Lessons Learned: This Volkswagen Beetle Has Been A Lifelong Project
Photography by Andrew Golseth / historic photos courtesy of owner Michael Adams
If you’re lucky, your first car was something cool, inexpensive to keep on the road and reliable, but most of us were just grateful to have whatever set of hand-me-down jalopy we could afford. Some of us, though, are fortunate enough to get a gem, even if it’s a diamond in the rough. San Diego native Michael Adams was one such lucky gear-head that got a tasteful first set of wheels: this 1959 Volkswagen Beetle—a car he still has in the garage after 27 years! To put that into perspective, this car has been a part of Mike’s life longer than I’ve been alive.
Parallel to Mike’s life, this humble Volkswagen evolved with him. Looking at the shimmering blue and grey two-tone paint it wears today, fully restored interior, and sewing machine smooth idle it now burbles, it’s hard to believe the car in the grainy old photos is the same automobile. It’s a car Mike learned how to wrench on, modify, temporarily abandon and finally return to for a complete restoration. Like a lifelong friend, Mike and his beloved Bug share some great stories.
Andrew Golseth: Mike, how’d you end up with this Beetle?
Michael Adams: When I was five or six years old my dad did some work for a guy and he didn’t pay him, so the guy gave him the Beetle as payment. It had no motor in it, it was pretty rough, but my dad told me, “When you turn 16 it can be your car. We’ll have it running by then,” but it didn’t quite work out that way.
When I turned 16 the car was still in pieces, nothing had really been done. My dad had acquired a bunch of parts but it wasn’t all put together. So, I got a job in high school and started dumping money into it and started putting it back together. My senior year, I finally got the motor running and everything sort of together the best I could.
I really didn’t have a lot of money so I did a half-ass rewiring job. I rebuilt the transmission with my dad and we went through the brakes, made sure they were all good. A quarter way through my senior year I started driving it.
AG: So, after you got it running what was next? Did you set out to restore it?
MA: The body was rough. Me and some buddies bought a bunch of sandpaper and sanded down four or five layers of paint, down to bare metal, and rattle-canned it primer grey. Since the front beam was already cut, me and my dad moved the spring plates up a couple notches, put 30 inch tires in the rear and 28 inch tires up front, and I drove it around like that, sort of Baja style but it was really just lifted with bigger tires.
I threw in some door panels, a cassette player, and speakers and drove it around like that until I joined the military. When I came home on leave, my dad said I had to do something with the car because the primer finish was starting to rust away. It needed to be painted. I didn’t really have the money but I had it painted anyway.
So, before we sent it to get painted we took torches to it, and cut the front and rear fenders and took, probably, four inches off the front and rear to give it a more muscular look—the same way my dad Baja’d his ’54 Bug when he was in high school. We cut and flared all the steel panels instead of buying fiberglass pieces.
Then I took it over to a MACCO shop to some VW guy and had it painted for a couple grand. I was only home for 30 days on leave, between being stationed in Italy and South Dakota. Of course, the guy said it’d only take a couple weeks and it really took him, like, two months. I didn’t get to see the finished car for another year when I came back home and the guy hadn’t done a very good job.
I just putted around in it when I was home on leave and once I got out of the military, my sister towed it up to Lancaster where I moved after getting out.
AG: When did you decide to restore the car? What were some of the major challenges?
MA: After getting out of the military, I decided I didn’t want it to be Baja’d anymore and wanted to return it to stock, more or less. To do a full Baja-style Bug with the complete tubular front end and roll cage and everything, it would have cost too much and it would have totally destroyed a ’59 Bug in the process.
In high school, before I cut it up, I looked around and realized I could easily find a front apron, all the fenders, hood, decklid, all the good German panels for cheap. So, I thought then if I ever wanted to return it to stock it would be no problem, cheap and easy. Well, seven years later it wasn’t so easy. All the prices for original parts were so expensive and all the cheap Brazilian aftermarket panels were junk.
I ended up buying whatever I could find, bent and dented beat up original German steel panels. Because all the panels needed bodywork, it wasn’t just slapping them on and painting it again. And because I had cut so much off the front and rear, I had to buy a front and rear clip from a wrecked Beetle. From the gas tank forward and the rear, taillights down, I put in new sections.
Aside from the chassis, doors, and roof, everything has been replaced. All the metal is authentic German stuff but the rear fenders aren’t ’59 fenders, I think they’re ’60, and one of the front fenders is a ’59 and the other is a ’60 but the only way you can tell is a little wire support tube that goes from the headlight to the body. The hood is a ’59, the front and rear aprons are early model stuff, and the decklid as well.
