Full disclosure: This part happened over three years ago, but the process is ongoing. And I’m aware I’m not much of a writer, so apologies for that.

After several years of sailboat ownership, and realizing that I enjoyed working on it as much as (if not more) than actually sailing it, it was time to sell the boat and find another project. Monthly storage fees and a long drive convinced me that I need something that would fit in the garage and cost a minimum to own (if not maintain). Enter the Baja bug. Never mind that I knew little to nothing about VW Beetles, and even less about Baja bugs. I was inspired.

I sold the boat, and immediately drove an hour north to look at a bug I found on Craigslist. For the price, it had a lot of things I wanted, and a lot of things I figured I could easily change. It would fit in the garage, close to the tools and the beer, so I could enjoy a cold one or two while wrenching, and not have to drive afterward. Win-win!

The good:

It had a decent roll cage, 1776 motor with dual carbs, wide five hubs, tapered body lift, rear disc brakes, suspension seats and real bead lockers. Long ago someone had taken the effort to build a desert-worthy car, and put some pride into the work. It may even have been raced at some point. After that, someone else got their hands on it, and took it in a whole new direction.

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The bad:

Wrong front wheels (Chevy five lug adapters?), crap suspension components, lots of things welded to the car that were unnecessary (including to the roll cage), and with the tailpiece and the paint it looked like a bumble bee at a masquerade party.

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The first thing was to head to the Automotive Bookstore and buy Jeff Hibbard’s guide to building a Baja bug. Read it front to back multiple times.

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Head to the garage and figure out where to start. Best place? Remove everything I didn’t want or need. My intention was to build a play car that mimics a Class 5/1600 baja. Grab the sawz-all and grinder and start cutting.

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First, the winches. The front had to be cut off in the parking lot when I bought the car, because it impeded the tow bar. The rear winch disappeared once I got it home. Also, the piston which the PO had welded to the engine cage. My only guess was it was his version of truck nutz…

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Next, the car went up on jacks just to check things out. The first thing I found was an oil level that was twice the amount required, with a nice creamy consistency thanks to at least a pint of water. Someone didn’t bother to cover the stinger exhaust during the rainy season…After two oil changes with a warm-up in between, on to investigate the rest of the car.

Grab the front wheels at six and 12 O’clock, and give them a shake. I find at least a half inch of play. Toasted bearings? Not exactly. Barely finger tight bearings is more like it. I thanked my lucky stars I didn’t throw a wheel on the tow home, and wonder what other surprises the PO had left for me. Tighten them up and things are feeling a lot better. I drive the car around the block a few times, getting used to the extremely sloppy shifting (“H pattern? What H pattern?”) and stiff steering. The car needs a good tune, but it runs fair and stops well.

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The car is now starting to look more like my vision…time to see what I can do to get it to perform. For me, step one is the suspension. For an off-road vehicle this makes all the difference in the world. I can go faster through bumps with twelve horsepower and decent suspension than I can with 150 horsepower and no suspension. This seems the logical place to start.

The PO had thrown some crap EMPI “coil-over” shocks onto the rear of the car to give it some lift, rather than utilizing the proper method of adjusting torsion bars. Nothing had been done to the front. I had done some reading about suspension tuning, and learned that it involved no real initial cost, but was quite labor intensive. Re-indexing torsion bars is a lot of work, and dangerous if you don’t know what you are doing. They are under a LOT of load, and can easily shatter bone if released too quickly.

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It took me two days and three tries to get it right, but I finally got the ride height where I wanted it. Using a degree gauge is helpful for this process (to set the preload before re-assembly), but old torsion bars have a way of settling after a short while, so it was trial and error.

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I moved the crap coil-overs to the front for some temporary lift until I figured out how to proceed.

Time for the first parts purchase for this car. I picked up some new Bilstein shocks for the rear to fit the existing mounts after indexing. I also added a muffler, both to keep the rainwater out and appease the neighbors.

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I wanted to replace the crappy 13” wheels in the front (partly because I couldn’t find large enough off-road tires to fit 13” wheels), so I had some 15” Centerline style wheels laced up by Saco.

At the last second I also bought a light bar, because nothing says legit Baja bug like a $30 light bar.

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Finally, a rattle can paint job. I opted for matte black, because it could be touched up without needing blending. Add a few decals for that Class 5 look, and we are looking a lot better.

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Phase one complete!