PH Carpool: VW Sand Rail
PH's own tech team has some very unusual vehicles in its fleet...
Oliver 'Switch' Kibblewhite
'72 VW-based Sand Rail. It's effectively a 1.3-litre, single port, non-doghouse flat-four beetle engine and gearbox bolted into the back end of a standard '72 VW Beetle saloon chassis with a dirty great over-engineered roll cage bolted to where the body once was. It was built by a nice chap called Mark who owns DreamShack.
A few weeks back. Just before a wet weekend no less!
I started off (and learned to drive) in a Peugeot 205 D. Passed my test and then stopped driving due to mostly being a very poor sixth form student. But while learning I learned that, for day-to-day use, five doors are overkill. Hell, even two doors are not needed most of the time. So by the time I was in my second year of university and commuting from zone nine down to zone three a few times a week for lectures I decided that the sensible choice at this point was driving a car into the city rather than getting the tube.
So one horrible day in October I went and bought a Suzuki Cappuccino from a nice chap in Worcester. Now, this was quite the departure from the bumbling diesel I'd last driven three years or so before. I arrived in the evening to be met by another Cappuccino owner who'd offered to go over the car with me. One hour, one test drive and £1,800 later and I'm sitting in the driver's seat of my new car with no idea really of what to expect. RWD, 760kg, turbocharged and sitting on wider than stock T1R's front and back. On my drive back to London it bucketed it down, and I'll hold my hand up and say I was scared. Tail happy if you got it wrong, understeer if you were on the leaves. I don't think I relaxed for the entire trip. But by the end of it I was hooked.
I'd grown up with Bedford Diesels, Morris 1000's, the odd 2CV and a black cab thrown in for good measure. But this was a whole new world. The insurance was painful, the fuel bills were not too bad. Then someone rear-ended me and I'd still not had enough so off I went to buy another Cappuccino with the money. This time a nice red one. Same story. Lots of top down motoring, grinning like a loon. Le Mans twice. More road trips round the UK than I care to remember (or my wallet chooses to forget). Perfect.
So the start of this year rolls around and the new Cappuccino has the tin worm bad! So she must go as the work to repair her would be too much. Then up pops this chap I'd gotten to know who builds interesting cars. Enter Mark's DreamShack.
I acquired this car to fill the gap between my Cappuccino's tax/MOT expiring and my project being completed. I love top down motoring. I love RWD. I may admit to being a bit of an extrovert. I've got a short commute to PH towers every day and if the weather's poor I could take the train so all in all it was a win-win. It's been Mark's development/ideas machine for the last eight years or so, though only making it onto the Queens Highway a couple of years back. So I thought to myself 'why not?', much to the amusement of the other techies here at PH.
What I wish I'd known:
I wish I owned better windproof clothing.
Things I love:
I love that it burbles around at low rpm making people turn and stare by the sheer unusual road presence. If you squeeze the throttle in any gear you're thrown forwards on a wall of noise from the stinger pipe on the back end with a grin that'd leave you with an aching face if you kept it up for too long. During my normal commute you get little kids on the way to school in the back of their parents' MPV/Eurobox/softroader with their faces pressed to the glass to get a look as I drive past and the odd "give it some" gesture from the "lightly disapproving" mother or grinning father.
Things I hate:
Air-cooled VW engine means no possibility of heating. Hit a fog bank (like I did last Thursday at 11pm) and you get damp and cold instantly. Less than fun. The turning circle, after coming from a Cappuccino, is HUGE (though nowhere near as bad as say a 110 Defender, or worse 130). Crappy chrome aftermarket generator pulleys.
So far it's cost me £200 for insurance, not sure on MPG (30s probably). Then £20 for a new alternator belt and fuel filter and two half days outside in the rain last weekend trying to work out why it wasn't charging. For those who know Beetle engines the generator pulley had cracked in the centre and become eccentric, which then shook the carbon bushes in the generator to bits and knackered it.
This particular car is virtually priceless due to its unique design and the process that went into building it. The chap who builds them can produce another similar to it for £5K on the road. But they're only so cheap by virtue of some integration with a charity setup by Mark called PowerSlideRides. Whose purpose is to provide both hands-on mechanical training for out of work, community service and young people in the ways of welding, fabricating and general workshop skills in the hope that this will give them much-needed experience and confidence boost to get back on track. The sand rails they build are going to be got together in the summer with a collection of wounded ex-services personnel for a bit of R'n'R and slidey dirt track action as well as around the country at shows (The Supercar Event at Dunsfold in June for one) doing PR for the charity.
Where I've been:
So far I've not been anywhere very far afield, but in the next few weeks there are 200-mile trips to Herefordshire and back (via next week's Sunday Service on the way home if you want a closer look). And a fair few trips back to the workshop near Southampton for tweaks and some PR work with the Job Centre and Dreamshack to help secure some extra funding to take on apprentices at the workshop.
Remember that rusty Cappuccino I had? She's not gone just yet. Think smaller than this, lower, front-engined, RWD, turbo, 350kg/67bhp and as little bodywork as possible. More to come on that later.
When the project is finished this rail will go back to its creator and I will go off in my new shiny pocket rocket.
And then the inevitable (Jag) barge come winter time when I've given up on trying to stick it out in sub-zero temperatures and just want comfortable and easy.