Two things to start: First, you know I have a huge archive of hot rod, custom car, racing, and general automotive photographs that I’ve been collecting (and taking) for 45-some years. But since I became interested in photography at a young age, I also have a quite sizable collection of personal and family photos, a few of which have hung in galleries or been printed in art books, but most of which are stored in 30 fat binders (so far), that you will never see. In fact, since we both sort of regret most of the childhood photos I showed of “Billy” in a father-and-son-rodding article we did for the Rodder’s Journal some years ago, Bill has made me swear not to show any more such photos of him–no matter how cute they might be. So I’ve cut them from this story.
Second, as I said in that article, and certainly other places as well, if you’re a hot rodder you have a garage full of tools, and you know how to build things. In fact, you like to build things. And you’d probably rather buy something old and beat up, and then restore and modify it to suit your personal needs, taste, or sense of creativity, rather than buying something new “off the shelf.” I’ll admit there were times when young Bill would have preferred a shiny new Sting Ray bike to the piece of junk I pulled out of the trash and rebuilt for him. But there were plenty of projects that he liked, and this was one of the better ones. In fact, this one was all his idea. I just did the work.
Some of you might be surprised to know that I’ve had, built, and driven several early VW Bugs. I love ’em. (More on this later, if any of you want me to pursue the topic.) One of my favorite ones I bought was a $100 beater about the time Billy was born, and built into a hot rod/Cal-Look driver that I finally gave to him when he turned 16. The reason I mention this is that I bought a lot of my parts at a place called Johnnie’s Speed and Chrome, on Beach Blvd. near where we lived in Anaheim at the time. And before he started regular school, Bill often accompanied me as I was visiting shops to do stories, or just chasing parts. So Bill was about six. And as we pulled into the parking lot at Johnnie’s in my lowered and louvered ’60 Bug, the first thing Bill spied, over in a corner, was a stack of bright yellow, fiberglass, miniature VW bug bodies. You couldn’t miss them. There were 10, maybe 20, stacked like nesting dolls. Billy went nuts. He decided right then and there, that this was what he really wanted. I mean, he didn’t make a fuss or anything. He just let me know that those were really, really cool. So I had to explain that these were just bare body shells, and if we wanted to make something out of one that he could actually “drive”–like pedal down the sidewalk in our neighborhood–we’d have to build everything and figure how to attach the body to it. He already had a pretty neat chopper tricycle that we had built for cruising the sidewalks, so he didn’t say any more about it.
But I thought building a mini-VW for Billy, maybe to match mine, would be fun and cool, so I got one of the bodies, and placed it next to the hearth in our new house in Glendale the next Christmas morning. Bill had just turned seven, and was in the first grade.
So, of course he was ecstatic. But the first big question was–how do you want to build this thing? Now, given that you’ve just seen color photos of how it turned out, I must remind you that this was the ’80s. I had just joined the staff of Hot Rod magazine, and what was on the cover? Monster trucks, graphics, painted bumpers, and hot primary colors. Bill and his friends soon embraced the new skateboard craze. He subscribed to Thrasher magazine. And he wore hot pink and aqua T-shirts to school.
Of course other parents were buying their kids new, balloon-tired, 3- or 4-wheeled Honda ATVs to take to the desert or dunes for the weekend, but that was well beyond the scope or budget of this project. So after a little measuring I calculated that a go-kart chassis would be about right for this mini-VW, and the engine would even be in the right place. Plus finding a good used go-kart that some kid had outgrown and the parents wanted to sell cheap wasn’t hard. The one I got was an actual Go-Kart brand, with the little slicks, a small Clinton engine, good steering, brakes, pedals, and best of all a nicely upholstered, contoured seat.
I forget where I got the big tires and wheels, but we found out right away that we needed more horsepower, and considerably lower gearing, to pull them. So I got a 5-hp Briggs & Stratton engine, and then made a cross-shaft with reduction gears. The centrifugal clutch is on the left, with a small gear on the right chain-driving a very large gear on the axle. I think I had to stretch the wheelbase a tad, so I devised a swing-arm suspension, whereby the whole engine/axle mount section was hinged just behind the seat, suspended by some coil-overs I got from a motorcycle wrecking yard. The bars just above the shocks mount the body with through-bolts.
I can’t remember if the paint scheme or rollbar came next. But Bill told me what colors he wanted and–remember this was the “graphics” era–we asked Thom Taylor to do some very simple scheme/sketches. Bill remembers there being three, but we obviously chose the one above, the now-very-faded version of which I still have tacked on my garage wall.
The roll cage is a story in itself. My good friend Dave Williams took one look at the first, unpainted version of the VW and said, “You’ve got to put a roll cage in there, and seatbelts.” I thought he was crazy, saying “It’s just a go-kart.” But Dave had plenty of experience racing on dirt tracks, plus had built dune buggies and dwarf cars. He was adamant. So I said, “Fine, I’ll bring it to your shop and you can use your Low Buck tube benders and notchers and welder, and you make the cage for it.” He knew he couldn’t say no, and you can see his fine workmanship in the photo above, shortly after I got everything painted in my garage. I also had recently gotten my dragster and knew I had to put new belts in it to run nostalgia Top Fuel, so I put the old 4-point harness in the kart for Bill. And I even found him a swap meet helmet and painted it to match.
Wellll….besides the old family ranch, as seen above, another place we took it to run (it fit perfectly in the back of my F-100, using 2×4 ramps) was El Mirage. We’d go up on race days, and Bill had a blast bombing around the dry lake, being sure to stay off the course or return road. In fact, some older guys had laid out a small circle track off to one side, where they were racing a couple regular small-wheel go-karts, and I remember Billy cruising over, joining in uninvited, and pretty easily beating the other two. He was only about 8, and I have no idea how he learned to do that. However…one thing he hadn’t learned yet was how to turn in to a skid or roll, and the next thing I know, Barry Kaplan was coming over to get me where I was taking pictures of race cars saying, “Hey Pat, you better come over here and help Billy. He’s had a mishap.” Apparently he had hit one of the salt bushes at pretty good speed, but at a bad angle, and–sure enough–rolled it. Of course the roll cage, seat belts, and helmet meant he didn’t get hurt. But he did crunch the roof in a couple places, broke a fender, and bent the rear axle quite a bit. He was pushing it back, and it was going up and down like a rocking horse. Of course he was devastated. He thought he had ruined it. Tears were shed. But I gave him a hug, wiped his dirty face, and assured him, “Hey we built it; we can fix it.” And we did, good as new.
So Bill got plenty more good use out of his little off-road Bug until he too-quickly outgrew it, both literally and figuratively. But by that time he had learned to play a pretty mean guitar, even on the cheap Japanese copy we first got him. What he really wanted was a Gibson Les Paul. So we sold the kart, for just enough to buy a good used one (at the time), to the editor of a French VW magazine that I knew. He supposedly put it in a French VW museum. Whether it’s still there or not we have no idea. But Bill used his Les Paul to play most of the music in my erstwhile Hot Rod Video. Plus he used his dry lakes driving talents–even though he didn’t have a license yet and had never driven a real car before–to successfully pilot a Hemi-powered ’32 roadster at pretty high speed at El Mirage for the opening scene, with no mishaps.
I promised Bill I wouldn’t embarrass him with this column, and I hope I haven’t. I’d say it’s a pretty good story. Agree?