It’s model behaviour from former Safer Motoring editor Robin Wager

Do you remember those ashtrays with a realistic small rubber tyre around them, which, like smoking itself, were popular back in the 1960s? Walter Stephens had one, and bought four more – not that he was a smoker, but he had an idea that became something of an obsession. The 6in diameter of the little tyres, you see, was exactly right for the model Beetle Walter was determined to build. But even that didn’t quite suit him, for the tread width was proportionally incorrect, so he swapped the Firestones for five miniature Goodyears (don’t ask!).

Taking five years and some 3,250 hours of labour, the project involved faithfully reproducing every structural, mechanical and superficial detail. Safer Motoring’s original editor Bob Wyse visited him at home in Kent to get the story, and in our March 1966 report Walter, an electrical technician by trade, revealed the secrets of the incredible model.

Never a man to do anything by half, he first wrote to Volkswagen HQ in Wolfsburg to ask if they would supply him with a drawing showing the dimensions of the real Beetle, plus photographs of the main components. Incredibly, they replied within a week enclosing what he needed!  “The VW drawings showed the car at 6in long,” said Walter. “I had to work out a scale for my model, keeping to the 6in diameter tyres. It proved to be very awkward – I remember I had to multiply every dimension shown on the VW drawing by 6.65.”

He prepared various views – plan, side and end elevations of the body, but there were no official details for the chassis. Undeterred, Walter got underneath his own Beetle and took the necessary measurements, then converted them to the scale of the model. Those dimensions work out to approximately a quarter of the real car’s measurements: his Beetle is 13ft 4in long, for example, which compares with the model’s 36.5in.

The next stage was to make a scale-size side view drawing of the car, plus a plan view of the chassis. From there, cardboard templates were made of the body panels and chassis. “There was quite a bit of trial and error,” said Walter, “and I had to do quite a lot of experimental metal-beating to see how much stretch I was going to get in the 26-gauge mild steel tinplate I had chosen.”

Editor Wyse wondered whether Walter had based the construction of the model on similar sequence to that used in Wolfsburg. “Not entirely,” he replied. “For instance, the roof of the real car is originally one piece, from the scuttle to the rear window, plus the rear bonnet lid, whereas mine is split. And I did the sides differently, using a top and bottom section for each, which I then cut into two and three pieces respectively; the factory makes the side in just three sections – the scuttle, the door and the rear side panel.”

Did Walter have any professional knowledge of working and fashioning metal? “No, it’s not my trade, but I’ve gained a lot of knowledge of panel beating, in particular, through experience. And model making has been a hobby since I was a kid. It’s because I knew a lot of panel beating would be needed that I chose the Beetle as a basis for this model – the shape of it, all contours, no sharp edges, offered a real challenge. In fact, the only two straight lines in the whole of the car are the running boards.  “The more I studied the shape of the car, the more I appreciated what a clever man Dr Porsche was. The car is shaped in the old sense of streamlining, but through the shape the ductile strength of the materials is increased. Strength is created in a light gauge metal simply by curving it.”  Walter estimates that the initial work of producing his scale drawings and templates alone took him two years, with a further three years needed to build the mini Beetle.

A look through the open passenger door (above) reveals what could be the interior and facia of a real Beetle. The front seats tilt correctly, while it’s possible to lift the entire rear seat out of the model without disturbing the body, which can nevertheless be lifted off to show the accurately detailed mechanical parts beneath.

Total cost of the model? Materials, £57.10s. (£57.50). To which might be added 3,250 priceless hours of labour – your guess is as good as mine. And another guess I’d make is that the Beetle is a family heirloom to this day!

Words: Robin Wager