Dan Lawes isn’t your typical VW enthusiast.
A self-confessed reformed boy racer, he cut his teeth on modified Citroen Saxos, moving on to motorcycles before returning to four wheels with a remapped Renault Megane R26.
It was a constant race with his mates for more power, the Megane ending up pumping out 287bhp and 300lb ft of torque.
Then, something changed.
“It got a bit silly with the speed,” he says from his home in Bradwell, near Great Yarmouth. “It was all about getting faster and faster, a race until one of us killed ourselves.”
Enough was enough
Dan, 28, decided enough was enough, sold the Renault and bought a cheap Ford Fiesta diesel as a runabout which, in a roundabout way, led to the cherry red Beetle that glistens with dew in the morning sun on the drive.
When the Fiesta developed some problems, Dan chatted to a friend who used to work at the local Ford dealership.
“He told me he’d just sold his Beetle, and I didn’t think anything of it because I didn’t care – I didn’t want it,” he remembers.
“I couldn’t fix the problem with the Fiesta, so I spoke to him again and he said the bloke had pulled out of buying the Beetle.
“I still didn’t want it – I was more concerned with fixing my car.”
The perfect wedding car?
But with a long-planned wedding on the horizon, the idea of Dan and his now-wife Megan driving away from their nuptials in a classic Beetle started to take root.
“We always used to see it driving up and down the road, and I said to Megan ‘we could get that as a wedding car’,” he says.
“It needed a lot of work, but we had three years before the wedding. I asked him if it was still for sale; he was at work at the time and chucked me the keys.
“I didn’t pay him for nearly a week!”
Getting behind the wheel of the 1972 Beetle, bought for £1,900, was an entirely new experience for a previously confirmed motoring Francophile and speed freak.
It was brilliant
“It was the complete opposite of what I’d had before,” he says. “But it was brilliant, the first time I’d ever had anything that old.”
That was May 2016, and what followed was a race against time to get the car ready for July 27, 2019, the couple’s wedding day.
Three years may sound plenty of time but, like true love, the course of car restoration never did run smooth, especially with Dan doing nearly all the work himself to keep costs down.
But with patience and painstaking attention to detail, the lowered bug, which rises and falls on air suspension, was ready with two weeks to spare.
It’s not the first car that Dan has slammed as close to the ground as he can get away with, something he attributes to growing up overlooking a car park on Yarmouth seafront.
Originally from Hemel Hempstead, Dan moved with his family to the Norfolk seaside town when he was about 10.
“My bedroom used to look out on the car park near the Pleasure Beach,” he says. “As a kid, I used to watch all the boy racers go there and be lunatics. I got the bug for it really and became a boy racer I suppose.”
Passing his test at 17, Dan’s first car was a Saxo, barely modified with just a set of after-market alloys, but things stepped up a gear with a lowered Saxo VTR.
“Every car I’ve had since then has been slammed,” he says, including a Citroen C2 VTS, the Megane, and Megan’s Fiat Punto.
“I do it purely just for the looks, not to make it handle better or any of that rubbish. I just think cars just look better low. As they say, if it ain’t scrubbing it ain’t dubbing, and God that thing scrubs!”
When Dan bought the Beetle, it was already lowered, but he set about making it more drivable with a £2,000 air ride suspension kit which he fitted himself, removing the back seats to make room for the compressed air tank.
“Previously, when it had four people in it, it barely drove anywhere,” he smiles.
Now, the car is capable of taking on fairly sharp speed bumps, as proved by our trip to a bump-ridden car park near the beach at Gorleston-on-Sea for our photoshoot.
Originally fitted with a 1300cc engine, the unit had already been switched for a bored-out 1641cc lump when Dan bought the car and, apart from a lick of high-temperature black paint, is the one part of the car he hasn’t altered.
With revised heads and camshaft, the car puts out 77bhp, resulting in “cracking acceleration”, according to Dan.
Nut and bolt restoration
As for the rest of the car, it was completely stripped down for a full nut and bolt restoration.
“Everything but the engine has been done, including all the wiring,” says Dan. “The roof and all four wings were shot, and the long-nose decklid was starting to go.
“I bought a new long-nose decklid, which isn’t original to the car, on eBay. It’s propped open for air flow, and gives it a cool look.”
Replacement wings, from an older car, were sourced, and the roof was sanded and smoothed out, while a stainless steel exhaust was bolted on.
