To the untrained eye, it looks like a Volkswagen graveyard.
But dig a little deeper, and speak to self-confessed VW obsessive Simon Turner, and this eclectic collection of rare bugs, campers, buggies and Karmanns are far from ready for the scrapheap.
Herbie, and all the others, will indeed ride again – when time allows and he can decide which of the 13 cars dotted around his driveway, garden and two double garages most deserves his attention.
Simon lives a few miles round the coast from trendy Margate, where the £17.5m Turner Contemporary art gallery has transformed the once-struggling seaside town.
This year the gallery hosted the Turner Prize, famed for its controversial winners and contenders, including Tracey Emin’s unmade bed, Chris Ofili’s elephant dung painting and Martin Creed’s empty room with a light going on and off.
Works of art
And Simon, no relation to the Romantic-era painter with whom he shares a surname, believes his collection of “rusty wrecks” wouldn’t look out of place among the art-world’s elite.
“They are works of art in their own right,” he smiles. “If you put them in a gallery in Margate they would probably win a prize.”
A goldsmith and jewellery maker who has just finished renovating a shop in the town, Simon never planned to leave so many cars at the mercy of the elements.
“It does make me sad to see them out there – it’s a shame,” he says. “It’s the addict problem with me; I get annoyed they are not on the road, and then go and buy another one that is.
“I always have to make a decision about which four cars have got to go in the garages. I do have planning permission for an additional eight-car garage, but I’m thinking of a multi-storey now!”
The chosen four
The current chosen four to live the dry life are a one-off Karmann Ghia custom, a rare long wheelbase Bugle beach buggy, a metal flake Baja bug, and a Split Screen crew cab pickup.
Outside, there’s an ex-racing Beetle cup car, a Karmann Ghia dragster, a Herbie lookalike built for drag racing, and a stretched bay camper.
They are joined by a rare Woody estate, a Jeans Beetle, an imported Mexican Beetle, a Bay window double crew cab pickup, and a bright orange T25 camper.
It’s a collection that has fluctuated in size over many years, from a peak of 18 to as low as (only) eight, and Simon admits his partner of 11 years, Helen, is “very understanding”…
“I had eight when I met her, so I’d cut down!” he laughs. “At the time I was just setting up my first jewellery shop, and I was set up as a motor trader, restoring and buying and selling cars, so I got away with it because it was my job.
“She knows I will work on them as soon as we are set up in the new shop. There’s nothing that can’t be sorted, and I’ve got most of the spare parts needed to get them done.
“Most of my projects are two weekends of work, if I can decide which one to do. I spend half a day looking at them thinking ‘which one?’”
Born in Gillingham, Simon grew up in the Thanet region of Kent, and the seeds of his later VW addiction may well have been sown as a boy.
Seeds sown by Herbie
“The first movie I was taken to see was Herbie,” he says. “When I was growing up, every day we used to pass a garage with a Baja Beetle in it, and I’ve always loved them.
“When I turned 17 I bought my first project Beetle. Dad helped me restore it, but six months later I rolled it five times and it burst into flames.
“The local police used to play snooker by the colour of your car. My car was green with a black panel on the bonnet, and they’d argue if it was green or black. In the first six months I got stopped 12 times by the police.”
After the ill-fated Beetle, Simon, now 45, bought a VW-based Embeesea Charger kit car with gull-wing doors.
“It was awful, and that crashed as well,” he adds, as we sit down to chat in a house filled with VW paraphernalia.
There’s a huge montage of Simon’s cars in the lounge, painted by a local artist, campers and bugs of various shapes and sizes on window sills, VW artwork by his 10-year-old daughter Fern on the fridge, a camper house sign waiting to be fitted, and even a Beetle in the fish tank.
“Fern’s just as mad on them as I am,” he says. “I think when she’s older she’d going to be more obsessed than me.”
After leaving school, Simon started work as an apprentice silversmith for a man who was to have an interesting future.
“A bloke in the next village, who was a silversmith, came to my school and asked for someone to become an apprentice,” he says.
“I thought ‘that’s something different, an unusual career to have’, so I started doing that. He was a part-time actor, and he moved on when he got a part in the Matrix Reloaded.”
Neil Rayment played one of the twins, henchmen of the Merovingian, alongside his brother Adrian, and now runs a luxury jewellery business.
