I had always wanted a really old Beetle. Originally, I wanted to get a 1952, the year of my birth. But in 2002, I spied an ad in the automotive section of my local paper. Someone was selling a 1956 Beetle, in need of restoration. I called the fellow and went out to look at it. It was definitely a basket case. The body was separated from the chassis. But the body was an empty shell. The seats were piled in one corner of the man’s garage; the motor was sitting in the other. Boxes of parts were here, there and everywhere. One rusty fender was all he had. He told me he was just burned out on attempting the resto himself. It was a sunroof model. And European to boot (the birth certificate I acquired indicated it was sold to a Swiss dealer); it had a kilo speedo and semaphores.
I was filled with excitement and misplaced confidence that I could bring this sorry collection of parts back to life so we agreed on a price. I came back on the weekend to haul it home on a borrowed flatbed trailer.
Once safe in my garage, a very close examination revealed rust problems that were more pervasive than I realized. I made some half-hearted attempts to cut out and replace some rusted panels, but it was not looking good. I had bit off more than I could chew.
The car languished in my garage for two years. What was I going to do? I had already invested too much in buying parts for it to just give up, but my skills as a welder were abysmal. I began to investigate restoration businesses that were VW-specific. I narrowed it down to three, and then made my choice, ReVolks in Siloam Springs, Arkansas, ran by a guy named Jeff Hamilton. After consulting with him and being reassured that he could do all the work fairly quickly (over the summer), I hauled the carcass down to his shop in spring of 2004.
The first ominous sign that this was going to take longer than he or I thought was when he lost the lease on his shop. All work had to cease. My car was wrapped in a tarp.
Jeff had a plan, though. He owned property north of Siloam and began to build his own shop. He is a righteous dude, kind of an old hippie like me, so we really became close friends. He was building his shop from scratch, sawing the lumber himself from his well-forested property. It was a labor of love, but, until he at least got a roof over his shop, there was no work being done on my car. For over a year.
Finally, he announced work would resume. The first thing was a trip to the sandblaster for the body. I will tell any potential restorers, when your Beetle gets blasted, it reveals many things you would not have been able to foresee. Like Swiss cheese that mysteriously appears where once there was metal. Panels that must be replaced. Bumper supports that would barely support themselves. Even the hinges for the engine bonnet had to be reworked. I will advise you that, to have a professional do this work is time consuming and expensive. Yet, the dream could not be extinguished.
Time was running out. This was my last shot at owning a completely restored vintage Beetle. I was about four years from retirement from a job that paid me way too much, so I bit the bullet and began pouring thousands of dollars into the project. Over the two-year period that the resto took, I was sent weekly updates (and bills) on the progress. It was exciting to see it coming together. He took hundreds of detailed photos of every single step, body work, sanding, primer, more sanding, color, more sanding…you get the picture.
While it was there, he worked on the engine for me, too. I could have done it, but I elected to have him rebuild and install the motor. You can’t imagine the thrill when he sent me a video of the first test run. “It’s alive!” he shouted, with all the joy of Dr. Frankenstein, when the motor ignited and began to purr with that beautiful “fweem” sound we VW nuts all know and love.
Body and paintwork done, Jeff mated the body to the chassis. His job was done. It was October, 2007, three years and some months after I had entrusted it to him.
I drove down and hauled it home, using the classic VW tow bar. Pulled like a dream.
I reserved the final steps of the restoration for myself. I upholstered the seats with “appropriate to the vintage” material, wired it, did the other interior work, installed glass, hooked up pedals, and put on the exterior trim. The car was complete. The odometer had even been reset to zero, so the car looked like it just drove off the showroom floor. My dream was reality. Five full years after I first bought the basket case, I had my car.
In retrospect, for the money I shelled out, I could have bought the nicest, most pristine, bone-stock ’52 split window Beetle you could imagine. I will never be able to recoup my investment. But that’s not the point. I love my Ebon. I was responsible for birthing him (or should I say “rebirthing”? Must be a Christian, he’s born again!). I absolutely do not regret the time, effort and money required to bring this project to a beautiful conclusion. But, a caveat: should you desire to take on this kind of project for the first time, be prepared for unexpected surprises of time and expense along the way. Unless, of course, you’re already a seasoned restorer, in which case you know what I’m talkin’ about!!
By the way, although I showed him at car shows and drove it a little, I do not drive him anymore. I’m too afraid of someone smashing into me. Ebon is for sale...