Recycled Hawtness: Paul Newman's Mid-engine Indy V8-powered VW Beetle

Jo Borras
by Jo Borras
recycled hawtness paul newman s mid engine indy v8 powered vw beetle

Welcome‘s Jo Borras to our HIGHLY EXCLUSIVE AND UPSCALE circle of TTAC contributors. Jo’s brought us a piece on a “recycled” VW Beetle. Check it out and give his site a click, too! — JB

We’ve often said that the greenest car is the one that’s already built, and we’ve featured several repurposed cars, bikes, and even campers here on Gas 2 that loudly proclaim “You don’t need a new car!” and, hopefully, inspire you to put more love and more elbow grease into your existing car and – if you do it right – end up with something that’s worth more than the sum of its parts.

Which brings me to this car. The original “Godzilla”. The OG, as it were. Newman’s own Ford racing V8-powered Volkswagen Bug, and it may be the first car to be nicknamed “Godzilla” by the automotive press way back in the 1960s, and it was busy earning its monstrous reputation (some 48 years before Nissan’s R35 came along) at places like Ontario Speedway, where some cat named “Paul Newman” was using it to abuse John Z. Delorean’s hotshoes at a Camaro “open house” trackday.

Yes, that Paul Newman.

Even without its famous owner history, this car deserves every ounce of respect you can give it. Consider that, underneath the unassuming and nearly stock-looking VW Type I shell is a Jerry Eisert-designed IndyCar-style chassis that had 351 cubic inches of Ford Racing V8 engine built by the masters at Holman Moody stuffed between its members. That Ford V8 was mated to a ZF transaxle á la Ford GT40. Up front, a custom-fabricated, double-wishbone front suspension and a rack-and-pinion steering setup replaced the VW’s torsion bars. A set of Koni coilovers pushed the tires to the ground, while, out back, a set of Corvair-sourced trailing arms worked in concert with an Eisert-designed a-arm.

In short, Paul Newman’s “Godzilla” V8 Volkswagen was (and I say this without hyperbole) the sikkest sleeper car of 1970. Even knowing that, though, you get a better sense of what this car really was (is?) when you look underneath. Luckily, one of the car’s fans, Roy Gardner, posted a number of “pre-restoration” photos of the car, and shared a little of the car’s story …

I attended Chaffey College in Alta Loma, California in the early seventies because I’d read in Hot Rod Magazine it was one of the finest automotive schools in the country. They had an accredited racing program with weekday lecture and all-Saturday lab, taught by Kent Fisk. They designed, built, and operated Formula V cars, an El Camino drag car, a scratch-built Bonneville streamliner, a Rambler Scrambler Baja 500 car (ex James Garner, could be a whole ‘nother website), race car transporter with a 455 Olds engine, and more. While I was earning my A.S. Degree in Automotive Technology, I saw the Beetle in the school’s storage yard. I was intrigued and asked about it. The story I was told was Paul Newman wanted to blow off the Corvettes and Porsches on Mullholland Avenue in Los Angeles with the unlikeliest of cars and commissioned Jerry Eisert, an Indy car constructor, to build it for him.

He drove it a lot, then donated it to Chaffey (college).

… I’ve picked out a few of the more telling photos of Paul Newmans’ V8 Superbug, and highlighted some of the features to pay attention to, below.

Here’s Roy posing with the car as it looked in its “college days”. It was painted in the more flash white/red, two-tone paint scheme from the original red.

Here you can see the Ford GT40/ZF transaxle. Most people I’ve shown this to seem to think this is a DeTomaso Pantera setup, but it’s worth mentioning that Paul Newman’s bug pre-dates the Pantera by at least a year.

This is a good shot of the custom front suspension and subframe, and also a decent shot of the car’s relatively advanced “flat floor”, which wouldn’t be picked up in another roadcar until the Ferrari F355 some 30-odd years later. You can also make out the hard cooling lines connecting the front-mounted radiators to the mid-mounted V8.

Roy also got to drive the car occasionally, if this photo is to be believed. How he avoided the temptation to start frantically gunning the throttle and setting the ass end of the car on smoky, rubbery fire while one of his buddies filmed him hooning a legit piece of automotive history is totally beyond me, but he was good enough to also post these old scans of HotRod articles that featured the car, so I guess we can forgive him.

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2 of 27 comments
  • Carve Carve on Aug 21, 2013

    The radiator gives to the look of der furher.

  • Andy D Andy D on Aug 21, 2013

    The Blue Flame 6. I prefer a good I-6 to a SBC any time. The 235 Chevy 6 had more HP than the last Ford flat head 8. It had bearings not babbitted bushings in the lower end. I got sick of the SBC being the crate motor for anything that needed a new engine. It was I six flat heads in the Hudsons that started NASCAR.