Dan admits there were times when it all became too much, when it seemed easier to jack it all in and hire a wedding car.
“I will finish this”
“I nearly said I could not do it and nearly sold it,” he says. “I was under a car in the freezing cold and all I could hear was Megan playing with Teddy inside.
“I thought ’I’m missing out here’, and nearly pulled the plug. I had a bit of time off, stood there looking at it for ages and thought ‘I will finish this’.”
Without the help of friends, and his accommodating boss at Scantech Offshore, Dan has no doubts that he would have missed his looming wedding deadline.
A former spray painter who moved into engineering in the offshore sector, Dan painted the car himself in the Scantech workshop.
“It was the cheapest way to do it,” he says. “Including sandpaper, paint, and polish it cost me £250, and my manager let me use the workshop.”
The pop-out windscreen, created by welding hinges to the existing screen unit, was “a really tricky job” carried out with the help of a fabricator colleague.
“He put a lot of work into that,” says Dan. “He has a family of his own, but I said ‘I can’t do it and I’ve got a wedding coming up!’”
Probably the biggest help was Dan’s friend Bobby, who kept him sane when the going got really tough.
“He did a lot for me, he was good company, and if he hadn’t helped me it would not have been done for the wedding,” he says. “He’s a single man, lives at home with his mum and I think he enjoys getting out of the house. All it cost me was feeding him!”
Just in time
The car was finally ready two weeks before the wedding, but not without one major scare along the way.
“I took it for a test drive when I’d done the air ride, but the tracking was out and the front wheels were sitting at a funny angle,” he recounts.
“I was turning the wheel but the car wasn’t turning, and it bounced up the kerb and was heading for a postbox. I had to slam the brakes on and stopped just in time.”
Come the couple’s perfect day, the Beetle drew plenty of attention from family and friends.
“The reaction was mostly ‘wow, that’s low, how did you get it down here over the bumps?’” he says. “Then I’d show them the air suspension.
“Everyone knows me and Megan are car mad, but a few family members from Hemel Hempstead couldn’t believe it was fully resprayed and built purely for that day.”
Bitten by the Dub bug
But while the VW may have been bought specifically for that one, special day, the reality is that Dan has been well and truly bitten by the Dub bug.
“I’m not going to get rid of it now,” he says. “I’ll maintain it and keep it wrapped up for shows and nice events.
“With the Renault, you only used to get a certain crowd interested in you roaring up and down the road, but with the Beetle you get everyone looking at it and pointing at it.
“We went to the American Diner on the seafront out of season, parked it up all on its own, and got young people and old people looking.
“One man got down on his hands and knees to see if it was on the floor. I love it when people take pictures of it.
“The Beetle’s got character, it’s better than my old cars – it’s not chavvy!”
It’s also an accidental show winner, taking the Best Beetle awards at Suffolk’s Retro Dubs show.
“There was some paperwork on my windscreen to enter in the Show and Shie, but I screwed it up and threw it away,” he says. “A mate said ‘are you not going to enter?’ I said ‘no, there are too many good Bugs here and I just came here to have fun’.
“Then on Facebook the next week was a message: ‘Who owns this Beetle? It won best Beetle at Retro Dubs!’”
The day before another show, Dan had a scare when an oil line popped off, spraying hot oil all over the exhaust.
“So much smoke”
“I thought it was on fire,” he says. “I could not even see the engine there was so much smoke. I thought I had repaired it, went to the show, but on the way back it popped off again and billowed out even more smoke.
“My mates were following me, and three of them came running out of the smoke with fire extinguishers – it was like something from Only Fools and Horses, really funny.
“I’ve got a hose made for it now so it shouldn’t happen again.”
Dan is a member of the United Dubbers group based in Yarmouth, and fabricated the metal badge attached to the rear of his car, selling a few to other members.
From attending shows with the Beetle, Dan was also drawn into the world of campers, buying a T5 panel van in 2018 and converting it himself, using pallet wood from work for the interior.
“I’d always wanted a van to go camping in as a family,” he says. “It didn’t have to be a VW, but because I had been to so many shows I steered towards that – it just looked so much better than the alternatives, like a Ford, which would have been cheaper…
“We took Teddy camping in it when he was six months old.”
This one-time boy racer is now fully converted to the idiosyncratic joys of VW life, and there appears to be no going back.