Today’s teenagers seem to buy only dual cab utes or soulless SUVs. Alfie Rowley and his 1963 VW Beetle shows there’s a far classier way to begin your motoring life.
Herbie has a lot to answer for. The 1963 Volkswagen Beetle, dressed in racing stripes and numbers, made its silver screen debut in 1968’s The Love Bug. Kids (and grown-ups) loved Herbie, and through endless television replays and movie sequels this wheelieing, sliding, jumping and impossibly rapid VW with a personality of its own has been enjoyed by every generation since.
Like countless others, a VW Beetle was my first car. I can partly lay blame at Herbie’s door for this. What movie-watching kid doesn’t love a wheel-spinning lowered Bug ripping through Californian mountains (comically masquerading as rural France) and beating a Ferrari Daytona, Lamborghini Miura and even a dodgy Porsche 917 replica?
Showing Herbie’s allure lives on, 19-year-old Alfie Rowley also caught the Beetle bug when watching the movies. “At eight years old my dad brought home this 1963 Beetle and I was completely dazed,” he said. “Dad told me if I did well at school, I could have the car when I turned 16. On my birthday he handed it over and I’d have to take care of it.”
The number of youngsters who’ve accrued vital mechanical knowledge through owning a Beetle must be in the millions. They’re not exactly unreliable cars, but most agree there are many niggling things that can and do go wrong. Blessedly, most dramas with old, air-cooled VWs are relatively straightforward to put right. That means beginners get to cut their mechanic’s teeth on these charming cars with the engine in the wrong place.
So it’s proved for Alfie who has fallen for the simplicity and character of his almost 60 year-old Volksie. “I’ve got a speedo, manual shifter, two knobs for the light and wipers; that’s all I need,” he said. “Some people my age get into it and are scared because they don’t know what to do. It’s not overwhelming. It’s just a car.”
You’ll notice it’s far from standard, just like the movie Herbie. The ’63 Beetle revels in its almost rat-style, its patina and some choice upgrades and modifications. Yet unlike most tampered-with cars, Alfie’s Bug doesn’t polarise opinion. You’ll struggle to find anyone who doesn’t love it and try to grab a photo.
“I love the fact everyone has a story about a Beetle,” Alfie explained. “Everyone’s affected by it and you can’t replicate that. I’ve made my best friends through owning the Beetle; people are fanatical about them. You drive one of these and it’s like a family member. There’s no better thing than driving, feeling and listening to a carburettor car that’s running perfectly.”
Alfie’s Beetle wears the scars of time, and being a student he’s not just able to write blank cheques to have everything perfectly restored. But who’d want it that way? His dad bought it for $7000 11 years ago and it sat stupidly low on very skinny front wheels. Much work has been done since to make it more usable and sensible, but maintaining the street modified/race car aesthetic.
“It’s either Bermuda green or teal, I’m not quite sure as it’s been painted at some point,” Alfie said. “Its original 1200 engine was in when we got it, but that’s now replaced by a 1641 single port – they’re usually twin port if they’re 1641 – making around 60 horsepower. The original engine is at home and I’m turning that into a 1400 with bigger pistons.”
The current motor is the third change Alfie’s performed in ten years. “We upgraded from the 1200 and when it died we put the original back in, which then also died,” he said. “This 1600 (1641cc) has been going for three years now, but the original 1200 will soon go back in again. We needed to re-do the seals as it leaked a bit. That’s a rite of passage if you own a VW. If it leaks you know the engine’s original. The oil goes onto the belt and sprays absolutely everywhere.”
Partnered with his dad to work on the Beetle, Alfie’s been mechanically learning on the job. Not being a fan of really low cars, a key job was lifting the rear swing arm back to original, then raising the front torsion beam as much as possible after it was cut by the previous owner. Even so, it still sits incredibly low.
“It feels like an old race car,” Alfie explained. “It’s low and handles nicely, but isn’t stupidly low like before. It’s still comfortable to drive and will happily take the heavy equipment I need for the radio station work I do.”
The exhaust has been swapped for a classic GT version – a simple eight-bolt task – a later radio has gone in, as has a new fuel gauge to replace the non-working original. Alas, it still lies, and many Beetle owners will empathise how you know when to refuel based on luck and sixth sense rather than anything accurate.
As for exterior aesthetics, it’s a gorgeous blend of originality, retro accessories, subtle race stickers and charming surface rust.
Chunky chrome bumpers sport California-style license plates, there’s Mobil Pegasus logos, expensive Vintage Speed roof rack with varnished pine slats and stick-on GoodYear GT Radial white lettering for the (not GoodYear) tyres over original steel rims. The racing numbers pay homage to the famed ‘Gilbert’ 1965 racing Beetle in the States, Alfie borrowing the font and adopting ’63’ to represent his car’s – and dad’s – build date. Above the front bumper, a gorgeous Carello amber fog light adds to the Herbie tribute.
At some point the Beetle’s engine cover – or deck lid – was updated to a 1964 version, but Alfie’s sourced a ’63 replacement with ‘Pope’s nose’ license plate light shroud. It’ll be fitted after a respray, but this could then lead to more extreme work. “I’m keen to make it a proper Herbie Rides Again spec, but it’d need resprayed and the interior to be grey,” he said. “I really don’t want to lose the patina though, so I want to take off as many panels as I can and keep them.” After all, things are only original once.
It’s very authentic 1963 inside too, albeit with fluffy dice and nanna blankets covering the rather weathered front seats. The ‘red brick’ upholstery is original on the seats and door cards, while the parcel shelf has been custom made in aged red brick to match. The giant steering wheel with chrome horn remains – “it makes driving with your knees in traffic easier” – and while the four-speed transmission is original, Alfie’s fitted an EMPI short shift kit for a far more precise gear change. “The original we called the soup ladle, but this one is super tight,” he explained.
Maintenance is quite straightforward: always check the oil and keep your eye on the fuel pump as it can potentially catch fire. Hardest job so far was accessing the engine’s fan for repair – the alternator needs removed and the manifold moved – while Alfie leaves carbie tuning to a local air-cooled specialist. “It’s such a hard task to get it running sweet, and I’ve not got dual carbies to make it even harder,” he said. “It’ll be running fine then the outside temperature changes by two degrees and it runs like a tractor. But when you get the sweet spot it can’t be replicated.”
Alfie said he’s twice been offered $40,000 to sell his Herbie, but he’d not take a million for it. “Some things are worth more than material. There’s the memories this car has.” He’ll keep using it for club runs, khanacross racing and getting to uni and work, and you feel these two will be together for life. First loves are hard to beat.