By the time VW got round to replacing the Beetle, it had been developed about as far as it practically could be. The likes of Ralph Nader (cough, spit) helped assure the simple beauty of the original concept had been replaced by chunky, admittedly more effective, bumpers and lights, less pointy bits and more modern bits, like disc brakes and things that collapse in an accident, deliberately rather than unexpectedly. If you grew up with Beetles when they were new, these developments were improvements that made the car better and more enjoyable to drive but, when a car passes into the classic car world, common sense is thrown out of the window and concessions to modernity are considered impure. Unless, perhaps, you come into Beetles from Golfs. The same theory applies in the Golf world, of course, with chrome bumper Mk1s being the most desirable and anything later than a big bumper Mk2 16V seen as either ‘late models’ or daily drivers. So when Joe Riley went looking for a Beetle, after cutting his teeth on a diesel Mk1 Caddy – into which he swapped a Mk3 16V motor, along with Wilwood disc brakes and a host of other performance improvements – he was drawn to the more similar looking models. “It really annoys me when people are dismissive of late models. To me, they’re just that little bit fatter, a little bit more like a Mk1 Golf,” says Joe.
people are dismissive of
late models “
Talking with Joe, it’s clear it’s the more performance side of the hobby that gets him going, rather than just the looks. “I blame it all on my dad really. He’s an engineer, and bought me the Caddy as my first car and taught me everything I know about cars. At one point he had 13 cars, and he’s now got 15 motorbikes.” While Joe’s dad was into classic British stuff, it was VWs that piqued Joe’s interest and, save for a brief dalliance with a hot Honda Civic, his loyalty to the brand has remained true.
1972 VW Beetle
- BODY: Stock 1972 1300 Beetle in Sumatra Green; fat bumper trim and overriders
- INTERIOR: Re-trimmed stock-style seats; Madmatz carpets; Mooneyes green ’flake steering wheel and shift knob
- ENGINE: Stock 1300 twin port
- WHEELS & TYRES: Original 5.5J Cosmics; 145/65 and 185/65 Continentals
- SUSPENSION: 3-spline drop, notched spring plates, Gaz Mini shocks, Aire Valley Speed Shop 5-inch narrowed, centre-mount air bag, shock-less beam; dropped spindles; long travel balljoints; good osteopath
Sense and sensibility
A residential architect by day, Joe works long hours, so is forced to temper his hobby with a certain amount of sensibility. “I try to keep just one fun car, and a sensible daily,” he says with a smile. “That way you can concentrate on getting one car just the way you want it. When I was doing the Caddy, I was living in a flat with my fiancée, Natasha [Bug, as she’s known to friends], and having to work outside in the street. That wasn’t great.
“I’m good friends with Niall [Wright, he of the fendered ’63 Beetle cover car on our May 2014 issue] and our little crew, TLC [The Lower Class] are all into Beetles, so when I’d gone about as far as I could with the Caddy, I ended up buying a Beetle. Actually, I’d bought one before – a Chinchilla Grey ’69 – but it turned out to have loads of rust so, as I had the Caddy project on the go at the time, I sold it on again, but I’d always wanted to get another one.”
In the end, Joe bought this ’72 off a friend. He’d already started the project, but decided it was too much work for him, being basically a rolling ’shell with no glass or wiring and various boxes of unlabelled parts, so Joe took it on, starting work in a small, single garage. “I stripped the car down there, but soon found the garage too small to work effectively in.” Fortunately, another good friend, Mike Birch [the other half of Aire Valley Speed Shop with Niall] offered Joe the use of a bit of space on the mezzanine at his workshop, but it was only available for three months. It was a kind offer, and forced Joe to stick to a tight schedule, which coincided with the run up to Stanford Hall, where Joe planned to debut the car. All he had to do was put the hours in to get the work done.
“It didn’t need too much metalwork. The floorpan was solid, but I had to do some welding on the rear body mounts and I flattened off the bottom of the spare wheel well for ground clearance. When I stripped the primer off though, I found it needed further work on one quarter panel, so I did that again, flatting off and re-priming things as I went along. I’d done a lot of rattle can paintwork before, but this was to be my first time with proper paint and equipment. Finally, after two months of hard graft, the car was lifted down from the mezzanine on a forklift and pushed into Mike’s new draw-through spray booth for the top coats. “Each panel I did I got a bit better. So much so that now I want to go back round and paint the car again as I think I can make a better job of it.”
