VW Of A Lifetime: The Perfect Gift

A story of Brazilian economics, the Speed 1600 and the inglorious story of a forgotten 1972 VW Beetle in the family.

The year is 1985 and Brazil is facing terrible times, the mismanagement of the economy by the military government brought an imaginable inflation rate, something around 250% a year.

The price of every product and service went up on a daily basis. In a desperate try to get some reason out of this madness, Brazilians unofficially adopted the American Dollar as an alternative to establish a sense of real value for goods and services .

Another interesting aspect of failing economics is having monthly payments in anything had to be avoided  since the interest rates were in the stratosphere. For example, to buy a new car, one had to pay in cash, up front and only the really rich people were able to do.

The average Joe had no other option than to keep his ( or her) old clunker in good condition, so looking through the automobile perspective, some segments of the economy were doing ok, like auto parts industry, repair shops and the used car market.

All this introduction is necessary to give you guys an idea how rough the economic situation was in Brazil around the mid 1980s; now I can start talking about the real subject of this post, which is racing.

As one can imagine, car races wasn’t a exactly a priority in this kind of scenario; only those categories backed by the automakers were surviving, like the Brazilian Stock Car, backed by General Motors.

But necessity is the mother of invention and a new hope for the average race teams was being conceived.

The idea couldn’t be simpler: lets bring the VW Beetles back to the race track, after all, in the mid 80s  they were still plentiful, affordable and we could find parts anywhere, even brand new since the Beetle was still in production ( last year would be 1986) and the VW Kombi would be powered by the faithful flat four for another 2 decades or so.

Last time we saw the Beetles officially racing was in the then defunct “Division 3” , a category reserved for highly modified production cars. There, the teams would extract the last drop of power from the air cooled engine, increasing the displacement to 2.3 liters and feeding it through huge Weber carbs. Their nickname was “Atomic Potty”

Those cars would cost a fortune to build but a well balanced “Potty” in the hands of seasoned driver would be a pain in the neck to the way more powerful Opalas and Mavericks.

The Atomic Pottys were a crowd pleaser, everybody loved to see the little Beetles giving a hard time to bigger cars, but they also were unpredictable on the track, mechanically unreliable and very expensive to build.

The new category should be exactly the opposite, in order to make it affordable.

Pedro “Garrafa” (bottle) going  flat out at Interlagos race track, on a rainy day. Garrafa was one of the biggest Speed 1600 enthusiasts.

In 1985 it was born, named “Speed 1600″ and had very restricted rules:

*The cars should keep all the original panels in steel and no cuts on the body were allowed, other than the one on the rear skirt to make room for the exhaust system and the other one on the front to make room for an additional oil cooler.

* Only the side windows could be replaced by plexiglass .

* Wheels should be 14″ no wider than 6”. Aftermarket alloy rims were permitted . Tires only “street use” radials, no wider than 195 and  and the profile no lower than 60.

* Front suspension: stock with lockers to lower it. Rear suspension: stock with free camber adjustments. Shocks should also be OEM.

*Engine: stock (alcohol) 1600cc. Only a little “grinding” on the heads was allowed . Dual original “Solex” carbs with a little internal polishing. Free choice of jets. Free choice of exhaust, free compression ratio.

* Transmission: stock with free choice of OEM gears.

* Brakes: stock front discs and rear drums.

As far as I remember that was it.

The Speed 1600 begun as a regional tournament in the city of São Paulo e it was an instantaneous success. It was cheaper to race a Beetle than a Go Kart.

The category not only brought veterans drivers and mechanics back to the track but also opened the door to a whole new generation of gearheads. Together they made the Speed 1600 the most popular racing category in São Paulo. 40-plus cars on the grid was kind of normal.

In June, 1988, the most prestigious auto magazine in the country  “4 Rodas” published 5 pages article about the racing Beetles and now, the rest of country suddenly got bitten by the bug.

The southern cities in Brazil, the ones with functional race tracks, immediately started to organize similar tournaments and since they tried to copy the same rules as the ones in São Paulo, that made things easier for having interstate tournaments in the future.

