The Original Baja Bug built by Gary and Neil Emory
Click on the VW & Porsche cover shot to veiw the magazine.
The Original Baja Bug
Baja bugs, and their copies, are a common
sight anywhere off-roaders or desert racers congregate today. But it hasn’t
always been that way.
In 1967, Gary Emory wanted to build a Meyers
Manx dune buggy, but couldn’t raise the money for the kit. Gary was assistant parts manager at Chick
Iverson Volkswagen in Newport Beach,
California at the time, so he had
access to parts and information to build such a car, but he also had a wife and
two young daughters, so the initial cash outlay was out of the question.
To surmount the problem, Emory traded an 80cc
Suzuki for a clapped-out 1957 sunroof Beetle and built his own buggy to his own
design. He had first class help on his project because his father, Neil was
body shop manager and his brother, Don, was in charge of the paint shop-both,
also at Iverson’s.
The 57’ Beetle was completely stripped and
cleaned down to bare metal. The interior was left gutted, and the windows and
raising mechanism were all removed. Ted’s Aircraft Interiors in Santa Ana upholstered the
sock seats with black vinyl and built vinyl side curtains that snapped onto the
doors to cover the areas left open when the windows were removed. This saved
some weight, and allows open-air driving if desired.
Meanwhile, father Neil (old time hot rod and
custom car nuts will remember Neil as the co-owner of Valley custom in Burbank, California
where some of the best custom cars of all time were built in the 1950s) was
working on the fenders, hood and rear lid.
The front was chopped off short, and the
fenders trimmed to match. Top speed was not a part of the scheme, and gasoline
was 30 cents a gallon, so aerodynamics was not considered in planning the front
of the Beetle buggy. What was considered was light weight, minimal overhang,
and enough metal left to keep flying dirt off the car itself.
After bobbing the front and rear ends (the
running boards were to be left off), two front fenders were reworked to become
rear fenders. A right front was used on the left rear, and a left front on the
right rear. This gave a wider fender to clear the big tires that Gary wanted to install
and also allowed a better styling match between front and rear fenders.
The bead that appears on the outer edges of
all four fenders was fabricated by taking two pieces of 5/32-inch wire which were
welded to the fender edge and ground to give a finished surface. A slight bit
of body lead was used to smooth everything out. Aside from the aesthetic value,
the wire added both strength and stiffness to the fenders.
Because the car was to be used for family
outings in the desert, complete reliability was one of the top considerations.
The engine was stock but consisted of a 1500 case with 1600 barrels and
pistons. A single-port heads. The main alterations to be seen are the headers
and upswept exhaust.
Added ground clearance was obtained by
cutting the front torsion bar mounts and rotating them so the trailing arms
hang down at an angle rather than straight back. At the rear, the simple
expediency of installing a 1967 transporter transmission and axle assembly
withy its outboard reduction gears did the trick. The Gated XT Commando
tires-7.35-15 front, 10-15 rear – are mounted on Ansen Sprint alloy wheels
(these are actually the first set of wheels of this series to come from Ansen’s
After Gary and Neil had done their work,
brother Don painted it chrome yellow. A tribute to his ability is knowing that
the car still carries the original paint on the body and only the four fenders
have been repainted.
When the car was finished, it attracted for
more attention than any of the Emory’s had expected. Doyle Dane-Bernbach used
it in a Volkswagen ad titled: “What have they done to our car”? The ad appeared
in Time, Life, and on outdoor billboards.
Since 1967, the car has had two engines, a
different front end, and acquired a new exhaust system. It has also acquired a
new owner. Not long after the car was finished, Gary’s eight-year-old daughter Shelly told
daddy she wanted that car. Gary
said okay, when you’re old enough you can have it.
Well…Shelly acquired a husband and a son of
her own, and recently reminded dad that he had promised her the car. So said,
so done. Rick and Shelly Lugo are the new owners of the original Baja Beetle
Gary has gone on to operate Porsche Parts
Obsolete in Costa Mesa, California, and brother Don and father Neil have a shop
in Fallbrook, California called Emory’s which does custom bodywork and
painting-specializing in Porsches.