Ron Cherry: Off and on the road with a ’63 Volkswagen Convertible Baja Bug
January 19, 2018
Before 1988, Bill Appel was neither into dune buggies nor Volkswagens.
"I ran motorcycles in the winter and boats in the summer," he said. "But things go by and all of a sudden you get old. It's harder to heal when you get injured on a motorcycle and the kids have graduated from college and don't go boating."
As his motorcycle group aged, it got smaller and some of them got into off roading with four wheels.
"When my motorcycle friends got into dune buggies, they were serious buggies," he said. "I had to get a good one to keep up."
Then came his conversion to being a Volkswagen fan.
"I swore I'd never own one, but after riding in some, I found what they could do," he said. So he started looking for a Volkswagen dune buggy.
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However, Bill wanted something different than just any Volkswagen dune buggy, he wanted a convertible one. And not a Bug with the top cut off, but an actual working-top convertible converted to a Baja Bug.
A friend of his told him of one that had been parked in a barn for years. He told Bill that the owner was moving and would be wanting to sell it. So Bill checked it out.
"It was covered with dog hair, building materials, rat dung, you name it," he said.
But it was basically sound and the model he wanted. It had a 1600 cubic centimeter engine bored to 1835 with a Zenith carb.
"It's a '60s or '70s vintage carb," he said. "It's the type they used on oil pumping rigs, very reliable."
It also had a beefier Volkswagen Bus transaxle. The back fenders were missing, but the front end was a fiberglass aftermarket one. It was set for off roading, with a roll cage and aluminum two-piece 15 inch wheels, with 8 inch width in the back and 6 inch in the front.
After buying it, Bill pulled it out of the barn on four flat tires and hauled it home.
"I didn't know anything about VWs at the time," he said. "But I got it running that night."
Within a few months, he had it ready to take it to the desert. Although not into professional racing, he took it on poker runs and enduro-type runs. On his first enduro run, he said, "I found out about carrying spare tires."
Bill was about half way through the run when he had a flat tire. His spare and his jack were back at the starting line, in his truck.
"A nice fellow and his wife pulled up and asked me if they could help. He loaned me his spare and his jack," he said. "I took one look at the tire and knew I was in trouble. It was all cracked and the cords were showing through."
So, with his "new" tire and wheel on, he cut the run short and headed back. He didn't make it before the rotted tire blew and he limped in on the rim.
"It was very embarrassing to give the spare back to the owner with the tire flat," he said. "It was a lesson."
Not having everything perfect on a dune buggy was not so rare.
"Once people with Bajas get them ready to run on the desert, the work often stops," he said. "They never get them finished."
Not so with Bill. He freshened the engine and did a complete rewire.
"It started simple, then I kept adding," he said. "It got pretty complicated, with things like the off-road lights."
He custom made rear fenders, built a protective cage around the engine and fabricated a bumper. Not satisfied with the suspension, he beefed it up in the rear, adding triple shocks and going to a 32 mm torsion bar. In the front, he custom built the front axle beam 6 inches wider than stock, with coil-over-shocks and off-road truck spindles. When he changed to rack and pinion steering, he had to add power assist.
"With pitman-arm steering, I had a lot of play that absorbed bumps," he said. "After changing to rack and pinion, every rock and rut you hit in the desert wanted to pull the steering wheel out of your hands." Power assist solved that.
Inside, Bill had Datsun buckets, but was not happy.
"You'd slide all around off road," he said.
Then he put in a pair of "bottomless" bucket seats that used webbing for support rather than springs.
"It was probably the worst thing I ever did," he said. "I could go ten miles an hour faster. They wrap around you and take all the shock. They make you feel locked in. Way too comfortable."
One thing he'd never done was a quality painting.
"My dream was to put on a nice paint job," he said. "But you don't want one when you're running through the desert with scrub brush and rocks."
After moving up here, he decided to do so a couple of years ago. Although he still takes it on trails and logging roads in the Foothills and the Sierras, the Baja's desert days are done.
The change in driving conditions has inspired Bill to put on front disc brakes.
"I never worried about brakes in the desert," he said with a laugh. "You couldn't stop out there anyway."
Because of the custom front end and spindles, there's no off-the-shelf kit. So he'll have to modify some to work. But that's never stopped him before.
He did say, "The disc brakes will be the end of it." Then he added, "For now. You never know."
Ron Cherry's books, including the Morg Mahoney detective series, are available on Kindle and in print copy at Amazon. His new book, "The St. Nicholas Murders," is a Christmas mystery that takes place in a small town in the Sierra Foothills that is remarkably similar to Nevada City and is now out in paperback and Kindle on Amazon. Check out his website at http://www.rlcherry.com.