When Pete Wood bought his 1966 Beetle from a friend nearly 30 years ago, there was very little of it left.
No bodyshell, no engine, no interior – just a stripped-down chassis with a number plate.
He hatched a plan to build a beach buggy around the chassis, but quickly changed tack when his friend decided to sell the bodyshell too.
“In England, a beach buggy is not very practical – you can’t use it as a daily driver,” he laughs. “So I got the car back as one, minus the engine and interior.”
Back to life
It took eight long years to bring the car back to life, with the help of his mates at Bolwagen, since when it’s been used as a daily and for trips to shows both in the UK and Belgium.
These days, it’s semi-retired, and has been joined by a rare 1972 Viking Super Six camper, and a 1970 Variant (Type 3) imported from Malta.
We’re chatting in Pete’s garden in Rotherham, looking out over the sunlit uplands – on that early autumn day at least – that separate the town from Sheffield.
The father-of-three explains how he fell into VW ownership almost by accident, having first bought a Morris Minor van at the age of 16.
“I bought it to repair, ready for when I passed my test at 17,” he says. “It was proper old school – typical ‘80s fur inside, wood in the back, big cherry bomb exhaust – but that fell in half eventually, the usual Morris Minor chassis rot.”
A conversation with a near neighbour, a former garage owner, led to the start of a lifelong love affair with all things air-cooled.
“He said ‘why don’t you get a Beetle, they’re easy to work on’,” says Pete, who was working as a chef at the time. “I’d never even thought about one before. He told me that a scrapyard in Sheffield called Wilf Jay’s had one on top of the pile. So that was it, I dragged it off the pile and paid them £50.”
This car also lacked an engine, but Pete has never shied away from getting his hands dirty and working things out for himself.
“Ever since I was a kid, I’ve always taken everything apart and put it back together,” he says. “If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work – you’ve tried.
“I was always into BMXing, putting different wheels and things on, and into model building. I’ve always done things with my hands.”
After two years as a chef, he got tired of watching his friends going out while he was preparing meals in a sweltering kitchen, and went to work for his stepfather’s engineering company.
Succession of Beetles
A succession of Beetles came and went, “some I only had a week or two before I sold it to a mate or swapped it”, both before and during his long restoration of the ‘66 Bug.
Other jobs came and went too, including bar work, concrete manufacturing, building, dry lining, and a year daffodil picking in Cornwall, which left a lasting impression.
“Eventually I want to move down to Cornwall,” he says. “If I win the Lottery tomorrow, it’ll be the day after. We go down every year, near enough.”
For the past 10 years, Pete, now 52, has been back in engineering, working all over the world for a Swedish company, repairing bespoke wire rope crimping machinery.
But back to 18-year-old Pete, and the story of the ‘66 Beetle that’s been with him for 28 years.
During that eight-year restoration, it was given a new interior, painted VW Beryl Green, and fitted with a 1600cc engine, bored out to 1641cc, married to a gearbox from a later 1500.
It was used to get to and from work in Sheffield until disaster struck when the River Don burst its banks in June 2007, causing catastrophic flooding.
Pete would alternate driving the Beetle and camper to work, leaving the other one in the Sheffield workshop overnight.
“I’d come home in the camper,” he remembers. “Everywhere was flooded, and it took a long time to get home.
“I took both my lads down to Meadowhall shopping centre because all the cars were floating.
“In the evening, I was busy watching TV, and I thought ‘that’s that bridge near work’, and then it dawned on me and I thought ‘the car’s in work, you’re joking’.
“I got to work the next day, and there was a three foot high tide mark on the car.”
The engine and interior had spent much of the night underwater and, after dragging the car outside and draining the oil from the engine and gearbox, the AA was called to get the car home.
“I got five and half litres of water out of the engine,” says Pete. “So I got some oil, took the HT lead off so it didn’t fire up, put oil in it, ran it round, drained it – I did that three times. The fourth time, I put oil in and fired it up, and it ran.”
The seats were removed, cleaned and gradually and dried out, and the rest of the interior was covered in detergent and scrubbed.
“The radio was mounted underneath the dashboard, and that’s the only thing I lost,” says Pete.
Although the Beetle ran reliably for two years, by 2009 the bottom six inches had suffered serious rot, no doubt hastened along by its underwater adventure.
It was time for full restoration number two, undertaken in Pete’s garage and, this time, taking just 20 weeks – ready in plenty of time to carry daughter Becky to her wedding in 2011.
As well as a lot of cutting and welding, the gearbox, which had developed a whine after the flood, was rebuilt, and the car was ready for a respray.
