Driving a 1969 VW Baja Beetle Reignited the Light of Hope

The last two years have made it easy to give up on the things you want. Don’t.

byJames Gilboy| PUBLISHED Feb 16, 2022 11:00 AM
Driving a 1969 VW Baja Beetle Reignited the Light of Hope
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Everybody imagined the 2020s starting off a bit differently. I, fresh off my first round of ketamine therapy, was ready to build a new me for this new decade from new insight on what I wanted out of life and the ambition to realize it. Both, though, would be worn down by 16 interminable months of going nowhere, seeing no one, eating holiday meals alone, and killing time I'd have rather spent un-fucking my life. As it did for so many, enduring required culling my desires, and not letting any new ones take root in their places. I learned to stop wanting things because the alternative had become unbearable.

My anhedonia, though, would be disrupted by the discovery of Volkswagen Baja Beetle racing. The sight of dozens of Beetles scrambling over the dunes was too delightful to not feel some urge to take part in it—or at least, get behind the wheel of one. Like so many others felt over the last year, that desire had to be quashed so as not to bring misery during a time when most of us couldn't guess whether it'd be safe to go out in public again any time soon. Mentally, I filed the feeling away as one to explore years from now, if ever.

But I'd be called to retrieve it when Volkswagen extended the offer to drive its off-road, race-prepped ID.4s, which would be accompanied by one of their forefathers: A 1969 VW Beetle built to race SCORE Class 11, the quintessential Baja Bug category.

1969 VW "Baja" Beetle in Johnson Valley, California, James Gilboy
1969 VW "Baja" Beetle in Johnson Valley, California, James Gilboy

1969 Volkswagen Beetle #1107B Specs

  • Powertrain: 1600cc air-cooled flat-four | 4-speed manual | rear-wheel drive
  • Horsepower: 72 to 76 (est.)
  • Weight: 2,150 pounds (fueled)
  • 0-60 mph: I don't have time for that.
  • Ground clearance: 14 inches front, 13.75 inches rear
  • Quick take: A Baja Beetle becomes a lifelong friend the second you sit in it.

The Baja Bug

SCORE Class 11 is a near-stock class—requiring basic safety equipment and allowing little in the way of performance upgrades. Upgrading from the Beetle's four-wheel drum brakes, for example, isn't allowed, but hiking up the suspension is; hence, this one rides on prototype Bilstein Ensenada race suspension and 15-inch wheels, giving it almost 14 inches of ground clearance front and rear. That's about an inch more than a 2022 Jeep Wrangler has, and with a shorter wheelbase to boot, increasing its breakover angle.

One of VW's 1.6-liter, air-cooled flat-fours powers the Bug, albeit with an increased compression ratio. So despite 110-octane race gas, it only guarantees about 75 horsepower. Even though it only has to lug around 2,150 pounds of car, it and a four-speed manual transmission permit a top speed of 75 mph, which VW says it'll only achieve going downhill with a tailwind. This is a race car by only the barest of definitions. But as Henry David Thoreau said, "It is life near the bone where it is sweetest," this barebones Beetle might have been the most fun I've had behind the wheel of anything, ever.

Uncouth? That's the Point

"Unsophisticated" is already a fair description of a '69 Beetle, and gutting one to take it racing only exaggerates that trait. Its giant steering wheel acted on the slow, manual steering rack without much precision, causing my gloved hands to clumsily skip over its thin, ridged circumference as I dodged shrubs in a dry lake bed. Wrenching at the wheel hard enough would send its heavy rear end into a skid—not with the frightening snap of many higher-performing, tail-heavy cars, but with a more gradual pivot on the nose that can be caught with hurried countersteer.

Held with the throttle pinned open, the differential struggled with what little power there is. Matted to the floorboard, the gas pedal did little to spur the Beetle along, its low-tech, naturally aspirated flat-four giddying up in no gear, not even first. I dutifully heeded a red line drawn across the tachometer at about 4,000 rpm—I imagine VW wouldn't want its driver burning out an engine halfway through a 1,000-mile race across Mexico, much less a schmuck like me doing the same on a much shorter rallycross course. Or maybe air-cooled VWs are just slow.

Of course, the slow climb through each gear gave me plenty of time to observe how much the engine sounded like a generator and to plan out my shifts, which always began with working out which gear I was in. The shifter itself offered few clues, wiggling around like it was in neutral even while in gear. Even so, finding the gear I needed wasn't tricky unless I had to downshift, which was a graceless affair every time, made more so by the lazy throttle. The clutch wasn't fussy, though, and because the steering was so light, it wasn't physically demanding to drive.

Between these, a surprisingly comfortable seat, and soft suspension that felt like it could shrug off any idiocy I imposed on it, it's not hard to see how someone could cover 1,000 miles in one of these, even with dust drifting in through the glassless window the whole way. Time flies when you're having fun though, and short of maybe a drift trike, nothing is as fun as a Baja Beetle at such low speed.

I wish I could say ticking a box I'd previously struck from my bucket list was a pivotal moment for my mental health. That it was an experience I seamlessly integrated into my outlook on life during the hours of blowing dust out of my nose that followed. But it wasn't—I can't anchor my happiness to a single pleasant memory or use an opportunity that fell out of the sky to motivate myself to chase distant, if realizable dreams.

But I can use it as a reminder that while the tides have been against us for the last two years, they sometimes can turn our way, and wash us straight to where we've been too disheartened to row. We can't be afraid to want things, lest we see the effort put toward attaining them as fruitless, even when the seas are too choppy to tell if we're making progress. There are always undercurrents affecting our course that we can't perceive—the only thing we can do is row, knowing that we will only regret not doing so.

Of course, the personal significance I derived from driving a Baja Beetle doesn't touch on what would make this machine special to anyone else—which I'm certain it would be. It's exactly what you expect: an unassuming, early mid-century economy car ruggedized to cross the open desert as quickly as possible. Rudimentary by design, it makes operation a tactile yet untaxing experience that'll drag you grinning like an idiot out from any dark cloud. A Baja Beetle is a minimalist expression of a race car—a machine that exists to be driven as our lives are for living—and therefore a pure one.

A Baja Beetle is your friend, even if you haven't met it yet. And by god, I hope you find a way to introduce yourself soon.

1969 VW "Baja" Beetle in Johnson Valley, California, James Gilboy

Got a tip or question for the author? You can reach them here: james@thedrive.com