It’s the summer of 1978, and 17-year-old Brian Lowe has just passed his driving test and is looking around for his first car.
All his mates are buying things like Escorts and Minis, but Brian only has eyes for one car – a Volkswagen Beetle.
“The only car that stuck in my mind was the Beetle,” he says. “I just loved the look of them. I thought they were fantastic, such a likeable car.”
When he paid about £500 for a dark green, 1969 1300 saloon that August, he never expected it to be the start of a lifelong love affair with the German People’s Car.
But that first Beetle lit a fire inside him and, in the 43 years since, he has never been without one.
“From having the car I got more and more interested,” he says, after poring over the VW Safer Motoring magazine and attending his first VW Action show at Stoneleigh in 1980.
Car of his dreams
A variety of Bugs came and went before, in 1984, he settled on the car of his dreams – the white, 1979 US-spec 1303S LS Cabriolet you see here.
While this car is special to Brian and his wife, Deborah – it served as their wedding car – to many Beetle enthusiasts the Bug it shares a garage with may well raise more eyebrows.
The Aquarius Blue Última Edición is one of the last 3,000 Beetles to roll off the production line in Mexico in 2003, and shows just over 300km on the clock.
After driving it home from Beetles (UK), the Bristol-based importer, Brian quickly decided it was simply too good to use on the road.
“I thought ‘no, I want it as a museum piece’,” he says, with one eye on its investment potential. “I just love looking at it – every time I go in the garage they both make me smile. It’s like having my own private museum.”
While they represent Brian’s ultimate two-car garage, several other Beetles – and the odd Golf – played an important part in building up to this treasured pair.
His first Bug took him to work and back as an apprentice glazier and on camping trips with friends, while his next – a bright yellow, 1973 1303 he was advised not to buy – got him more involved in the show scene.
“I took a mechanic, a friend of my dad’s, with me to look over it and he advised me not to get it,” he remembers. “He didn’t really like Beetles, I think, that was the problem. But there was something in me that said ‘no, I want it, I think it’s a good car’, and it was, it was an amazing car, with the big curved windscreen.
Show scene “opened my eyes”
“I entered it into the Concours d’Elegance in the 1303 class at the VW Action show at Stoneleigh. That’s when I started to get even more interested. The show was amazing – it opened my eyes up so much more to what the VW scene is really like. I was just drooling all the way round.
“What really hit me was the line-up in the concours of the VW Beetle cabriolets. I hadn’t really seen one before, and when I saw those I thought ‘wow, I’ve got to have one – I’m going to save up and I’m going to get a convertible Beetle, I don’t care what it takes’. And sure enough, that’s what I did.”
Next up, in 1981, was a right hand drive, 1972 1302 Karmann cabriolet in Mars Red and, by now, Brian had taken to working on the cars himself.
“It was really nice but it needed some work doing to it – the interior had been re-done, badly,” he says. “It just needed tidying up, which I did over time. I’d got into tinkering with them and just enjoyed working on them.
“I had no experience of doing anything like that – I started just doing it. I didn’t have YouTube or anything like that to watch, so I just had to do it and hope it was right. I went to scrap yards and got replacement seats and door panels and some new carpets, and just generally tidied it up.”
Around this time Brian and four VW enthusiast friends started up the Chiltern VDub Club for air-cooled VWs, which ran for about three years. He also joined the VW Cabriolet Owners Club GB, and remains a member to this day – “an amazing source of information”.
The red Beetle lasted about a year before Brian moved on to an Italian-spec, black 1303 cabriolet, in which he travelled to shows all over the country.
Hunting for a US-spec cabriolet
“From going to shows, I’d seen the later Beetle convertibles, the 1979 American-spec ones, and I thought ‘wouldn’t it be fantastic to have one of those?’” he says. “The fact it had the bigger bumpers, the fuel injected engine, I thought ‘I’ve got to have one of those one day’.”
