News & Stories

The 1956 Volkswagen Beetle

May 17, 2019 In the News

By John Lamm

Quietly wandering through the Miles Collier Collections at the Revs Institute you come across a 1965 Ferrari 250 LM. A 1914 Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost. Dan Gurney’s 1967 Spa-winning Eagle F1 car. A 1909 Ford Model T. A 1956 Volkswagen Beetle.

​Hang on, what is that last one doing on the museum floor?​​

​It should come as no surprise, given the collections’ purpose, that this is no ordinary Beetle.

Inside the soul of most dedicated automobile enthusiasts rests a little niche for a hot rodder. That would include Miles Collier. It was about 35 years ago that he had the idea of creating a clone VW Beetle visually identical from the outside, but very much a hot rod underneath.

“It was one of those flights of fancy,” he explained. “A hot VW seemed like a great thing, but by my rules of engagement it had to look bone stock.”

Photo: Peter Harholdt

Where better to start and create such an automobile than California? And where better there than the SoCal shop of Culver City-based Dick Troutman. Together with Dick Barnes, Troutman had created such landmark racers as the Troutman-Barnes Special, the Scarabs, the first Chaparral and the Ford Mustang concept car.

“I was working with Dick Troutman back in the day,” Collier added, “so it all seemed inevitable.”

​Or an inevitable as a hand-made all-aluminum Porsche-powered Volkswagen Beetle could be.

What Troutman started decades ago remains a work in progress, but let’s begin nearly four decades ago with the pan and framework of a stock Beetle that the craftsman had to prep for new body panels. You can look at the images with this story and swear that bodywork is just as it came off the production line. But it isn’t. While the roof and inner structure of the special Beetle are steel, every other square inch of exterior metal you see is aluminum as hand-fashioned by Troutman…fenders, door skins, running boards plus the front and rear lids. Even the bumpers are aluminum, flashed with copper and then chromed. Maybe the bumpers are two elements you would not want to be malleable, but it was all part of the weight-reduction plan.

Photo: Peter Harholdt

The seating in the VW gives a tiny hint that this 1956 Volkswagen is not what it appears to be. The seats are not stock, but they were inspired by the period. Replica Porsche Speedster seats were installed to give the sort of back and side support needed for the car’s modern performance.

At first look, the dashboard appears to be factory fresh, yet it isn’t. The 80-mph speedometer face is correct, but the instrument is, in fact, an 8000-rpm tachometer. In a discreet area on the lower dash nearly invisible red LEDs monitor oil pressure and temperature.  An alloy roll bar was added for both structural rigidity and safety…and for good reason.

That takes us under the aluminum engine cover in the VW and what happened after the body was completed and the car was shipped to CH Motorcars in Naples, now home of the Revs Institute. Here it received its heart.

“The idea was to dump a bunch of Porsche technology into it,” Collier continued, “so GT brakes and a flat-fan Spyder motor seemed good. An early 911 tranny, rear torsion tube and trailing arm suspension were designed into the build to avoid the swing axle rear suspension and, relative to the engine, the less-than-robust Beetle gearbox.”

Very sharp eyes might notice the wheels look somewhat different than stock Beetle wheels of the era. That’s because they had their offset changed so they would fit properly within the fender and inner fender. They happen to be fitted with period-correct Pirelli CN36 Cinturatos the tire firm is reproducing today.

Porsche 356GT drum brakes fitted to the 1956 Volkswagen.

Inside the wheels are alloy drum brakes from a Porsche 356GT. They came off the parts shelf at CH Motorcars to make the VW unique, to fit within the Porsche family and get the hopped-up VW stopped. They are unaltered so they could go back on the shelf should further modifications to the VW take place. Given the work-in-progress feeling about the VW, that could happen someday.

From the start, the aluminum VW was quick, thanks to the same sort of 1679-cc, 183-hp 4-cam, flat-4 with its roller bearing crankshaft that powers the Elva MKVII Porsche race car in the collection. Being a hot rod, however, always leaves the door open to change. This happened not long ago.

The new Jake Raby-built 2.6-liter flat-4 nestled in the the rear of the VW.

“Recently we concluded the 547/5 flat fan-4 was too peaky for road use and so we went to a Jake Raby-built Porsche 2.6-liter type 4,” Collier said. “That engine’s 210 hp and oodles of torque(just shy of 200 lb-ft) make that a great improvement.”

Mated to a Porsche 901 transaxle, this isn’t a race engine, but built for the road and pump gasoline.