’58 and ’59 model years were kind of odd, which made sourcing the right parts difficult. They had a lot of ’57 and older ‘oval model’ parts and basically everything changed in ’60, so it’s kind of an in-between year. Obviously, I’m not too worried about originality because it’s already been cut up, but it looks correct. It looks cool and it’s got good German metal so I’m happy with it.
AG: Tell me about the beautiful two-tone blue and grey metallic paint. Is that a factory color combination?
MA: I liked the blue that my dad and I had picked out years ago but I wanted a two-tone scheme so I picked the grey for the sides. It’s pretty subtle, most people do white or black or something more dramatic, but I liked the grey. It’s pretty funny I didn’t do this on purpose, but after it was repainted some guy asked, “Is this Fjord Blue? Is this a ’59, original color?”
Apparently, ’58 and ’59 were the only two years that got metallic colors from the factory. So, I just so happened to pick out paint that was really close to a factory metallic color offered on the ’59 model year. Sort of a happy mistake!
AG: Fooled me. It certainly looks like it could have been a factory combo. What about the engine, I take it it’s not the original? It sounds great, what’s it currently running?
MA: The very first motor I put in it, my dad helped me put together, it was a 1600-cc dual port stock heads, nothing fancy, with Weber two-barrel progressives, a mild cam, and an exhaust. My dad and I rebuilt the transmission and, I’ll never forget, when we were putting it in he said, “I hope this thing goes forward.” I said, “What are you talking about?” He’s all, “If we put the differential in backwards, you get four gears in reverse and one in forward! I didn’t want to tell you because I didn’t want you to worry, but we’ll see.” (laughs) Thankfully, we had done it right.
Anyway, that motor spun a crank bearing. So, we pulled it apart, rebuilt it again, ran it for two or three weeks before a wrist pin clip failed and seized the motor. I still have that piston sitting in my bedroom! (laughs)
After rebuilding it a third time, one of the oil pressure relief valves stuck, and that’s when my dad told me he was too busy to keep helping me rebuild these damn engines. So, I went out and bought a brand new aluminum case, a new crank, and all new bearings, I put that engine together myself and it ran through high school all the way up until about six months ago—which is surprising, because I drove it so damn hard. Because it was so slow, I drove it pedal-to-the-metal all the time.
I wanted a little more power, so I yanked the engine, pulled it all apart, had a machine shop do all the balancing for me, and punched it out to a 1914-cc setup. I had the trans professionally rebuilt, with a 4.11 final drive so it’d be a little better on the highway. Larger valves, high rev springs, dual Weber IDF 40 carburetors, bigger pistons, 11o cams, and exhaust, it’s probably making, I don’t know, 100 horsepower? But it moves pretty good.
AG: Sounds like a lot of mechanical headaches over the years! What were some of the positives? What are some of your favorite memories with the Bug?
MA: I did Baja the hell out of it in high school! (laughs) Here’s a pretty good story: it rained for weeks and weeks in San Diego and that never happens. A friend of mine was like, “Let’s go Baja this thing, it’s a Baja Bug after all, let’s do it!” We went out drove it in the mud and we ended up pretty deep in water. Because there was no carpet it wasn’t a real big deal, but the floor pans were full of water, so I got home and had to drill holes in the pans to get the water out! There are still remnants of where the holes use to be in the floors!
Another time, when we very first got it running, we hadn’t even had it running for a week, me and my dad were beatin’ the hell out of it and we came up over this little jump, caught air, and just barely missed a rock, but the muffler caught the rock and it ripped the entire exhaust off. Exhaustless blaring all loud, my dad says, “Oh! Well, I bought the first header and exhaust so you can buy the next one!” Good times! [laughs]
AG: That’s great, motoring memories at its finest. Hindsight is 20/20, but looking back would you change anything?
MA: It was cool to have that experience, cutting up the Bug with my dad. If I ever got a second Bug, I would hack it up the exact same way we had done this one but I would only do it to a newer one that was a little rougher and less valuable. Hindsight, I would have left it lifted with the original bodywork, and had it painted without cutting anything. I would have left it that way instead up cutting everything up. I liked the way it looked but I never really got to enjoy it after it was all Baja’d and painted because I went off to the military.
AG: You’ve got quite a few cars now, what makes the VW so special to you?
MA: You know it’s got a lot of sentimental value. I’ve had it so long and growing up, it was pretty rough, we didn’t have a lot of money, but it’s one of those things my parents made sure we always held onto. I don’t remember not having the Bug. My earliest memories are of the Volkswagen in the backyard. It was and always has been in my life. I remember playing on it, like, jumping around on the hood and roof, which didn’t help the bodywork! [laughs]
But now, if someone offered way too much for it, I’d really have a hard time giving in. Every time we moved, even after my parents divorced when I was stationed in Korea, they always found a way to keep it. No matter what, they just wouldn’t let it go and I don’t think I’ll ever be able to either.