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Loved Them V-Rods

Loved Them V-Rods
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You can call them dune buggies till the cows come home, but to me a rear engine, flea-weight street rod makes ultimate sense. It was so when they appeared in 1965 and it is more so in 2012.
 
Let me bring you up to speed. If you were reading the hot rod magazines during the weird Sixties, you may recall that I did a lot of articles on off-roading in the sand dunes, and I was getting a lot of education from rodders who were making tons of progress with the VW floor pans/engine combinations. This was before street rodders got old and set in their ways.
 
Still, there is a definite stigma attached to any mechanical contrivance in hot rodding that does not include a V8 engine of humongous displacement and a monstrous exhaust roar. Volks rods have neither. What the lack in brawn, however, they make up with unbridled joy!
 
Some history, dudes.
 
The Volkswagen (People’s Car) was mandated by Adolph Hitler in the 1930’s, and by the time I got to Germany via the US air force in the early 50’s it was a staple of German transportation. It was a brilliant, low-cost, go anywhere basic transportation. As bought through onshore-offshore salesmen, you could get a spanking new one for around 800 bucks. Stateside, the humble little beetle was a hit with the avant garde, but it didn’t take off with car guys at first. Limp little opposed 4 cylinder air cooled nothing engine lucky to get an actual l5 horses to the rear tires. 
 
Until the hot rodders got into the pitch and suddenly there was some serious smoke showing up on southern California freeways. Which coincided with some serious sand dune vehicles, which were all water pumpers until a couple of bare bones VW chassis/engine combos appeared, with big rear tires. We all gawked at the little dingers that first weekend, but by the next sand weekend there were literally hundreds of stripped V-Dubs crawling over the dunes. Hot Rodders know a great thing when they see it! Water pumpers disappeared overnight, and it didn’t take long before the stock floorpan VW’s grew  into spider web tubing frames. 
 
In l963 I built the first of the hot rod concept show rods, named the XR-6, for experimental roadster 6 cylinder. As radical as the thing ended up looking, it was built on a very simple rectangular tubing ladder frame with trailing link coil/shock rearend and a VW front end. It was, and remains one of the most foolproof front suspensions possible. Upper and lower trailing arms connected directly to transverse torsion bars, tube shocks on pressed sheet stock mounts, and cross steering. Very basic, sturdy, and a lot of suspension travel. With a ride quite unknown to many street rods. 
 
A VW preps for the speed test at Bonneville. Photo Courtesy of the 36hp & Big Block VW Challenge Facebook Page. (Thanks Burly Burlile!)
 
Simply put, it is easier to pull a wheel over bumps than to push it. For proof, try pulling a wheelbarrow over the same rough terrain rather than pushing it.
 
Anyway, evolution of the VW sand rails eventuated in fiberglass bodies of the most basic calibre and the famed dune buggy was born. At the same time, the miniscule engine was getting some serious attention from the go-fast crowd. Power was coming on board by the ton, and there were some really interesting, and feasible, engine swaps showing up. The flat four gave way to lightweight aluminium V8s courtesy GM, great power from oddities such as the inline 5 cylinders, even small block Chevys appeared. Of course, it was only a matter of time until the VW transaxle was reversed to provide a mid-engine layout. There was far more hot rodding going on with off-road stuff than mainstream rod building. 
 
It was into this climate that I introduced Tom Medley to a street rodding alternative.
 
For a year or so, I had been following a build by legendary Kent Fuller at his then-current digs in the south San Francisco area. Always an innovater, Fuller was builder of top running dragsters, and he incorporated what he knew about tubing chassis into a street Volksrod. I saw this setting out front of his shop on one of my often visits to NorCal.
 
A couple months later, following an annual steelhead trout fishing trip to the deep river country of extreme northern California, with my best trout hunting buddies Tom Medley, I detoured on our return trip south via the south San Francisco area. I didn’t mention to Tom that I wanted him to see what Fuller was building, and when we pulled up curbside front of Kent’s shop, Medley came un-glued. “What’s that!”, he yelped and was out of our fishingmobile instantly. Over and under the Kent car  went Tom, all the time exclaiming “Damn, about time someone decided to make a street rod of the VW!!” He was even more excited when he discovered it was the work of long-time friend Kent Fuller.
 
That was all it took, and Rod & Custom magazine immediately had a new rod project boiling.
 
At about this same time, the guys at Dragmaster had been coming to the sand dunes to try some sand drags, where they also discovered the exploding VW buggy craze. Then they heard of the street rod Fuller was building, and since Dragmaster already had a thriving business making Model T body/Chevy V8 street roadster kits, they knocked together a Volksrod virtually overnight. 
 
Tom hardly had his Vrod cooling from the maiden run when he packed the little T-Model and headed out cross country to the rod nats. Readers of R&C knew about his T, so it was received with acclamation at the Nationals. That early favourable acceptance was by street rodders more in tune with what I prefer to call “real rodding” than later enthusiasts who are little more than catalog shufflers. 
 
So, taking a long and searching look at the current state of international affairs, especially the cost of fuels, I think it is time we uncover all those old issues of R&C to find out about building a Volksrod. Tom eventually built a full folding top and had some early style T fenders made for his machine. It went everywhere, and it was a maxi-giggle jiggle. Then,  Tom began to lust for another l940 Ford coupe, so the V-rod was passed along to Billy Belmont, he of the Rhode Island speed emporium Belmont’s. Who has that iconic car to this day.
 
I can also report that Kent Fuller still drives his Volksrod, which I think now has a Porsche engine. And a folding top. But no sidecurtains, thank you. Back at the turn of the century, I was working on my Junkyard Dawg roadster out front of my eastern Idaho mountain shop, in a freak snowstorm, when I heard a long forgotten braaak-braaack on the main gravel road up from the state hard surface ribbon. I looked up just in time to see a vaguely familiar form zip behind the neighbor’s horsebarn. In short order, Kent pulled to a stop in front of my car, murmurming “When you gonna bring that down so I can build a new hood for it?” He has been saying that for over 20 years now.
 
“Hey, Fuller, whatcha doin here in the high lonesome?”
 
“Oh, in the neighborhood, so thought I would stop by on my way back to Northern California.”
 
“Where ya been?”
 
“Up in north Idaho.”
 
“You been way up there, and it is way out of your way to come by here. And in a snowstorm, with no side curtains or fenders.”
 
All of which I relate to show you how reliable a good V-rod is. Fuller has put a jillion miles on his car,  which is now way old. A legend, as it (he) should be. And Billy Belmont still irons out the road wrinkles in Medley’s T. 
 
Maybe it is time for everybody to stand back and look at where we already been in street rodding, and maybe it is time to go there again.
 
By the way, I got an e-mail from Burly Burlile from out Utah way recently. You may not know but Burly was one of a very select few real rodders who took to the back highways couple of decades back and followed up on some of my Vintage Tin stories from back-when R&C mags. And, in years recent he started an event called a Cruise-In at the annual Bonneville SpeedWeek, an activity aimed at getting street rodders out of their lawnchairs and on the roads---an activity that immediately led to street rodders discovering the salt flats, and  ultimately to the huge turnout of real hot rodders for the speed fest. Even so, Burly has always been a VW freak-a-zoid, so he couldn’t wait to share with some of us a recent find of his in a junkyard. Yep, a genuine l932 Ford coupe body,  duly modified to fit a VW floorpan and engine. Sort of a V-RatRod…