In 1989 the Speed 1600 broke the record of the biggest grid ever in the country, 63 cars. The record still holds today .

My family goes back to the race track.

My family always tried to stay involved in racing as much as the budget allowed. My grandpa worked as a mechanic for a race team in late 50s, not much for the money but mostly for the fun of it. My dad started his “career” on local rally tournaments and so did his brother . The picture above was taken in 1975 and  shows dad at the wheel of his daily driver 1972 Beetle.

After a long hiatus away they saw the Speed 1600 as the perfect opportunity to come back. Father found the right candidate for his next race car,  his brother in law was selling an immaculate 1976 Beetle, already striped for the track, and he bought it on the spot. The car was born as a 1300cc and the engine was quickly replaced by a 1600cc from a VW Kombi.

In a matter of a month, 44 was ready to race.

Mostly, the Speed 1600 drivers were crew leaders, mechanics and drivers, all at the same time. Amateur sports at its best.

It was at the end of 1989 and dad only had chance to drive his car for a couple of races

The city’s official race track was going through some renovations and he had to go to a dirt track located at the outskirts of the city .

For the next year our track was ready to rock and dad raced the entire provincial season and even after being disqualified for two races (for having the intake manifolds out of the regulation), he finished the season in third position .

The inglorious one.

If Dad’s Beetle was a solid contender, my uncle’s (#12) simply wasn’t. The car broke down in the first two races of the 1990 season and didn’t finish either one.

He became very frustrated and decided to bring the Beetle back to his garage and he never touched it again. In 1993 my father sold his car and the new owner kept the same livery and number. I remember seeing it in action a couple more times but after that we lost track of the “44”.

But my uncle’s car sat dormant for 28 years.

Unfortunately, my uncle passed away in 2017, it was a shock for the whole family, he was a super nice guy, always cracking jokes and making people smile.

He left a small collection of odd cars to my cousin, his only son, and obviously the “12” was part of it.

For some reason that I still don’t understand, my cousin decided not to keep the old Beetle. Selling it would be complicated since the documents were pretty messed up and the car was badly rusted. So instead selling the car for peanuts he offered it to dad, for free.

Dad, at right, chatting with the tow truck driver.

My father was blown away with this gift, he and his brother had been partners in business and hobbies since early 60s and to have his race Beetle would be more than a honor.

Father retired in 2015 and he has been looking for something to occupy his time ever since. He immediately embraced the task to restore the “12”.

My cousin, making sure the engine was still in the car.

These pictures here show the day the car was relocated from the city of Curitiba to my dad’s home in Barra Velha beach, 200 miles away .

In April, 2019, after 4 years living in Winnipeg  CA, my wife and I finally took a couple of weeks off and we went to visit family and friends in Brazil.

Obviously I was dying to see the old Beetle up close.

I even bought a little present for him, a VDO tachometer, pretty close to the one that originally equipped the “Super Fusca”, the sports version of the Brazilian Beetle.

The “Super Fuscão”.

Dad is restoring the car in a super tight budget and he is doing the job mostly on his own. He is 70 years old and for sure he is taking his sweet time to get it done.

When we got there, the body work was done and even the floor pans had been replaced.

He lowered the compression ratio enough to make the engine run on gas and replaced the dual carb system for a single one. He says: ” I want peace of mind, I am not going to race it anymore” .

He loves to take the chassis for short test drives; for sure I had my share of fun driving it when I was visiting him. Without the weight of the body, the chassis can be pretty fast.

Last time I called him he said the body was back on chassis and now the “12” only needs small details to call it “mission accomplished”.

He might even make it street legal since the docs are ok again. That would make it easier to drive the car to some of the Air cooled VW meetings across southern Brazil.

Some people say a vintage car will never be completely done, so I believe that old Beetle will keep my father happily busy for a long time.

But more important than being a nice hobby, the restored  “12” became a beautiful homage to his brother, a gentle guy that will always live in the hearts of family and friends.

When I saw the recently painted shell  right in front of me, I touched the roof with my hand and instantly  a lot of memories flashed through my mind.

I had a hard time holding back the tears, just like I am having now, while writing these last lines.