When Joe bought the car, it was already lowered with a narrowed beam, but something was definitely wrong: “I couldn’t work out why it had such an interesting turning circle,” he recalls. Like a haggis, it turned out it had one leg shorter than the other – that is to say the beam was an inch narrower on one side than the other. Luckily, being mates with Mike and Niall, the one thing Joe wasn’t going to have a problem sourcing was a replacement beam, but Joe had his own ideas as to what he wanted: “I didn’t want an air ride car, and I definitely didn’t want to be running air shocks at 100 or 120psi. I just wanted some air lift to help me get over a bump I have getting onto my drive.” After some intensive research, Joe decided what he needed was a modified beam with a single, centre-mount bag that would allow him to get over the hump, as it were, but still keep most of the stock workings of the VW beam. The result is a custom, 5-inch narrowed, shock-less beam with all its torsion leaves still in place, a regular adjuster in the bottom tube that sets the ride height and a leading link in the top tube that clamps the leaves and upon which the air bag acts, raising the front of the car. Unlike offset single mount bag set ups, the load imposed during the raising process is evenly distributed across the beam, which still relies on at least some of its factory torsion bar springing.
Mechanically, the rest of the car is pretty much stock at the moment, save for a significant amount of decambering at the rear and, as Joe put it, “a lot of playing about with the tracking”, but that’s something he’s looking to change in the near future: “I’m not one for dawdling about [cue laughter in the background from Natasha], I’m pretty much either nailing it or not. The first thing I did on the Caddy was sort the brakes and suspension, but on this one all I’ve done is the suspension, which doesn’t really sit too well with me. I want to put disc brakes on it, and I plan to go up to 1600cc with the engine, and put a Renault 5 turbo on it. So far the engine has been a bit of a swine, and it’s a running joke with my mates as I’ve been through about 10 different carbs, but it’s running nicely at the minute and it’ll happily sit at 70-75mph on the motorway, which isn’t bad for a stock 1300.”
The other signature part of the car’s look is the wheels. English 4-stud Cosmics were always part of the deal for Joe, confirmed by seeing Marco DeWaal’s Jeans Beetle. “I don’t like orange Beetles, but the way it sat was just awesome. It was a massive inspiration for me that car.” The set of rims the car currently wears were bought from Graham Angus, then sanded, hand detailed and polished by Joe. “I’m on the lookout for a pair of six-inch wide ones for the rear [RW031s for the part number perverts], and I want to go up to 195/65s as I really like fat rear ends and skinny front ends on a Beetle.”
time with proper paint
and equipment “
The interior might look a nice, original ‘survivor’, bar the green ’flake steering wheel and shift knob, but it too has seen its fair share of Joe’s handiwork. “The seats were knackered when I got the car, so I bought a TMI seat cover kit and new horsehair pads, but when a local trimmer quoted £300 to fit them I thought bugger that, I’ll do it myself. I found a guy in America who suggested spray glueing black felt over the horsehair before you put the covers on and it worked really well. I was chuffed when a couple of the GFK guys looked at the car at the DTA barbecue and commented it had nice original seats. I just smiled.”
Like most people’s VWs, Joe’s car is an ongoing project that he’s constantly tinkering with, but for the time being he’s listening to his sensible inner self (and Niall) and keeping the car in one piece. That hasn’t stopped him rubbing down and re-painting the engine bay at home when he took the engine out to fix the knackered gearbox mounts, or doing similar under the bonnet when he added the air suspension. “I’ve only got a small compressor at home, so I can only paint in short bursts when it’s built up enough pressure, but I’m getting better all the time. And that’s really my aim with the whole car. I’ve no intention of selling it, I just want to keep improving it, and improving on my own work.”
Oh, and the Big Waffle bit? I’ll let Joe explain: “I’m into my VWs, but I’m not really geeky about it. We were at Edition 38 and Matt Balls’ Golf was there. I looked at the interior and said to my mates, ‘Is that that big waffle pattern in the seats?’ They’ve been ribbing me about it ever since!”
Thanks: My dad (Nick), my mum (Jenny), my fiancée, Bug, all the TLC boys and their wives – Niall, Mike, PJ, Roger, James Luck, Ry and Chris, Johnny from down my old street for the sweet pinstriping / paintwork on the air tank and Bob Monie, the hidden paint gem, for mixing the paint by taste and putting up with all my questions.
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