In 1968, with the students of the world rising up in protest, the cinema had a particularly good year, with three films all grossing more than $50 million at the US box office. You might think that Steve McQueen’s celebrated “Bullitt” would have been one of them, but it wasn’t. It pulled in only $42 million, although it turned the Ford Mustang into a legend. There was the amusing “The Odd Couple”, starring Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau, but that managed only $44 million.
Topping the list was Stanley Kubrick’s grandiose science fiction epic “2001: A Space Odyssey”, which grossed nearly $57 million. It was chased by William Wyler’s romantic musical “Funny Girl”, starring Barbra Streisand and the super-smooth Omar Sharif, which grossed $52 million, just $800,000 more than Walt Disney’s “The Love Bug”, starring a Volkswagen Beetle called Herbie.
That summer everyone loved the Volkswagen Beetle. No-one cared that it had started out as Adolf Hitler’s Volkswagen – literally the car for the people. Few knew, nor cared that it had been designed by Ferdinand Porsche. In the 1950s it gradually took over the world and became known affectionately as The Beetle, or The Bug. It was the Beetle in English-speaking countries, the Coccinelle in French, the Käfer in German, the Escarabajo in Spanish… and so on. In total, more than 21 million Beetles were manufactured, making it the most produced car in the world until the Toyota Corolla came along.
Down in Brazil the VW was known as the Fusca. The first Beetles appeared in Brazil in 1950 but by the time the production ended more than three million VW Beetles had been manufactured in the country. One of them was just a little bit special.
To start with it was owned by Emerson Fittipaldi. In 1969 he was 22 years old and that year had gone off to Britain to become a motor racing star. He spoke no English at the start but had the money to buy a Merlyn Formula Ford car. He could not afford to crash it. He put the car on pole for his first race, which took place in Zandvoort. Then, very quickly, the wins started to come and by July he was in a Lotus Formula 3 car- and winning. By September Frank Williams had offered him an F1 drive. Then Colin Chapman of Team Lotus. Emerson did not think he was ready and declined both offers. His last race in Britain that year was at Thruxton in mid-November and then he headed home to Brazil for the winter.
His next race would be the 1000km Guanabara race in Rio de Janeiro, an important local sports car race at the time, scheduled for December 13. Emerson and his brother Wilson had been working on the construction of an Alfa Romeo-engined prototype for the big race, in league with their chief engineer Ricardo Divila. The problem was that the whole project was behind schedule because of a delay in the casting of the front uprights. The opposition was busy importing the latest new machinery: including a Lola T70, a Ford GT40, and an Alfa Rome T33.
Things had reached a critical point when Divila, passing through Congonhas airport in Sao Paulo, picked up a copy of Hot Rod magazine from the United States and read about the latest twin-engined machinery on the West Coast. It struck him that if he could build a very light car with twin engines, the result might be competitive with the big sports cars, which had a great deal more power but were also a lot heavier. Divila got out his slide rule and did the numbers. They worked. He discussed the idea with other team members at the Churrascaria Interlagos, and the first sketches were made on the paper napkins. Soon afterwards they set to work in the team’s workshop, opposite the gates of Interlagos.
Deusdedith José de Sena cut the rear end off the standard VW Beetle chassis, just behind the driver’s seat. The back end was replaced with a tubular frame, over which a lightweight fibreglass rear bodywork was fitted. This was built by a company called Glaspac, in nearby Santa Amaro, run by Donald Pacey and Gerry Cunningham, two Brazilians descended from British immigrants who had discovered the potential of fibreglass while working in the UK. They had begun to produce car bodies for racing cars and then manufactured kits for beach buggies, based on the Beetle. These were all the rage in California.
The Beetle front suspension and steering were retained, but Porsche drum brakes were fitted. Engine man Darci de Medeiros acquired a second standard 1600cc VW Beetle engine. The two units were stretched to 2.2-litres and were mounted one in front of the other in the chassis to create what was, in effect, an eight cylinder engine. Cooling was a problem, but Divila angled the windscreen backwards creating a gap between the top of the windscreen and the roof, which acted as an air-scoop, and channelled air through a false ceiling to flexible hoses that fed the air into the engine bay, while the 100-litre ethanol fuel tank was shaped to form the driver’s seat! The entire device weighed only 400kg, but the two engines combined to produce 410 horsepower (despite a few blow-ups), giving the car a great power-to-weight ratio.
The Beetle was ready and tested before the 1000km race. Carlos Pace qualified fastest, setting a 1m30.9s in a new Alfa Romeo T33, the Fittipaldi Beetle, driven by Wilson Fittipaldi, set a 1m36.3s – the second fastest lap, ahead of a Porsche special, a Lola T70 and a Ford GT40.
Emerson started the race and was third at the end of the first lap but he then moved back to second after five laps and was easily able to hold off the Lola and the GT40. After about half an hour, however, the gearbox failed…
The car in its twin-engined form raced once more, with Wilson Fittipaldi driving. Volkswagen contacted the Fittipaldis and asked it they might send over some engineers to take a look at the car, as they were struggling to understand how a Beetle could stay ahead of a Lola-Chevrolet T70. Eight engineers arrived to examine the machine, but went away still scratching their heads. The front engine was later removed and the car raced in single-engine format before it was sold to Adu Celso, who also raced it before it disappeared into the mists of time…