Featured: How To: Turn A Manthey-Racing Porsche 911 Into A Racing Homage To Herbie The Love Bug

How To: Turn A Manthey-Racing Porsche 911 Into A Racing Homage To Herbie The Love Bug

By Robb Pritchard
May 1, 2020

Photography by Robb Pritchard and Olivier Defeche c/o Pascal Witmeur

If you watched last year’s 24 Hours of Spa, you likely remember Kévin Estre’s amazing performance, driving the Gulf-liveried GPX Racing Porsche RSR to a deserved victory in a seriously hard, weather-changing race. But where did the next Porsche finish? History has a habit of recalling only the winners… unless, of course, you do something very special. Dressing up a Manthey-Racing 911 race car to look like a classic Beetle certainly qualifies, and as project manager Pascal Witmeur told me, it wasn’t just a daft idea for a laugh—there is a real story behind this lovely mash-up of race car and Love Bug.

I didn’t know it until I met Pascal, but it turns out that I’m familiar with some of his previous work. As a young lad at the 1995 24 Hours of Spa, I smiled when I saw the rather out of place Peugeot 806 MPV (read: minivan) racing against the works BMWs, Opels, and Audi touring cars. Qualifying in 12th place, it was actually a pretty serious competitor and although it retired, I still remember it to this day.

It seems Pascal has a history of taking the more fun route in racing, and it should be no surprise that he is also one of the founders of the wonderfully popular VW Fun Cup, wherein tube-framed Beetle-bodied racers are run by weekend privateers. In other words, Pascal is no stranger to turning unusual ideas into reality. Added to that, he is also a very competent driver himself, and over a 40-year career he raced in F2, F3, and entered Le Mans eight times, including in Group C machinery.

He’s more well-known at his local circuit—Spa-Francorchamps—however, where he has competed in the 24-hour race a grand total of 28 times, mostly in BMWs. With a best finish of 2nd in 1999, his favorite memory is with the Peugeot 806, which is the first time he experienced people really cheering for the car… an experience he would get to relive in this Herbie project. So, far from being just the crazy idea it might seem from an initial impression, Pascal knew exactly what he was doing in the case of this unique Porsche.

The first plan wasn’t the GT race at Spa in a 911 though, it was actually a lot more ambitious. To celebrate the half century since the first Herbie film came out, someone approached Pascal with the idea of racing an LMP3 car with a Beetle-style bonnet on the front at Le Mans. The members of the Automobile Club de l’Ouest (A.C.O), the race’s organizing body, aren’t known for their sense of humor however, and they rejected it with the gruff rebuttal about not being in show business. And so it never got further than the amazing rendering… Until Eric van de Poele, an old friend of Pascal’s and the winningest driver at the 24 Hours of Spa, mentioned the idea to Stéphane Ratel.

Ratel, a GT racing legend and Spa 24 organizer, was much more open to such a plan, not the least bit because of the publicity attached. There was just a couple of little issues though. The LMP3 financier wasn’t interested in competing at Spa, and the race was just two months away. But you don’t race successfully for forty years without making some friends in the industry, and Michel Deman, a Brussels-based purveyor of fine cars, stepped up to help bring the project to fruition.

The 24 Hours of Spa is the lodestone for the world’s top GT racing teams, but a 911 in GT3 spec (not the model, 911 GT3, but a 911 built to compete under GT3 regulations) was still a little over budget, by about €150,000, so the base car they chose instead was a Manthey-Racing GT Cup MR. No match for a full GT3-spec car, of course, but developed for the very popular VLN series at the Nürburgring, it was a good compromise.

Bought secondhand but with only a handful of kilometers on the clock, at €300,000 it was a full €150,000 less than the GT3-spec—a real bargain, relatively speaking. Mechanically ready to race, it was only the body that needed work, but trying to find someone that could make a Herbie out of a modern 911 won’t bring up too many results on Google… Which is where Pascal’s skill at bringing people to the table to do things they never imagined doing before came to the fore.

Olivier Defêche’s day job at the time was designing bodywork for Toyota’s LMP1 cars. He had seen the Herbie LMP3 rendering that started this project, but knew that the concept could be taken much further on a 911 shape than on a prototype LMP car. And so when Pascal asked him to do just that,  he couldn’t refuse the chance to challenge himself to see what could be possible in race car design. “A Beetle, even after all these years, and Porsche’s evolutions, still share some common lines. But it was actually much more of a challenge than any LMP1 project,” he said with a shrug.

With a combination of pen and paper, a top-class CAD program, and a serious lack of sleep, he worked out the design to make the Herbie GT a reality. The job was made a little easier thanks to the photogrammetry process he was developing, which takes highly detailed scans that are then transferred directly to the CAD program. Even so, it still took over a month of near constant work to get the design right.

Using the same mounting points as the Manthey-Racing MR, the bodykit was another important design brief but also the incredibly short time scale from crazy idea to crazy race car became a bit of an issue, such that not everything Olivier wanted to have on the car made it to the final version. Redesigning the front headlights to be more rounded is one part that will be changed for the future, but for the car’s inaugural race last year, he simply used some vinyl sheets to make the lights look less elongated (similar to how people sometimes recover the 996 headlights to look like the 997’s). The same was done with black above the doors, in order to lend the side profile the appearance of higher, Beetle-like doors.

