Today I bring you a hit from my youth. Of course, the VW Beetle is a well known hit, but for me the Baja Bug represents a second hit. As I recall, there were four or five of these parked at my High School, with varying levels of build quality and final finishes. The car met the needs of a teenage driver, included some very clever engineering, and allowed greatly increased off-road capability with a minimum financial outlay.
This low budget approach also meant that none of the cars I remember looked this good, but unpainted fenders and steel VW wheels defined the essence of the Baja Bug experience. It played well in California, Colorado, and the Midwest, where open country beckoned to the young and adventurous. VW Beetles were a dime a dozen, and turning them into a Baja Bug allowed the owners to venture off road without tearing off the fenders.
This head on shot shows the genius of the Baja kit. By shortening the trunk lid and raising the front fender edges, approach angles improved significantly. This exposed the front tires so they could attack obstacles, saving the body panels. The light nature of the car, combined with rear engine weight transfer and power meant that the tubular bumper could also act as a skid plate, and ride up over obstacles with minimum fuss.
At the rear, the same thinking applied. Chopping the body clear of the engine helped engine cooling, and allowed the bug owner to toss out the engine cover. An engine that extended past the rear wheels decreased the departure angle, but a flat skid plate and tubular bumper provided simple (and cheap) protection.
Being a car fan of a certain age, I needed to nail down the model year of this Bug. This tail light assembly came out in 1968, and gained a flat red reflector on the side of the metal tail light housing in 1970. The fuel door and bright trim also fit a ’68 to ’70 timeline, so if this Bug has the original tail lights (always a big if), we’re looking at a ‘68 or ’69.
The Baja Bug body components were both simple and easy to install. Once an owner had removed the fenders and cut off the front of the body, a fiberglass cap filled the gap and covered the rough sawn edge. A new hood matched up to the back edge of the cap, and to protect the new body components, the tubular bumper bolted solidly to the VW frame.
Under the front fenders, simple sheet metal screws held the cap on. This design allowed the most thumb fingered craftsman to mount the body parts easily with common tools. With the new shorty fenders mounted, these screws were also out of sight and out of mind.
At the rear, a fiberglass cowl covers up the saw lines, and masks the raw edge where the hood used to meet the body. During installation, the factory drip rail helps position the cowl, and a the scoop eliminates any ragged fit issues between the cowl and the body. Once again, sheet metal screws hold the body panel on, but rather than try to hide them, the designers (perhaps inspired by the basic nature of the design) simply left the screws in plain sight.
This side shot reminds me of the final element of Baja Bug design- Running board removal. This step accomplishes several things. First, it prevents rocks from bending the running boards up and jamming the doors shut. Second, since the shortened fenders expose the ends of the running boards, removing them keeps the boards clear of trail obstructions. Finally, the running boards also lose quite a bit of rigidity without the fender edges tying things together, a problem solved by removal.
This car includes small rocker plates to help protect the body. They’re an optional accessory, but I think this side shot shows that the plates add a certain ruggedness to the Baja Bug. Overall, the shortened body, cropped fenders and reinforced body sills all combine to say “Let’s go out and play!”