“It has turned into an unbelievably great handling and blooming fast bit of kit. It will be out and about a lot,” Collier said.

While the aluminum V-Dub isn’t the sort of car one takes to a drag strip, we can ballpark its performance. The 1782-lb Beetle has a horsepower-to-weight ratio of 8.5 lbs per hp. It’s near impossible to match a more modern car’s specs to the VW’s given gearing, tire sizes, torque curves, etc. but one can interpolate. Check back to the mid-1960s and you’ll find Beetles needing 20 seconds or more to get to 60 mph. With a tail wind. Near as we can figure, this VW hot rod as currently configured could get to 60 mph in right around 5.0 seconds.

Gunnar Jeannette pushing the VW to its limits at Palm Beach International Raceway during Brian Redman’s Targa 66 Event.

We do know the lightweight VW’s top speed. Gunnar Jeannette has been clocked at more than 120 mph during a session in which the car was track tested. Terminal Beetle speed in the day? About 77 mph.

Why does one suspect the Collier Collections’ hot rod VW would bring a smile to the face of its creator, Ferdinand Porsche?

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John Lamm started his automotive journalism career in 1965 as a racing photographer for Autoweek magazine. After a tour in Vietnam, he joined Motor Trend in 1969, then Road & Track in 1975, where he worked for 37 years. He has also written for Car and Driver and Automobile magazines. Credits include 10 books and Lamm has been honored with the International Motor Press Association’s Ken Purdy and the Motor Press Guild’s Dean Batchelor awards for writing. Lamm’s photo archives include hundreds of thousands of images ranging from an 1893 Benz Victoria to many of the latest automobiles. He is on the organizing committee for the Rolex Monterey Motorsports Reunion and been a judge at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance for two decades. Lamm lives in San Clemente, California with his wife, Scheri.

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9 Responses

  1. Don Nelson

    My Dad was one of the first 6 VW Distributors in the UK. Part of my “Motor Trade” education was to spend 12 months at the VW plant in Germany, to learn what I could.
    Whilst in Germany, I drove a Beetle, which I had modified by Okrasa. This was rallied and rallycrossed when I returned to the UK. The motor was then transplanted into a Beach Buggy, and a modified Porsche Super 90 was installed, complete with the Porsche brakes.
    When this eventually went BANG, I acquired a Porsche 4-cam Carrera motor, which was duly installed in the now lightened Beetle.
    A lot of fun was had with this set-up.

  2. Mark Koestner

    Really nice story……..interesting background since I’ve been watching the genesis for the past 2 years nice to have some context.

    Well done!

  3. Frank Allocca

    Interesting engineering project but a sad end to a perfect ‘56 Bug! My second car was a ‘56 Anthracite with red vinyl interior bought in 1958.. love to find an untouched example today!

  4. Joe

    “The 1782-lb Beetle has a horsepower-to-weight ratio of 8.5 hp per lb.”

    Me thinks you might have that flipped.

  5. Eric Jensen

    I watched this car run at Palm Beach International Raceway at the Targa 66. It was like watching a video tape on fast forward! Beetles can’t run that fast! Can they? Oh, yes! This one certainly can!

  6. HANNELORE LEE

    Having learned to drive on my Dad’s ’52 Zwitter back in Munich, Germany, I developed my love for the car. I have seen your Beetle at the Institute and, quite frankly, wondered how the lowly Beetle made it to your collection. Now I know. Love it. At present, I own a ’63 Beetle, all stock.

  7. Ed Murphy

    Have made several trips to the REVS museum. I must admit when I first saw the VW I wondered why it deserved a place there.
    Thanks for the story. I never asked anyone about it.
    Keep up the great informative stories.

  8. raoul san giorgi

    I am a bit confused to be honest .
    Why spending a fortune on something that never was ?
    Off course one should live his dreams , fair enough .
    But I do not understand the discrepancy of organising truly highly valued seminars about originality , authenticity , preservation on the one hand and building a special like the one based on a VW on the other hand . Especially when an original car is sacrified for that .
    I am not sure to understand the cars position in Miles Collier world renowned collection .
    We all know and very much respect Miles ‘ dedication to the cause of the classic car , so I hope to be forgiven for placing a somewhat critical note on this one …
    Or perhaps need a bit of education in this area ?
    S.

  9. san giorgi

    I ment that it is ME perhaps needing some extra education, not Miles !
    My last sentence can be wrongly interpreteded , which I do not wish to happen .
    R.

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