“I was going to just blend everything back into this Beryl Green, but two of my mates had just started spraying so they said why don’t you let us do it?” says Pete. “So I thought I’d change the colour and change the wheels to Porsche replicas.”
He plumped for Porsche Sepia Brown; the “Aussie trim” with beige side inserts are a later addition.
“To buy the original trim, if you can get it, is £500 to £600, so I just thought one day ‘I wonder if I can bend an original Beetle trim to vaguely resemble it…’” he laughs.
The results speak for themselves.
Another addition, this time literally from Australia, is the external sun visor, picked up from a VW show while visiting friends in Sydney.
“I thought ‘they look good, I wonder if I can take them as hand luggage – we can try’,” says Pete. “We turned up at the airport and said ‘what about these’? They have a special cage for hand luggage that they put on after the suitcases.”
Both the Beetle and the Viking camper were regular attendees at Santa Pod, before Pete and his mates, Bolwagen and Dave, opted to go further afield.
“We’ve been over to either Spa or Chimay in Belgium every year since 2012, and had tickets this year until it was cancelled,” he says.
“The journey is actually the same as for me to go from here to Santa Pod. We go to Hull, get the overnight ferry, and then it’s two and half hours to Spa. You wouldn’t think twice about driving to Santa Pod, so that’s why we thought in the end ‘why don’t we go to Belgium?’”
Although the Beetle has been over two or three times, it’s usually the more practical Viking Super Six, bought in 2003, that heads overseas.
First owned by a vicar, it was converted from a microbus when new, and belonged to a friend of Pete’s mum.
“She took it somewhere for either an MoT or repairs and they went ‘it needs too much work on it, but I’ll give you £500 for it’,” he says.
“Because she knew I was into them she said to my mum ‘I don’t want him to have it because I know he’s trying to take me for a ride, but if your Pete wants it he can have it for £500 because I know he’ll do it up’.
“I drove it back from Derby with my lad, Brad, in the passenger seat. It had a fuel leak and it wanted a few panels on it.”
Pete gave it a running restoration and got it ready for painting in orange, upgrading the engine to 1641cc with twin carbs.
Large pop top
The interior, including its large pop top with room to sleep four, remains entirely original, and the camper has undertaken the usual array of camper van tasks over the years.
“It’s done everything – moving my son to university, fetching plasterboard when I was doing the house up, and camping trips,” says Pete.
The most recent addition is the 1970 Variant, which Pete spotted for sale on Facebook in November 2017 – in Malta.
“I’d never bought anything from abroad before, and he only sent me a few photos,” he says. “I had met this other guy from Malta in Belgium, so I got in touch with him and said ‘do you know this guy?’
“He told me he buys and sells VW and works for the police. I thought ‘if you can’t trust him…’”
With money in the bank from doing up and selling on a Beetle, Pete agreed to pay £3,500, the most he had ever spent on a car.
The Variant was shipped over, and Pete and a mate headed to the docks with a trailer to collect it.
“He’d told me the engine runs, but it didn’t, that was the first thing,” he says. “There was a bit more rust than he’d said, too, but if I’d bought a right hand drive one here, a lot of the things that would have rotted out were still there on this one.”
Over 18 months, Pete brought the car up to the standard you see in these photographs, repainting in its original Savannah Beige, rebuilding the engine and boring out to 1641cc, fitting after-market Porsche wheels, and covering the bare floor with carpeting he cut himself.
I ask him why he’s always stuck with air-cooled VWs, and Beetles in particular.
“I can’t fully understand why I’ve never thought about other cars,” he says. “I think it’s just something you know, something you can take to bits in no time.
Easy to work on
“Four bolts will take the front end of a Beetle off, you know what size spanner you need straight away, and I’ve got all the tools specific to that. I do like other classic cars but I’ve never thought ‘I’ll do one of those up’.
“Probably the only other thing would be a Porsche 356 kit car – I’ve always wanted to do one of those. I said the Variant was going to be my last one, but…”
We head off for our photoshoot, Pete driving the Beetle, and Mandy – somewhat reluctantly – behind the wheel of the Variant.
While Pete manoeuvres the cars in front of Keppel’s Column, the derelict 115ft tower he used to illicitly enter and climb as a teenager, Mandy gives her own verdict on her husband’s cars.
“I like camping in the camper, but the Beetle’s far too noisy,” she says. “He keeps saying he’ll sell the camper, because we’ve also got a caravan, but I know he won’t.
“He won’t sell any of them – I’ve learned not to listen to him!”
Pete himself admits he did once put the Viking up for sale once, “but it wasn’t really up for sale, I was just toying with the idea”.
“I’ll definitely hold on to the Squareback while, according to Brad, the Beetle is his, I’ve got to keep it forever,” he laughs.