For the moulds, he knew a company called Design Stone who had a CNC machine taller than a basketball hoop, which is normally used to cut blocks of stone for the Belgium Heritage Trust to restore castles. Carat Duchatelet, who usually make limousines and armored cars, provided the tooling and made the whole carbon fiber kit, and also put the finishing touches to the mounted panels… Far from just a few friends cobbling some fiberglass panels together, the work was completed at a cost of some €200,000.

And by the time the car was ready for the first shakedown, she also had a name. “In the UK, Herbie is a boy,” Pascal explains. “But in France and Italy, she’s a girl, so we called her Juliet.” Pascal, well aware of the interest the car was going to generate, wanted to do all he could for maximum exposure and getting well-known drivers on the team would have been a big help with that. To give the car its first run he called up his godson, a certain Maxime Martin. Aston Martin gave him special dispensation for driving out of his WEC contract, but a slight issue with a tire rubbing curtailed the test run. But that was nothing compared to the problem that was about to occur…

For the race, Pascal also wanted an interesting team behind the wheel. He had a contact with Josh Hill, 1996 Formula 1 world champion Damon Hill’s son, who was interested in racing something unusual and also invited his friend Freddie Hunt, James Hunt’s son. Taking this to its logical conclusion, Pascal decided that having four sons of F1 champions driving would give the project an even higher profile, and so Mathias Lauda and Marco Andretti agreed to join the roster as well.

But Hill, the first on board the project, was unfortunately the first out of it, when he fell ill just a couple of days before the race. With Hill not able to be part of the team, Hunt decided that he wasn’t interested in driving without his friend, and so with qualifying about to start, Pascal was faced with a bit of a conundrum.

The day was saved by the project financier Michel Deman’s son Loic, who despite not racing for a couple of years, definitely knows what he’s doing behind the wheel. The Porsche-Beetle, Juliet, was a little different than his usual Tyrrell, which he races with much success in the Historic Formula 1 championship, but if you can manage to race a 1970s F1 car around the streets of Monaco, I’d imagine a GT car to be a step down in terms of challenge. Another old friend, former teammate and fellow Spa stalwart Marc Duez got coaxed out of retirement, despite, as Pascal explains, him protesting that he was too fat and old.

Another high-profile driver to say yes at just a couple of days notice was Frisian driver Angélique Detavernier, who had recently taken a podium in the GT4 European Championship. And filling out the rest of the last-minute lineup was another friend of Pascal’s, Stéphane Lémeret, who despite being firstly a journalist, is also a very competent driver.

And so the biggest and most prestigious GT race in the world had an extra entrant that brought a whole new dimension to the event, a quarter of a century after Pascal had raced the Peugeot 806 MPV. A massive grid of 73 cars was entered, and being 40bhp less powerful and 200kg (~440lbs) heavier than a full-blooded GT3 car, Juliet was expected to be following the tail of the field around. But put a competent driver behind the wheel of a Manthey-Racing-prepared Porsche, and with a racer’s instinct he (or she, in Angelique’s case) will try their best to turn fast laps.

Although a full 6 seconds off the pole time, Deman qualified Juliet in 69th, which as Pascal proudly points out, wasn’t last place. He does admit that this is more of an indication of how good a driver Deman is than the capability of the car though. But despite the added weight of the bodykit, and its obviously unorthodox shape, Juliet is somehow faster down the straights than a standard 911 MR. “I can’t explain that,” Pascal says. “Some strange interaction of the body panels making good aero… Or maybe it is the spirit of Herbie helping.”

For the first few hours of the race, Deman had a real battle with the tail end of the field, and made some good overtakes, much to the apparent chagrin of those he passed, but the car really came into its own when the rain began to fall. With the lack of power less evident and with the Manthey-Racing-developed ABS doing its job in the wet, Deman was able to properly race. “When we passed other cars, the drivers weren’t so happy as of course they looked a bit stupid,” Pascal said unapologetically.

On the other hand, Duez drove an evening stint and came away from the experience a bit surprised by just how much the people who weren’t being passed by it loved the car. “There were people, adults and journalists, actually talking to the car,” he smiles, bemused. “I never saw that before!”

Juliet was more of a visual exercise than a true race for position, so on a treacherously wet track with the top works and semi-professional teams taking every lap as a sprint race, it was pointless to get mixed up in such ferocious battles, and so she was wheeled into the pits. This caused some concern from a lot of spectators, so Pascal explained that Juliet didn’t like the noise of the big V8 Bentleys when they came up behind her. She also almost got her nose chopped off by a Ferrari, so she was going to sulk in her room for a few hours… “And at night when we put her away, some reporters came to ask what was wrong, so I told them that Juliet is afraid of the dark.”

Due to the severity of the weather, the race was paused for most of the night, but when the cars were led out again the next morning, Juliet was greeted with cheers from all around the circuit. “It was incredible,” Pascal says. “I knew it would be a fun thing to do, but I never imagined the reaction she would get!” We hope to see more of her whenever life and motorsport get back on schedule.

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