But first, it was another Italian-spec 1303, a 1977 example in red with a black hood, in which Brian ventured further afield, to shows in France, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands.
“That was a really great adventure,” he remembers. “I had a few friends with cars as well, and we would meet up at the ferry port and go in a convoy.
“One friend did suffer quite a few problems, but there were always enough of us to help him get it sorted. Mine was quite reliable.”
That was when Brian decided that the car was too good to be used as a daily driver, especially in winter, when it was shut away in the garage – a 1974 Golf bought as a winter runaround.
It was also when he decided the time was right to find a white, US-spec version.
“That’s the ultimate I wanted to get to, the last of the Beetle Cabriolets,” he says, scouring Exchange and Mart and, in 1984, finding a white car with a beige interior in Pimlico in London.
It had been owned by a doctor, who had bought it new while living in Canada in 1979 and brought it with him when he returned to England.
“It wasn’t in perfect condition – there were quite a lot of stone chips on it – but there was nothing I couldn’t sort out,” he says, paying £5,000 after some gentle haggling.
“The ultimate car”
“That was the ultimate car, the car I always wanted for a long, long time and I couldn’t get any better than that really.”
As a Canadian car, it features a petrol heater mounted on the fuel tank to cope with the extreme cold, while the instruments measure kilometres instead of miles.
The car was resprayed in its original white in 1985, while the tired hood was replaced in 1992 and again in 2018.
Exclusively used as a summer car, Brian has done most of the work to maintain it in good condition himself, and even signed up to a classic wedding car service to help pay for its upkeep, chauffeuring customers himself.
“It worked really well,” he says. “I had an awful lot of enthusiasts wanting to book it.”
But things didn’t always go exactly to plan, and two memorable experiences stand out, the first a theoretical one-hour journey that turned into anything but.
“I’d left plenty of time and nipped on to the M1 to only go one junction and, oh my God, it was at a complete standstill for an hour,” he remembers.
“I was really panicking because we didn’t have mobile phones back then. I finally got off the motorway and started to go a little bit faster to make up a bit of time. I was going round this roundabout and there was an almighty big clatter, the warning lights came on, the engine spluttered to a stop and I coasted off the roundabout.”
Luckily, there was a lay-by close by, and Brian pulled over to take a look under the bonnet.
“The fan belt had snapped, whipped round and round and caught all the wiring for the fuel injection,” he says. “I thought ‘oh my God’. Luckily I always go prepared and had a tool box and a spare fan belt, so I was in my suit and white shirt at the side of the road trying to put all this wiring back together.
“Beginning to panic”
“Half an hour later I managed to get the car going again, and I turned up 10 minutes later than planned just as they were beginning to panic. They were just putting ribbons on one of the Beetles the groom had because they thought I wasn’t turning up.
“I was covered in mess and my hands were filthy, but they were so relieved to see me and rushed me into the house to clean up quickly.
“The front of the car was covered in dead flies, so I washed off as many as I could, shoved them in the car and off we went to the church.
“It’s funny when you look back at it now, but at the time it was so stressful.”
Then there was the time when Brian was booked to take an RAF wing commander and his daughter to church, picking them up from an air base.
“He came out in his full military dress uniform, complete with this mighty great sword,” he says. “It was so funny watching him trying to get in the back of the car and trying to find somewhere to put his sword and sit down.
“He had to push it through the seats to the front footwell, and then the bride came out with one of the biggest dresses I’ve ever seen and was trying to stuff the dress in carefully. There’s not that much room in the back of the Beetle – I had to have my seat pressed up against the steering wheel.
“Then as we left the house we had to drive round the airbase to get her out, and every person who was in uniform would stop and salute us because he was the wing commander.
“I had some great times doing the weddings, but then our kids came along and it took up too much time.”
The two boys, Alex and James, would accompany their parents to the shows, including all the way to Belgium aged about six and three.
The car has never needed to be fully restored, and has been in use for each of the 37 summers of Brian’s ownership.
