California (Look) über alles

But even in California in the ’70s, the style wasn’t as clear cut as we might like to think

It was the curiously spelt, nature-loving, freelance journalist, Jere Alhadeff, that coined the phrase California Look in the now revered February 1975 issue of Dune Buggies and Hot VWs, but that wasn’t the cars that gave rise to the term’s first foray into print. In a 1972 edition of HOT ROD magazine, a picture appeared of some of the largely Orange County-based club, Volkswagens Unlimited members’ cars parked up outside Gene Berg Enterprises. That club, under the leadership of Ron Fleming, went on to become Der Kleiner Panzers.

What that article in ’75 did, though, was set in stone the essence of the California Look. Clean, subtle, nose down, high horsepower. Nothing more, nothing less. Yet even in America in the 1970s, even just in California, the term was being used much more widely used, which has led to mucho confusion over the years.


For those of us here in the UK who weren’t importing copies of Hot VWs in the ’70s (so pretty much everybody then), the first appearance of the term was in an excellent but short-lived (1978-1982) UK publication called HOT ROD & Custom UK, which was launched as a more technical, more focussed sister title to Custom Car magazine. Respected US hot rod journalist, Pat Ganahl, was writing a monthly piece for the mag called American Pie, and in the March ’79 edition he introduced us all to the California Look. It is interesting to note how Colin Burnham plagiarised some of Ganahl’s explanation of the Look in his 1986 Air-Cooled Volkswagens book in reference to his own car that had such a huge influence on so many UK VW owners, myself included.
Here’s Ganahl’s summation of what constituted the Look in that article: “Dropped in the front, lowered a little in back, chrome trim removed, little nerf bars, trick wheels, low profile tyres and a healthy engine in the back.” You’ll note the discrepancies appearing already. He followed that up with, “The look is impressive; but how a Cal-VW goes is more important.”


Diff’rent strokes

Although only black and white images were used, the pictured examples were already showing different approaches. Not all cars had one-piece windows, for example. In fact, most didn’t. One had bumpers, one had trim on, another had a dual-mount aerial. One of his chosen few was chopped ’n’ flamed. And so it goes on.

Other examples appeared in later HR&C UK submissions and, come May ’82, lifelong hot rodder and passionate Chevy head, Ganahl, showed us pics of his own interpretation of the Look – a ’60 Bug he bought for $100 in ’78. Lowered, homemade nerf bars, filled rear valance, a louvred Oval Window decklid, chrome 356 steels and baby moons, Porsche Salmon metallic paint and a brown Naugahyde interior.

“They’re actually quite popular here,” he said, by way of explanation, “the lowered, de-chromed, hopped-up Cal Look VWs are true hot rods that young kids can afford… and they’re fast.” His wasn’t, as it goes, as he was reluctant to give up the 38mpg his Bosch ignition and chrome tinware-equipped 1200 offered. A traditional VW benefit you wave a fond farewell to the moment you strap on a pair of IDAs!


Fast forward to the March ’83 issue of Hot VWs and it’s Cal Look time again, this time Larry Shaw’s over the top, multiple show-winning ‘Brass Bug’. Lowered, de-chromed, nerf’d, on Fuchs and with a race proven 2180cc IDA motor out back, the ’62 was Cal Look for sure. But suicide doors?

Step inside the issue and the lines are blurred further still. A four-car feature included a slammed, bumper-less Ghia on polished Fuchs with a nitrous-assisted 1641, a black ’n’ flamed ’71 Super Beetle with a Kadron-equipped 1835 and a Hawaiian ’71 with a 1907cc IDA motor, button-tuft vinyl interior and polished Center Lines. Lastly, a graphic’d late model Square on Western Cyclone wheels with a stock motor and a sheepskin and tweed interior.

A decade later, Hot VW’s February ’93 Cal Look Special really fell off the wagon, showcasing a billet-clad ’Vert with Briz bumpers and wide, low-profile tyres and a full show 23-window Samba alongside a more traditional Lowlight Ghia that was a recent induction to the DKP club. By today’s standards, few of these cars fit the traditional Cal Look ethos, but perhaps that’s because we’ve used the passing of time to take the best bits of all the cars built ‘back in the day’ and distil them down to the perfect Cal Look recipe. But, like great cooking, not everyone’s recipe for the same meal will be the same.


This trio of ’67s were the chosen ones for the Feb ’94 Cal Look Special. Which do you think says Cal Look loudest? The one with the genuine BRMs, maybe? Except that was Scott Smith’s black Resto Cal…

In other words, the California Look has, and always will be, a delightfully moveable feast.

Mike Pye


You can find this feature in the February ’21 “California Look special”, which is available in digital format for all desktop, tablet and mobile devices

NB: Printed copies are no longer available as this issue has sold out (hence it is only available in digital format)

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