AMELIA ISLAND, Florida—The wind is starting to make my eyes water. A car whizzes by on the left to pass me and a shower of pebbles pepper my face as it does. This is the point where I curse myself for not bringing my sunglasses. I quickly glance down at the speedo to see how fast I’m going. Hmm, about 40 or so. Feels like 80. Not surprising, I suppose, when the car you’re driving has no windscreen, no sheetmetal to speak of.
And no, this isn’t one of those low slung, track-attacking tube-frame machines like an Ariel Atom. This is a 50-plus-year-old Volkswagen Beetle, in all its air-cooled, rear-engine, 44-hp glory. But as you’ve no doubt surmised by now, this is no ordinary Bug. At this point, I’m just hoping a bug of a different sort doesn’t whack one of my eyes before my drive is over.
Throughout Volkswagen’s history, there have been numerous notable coachbuilt vehicles constructed using the humble Beetle chassis and powertrain as the basis, and at the 2019 Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance, VW helped assemble several of the most epic and rare examples for a special class.
Featuring 12 cars in all, the grouping featured some of the most stunning VW-based cars you’ve probably never heard of, especially the gorgeous coupes built by Rometsch. A small, Berlin-based coachbuilder and Karmann contemporary that later fell out of favor with VW, Rometsch was further hampered by the erection of the Berlin wall, effectively ending its relationship with the company.
Amelia’s Best in Class award winner for Custom Coachwork Volkswagens went to a 1954 Rometsch Beeskow Coupe (above), named after its project leader Johannes Beeskow, who would later be poached by Karmann. Volkswagen of America also separately honored a 1951 Rometsch Beeskow Coupe. The Rometsch cars are rolling works of art to be sure, but arguably the most unusual and memorable coachbuilt VW on the Amelia field—the car that we would later drive—actually started out as a work of art.
As the story goes, a talented Mexican welder and metalworker named Raphael Esparza Prieto was asked by his boss at the Volkswagen parts shop where he also worked if he could create a Beetle shell made out of wrought iron. He wanted to use it sign of sorts for the shop. Prieto did, and it eventually attracted lots of attention from the public as well as certain VW execs, as the shop was located near the company’s Mexican factory.
With the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City approaching, Volkswagen wanted to do something memorable to showcase its commitment to the country, and commissioned Prieto to build an actual running version of the car using a Beetle chassis. Two cars were built for the Olympics, and they were a runaway hit. From there, the legend of the “Wedding Beetle” was born, a moniker borne from its resemblance to the coach Cinderella rode in to her wedding.
Prieto would eventually build some 20 Wedding Beetles in all for dealers and others who clamored for one of their own to display. They were later showcased all over the world. The history of the particular car VW brought to Amelia is murky. Rumor has it that it was built for Max Hoffman, the noted Austrian-born importer of European vehicles to the U.S. A query to VW’s German mothership collection where it is housed came back that the car in question started out as a U.S. market, 1500-series Beetle built in 1968 in Germany and shipped to the U.S. sprayed in Peru Green. Sometime after that Prieto worked his wrought-iron magic.
It’s just after dawn. Overcast skies hang over the Atlantic and blanket Amelia Island, the ocean air thick with moisture. Our social-media editor Billy Rehbock (an avowed VW homer), photographer Robin Trajano, and I roll up on the car that’s waiting for us in the hotel parking lot. As we approach it, the red seats seem to float inside the intricately designed iron shell sprayed in white. Opening the door is like entering a gate. Once inside, I’m trying to wrap my head around the fact that we’re about to drive this thing. VW fleet coordinator Ryan Allen senses our apprehension and assures us that “it drives great.” If you say so.
There are the front tires, the steering column, the electrical system. Stuff you never see, it’s all right there in your face, that and little else but the work of Prieto, the artisan who carefully crafted the iron shape. I start it up, and indeed Allen wasn’t lying. The Wedding Beetle hums its flat-four song with no off-key notes, and I quickly get used to the clutch take-up in first gear as we pull off the grounds and head toward a smooth, two-lane coastal road.
Shifting all four on the floor proves easy enough as I ease the ironclad Bug onto a stretch flanked by wetlands, woods, and the ocean. The steering wheel is cocked to the left and as you’d expect, it’s vague with a capital V, but, hey, at least you can see the tires turn! I’m deliberate in my operation and as I get up to speed the wind starts whipsawing me. Other than the obvious, the Wedding Beetle is a fully functional piece, with Michigan license plates to prove it. Everything is there and works—the lights, turn signals, and gauges. We stop a couple miles up the road under a bridge so Trajano can get some glamour shots and to let a frothing-at-the-mouth Rehbock take a turn behind the Wedding wheel. As the sun breaks through the morning gray and shines down on it, I get a true sense of Prieto’s work, the handcrafted beauty of it all.
This was also the first time I’d ever driven a vintage Beetle. I was instantly enthralled and surprised by its sprightly nature in spite of its 44 horsepower—no doubt aided by the added lightness of this particular car’s body work. Now I know why the Bug became so intertwined with the fabric of automotive history. The simplicity of its mechanicals laid bare, driving the whimsical Wedding Beetle served as a windblown lesson about the Bug’s humble nature, ease of operation, and versatility. It was and still is the People’s Car. If only I had worn my darn sunglasses.