Matt Berry’s Air-Cooled Garage is a busy treasure trove of classic VW brilliance.
When I was a teenager and proud owner of my first car – a 1975 VW Beetle 1303 – many weekends were spent at my local air-cooled VW specialist. When I wasn’t pestering the mechanic for advice on the Bug’s latest problem, I’d waste most of my paltry earnings on custom ‘go faster’ bits or air-cooled merchandise. The place was chaos. Stuff everywhere and rusty shells and strewn body parts and mechanicals littering the cramped yard. I assumed all air-cooled VW specialists around the world were likewise.
Not so Matt Berry’s Air-Cooled Garage, just off the Bruce Highway in the Queensland town of Cooroy. For starters, it’s one of those rarest of workshops – there seems to be space to burn. At around 500sq metres in total, there’s a classy and beautifully-floored showroom housing a number of interesting VW-engined machines, memorabilia, posters, custom parts and even a split-screen Kombi-styled fridge. A beautiful illuminated Volkswagen Service & Parts sign is mounted outside a spacious office and waiting area – both blessed with new carpeting and comfy, clean seating. If this had been my local VW specialist, I’d have asked to move in.
“We moved here in October 2019,” Matt said, “and you could say we’ve over-capitalised space-wise.” No bad thing. There’s a designated engine room, spare parts storage area and the busy workshop itself, home to a pair of hoists and three specialist technicians alongside Matt. “We’re mainly mechanical with a little body work,” the 55-year-old said. “I sub-contract panel work, but only under my guidelines.”
The air-cooled scene has long been a passionate one in Australia, but values of anything classic VW have skyrocketed.
Specialist attention is always in demand, hence why Matt’s workshop is chockers, and there’s a long waiting list for specialist engine work. He’ll dabble in air-cooled Porsches too, and his passion for motor sport means he’s often called upon to work magic on air-cooled drag and race cars.
His own racer, a street registered 1959 Beetle, realises 155hp at the rear wheels with all VW-based engine upgrades for the now 2007cc motor. Weighing just 667kg – windows are plastic and “if a screw’s not doing anything, it’s out” – it runs the ¼-mile in the mid-12-seconds, and often embarrasses AWD Subaru WRXs at his local Noosa Hill Climb. Inside the showroom is his uber-rare 1968 VW Country Buggy, the only Australian-designed and built Volkswagen. Around 1000 were sold in Australia as off- road farm or lifestyle vehicles – a Beetle-based version of the Mini Moke if you will – and Matt’s has to have the best stance of any survivors, dropped on its guts and with striking body patina.
A 1979 Cheetah Mk 7 F2 racer with VW Golf 1600cc engine’s in for tuning, a 1972 Beetle’s in for an engine upgrade while a 1963 Beetle’s had huge dollars spent to make it a street weapon. The workshop’s abuzz with Kombis and a couple of Type 3 as well. “I started playing with VWs when I was about 12,” Matt said. “We’d take buggies into the local bush, or sand drive on Fraser Island. I was attracted to their versatility. They can power an aeroplane, hovercraft, boats…the cars can go off-road or blow away modern cars on the track. There’s awesome engineering and excellent power-to-weight. They were a Swiss watch compared to other engines due to their machining and geometry; way ahead of their time in engineering.”
The tidiness and organisation of the business clearly carries over to the work performed, and Matt still services customers he’s known for decades. “I tend to build smaller, high quality engines,” he said. “That translates to longevity.” After an electrical trade with the government, Matt was running his own business when his brother began playing with VWs. This led to founding Volksrestore in Brisbane. His brother covered the body jobs, Matt dealt with mechanicals – all strictly air-cooled stuff. “We’d have the university students with their shit boxes, but also the enthusiast who’d commission us for bigger jobs.”
The business lasted until 2001, Matt building a 37ft catamaran and sailing for a couple of years before building a house. Eventually his old clients started asking for his services once more, and he did so from a home workshop before moving to his current premises. “I believe in doing it right the first time,” Matt said. “I’m strict on quality. You have to go fish for the better brands of parts; I’ll get them from Germany, USA or local wholesalers. A barrel and piston kit from the most common available brand is about $450. But quality brands we’re comfortable with cost $550. That $100 margin is money well spent.”
Matt has customers from Toowoomba, Kingscliff, Hervey Bay and even Cairns, while his reputation as a gun race engine builder means an air-cooled motor’s coming up from Sydney for treatment. The work is often difficult and costly, simply due to the labour involved. “A lack of knowledge from other garages, non-specialists, mean there can be a heck of a lot wrong,” Matt said. “The biggest problem we have in VW Land is these cars weren’t respected early in their life. They were a cheap car, a $250 student car, and not looked after properly.” While some new-to-the-scene owners may get shocked at the money needed to properly repair these air-cooled classics, many enthusiasts are investing big to ensure they get the work done properly. “I can’t keep up with demand,” Matt said, hopefully realizing this reflects his positive reputation. “The demand has increased with coronavirus too, as people have had time to fix up their cars and need parts and help.”
After a life rich with air-cooled VWs, Matt’s passion is still obvious. “We’re all pretty loopy,“ he said, “and it’s an addiction for some. The marque is so separated from the rest, and it’s a standalone scene, and a good scene.”