There’s a handful of these old VW T1 pickups around, single and double cab. But this one, parked next to a little neighborhood market, has a set of very fine wheels, so I decided to take a closer look at them. I knew they were the wheels that EMPI, which once dominated the VW aftermarket, used to sell. And that they came from England. But it had been a while, so I needed to immerse myself a bit in their history.
These are a classic “mag” wheel from the 60s. And unlike most later alloy wheels, these were cast from almost pure magnesium, making them some 40% lighter than the stock steel wheels.
These wheels were made by BRM Speedwell, an outfit that started in 1957, and included future F1 champion Graham Hill as its mechanic. Speedwell grew rapidly, and the VW wheel was first cast in January 1966, and quickly became a big seller in the US via EMPI. There’s a more detailed history of Speedwell and this wheel here.
EMPI, the largest VW aftermarket supplier in the US, had been campaigning an ever-faster gas-class drag racer, the legendary Inch Pincher. And it was one of the first to sport the new Speedwell wheels.
Here’s the Inch Pincher on a lengthened VW pickup as its transporter.
Needless to say, these wheels were not cheap in their day. I don’t know that I ever saw one until I got to California on my hitchhiking trip in 1972, when the custom VW mania was already in full bloom.
This is a nice clean double cab pickup, especially on the inside. I once caught a ride hitchhiking in one on I-80, across Illinois into Indiana. It was stock, which meant a 1500cc engine out back. The driver had it wide open, naturally, which meant a steady 65 mph on the billiard-table flats of Illinois. But having ridden in lots of T1 buses, i was quite surprised at how quiet it was. The engine’s full-chat holler and the blower’s whistle were a distant muted hum.
It’s because the cab was completely separated from the engine compartment, unlike in a bus, where it resided right inside its sheet metal box at the rear of the bus. This made me appreciate the double cab pickup in a new light, and its roomy rear seat are only added to that. These were mighty practical, except for when it came to sleeping in them.
The VW has the distinction of being the progenitor to what is now the best selling type of vehicle in the country, an F-150 double cab pickup. I covered the history of it here, but the short story is that the first one was made back in 1953. It was obviously a concept with legs. And fine wheels, in this case.