The VW Beetle, and how we raced it.

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.

Stock Car Brazil, circa 1988

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

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

The idea couldn’t be simpler: let’s bring the VW Beetle back to the race track, after all, in the mid-80s they were still plentiful, affordable and parts could be found anywhere, even brand new since the Beetle was still in production (its last year would be 1993) and the Brazilian VW kept the faithful flat-four engine in production for another 2 decades or so, powering the VW Kombi.

The guy on the right, in the racing suit, is Expedito Marazzi, a brilliant automotive journalist and an accomplished race driver who also drove the VW Beetle on the “Division 3”.
Marazzi’s work inspired a whole bunch of people to start writing about cars, including myself.

The last time the VW Beetle was officially racing was in the 1970s, in the extinct “Division 3”, a category reserved for highly modified production cars. There, the teams had the freedom to extract the last drop of power from the air-cooled engines and to transform the Beetle with a fiberglass body kit, extra wide rims wrapped with slick tires, and 5-speed Hewland transmission. Those little monsters were adored by the fans and they affectionately called the cars “Atomic Potty”. Thanks to the oil crisis of the 70s, Division 3 had a very short life, and 1980 was its last season.

Those cars were not cheap to build but a well-balanced “Potty” in the hands of a seasoned driver would be a pain in the neck to the way more powerful Chevy Opalas and Ford 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.

This new category should be exactly the opposite, to make it affordable, the cars should be as close as possible to a stock VW Beetle.

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

In 1985 the “Speed 1600″ was born and the regulations were very strict:

*The cars should keep all the original steel panels 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 and became an instant success. It was cheaper to race a Beetle than a Go-Kart.

The category not only brought veterans drivers and mechanics back to the race 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, grids with 40-plus cars were the norm.

In June 1988, the most popular auto magazine in the country, “4 Rodas” published a 5 pages article about the “Speed 1600” and then, the rest of the country suddenly got bitten by the bug.

The southern cities in Brazil (the ones with functional race tracks) immediately started organizing similar tournaments and since they tried to copy the same rules as the ones in São Paulo, it made things easier to have interstate tournaments in the future.

In 1987, in Interlagos, Sao Paulo, the Speed 1600 set the record of the biggest grid ever in Brazil, with 63 cars. The record still holds today.

My family returns to the competition.

My family always tried to stay involved in racing as much as the budget allowed them. My grandpa worked as a mechanic for a race team in the late 50s, not much for the money but mostly for the fun of it. My dad started his “career” at 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 VW Beetle, during the Rallye da Graciosa, our version of the Monte Carlo Rally.

The #44

After a long hiatus away from the competitions, both, my dad and his brother saw the “Speed 1600” as the perfect opportunity to come back. My father found the right candidate for his next race car, his brother-in-law was selling an immaculate 1976 Beetle, already stripped 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.

It took only a month to get the “44” ready for racing but then, the 1989 season was almost over and dad only had a chance to drive his car on the two remaining races.

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

The official race track in my hometown was going through some renovations at the time, for this reason, the 1989 season happened on a dirt track located on the outskirts of the city.

For the next year, our track was ready and dad raced the entire 1990 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.

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”

The #12

At the same time, my uncle also got his Beetle ready, a 1972 model, but unfortunately, he was not very lucky with his car. The “12” broke down in the first two races of the 1990 season, not finishing either one.

He became very frustrated and decided to bring the car back to his garage and he never touched it again. The “12” 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 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 of selling the car for peanuts, he offered it to my 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 the 1960s, and having his race Beetle would be more than an 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 Sergio, 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, my wife and I finally took a couple of weeks off and we went to visit family and friends in Brazil. We haven’t been back home since we moved to Canada, 5 years ago.

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

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

The 1974 Super Fuscão.

Dad is restoring the car on an extra 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 bodywork was done and even the floor pans had been replaced.

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

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

In 2020 the mission of restoring the “12” was accomplished. At this point the car is halfway to be street legal, it has all the necessary lights but dad is refusing to install the bumpers, which is mandatory in 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.

In Brazil, the VW Beetle is more than just a car, it is an institution. Simple, affordable, and reliable, it was the obvious choice as the first car for generations of Brazilians (mine was a 1966 model). The Beetle thought us not only how to drive, but also how to fix it, how to modify it, and ultimately, how to race it.

For my family, the “12” is much more than just a hobby, it is a beautiful homage to my uncle, a gentle guy that will live forever in the hearts of family and friends.

Published by Rubens Junior

Passionate about classic cars, motorcycles, airplanes, and watches.

5 thoughts on “The VW Beetle, and how we raced it.

  1. Muito bom conhecer um pouco da estória da sua família. Eu estou aqui com motores, chassis extra e um monte de bagunça em um galpão, esperando dedicação e dinheiro para voltar andar.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I loved reading this. Your Uncle would be proud of the work your Dad is doing. We need more racing series like the Speed 1600 series! Inexpensive and fun. I had a work project in São Paulo several years ago and loved being there. The people were so friendly.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Ohh my goodness his poems are so beautifully penned… read his couple of poems over IG. And I totally fall in love with his poetry..I’ve been craving for so long to own one of his books…

    Like

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