“It’s never been off the road, and last year was probably the only year I’ve barely used it because of Covid,” he says. “Every year I enter the concours, usually at Stanford Hall, and have had a couple of firsts and some seconds in the cabrio class.
“I don’t modify my cars – this one is totally standard and original spec.”
It also enjoyed its 15 minutes of fame, appearing on BBC Breakfast in 1988 and Top Gear in 1991, the latter with Tony Mason doing a piece about original classics versus fakes.
“It was about people trying to pass off proper convertibles by chopping the roof off – to make people be careful they’re not buying a fake,” he says, travelling to Silverstone with the car for filming.
Alongside his summer Beetles, Brian has remained largely loyal to VW for his daily drivers, replacing the ‘74 Golf with another, a 1983 GTi ‘Campaign’ edition, produced to mark the end of Mk1 production.
“In the early days I had an old Mini van and an old Metro – that was awful and only lasted a few months – but since then it’s always been Golfs,” he says, a modern convertible the current daily driver.
Enter the Última Edición
Fast forward to 2003, and Brian is reading Safer Motoring when he spots an article headlined “Beetle bids farewell”, about the final 3,000 cars to come out of Mexico, where Beetles had been built since 1967.
“I thought ‘I’ve just got to get one of those’,” he says, “so I started haggling with my wife, telling her what a great investment it would be, and bagged myself one.”
After putting down a deposit months in advance, an excited Brian travelled to Bristol in atrocious November weather to collect the car, which cost £10,000 including import costs.
“They offered to convert it to right hand drive for £1,000, but it meant changing to an all padded dash and I wanted to keep the metal and keep it totally original,” he says. “There was also an option to have it all undersealed, but I wanted to keep all the beautiful paintwork that’s showing, keep it totally pure.”
The Última Edición comes with a raft of retro features, including the re-introduction of chrome bumpers, trim and hubcaps, whitewall tyres and a special commemorative plaque on the glovebox lid.
“They tried to represent all the stages of the Beetle’s life really,” says Brian, a member of the Mexican Brazilian Beetle Register. “With the paintwork colours, they tried to get something similar to the early ones with the pale blue. It’s a fantastic look.”
Brian has also built up a fascinating collection of Última Edición memorabilia, including mugs, baseball caps, key rings, and even some of the original marketing posters produced for the car.
“Apparently there were limited edition drinking glasses made, but I think they were only available to factory workers,” he smiles.
Too good to use
Within a couple of months of getting the car home, he made the decision to ‘retire’ it.
“In my heart I bought it to use it, but I never have,” he says. “Every year, I have this urge to tax and MoT it and put it on the road, but I just don’t.
“I’m lucky to live on a private road, so I can bring it out, start it up and do a mile maximum up and down this road to keep everything ticking over and fine.
“When I told my wife it would be a good investment that originally was a lie, but then I thought it was such a fantastic car to keep in pristine condition – so it turned out to be true!
“I’m told there were only about 200 sold in the UK, and I doubt if many get regular use.”
So how is that investment working out?
“In the last couple of years I’ve seen prices vary between £25,000 and £30,000, usually in Europe,” he says. “That’s for cars in a similar condition with extremely low mileage. That’s another reason I’m unsure about using it.
“I admit that sometimes, in the winter months, I think ‘shall I sell it?’, but I walk into the garage and think ‘no, I can’t, I love them’.”
And while Deborah jokes that his white convertible, which predates their relationship by six years, is “the other woman in my life”, she loves it too.
“It’s so much one of our family,” says Brian, now 60. “We have had so much fun over the years going to the shows and club meetings, using it as our wedding car, then later our boys getting windswept and enjoying every moment in the back when the roof was down, which was most of the time, and meeting new friends because of owning it.
“One thing is for sure we won’t be parting with her for a long time to come. I keep telling Deborah, if I die, can she get me buried in it? She says ‘no, that would be a waste of a car’.”