Celebrating 50 Years of Volkswagen in Baja with a Blast Through the Desert
Two very different ways to get sand in your teeth
BARSTOW, California — Last month, Volkswagen celebrated five decades of desert racing when the flag fell at the 50th Baja 1000. Ever since the first running of the sprawling race in 1967, then known as the Mexican 1000, Volkswagen has been on the starting line. It's been at the finish line as well, with a VW-powered buggy completing the 950-mile sprint from Tijuana to La Paz. As part of the semi-centennial celebrations, VW rolled out three dusty, race-weathered Baja VWs for a day of fun in the desert, just outside of Barstow.
In this industry, reference points are crucial. For the past six years, my most valuable reference point is my dearly departed 1974 Volkswagen Super Beetle. Covered in fading primer and poorly-painted silver trim pieces, the slightly rusty Super was, at some point in its life, shoddily converted to a Baja bug, wearing yards of booger welds and sharp edges from a pair of dull metal shears.
I loved that car more than I should have, honestly. It was a Baja Bug by loose definition only, with a crude, hand-formed engine cage out back and a strange angled bullbar jutting from the front bumper. It rode high, but only because the original builder added longer springs but neglected to swap out the struts, rendering the front-end nearly unmanageable under braking. Inside, the rear seat was ripped out in place of a rough vinyl-covered shelf, while the two front passengers made do with faded, pungent seats unbolted from a Ford Aerostar.
For two years, that heap was my college runabout, rain or shine. So many indelible memories are connected to that leaky, lifted jalopy—from camping on a semi-dry riverbed, annoying my fraternity brother by parking it on his front lawn, to taking more than one unsuspecting and dismayed girl on a short-lived date. In the end, after I was fed up with its temperamental nature, the MudBug sat in the back of my grandmother's house for just under a year before my parents sold it, with my permission, for $2,000 to another unsuspecting young man. The transaction happened while I was at school, and I never had a chance to drive it one last time.
I only tell you all this only to give you a sense of what I felt when I saw the Class 11 Beetle sitting in the Barstow dust, brought by Volkswagen as part of our off-road fun. Primer black and very rough around the edges, it was lifted straight out of my rose-tinted memories. Alright, it lacked the cropped rear end, but it was even more Spartan than the MudBug inside, and just as slow. After six years, I get to say goodbye.
What a sendoff it was. VW teamed up with local race team Mojave Off-Road Racing Enthusiasts to map out a circuitous 10-mile route out in the Mojave, winding through a few miles of white beach-like sand into rutted, rocky paths. In the middle, you chug your way up a rock pile masquerading as a hill, rushing down the other side into more snaking desert roads.
Cody Jeffers from Mojave Off-Road Racing Enthusiasts was the man charged with the not-insignificant task of familiarizing me with the course and showing me the ins-and-outs of the Class 11. I first played the role as passenger, struggling to remain conscious as Jeffers expertly wrung the Bug out through the course, crashing through rocks and ravines with perfectly metered throttle and clutch feet.
Then, I got into the driver's seat. Because this Bug adheres to the strict regulations of Class 11, performance modifications are few. Inside, there's a cage, safety fuel cell, racing seats, harnesses, and off-road instrumentation, but the steering wheel, pedal box, and shifter feel worryingly original. Outside, the car rides on tall, skinny 15-inch knobby tires, mounted to stock brakes and hubs. In fact, aside from a mildly upgraded suspension, both the bones and the guts of the Bug remain very close to stock.
With Jeffers now playing passenger, I set off down the first sandy expanse. I worked the 1.6-liter aircooled flat-four clattering out back, trying to eke out every last ounce of the claimed 75 hp on tap. It wasn't giving up the goods that easy-somewhere down the line, the transmission innards were swapped for a taller ratio, giving the Class 11 no chutzpah above second gear. It was a strange, hard-fought battle between engine and transmission. For a moment, you've got the four-banger by the scruff of the neck, hustling through the backroads with incrementally increasing speed. Get right to the point of valve float, and quick-shift into third. Now, the engine's nearly bogging, working hard to raise half the power you had in second gear.
It was sweaty, bone-shaking work. While I tried to dredge up some lessons learned from my two excursions out in the badlands of the real-deal Baja, I began to develop a cadence, knowing when and where the upsettingly tall third gear would and wouldn't work. As I crashed over miniature boulders, the Class 11 was entirely more impressive and capable than I would ever think. Maybe my old MudBug could have gone a little deeper into the riverbed than I allowed myself to explore.
We rolled up to base camp in a plume of silt. A few breaths, a protein bar, and a small tub of water bottles later, I strapped myself into the very yellow, very capable-looking Class 9 buggy that sat a few yards away. From the outside, it looks like a full-scale R/C buggy, with exposed portions of the tube frame and thin, stubbly off-road tires. This was a one-seat car, so Jeffers could provide only a general walk-around before I vaulted onto the fuel cell, and slid down into the snug cockpit.
Jeffers wasn't nearly as cavalier with the Class 9 as he was with the Class 11. Thanks to an unmodified, unfiltered steering rack plucked from a regular Beetle, I was told to keep my thumbs out of the steering wheel's center spokes, as it has the propensity for uncontrollably jerking around in rocky terrain. If I hooked any digits into the wheel, I ran the risk of breaking them.
Power came from the same 1.6-liter flat-four, but this VeeDub heart packed hotter camshafts and revised cylinder-heads to give it some extra gumption. Thanks to a simple tube-frame, the Class 9 was significantly lighter than the already skinny Class 11, so performance was livelier and achievable speeds much, much scarier.
Out amongst the scrub brush and crystalline white sand washes, the Class 9 was a yellow blur. Despite a full Fox suspension setup, the ride was punishing, and rear swing-arm transaxle meant fishtailing was an enduring characteristic. Aside from a few misplaced ribs and powdered teeth, the Class 9 is close to the most fun I've had off-road, all while putting things very much into perspective. I was moderately bruised after 10 miles, so I can't even begin to understand how broken the Class 9 warriors are after 1,000 miles of Mexico's toughest.
There, through the dust-that's base camp. I pull in, remove helmet, dust shield, and clamber out over the jungle-gym tube structure. I was exhausted, sweaty, sore, but couldn't wipe that smile from my face-much like my previous desert escapades. As Baja birthday celebrations go, this was as good as it gets. Beyond that, it gave me closure, and erased scars that have stuck with me for years.
Finally, as an aperitif, Jeffers rolled out a squishy, squidgy dune buggy that serves as a pit car for the race team. Far too soft and fragile for the Barstow crags, we used white-and-turquoise two-seater as our lunchtime runabout. Over the "whoops," the suspension smacked the worn tires into the fender wells, the key was already broken-off inside the cylinder, and the steering wheel was already coming apart at the seams -- it was the perfect beach buggy experience.
Thanks for the sunburn, VW. We'll see you in Ensenada next year.