Losing that job inadvertently fuelled Simon’s Dub obsession, as he combined working in pubs with restoring and trading in VWs and selling parts at autojumbles.
“To my parents’ anger, when I was 19 the driveway was starting to get full of my cars,” he says. “I had two and it slowly crept up. In one year I got through 22.”
He says more than 100 VWs have passed through his hands over the years, and it’s easier to remember what he hasn’t owned than the cars he has.
“I just want all of them”
“I’ve never had a notchback, but I’ve had just about everything else, including a military-style Trekker before they were popular,” he says. “Everybody goes ‘what’s your favourite?’, but I’ve never really had a favourite, I just want all of them! If I was pushed I suppose it would be the Trekker – I’ve always regretted selling that.”
So is there a car he doesn’t have that he really wants?
“I want an early oval Beetle, but I can’t justify leaving one of those outside, so I’m waiting patiently,” he says.
During his years of trading, Simon ran a couple of local VW clubs, and admitted he was never really in it to make big profits.
“I’m an enthusiast – it’s never been about the profit,” he says. “As long as I recovered my money I was happy. I would go to a show and try to find another car to swap with and come home in something different.
“I quite enjoy the searches and finding the right VW. I’ve always looked for the unusual stuff, it’s more of a challenge to find some of that, then making the purchase and thinking ‘how the hell do I get it home?’”
Buying cars on a whim
One such expedition to a European VW show in Holland illustrates the issues of buying a car abroad on a whim.
“I went with two mates in my stretch camper, one of the few times I’ve been out of the country in a VW,” he remembers.
“While we were there I saw a single cab split screen pick up for sale. You could only pay with cash and they had tents that acted as banks – you give them your bank card and they give you cash.
“I had credit cards on me and heard people in the queue in front of me talking about buying it. I took all my cards out and took all the money in the bank and bought this single cab split screen.
“The first thing they did was take the number plate off the vehicle. All we were worried about was how to get it back home into this country and which one of us was going to drive it.
“We had some spare vinyl, cut it with a kitchen knife and made a copy of the original number plate and stuck it on the bumpers. We thought ‘no way we are going to get through customs with this’, but we did!”
Simon went back into the jewellery trade about 10 years ago but, despite the pressures of running his own business, his passion for VWs remained undimmed and his collection continued to grow.
The renovation of a new shop in Cliftonville, Margate, has seen work on his cars put on the back burner, although he was able to use their value as security on a loan for the building work.
“The bank looked into the values and said ‘we will be able to recover our money if we need to’,” he says. It’s another reason not to sell them – I think of every way not to sell them!
“I’ve neglected the cars for about a year. But I’ve always said I get just as much out of my rusty wrecks as the shiny cars. I’ve had fully restored cars previously and the only way you can go is down. If you can get one in the middle, if they get a little worse, it’s never going to affect you that much.
“I’m pretty determined to get them all done, but probably not until I build the other garage.”
The two cars he’s owned the longest are, he thinks, the Bugle beach buggy and the Beetle cup car, at about 15 years each.
Not far behind is the Jeans Beetle, once Simon’s daily driver but now midway through a restoration.
The rare Bugle was originally built for hill-climbing and features a pretty serious-looking roll cage.
“I want to get it back to how it was in the ‘70s with metal flake,” he says. “I’m nearly there with it, I just need to wire it in, which is easy, put the engine in, and finish off servicing the brakes.”
The cup car, which was raced in the ‘80s and ‘90s round Brands Hatch, features the standard racing 1641cc engine.
“A friend of mine in the VW clubs had it, and I’ve always liked race cars,” says Simon. “It was one of a pair, and I bought them both about a year apart.”
Simon has since sold the second car, and plans to turn this one into the Herbie “Ocho” car from Herbie Goes Bananas, a rusty taxi.
“It’s my daughter’s influence,” he adds. “It’ll be handy because I haven’t got time to clean the cars! I’ve just got to find the person that can do the work properly.”
Having always loved Baja bugs since his childhood, Simon’s metal flake blue example, with actual silver glitter glazed on to the bonnet, is one car he says will never be sold.
