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Viva el Vocho!

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All photos by the author. 

In Mexico, the people consider the venerable Beetle a Mexican car. Oh, sure, they know it’s a German car. They get that. But the VW Type 1 sedan, or Vocho, as its affectionately known there, has well embedded itself into the fabric of Mexican society over many decades.

From learning to drive to first family cars to a fleet of taxis in the nation’s capital that was unrivaled in size the world over, the simple, reliable, and durable Volkswagen Bug played a critical role in the modernization of Mexican transportation and society in the second half of the 20th century. Volkswagen de México began local production of the model in the 1960s and continued for almost four decades, ultimately becoming the last place in the world where the iconic car was made. VW built more than 1.7 million Vochos in Mexico before the last car rolled off the line in 2003, done in by better, faster, cheaper, modern options and a government decree that all taxis in Mexico City had to have four doors.

Okay, enough with the history lesson—the fact is that people in Mexico still love the original VW Bug. As the millions of them on the streets slowly wither away, the car’s singular shape and decidedly not intimidating performance provide a disarmingly nostalgic experience for many Mexicans today. And that has fueled a small, but growing, cadre of restorers.

Hugo de la Teja, who runs De La Teja Racing in Mexico City, has been in the business since 2002, at first modifying cars for racing but then adding restoration to the menu. “A lot of people like to restore this car because a lot of people still have their first car or the first car of their mom or memories of them,” Hugo explains. “The people here in Mexico don’t think about the origins of the car. For the Mexican people, it is their own car. It’s a Mexican car because it was so cheap and so durable. It helped a lot of people get their first car. They never bothered to think that it was from Germany originally.” They even made up the word “Vocho” for the car.

Hugo’s business is somewhat small. Hugo and his father, Rene, handle the mechanical and functional systems of the car, including the engine work, which is their specialty. They employ two body men full time and outsource the upholstery work. In what may surprise some in the U.S., the body shop is somewhat of an open-air affair. Hugo is very realistic about things: “The problem here in Mexico is the economics. There are no paint booths in this shop. It is very difficult because of the economy here to have a booth. But we can get very good results without a booth. It’s a matter of making a booth with some plastics. It’s very Spartan, very basic.” And just as some home shops can produce excellent results with such improvised “booths,” De La Teja Racing showed us a garage full of restored Bugs with high-quality finishes, all completed in this “Spartan” environment.

Though some owners have restored newer cars from the Seventies and Eighties, Bug aficionados in Mexico sound a lot like their brethren north of the border. “Mostly people want to restore the German ones,” Hugo says, “made from 1973 or before, because they are the most valuable ones. From ’74 until today, it’s not considered very vintage. It might be considered a nice Bug, but not a vintage Bug. So, people didn’t bother restoring the newer cars. Lately, you see it because restoring a car here from the Seventies or Eighties is maybe half the cost of restoring a car from the Sixties, so the market is fluctuating. The majority of the people, though, look for the vintage Bug.”

Despite the overall simplicity of the Vocho, restoring one presents challenges that are somewhat unique owing to its design and construction. Neither body-on-frame nor truly unit-body construction and with an air-cooled, flat-four engine hanging out behind the rear axle, there really isn’t anything quite like it. Fortunately, the U.S. has had a soft spot for VWs even longer than Mexico, so Hugo finds himself turning to the U.S. aftermarket for both restoration and performance parts. “There are some people trying to make parts in small batches,” Hugo tells us, “but actually the U.S. has better parts availability than we do these days. I think the U.S. market can sell to all the world, but when you say ‘Mexico,’ the world may not want to buy. The U.S. has a big name and reputation to sell to the world. There are still a lot of foreign parts for the original cars. But for the very last ones from the Eighties and Nineties—the cars that don’t fall under the category of vintage—those parts are to keep those cars going, not restoring them. For vintage cars, people are importing the parts or making them.”

Like plenty of enthusiasts here in the U.S., Hugo’s customers usually want a car that is uniquely their own. Rather than build cars to spec or even back to 100 percent original, Hugo has customers who want things done a certain, specific way. “The people who have the money want to have the car done the way they want it from scratch.,” Hugo says. “They want it personal.” Perhaps there is a color or trim combination they really want, or a certain set of wheels.

That personalization includes in the engine bay as well. After all, even the hottest 1,500cc and 1,600cc Bugs never made more than 44 horsepower—a number that decreases as much as 20 percent or more at Mexico City’s 7,400-foot altitude and higher surroundings. “Some 90 percent of customers want to have more kick in the engine,” Hugo explains, “because of the altitude here. A Bug is tremendously slow and exceedingly dangerous because here, the people drive very, very fast in the city. Really, not only the city, but all over Mexico they drive fast. And it’s very difficult to have a 25-horsepower engine at this altitude running about with traffic. It’s impossible!”

Hugo took us for a drive in his personal car, a 1967 Beetle that also serves as a demonstrator for his services and is equipped with a very personalized engine under the deck. Hugo shares the nitty-gritty: “It used to be a 1,200cc. Now, it’s upgraded to a 2,300cc with 200 horsepower. That’s a dyno-corrected number for the altitude. We use some high-performance heads. They have 44mm by 37.5mm valves with titanium retainers. Wiseco pistons. Scat crankshaft and chromoly rods. A pair of Weber 48 IDA carbs—the same as used on the Shelby Cobra race car. For the transmission, the case is the same, but we only upgraded the ring and pinion for more speed. It has a 3.88 German ring and pinion the way we have it now in place of the 4.37 it came with. The transmission, we only beef it up for that kind of horsepower.”

Keeping the speed in check is a four-wheel-disc braking system, also sourced from an American supplier. It features single-piston calipers at all four corners with slightly larger-diameter discs in the front. The wheels are high-quality Fuchs knockoffs from Japan, 15 by 5.5 inches with 185/55R15 rubber in the front and 205/55R15 in the rear. The whole package looks right.

When Hugo fires up the car for a drive around the northern part of Mexico City, there is no mistaking the car’s sporting intent. The 2,300cc powerplant carries a significant bark, as it breathes through an A1 exhaust system that features 1¾-inch diameter steel headers with 2½-inch mandrel-bent pipes and free-flowing mufflers. This is one angry Bug!

With less than 2,000 pounds to haul around (perhaps just a bit more with two 40-something guys in the front seats), this little car gets up and goes. The acceleration is visceral, with a significant kick in the backside. Fortunately, this day, traffic is relatively light by Mexico City’s notorious standards. As Hugh rows the gears, the engine climbs well past the typical Bug’s pedestrian redline, engine sucking hard through its twin Weber carbs, and breathing even harder through the custom exhaust setup. It’s as if a pair of hot-rod Harleys have been trapped behind us and forced to synchronize their output for the two tires also back there. It’s a thrill and even with the altitude sucking off a bunch of that 200 horsepower, it’s clear this is no ordinary Beetle.

After our spirited drive, Hugo shows us a few customer cars he keeps in storage, ranging from the Sixties into the Eighties. There’s even a Jetta from the Eighties in the mix, but it’s more than outnumbered by the rows of Beetles. The paintwork, interior, and mechanical bits all appear top notch. Some feature the mods found on Hugo’s car, while others are closer to stock.

It’s clear that, while Volkswagen no longer produces the Type 1 sedan, the car lives on in its final stronghold. While the everyday-driver Beetles will probably always be a part of the Mexican landscape, their dwindling numbers are starting to give way to well-preserved and restored cars that are more frequently wearing autoantiguo license plates for vintage vehicles. The spirit and love Mexicans have for their Bugs also remains as strong as ever. Viva el Vocho!