Heavy Metal Affliction - 1965 Volkswagen Racing Beetle
All cars have a story to tell. While many Volkswagen Beetles have been loved greatly and have given their owners memories to last a lifetime, this week’s HMA spotlight has a VW Beetle story that cannot be matched. Purchased in 1965 by Bill Gilbert, this Beetle – appropriately named “Gilbert” for its original owner – has lived its life solely on the track and is the one of most documented racing Beetles in the world.
One glance at this Beetle’s history and you might be reminded of the plot to Disney’s “The Love Bug.” Gilbert the #66 Beetle receives the same love and adoration from fans both young and old that Herbie the #53 got. It also gets occasional criticism from some racers who have said “why don’t you get a real race car?” To which current owner/driver Steven Smith responds, “I don’t know what you mean,” since this Beetle has been racing since it left the showroom.
Back in the 1960s – when Gilbert owned and originally modified the car for racing with a racing cage, racing seats, and a full-bore 1300cc race motor with all of around 50 horsepower – he raced it religiously in the Pacific Northwest. Until 1969, the car could be seen at Pacific Raceways (then called Seattle International Raceway), as well as in Portland, Shelton, Newport, and at British Columbia racetracks. His last race was in Portland in 1970.
Eventually family took precedence over Gilbert’s love of racing. Thankfully though, when the Beetle was parked, it became a time capsule. According to Smith, “He flat towed it home with his Volvo wagon and rolled it into his barn. He left the towing lights on it, flipped up the tow bar and even placed his suit and helmet in the passenger seat and walked away.”
There, the racecar sat untouched until 1996 when Gary Emory, the father of the VW Baja Bug and famed Porsche 356 Outlaw builder Rod Emory, found a for sale ad in the back of “Hot VWs” magazine for an old road racing Beetle. When Emory went to check it out he found it as it was left and bought it on the spot. Emory towed it back to his barn, did some minor restoration work, and then it went “slowly back into a slumber among the Emory 356 stable,” Smith said.
In 1997, Smith moved to Oregon from the East Coast. “I decided a 356 would be a fun choice to have as a daily driver,” he said. He bought a 1958 Super Coupe and quickly learned that parts were obsolete. Not long after he met the Emory’s. When he first arrived, Gary greeted him with a compliment on his car and an invitation to come racing with them. Smith initially declined.
At the same time, Smith spotted the Bug in the back of the shop and asked about it. Emory told him vehemently that the VW was not for sale and that it also happened to be one of the most documented vintage race cars in the Northwest. Plus, there was a line of people 10-feet deep who wanted the car.
Over the years Smith made many visits to their shop and became good friends with the Emory’s. “Every time I was greeted with ‘you ought to come racing with us,’ Smith said. “My response was always to point at the little VW.” This was always met with a firm “no” from the Emory’s. Then, sometime after Smith had given up trying to buy the racing Bug, Rod Emory called and offered to sell it. They gave him 48-hours to decide, but Smith didn’t need time to consider it, he accepted the offer right there and then.
It took eight months to get it ready to race again. There were parts to gather from the Emory’s 24,000 sq-ft shop, Smith needed to get his racing license, and there was much to research about the car. As with most projects, it was finished the night before its first race. When it rolled out of Emory’s trailer at Pacific Raceways it had been nearly 40-years since the Beetle had been on track, and it would be the first time Smith had sat in the car, much less raced it.
The car ran flawlessly in its first run, and has been travelling between Portland International Raceway and Pacific Raceways ever since, with occasional trips to other west coast tracks. That first year, Smith had a friend, who is a pin striper, inscribe “Gilbert” on the deck lid as an homage to the original owner. Every trip to its home track in Portland is emotional. That’s where the old timers still come up to share memories of the car from the 1960s. A couple of years ago, Smith and Gilbert were invited to Monterrey Classic Car Week to race at Laguna Seca. “Gilbert” is the first and only Beetle to be given this honor.
Races are usually uneventful but there have been moments. In 1968, Gilbert rolled the Beetle at the end of the long straight at Pacific Raceways; it was repaired and never damaged again until the weekend I met Smith at Northwest Historics. An aggressive older driver, who was later black flagged and asked to leave, dinged the left rear fender. That too has since been repaired. One of my most exciting moments of the weekend was when Smith showed what happens if you lift at the wrong time and subsequently spun “Gilbert” at the end of that same long straight. He straightened it back out and kept going unscathed, although I do believe Smith may have changed his underwear after the race.
Under the decklid is a 1600cc engine and it’s built to withstand the rigors of racing. Keeping the oil cool is the most extensive modification, since these motors were meant to hit a 4,800 redline and Smith is hitting 6,500 throughout a race. The motor needs to be rebuilt every 2-3 seasons. Aside from the motor modifications, and some period correct brake upgrades, and of course required safety equipment, the car is stock.
Well, mostly. The 1960s Chris-Craft boat tachometer sticking out of the hood gives a better view of where the engine is at, and the differential was swapped out for a rare ZF model after the original owner destroyed the spider gears in a standing start back in the day. A few years back, Gilbert (the original owner), who is well into his 80s, came to see Smith race the car. He brought a gift with him. Wrapped in 1968 newsprint were the chewed-up spider gears that had been proudly displayed on Gilbert’s mantle for the last near 50 years. They now reside with the boxes of trophies and documentation of this little car’s history.
While it is fun to get reactions in the pits like “Wow! I have never seen a Bug go that fast,” Smith sees himself as a steward for this prominent piece of Volkswagen racing history. “When I first saw it, I knew I had to have it,” he said. But it was the Emorys who chose him to own the car. Like Herbie in “The Love Bug”, who chose Jim Douglas to race him, it seems that Gilbert (the Beetle) played a role in choosing who would carry on his racing legacy as well.