Paul’s 20-year quest has finally come to an end, but the project’s just started…
Despite having spent 20 years pestering the previous owner to sell me this car, when it came time for me to start a new chapter in the story of this scruffy old 181, there was no sense of excitement or celebration, as it was a far sadder occasion than I’d ever imagined it would be…
Reason being the car’s former owner was an old friend and local VW legend, Howard Dalton, who sadly passed away on July 28 2020. Howard was perhaps best known as the face behind Duck Racing, and the proprietor of Flat Four Engineering. He also drove the German Car Company Speedster in the ’90s and was renowned for building and maintaining numerous successful race cars – including Jolly Jim Warner’s Notchback.
In fact, it was Jolly Jim that introduced me to Howard in 1990 as I was looking for somebody to assemble a ‘hot’ motor for my first Bug. From then on, I would drop by to see what was going on at Flat Four whenever I had a spare afternoon. And, if I’m honest, I was forever picking Howard’s brain about engine and techy stuff, which I then went home and tried myself. Yep, I was the worst kind of customer.
Fast forward to the year 2000 and Howard had pretty much retired from the VW business but, as he lived just around the corner, we still bumped into each other every once in a while. This was the point at which the Type 181 came into Howard’s life, and my 20-year quest to become its next keeper began.
Tale of two Kings
The car was imported by another local legend, Richard King (of Karmann Konnection fame) in 1988 and has lived within a few miles of my home ever since. It was actually the first military 181 I’d ever seen ‘in the steel’, and I recall looking it over with a friend when it first came up for sale. Anyway, Richard passed the Trekker on to his brother, Harold, in 1990 and, while the car cropped up every once in a while, it was eventually parked up as it required some welding and repairs.
This brings us to the year 2000, when Jolly Jim and I joined Howard on a trip to check the 181 out. The deal was simple: “If you can get it running, you can have it.” 15 minutes later, we were driving it back to Howard’s house.
That was also the first day I pestered Howard to give me first refusal should he ever decide to sell it…
Having retired from the resto game some years earlier, Howard enlisted the help of another local VW specialist, Paul Miller, at www.harryharpics.com to take care of the welding and mechanical work. The rust was mostly in the lower body, the original floorpans having survived surprising well when you consider it has little more than a basic canvas hood and has lived in Europe for over 50 years.
It’s a fine line between restoration and preservation, and Howard’s plan was more about driving the car and retaining some of the original character than building a ground-up show car. I’m not suggesting he wasn’t interested in full restos, just noting he was more interested in mechanics than aesthetics. So, with the welding complete, Paul applied some chassis paint / underseal to the fresh steel before turning to the mechanics. Howard wasn’t overly keen on the lofty ride height, but he didn’t want to slam the car either, so he asked Paul to remove the factory lift kit and set it up like a stock Bug or Ghia. As the plan was to install a larger motor in the future, Howard also purchased a full set of disc brakes, which is why the car is now fitted with later, 4-bolt rims.
Being an early 181, the car left the factory with a swing axle gearbox and reduction boxes, essentially the same equipment used on a Split Screen Van. To make it more car-like, Paul removed the leaky reduction boxes and fitted a stock Beetle swing axle gearbox, which had the added bonus of lowering the rear end by around three inches. With this modification alone, the car will now cruise happily at 70mph, which it certainly wouldn’t do before.
An EMPI rear disc kit not only improved the brakes, but meant Howard wouldn’t have to make fiddly drum brake adjustments in the future.
The front end was levelled by replacing the 2.5-inch raised spindles that come as standard on a Type 181 with stock Beetle spindles and trailing arms, fitted with fresh balljoints and urethane bushes in the beam. Of course, he could have opted for a pair of dropped spindles, which would have resulted in a hefty five-inch drop, but a subtle drop, good ride quality and improved handling was Howard’s way of doing things.
Incidentally, the front brakes could almost be considered overkill, as Howard had ordered one of the original German Car Co. Tar.Ox kits, which feature cross-drilled discs, billet aluminium, six-piston calipers and a matching master cylinder.
Unfortunately, when I collected the car it was sitting on grass and the brake discs all looked pretty darn rusty. However, the stainless steel hoses and aluminium calipers were like new and, with the car in the air, I was pleased to find everything turned freely and operated as it should. Sure, the discs needed some TLC, but the rust was superficial and cleaned off without leaving any pitting or lasting damage. In short, a little elbow grease and the high-spec braking system was in great working order again.
The next job was to fit a new battery and, while the CD player Howard had fitted immediately began playing ’60’s hits when it was hooked up, literally nothing else electrical worked. But some time spent cleaning terminals and connections cost me nothing but time and soon things were looking more hopeful.
Like a fool, I then poured in a can of fresh fuel, which immediately leaked out onto the driveway. With the fuel tank removed, we found the leak(s) to be perished fuel lines to and from the fuel pump for the Eberspächer heater. Yep, time to replace all the fuel hoses with E5 / E10-spec pipe, plus a new fuel filter and fresh clamps. Oh, and I stripped and cleaned the carburettor too, figuring that was probably gunked up.
More fuel (no leaks this time) proved the old 1500 single port ran, although it needed a service. It also became clear the fan was loose and, when I tried to drive the car, the clutch was slipping. So I went home, ordered a fan and fitting kit from Cool Air, a bunch of service parts, a clutch kit from eBay and then made plans to drop the motor.
New plugs and leads, a new SVDA distributor, a quick check of the valve clearances, new gaskets, fresh oil and, within a day, the motor was back in place, tuned and running nice. Result.
Next job was to knock some of the ugly off the shabby, flaky bodywork and repaint the floors inside the car. The 181 had seen a few blow ins and touch ups over the years, and I’m sure Howard wouldn’t have minded me saying his hastily applied ‘camo’ effect hadn’t stood the test of time particularly well. With paint flaking off all over and surface rust showing through patches of primer, I had a conundrum on my hands…
My head said strip it all back to metal and restore it properly. My heart said Howard wanted to retain some of that patina and character, and had no plans to over-restore the body. I won’t lie, my wallet was in agreement with Howard’s way, hence I decided to just treat it to a basic tidy-up.
Bring out the Bob
Working outside on a driveway in mid-January is far from ideal when it comes to paint, but with my old man, Bob, out of retirement for a couple of weeks, things went from scruffy to respectable surprisingly quickly.
The old flaky paint was removed with a combination of Scotch pads and sandpaper, prior to the application of etch primer and then, where necessary, a few coats of high-build primer. Some of the panels were removed and painted in the garage but most was done outside in the cold. It was hard going, and we worked through four different military greens before settling on NATO semi-matt green as the best match to the original.
The best bit? It was all done with aerosols using commercial-grade primers and eight cans of graffiti paint. Total cost? £80. Happy with that!
I should add that I ordered some wide fan aerosol spray nozzles, which made it a lot easier to cover large areas quickly but, all things considered, I’m quite happy with the way it’s turned out, and feel I have done justice to Howard’s original vision for the car.
I’m sure I’ll return to the body at some point in the future, but for now it looks presentable enough from 20 yards, or if you saw me drive by.
Purchase price aside, I’ve managed to recommission and tidy the old girl up on a shoestring budget of just £466.65 so far. I don’t have any grand plans right now, other than driving it daily while we’ve got some half-decent weather, and having some fun in it..
You can read all about this project update in the August ’21 issue– check out the previews below…