Probably the most famous, and certainly the most travelled, Volkswagen Beetle in Canada is about to set off on a new adventure.
This 1955 VW, with three around-the-world trips on its odometer, is heading to the Bonneville Salt Flats to attempt to join the 100 MPH Club in the 36 Horsepower Challenge.
Let’s back up the story a bit. In 1951, a German teenager, who had survived the war in Leipzig, escaped the Russian occupation and emigrated to Canada. An older brother had been killed in the war, a sister disappeared to a Russian prison camp and an uncle had been exiled to Siberia.
Wolfgang Paul Loofs signed up for a job as a miner and made his way alone to Trail, B.C. He worked his way up to laboratory work and, by 1957, had Canadian citizenship and owned a used 1955 Volkswagen. He learned that his surviving brother was joining a film crew at Tierra del Fuego and confidently decided to drive there alone, not worrying about the fact that roads of any condition would not exist along much of the route and that ferries or freighters would have to be relied on.
Tierra del Fuego, of course, is the archipelago off the southernmost tip of the South American mainland along the Strait of Magellan and is divided between Argentina and Chile. It turned out to be an unbelievably difficult journey of 196 days, 42,000 kilometres overland and 19,000 by sea – Loofs decided to return via Europe in order to visit family. Having no money for hotels or other comforts, he removed the passenger and back seats in the car to make space for a cot, spare gasoline cans and a small cooking stove.
The Bug was his home as it would be on three “round-the-world” trips – each one to meet his brother on the other side of the world. Loofs described his driving adventures in a self-published book that is one of the most amazing travel books I’ve ever read. (At Home in Three Worlds; Wolfgang Paul Loofs).
Trip two was across Africa and Australia (almost entirely unpaved) beginning in 1961. Trip three was Asia and Europe beginning in 1966. Loof’s fearlessness as well as his capacity for enduring hardship and poverty on these endless, solitary road trips (or should I say road-less trips?) is amazing. All while travelling and living aboard the same 36-horsepower, 1955 Bug.
On his return, he sold the much-written-about car to Volkswagen Canada, which used it in some ads and various car show displays for a few years. It was sold to a new owner in 1973, who had it until 2010, and finally to Emmanuel Thuillier, a general contractor who lives in Rosseau, Ont.
Thuillier has been upgrading the car with friend Tony Hawkrigg, a retired mechanic in Rosseau, in preparation for Bonneville Speed Week, Sept. 7-11, and the 36 Horsepower Challenge. The idea is to hit as high a speed as possible from a standing start over a course of one mile with a 36-hp VW engine case. Thuillier and friends believe their upgrades will boost the engine’s output to a mighty 50 to 55 hp and 5,000 rpms, which should equal 100 mph or better.
I have visited Speed Week on Utah’s Bonneville Salt Flats – it’s known as the best mechanical circus on wheels. Pros and amateurs from around the world compete for land speed records in different vehicle classes. There’s no shade or seating, you can fry in the heat and the colours in humidity-free air on packed white sand challenge your eyeballs.
People have been souping up ancient Volkswagens for years (VW’s 36-hp engines went out of production around 1960) and a rare few have topped the 100-mph mark. Thuillier wants to join them and is paying for the effort out of his own pocket while at the same time trying to raise money for the Hospital for Sick Children. He’s hoping to raise 40 grand (firstname.lastname@example.org); Bonneville 4 Sick Kids is the Facebook page.
Before heading off to Bonneville, Thuillier will make a side trip in the old VeeDub to Ottawa to meet Wolfgang Paul Loofs. Loofs is 84 now and hasn’t seen his former car in 43 years. It should prove to be an interesting reunion. Maybe he can be persuaded to go to Bonneville to see his car attempt another amazing feat.