“I’ve always had Bajas, and I’ll always keep it,” he adds. “I was up at Stanford Hall one year and it was on one of the stands at the autojumble. I looked at it and liked it, but could not commit to it at the time. About six months later I saw it for sale again and said ‘I will have that’.
“It’s an old show car from the period, but because of the nature of the paintwork I’ve been quoted £7,500 for a respray. I can buy three other VWs for that!”
The two Karmann Ghias are both very non-standard, but in very different ways.
Tucked away in the garage is a former show-winning, heavily-customised number in 1974 Porsche Continental Orange, its roof lowered by an inch, with Porsche 911 headlight conversion, smoothed-out swage lines and wings front and rear blended with the light housings.
The interior is entirely custom-built, too, with grey wool upholstery and an Austin Metro dashboard.
“It looked so nice, but I couldn’t fit in it because I’m so tall,” says Simon. “It’s impractical, but I thought ‘I’ve got to have that’ and it then sat in the garage.
“I was thinking about selling it when I started my first shop, but it needed a bit of headlining glueing back in. I had a look, and thought ‘this is not headlining’ and found out it was three inches of body filler inside the roof.
“Me being me, I got a grinder out to see if I fitted in the car. Now I fit in the car, so I’ve got to keep it!”
The second Ghia, a 1960s ex-dragster, was originally bought to compete on the strip.
“I bought it because I’ve got a few fast engines and I was going to toy with drag racing,” says Simon. “I got all the parts and gave it to a mechanic to do. Unfortunately, my experience of people who work on VWs has not been good, and it was never finished.”
The Beetle Woody, imported from San Francisco and featuring a Willys coupe front end, is possibly the car that requires the most work, not least because the entire wood frame needs replacing.
“I want it done in ash, like a Morris Minor,” says Simon. “Time permitting, I can do the rest of it – the welding doesn’t worry me.”
A bay window double crew cab pickup, in which Simon picked up his daughter from hospital when she was born, lurks under a tarpaulin, another awaiting restoration.
Parked in front of it is a more tidy-looking T25, found while searching for a donor vehicle with a sliding door.
“I was looking for a door for the Mystery Machine I had, but it was far too good to take the door off,” says Simon, who bought it anyway.
“The bloke worked for Porsche body shop and had just resprayed it. He threw in some AMG Mercedes alloy wheels for £150, and I said ‘what else have you got?’
“He had a half-restored monkey bike so I said ‘I will have that as well, put it in’. My daughter’s got her eye on that one.”
Simon has since sold his camper Mystery Machine, much to the annoyance of Fern, who now wants her dad to turn the stretch bay window – another smothered under covers – into a replacement.
The camper, stretched by the width of a sliding door, was originally a rat look in matt black with white vinyl flames down the sides.
But, having completed a partial restoration, Simon entrusted it to a third party to complete.
“I’d done all bar a foot and a half of the roof gutters, and told him not to touch the roof, but he ended up taking it off!” he says.
“So now I’m potentially looking for a new roof. I keep thinking about doing a monster crewcab pick up, and then I wouldn’t have to find a roof…”
Finally, there’s the Mexican Beetle, the current daily driver and – being the newest – by far the most civilised of Simon’s cars, with its 1600cc fuel injected engine and working heater.
“It’s lovely to drive on a motorway and sit at 70mph, and still have a bit for over-taking,” he says. “I was trawling through eBay and saw it with no bids on. I couldn’t see why, given the condition it’s in and that it’s only done 30,000 miles. I got it for a silly price.”
With an adult lifetime owning almost exclusively VWs of a certain age, it’s inevitable that things haven’t always gone smoothly on the road.
“The worst journey I ever had was coming back from a show in Maidstone, one of my most local shows,” says Simon. “It took me seven and a half hours to get the 40-odd miles back.
“I had problems with the fuel pump. Every time I called the AA it would start working again, then I’d go one-and-a-half miles down the road and it would stop again. It did that all the way home.
“Another time, I was in the Dartford Tunnel on the way back from Bug Jam when I hit a massive pothole and split the side of my tyre. I came in and waited for recovery, because I didn’t have a spare, which took three hours.”
Occasional hiccups aside, Simon is never more at home than behind the wheel of a VW.
“I’ve always found a VW is the best way to destress yourself, just go out and have a little drive,” he says.
“I can’t really give a reason why I love them. I am just obsessed I suppose.”