Wayne Carini remembers a Porsche-powered “Bathtub”
When I first saw Bill Rutan’s hill-climb special back in the late 1970s or early ’80s, at the Mount Equinox Hill Climb in Vermont, it was in its final form. On first impression, I thought it was an unusual-looking homemade thing with a VW Bug hood. But when I walked around to the back of the car, I realized that it had a four-cam Porsche engine, which made it a lot more interesting.
I introduced myself to Bill and soon found out that he was an experienced road racer and hill climber. Later I discovered that he was a two-time SCCA C-Class national champion and had logged hundreds of hill climbs, where he and his special proved tough to beat. His ultimate conquest with the homebuilt car he called the “Bathtub” was to set the fastest time of the day at the Mount Washington Hillclimb in 1961, beating a previous record set by a race-prepared Ferrari driven by one Carroll Shelby. The road was paved before the climb returned, which meant that Bill’s record of 9 minutes and 13 seconds on gravel still stands, although times on the paved surface are quite a bit faster.
He built several cars in addition to the Bathtub, but to me, that one took the cake, with its stark bodywork and its many hill-climb victories. He told me about its Beetle origins and that he started with a 1952 VW floorpan and a 1948 Beetle body. Although it was originally powered by a highly modified VW engine in the rear, by the time I saw it, the special had a mid-mounted four-cam Porsche engine from a burnt-out Speedster and a lot less bodywork than when it first rolled out of the shop.
I was really taken with the car, and over the years, I had talked to Bill about buying it—as had David Winstead, one of his neighbors in Centerbrook, Connecticut. When Bill finally decided it was time to sell the Bathtub, he approached Winstead, who jumped at the chance. Soon, the tired race car was stripped down for restoration, during which the floorpan was straightened, and new aluminum panels were fabricated. Although the completed car was pretty much ready for competition, the owner decided not to race it.
Once the car was finished, Winstead asked me to help market it. To give it exposure, I took it out to the Hershey Hill Climb and ran up the hill three times. It was a hoot to drive—I loved the mechanical sounds coming out of the engine and the way the car squatted down under hard acceleration. Even on the aged tires that Bill had used to set the record at Mount Washington 62 years earlier, it held the fastest time of the day until the closing minutes of the hill climb, when a friend’s Lotus Super Seven beat my time by 2/10ths of a second.
Following the hill climb, we shipped it, in 2012, to Mecum’s sale in Monterey, California. With Winstead on hand, I drove it onto the stage, yet bidding ran out of steam before it reached the reserve. I asked Winstead how much he would take, and I made an offer that he accepted. While I was still at the auction, I fielded offers from several interested people, but all they wanted was the engine. As long as I own it, the engine will stay with the car.
Once the car was mine, I took it back to the Hershey Hill Climb. Figuring that the ancient racing tires had cost me those 2/10ths, I mounted some sticky Hoosiers and trundled up to the start of the climb. When I was waved off and let out the clutch, those tires stuck so well that several gears in the transmission shattered, leaving me right where I started.
Back in Connecticut, I called Bill. He came up and said, “If you take the transmission out, I’ll repair it.” He grilled me on how I’d actually broken the gears. Looking at the tires, he said, “You put these tires on? There was nothing wrong with those old tires; you just don’t know how to drive.” With that, he went home, made a new set of gears, and the car was once again race-ready.
Bill passed away in April 2018. I wanted to have the car at his funeral, but I didn’t have it ready in time. Although I’m sorry that the old character is gone, I’m happy to have his car as an important piece of automotive racing history. Thanks, Bill.
This article first appeared in Hagerty Drivers Club magazine. Click here to subscribe and join the club.