Former Safer Motoring editor Robin Wager was all at sea over this ultimately ill-fated Bug…

Depending on your keywords, an online search for ‘Seagoing Beetle’ or similar will offer answers to a number of relevant questions. One of these is ‘Do Beetles float?’ We who know our Beetles can point out a number of potential leak points which would need attention first. On Google, veteran Volkswagen dealers Arnold Clark (over 200 multi-franchise dealerships, mainly in Scotland and northern England) have more input.

Their answer is yes, the original Beetle would float on water – but, warn Arnold Clark, it’s not recommended that you experiment with this! Because the original car’s design was a unibody built on a floorpan with very few openings and well sealed doors, given an intact and unrusted floorpan, the VW should at least bob along for a while. Indeed, reference to several VW print and TV ads of the 1960s/1970s suggest it will float for a very precise 42 minutes!

One well known print ad cites US journalist Stanley Siegel, who tried to expose this ‘myth’. He drove one into Beetle Creek in Wisconsin, where to his surprise it remained afloat. Volkswagen of America used this to advantage, with a photo of Siegel at the wheel of the Beetle, but included the caveat “please don’t try this at home.”

There have, of course, been many attempts to cover large distances in a Beetle across various expanses of water, some of these in the UK. One of the earliest I can recall was the June 1973 crossing from the Isle of Man to Cumberland, in a Beetle prepared by Preston-based Fairways Volkswagen, crewed by mechanics Bill Helm and Malc Buchanan. Although a fuel failure meant that their car, dubbed Yellow Submarine, had to be taken in tow a short distance from the English coast, they remained on board to complete the 32-mile voyage in just over seven hours, to raise a goodly sum for charity.

More recently came the attempt by former Blue Peter presenter Peter Duncan to sail an old 1300 Bug 20 miles across the Irish Sea from Stranraer to Larne. It sounded a pretty dodgy idea to say the least, so we at Safer Motoring went to meet 30-year-old Duncan and report more about the preparations in our September 1984 issue. Being very naive about Beetles, he first drove the car straight into the sea, only to be surprised that it leaked! “It needed to be made seaworthy,” said Duncan; so Vee Wee agents Moss Motors, adjacent to the Grand Union Canal in Watford, were approached to see what they could do to help.

Marketing manager John Evett said they were taken aback when they heard what the BBC had in mind. “But after a lot of hard work it floated,” he added. All the openings – drain holes, heater inlets etc – were blocked off, the underside completely sealed, the doors welded and a sunroof-style escape hatch cut in the roof. The front luggage compartment was filled with styrofoam for buoyancy, and electric bilge pumps were fitted, with outlets on the roof. The engine was waterproofed, the wiring and plugs coated in grease, and Lumenition fitted an electronic system. The oil breather, engine air intake and exhaust were re-routed above sea level. “We then bolted the propeller shaft directly to the bottom pulley, and fitted a rudder operated by a ship’s wheel inside the cabin,” explained Evett. ‘Sea trials’ were undertaken on the local canal, followed by a respray at Moss Motors in dayglo orange for easier observation at sea. With everything deemed satisfactory, the car was declared ready for its sea voyage, the attempt scheduled for a new series entitled Duncan Dares in the spring of 1985.

What happened? Well, we reported the somewhat mixed result in our June 1985 issue, which had by then morphed into VW Motoring. On March 10 Peter Duncan, accompanied by friend Steve Wood as navigator and escort ship Carstiona, set out from Portpatrick, Wigtownshire in heavy seas, destined for the Irish coast near Bangor. About six miles out, water got into the electrics and stopped the engine. Two brave divers from Carstiona took a replacement battery across to the Beetle in a dinghy, and it got underway again. 

Further attempts to restart the engine, after a generator failure, resulted in a jammed starter, at which point their producer decided the intrepid pair should abandon ship. While the Donaghadee lifeboat rescued a second escort boat with engine trouble, diver Gilbert Kelly stayed aboard the Beetle to steer it while it was towed to the Ulster coast. On the way the car capsized, but was righted in time for our heroes to take their seats inside for arrival at Donaghadee, and celebrate the adventure with a champagne reception in Bangor.

The moral? If you’re planning to sail your Beetle, wait for a calm sea…

Words: Robin Wager