to watch it. It’s not uncommon for a Beetle to end Baja on its roof after the driver is lulled into a sense of complacency on a fast stretch. After all, the changes to the stock Bug basically amount to removing the glass and interior, installing a cage, welding up some weak points, and putting on good shock absorbers (which, granted, can take a while to get just right).
However, after we belt in and hook up the breathing tubes that supply us with filtered air, it’s obvious in the first thousand feet that the Project Baja Bug is a Lexus compared with the single-seater. It rolls over the trail crumble with far more absorption, meaning the Super Awfuls are a lot less awful, and the steering fidgets less and takes less input to hold the course. We catch the same air at the whoop, but I’m able to keep my foot in it and charge up the next rise with some real momentum.
With a full steel body to propel, plus another human body, plus a tool stash, a pair of sand rails, and a floor jack, the little 65-horse 1600 peashooter has its work cut out. Second-gear sections in the single-seater become first-gear dig-outs in the Beetle. On the real Baja, there can be grades so steep that even first gear is too tall and reverse may be the only way. As you drive along, your brain’s central processor works at max, making zillions of decisions per second. Slight left to avoid that rock, now a bit right, now straight, now left; put the right wheels on top of that rut rather than in it; a little gas here, maybe a downshift; less speed over this hump and then back on the throttle. And so on, for 30-plus hours.
“Building the car was the easy part,” said McGuckin, who budgeted $20,000 for running Baja and planned to take 10 people, including three driving teams. Compared with the pioneering 1967 run of Meyers and Mangels—the two of them plus whatever spares, fuel, and bug juice Old Red could carry—the modern Baja is a game of logistics as much as a race, and a Class 11 Beetle is cheap only by the modern yardstick of today’s bonkers racing budgets.
Still, at $5000 for a Class 9 buggy, the entry point for dirt racing is still stupendously low, and that old Volkswagen Beetle, despite being off the market in the U.S. since 1979, has a lot to do with that. “What off-road racing did was open up the idea that I could be a race driver,” said Meyers, who turned Old Red into the original Meyers Manx and sold kits for $395, spawning an entire motoring subculture around sand, sun, fun, and air-cooled combustion.
The last Volkswagen victory in Baja was in 1985, before Trophy Trucks displaced buggies as the hot ticket. But in many ways VW is still winning, if not in fact then in spirit, by making this odd, brutal, hilarious, rattlesnake-infested corner of motorsports so accessible to anyone with a taste for dust and a spine of iron.