This Aluminum Artisan Is Perfecting His Craft In Colombia
Photography by Alvaro Pinzón
After a long trip crossing the mountains in Boyacá and sorting out a few of the harsher of the unpaved roads, we made our arrival. In the distance there is a workshop, the half-opened door letting us glimpse some bright, sculpted metal; and when we learned more about the workings of this shop, I could not have been happier to see this kind of craftsmanship out in the countryside of Colombia.
We made a trip to the heart of Boyacá Department (the heart of the agricultural region in Colombia) near Villa de Leyva, which is one of the most touristic little towns in Colombia.
We didn’t come for the typical souvenirs though, this time our mission was to find the work of Juan Badel, an artisan that risked all of his wealth and his previous job to pursue what he loves to do with his hands: create cars.
He’s dedicated his life to sculpting aluminum sheets into bodies and building tubular chassis that use VW Beetle parts from the ‘50s to transform them into fantastic and enjoyable machines that take the styling cues and ethos of the glorious lightweight Glöckler car modified by Walter Glöckler using Porsche’s and VW’s parts.
Walter Glöckler was a renowned Porsche and VW dealer that modified several early Porsches to compete in the different racing championship with a simple and lightweight design. The Glöckler cars were successful, and impressed the racing world of the time by winning several races and championships. Those cars and builders caught the attention of Porsche and led to the development of the Porsche 550.
Now, decades later and across the globe, one metalworker is recreating the beautiful Porsche shape, but there is no fiberglass or plastic to be found.
Alvaro Pinzon: But how did it all start? Why do you decide to step out of your old job to take a risky move knowing that in Colombia this kind of project is difficult to make a living off of?
Juan Badel: It all started in 2011. My old job was at a little publicity agency, filming and shooting for TV commercials and other commercial campaigns, when a friend of mine remembered a few years ago I did an ultralight airplane, so he asked me if I could build a toy car in real size for a TV commercial in 2012: I said yes! We used parts from a VW Beetle to complete that car, and after the filming ended, I asked if I could keep those parts.
Something that I discovered during that process was that I enjoyed building the car more than my actual job filming ads and doing the photography. So after the shooting of the commercial, I wanted to use the engine and remaining pieces of the car for something I wanted to do for a long time: I always wanted to build a car from the ground up, but I don’t want to build the typical buggy or Formula car, so I became crazily submerged in the first big project that I used all my savings and time in building. That was a tubular frame to start, and then I researched and found the 550 background history: the Glöckler-Porsche automotive dealer that built several unique cars using technical components from VW and Porsche. But by that time all my clients in the photography and film studio faded, so it started to be a difficult time because by then I hadn’t much savings left!
AP: Seems like a critical juncture. What’d you do? All in or fall back to safety?
JB: It was too late to come back to my old job and anyways I was “all in” in the car project by then, so after my wife insisted and gave me words of encouragement, I started to do the wood mold to form the aluminum body.
I had no background in metal forming or welding really, and never worked for a workshop so in the beginning it was an “empirical apprenticeship;” a lot of research and study on my own. It all lasted a year being full-time dedicated to this project, and then I ended up with my first prototype and no money! It was a bittersweet feeling.
AP: How did you try to monetize?
JB: I immediately started to find ways of convert this passion into a job for a living of course, so I searched for ideas, I tried everything, but in Colombia there was no market for what I was doing. It wasn’t until my last breath and the light at the end of the figurative tunnel appeared that a man in the United States found my car and he liked the work I’d done with the car, and he ended buying a total of three cars!
AP: How did this recognition change the way you worked? Did it?
JB: That was finally my reward from all this adventure, and with the money I earned I bought a few more tools and established this little workshop. Also after that I moved from the little garage I had in Bogotá to the countryside near Villa de Leyva, where I could work with more space and I could concentrate more in peace than the stressful city. And also it is better for my wife who works with ceramic; she also needs a bigger space for her own artistic endeavor. And of course for my little children to grow here, free of the city’s contaminated air.
AP: That’s certainly an inspiring story, and I’m happy that you stuck it out. So now that you’re becoming more practiced, what is your creative process like?
JB: Well for the design of the cars, they aren’t the exact shape of the Glöckler cars or Porsche’s 550. I did “reimagine,” or whatever word you prefer, some of the details but always while maintaining the ethos of the original car and maintaining the same language design. Also inspiring the original cars that were built around the idea of minimum weight and simple but effective approach to design—it is what I want for my cars, and what I liked the most of the Glöckler and Porsche early models.
As for the work, I do the entire process in-house all with basic tools and a few machines for metal forming, trying to maintain the process of building more or less equal to the technology available to them in the ‘50s.
AP: So aside from the artistry of the bodies, what’s going on underneath the aluminum?
JB: For power I am using rebuilt engines from VW Beetles—only from the ‘50s and early ‘60s— and a few suspension parts from those cars, also we built a reinforced tubular frame for the entire car, for everything to connect to.
AP: How long it take to build one car?
JB: From start to finish, about three to four months.
AP: And how many have you sold?
JB: Well I would say about eight cars as of now.
AP: Where do they go usually?
JB: Interestingly, none of the eight cars were bought in Colombia. Here it is a hard market for projects like this, and in keeping with that, the majority of my builds were exported overseas to the United States or to Europe, and just recently an owner sent me the photo with the car’s new UK plates attached!
AP: That’s wonderful, and certainly it’s a rewarding thing to see your own car admired in another country.
JB: Of course!
AP: Well thank you, Juan, for letting me inside your workshop and sharing with me your impressive metal sculpting; tackling those difficult shapes with a difficult material and making your way with something that only a few in Colombia would risk everything for, that’s seriously impressive.