An unmolested 1960 Volkswagen Convertible made the best restoration candidate. Photos by Jeff Koch, except restoration photos courtesy Michael Etchepare and West Coast Classic Restorations.
It’s the most commonly offered piece of restoration advice ever uttered: “Start with the best example you can find.” This seems like a no-brainer, of course, because the more solid and complete the car, the less work and expense the restoration will entail. Sometimes, though, that advice goes out the window when a vehicle comes with an emotional attachment, or when rarity plays a role. You wouldn’t think that someone in search of a restorable vintage Volkswagen Convertible would have a hard search for a suitable car, but for our feature car owner, that was the case. He took that advice, though, and the result of his savvy choice was this award-winning topless bug.
“As a child, I was fascinated by VWs,” recalls Trabuco Canyon, California, resident Michael Etchepare. “When I was born in April 1963, my dad owned a Beryl Green 1962 Beetle that he’d bought new. I have recollections of that car, which he owned for five years before replacing it with Volkswagen Squarebacks, one in 1967 and a second in 1969. I have fond memories of going with my dad to take his VWs to various Volkswagen dealerships in the Orange County area for service.” A 40,000-mile 1976 Sedan was Michael’s college car–“I did all my own maintenance; it was reliable, affordable to operate and insure”–and his first new car was a 1986 Vanagon. “No other brand of automobile ever interested me,” he says.
“By the late 1990s, I’d purchased my first house and still had enough disposable income to support a ‘hobby car.’ I had always admired VW Convertibles because they looked fun, and to me, were the quintessential California car. I looked for a suitable candidate, but it didn’t take long to realize pre-1967 Convertibles had become a rarity in any condition; most were rust buckets. I wanted something ready to drive, but the more I looked, I found that most of these cars hadn’t been kept up, and were in pretty rough shape.”
Michael continues: “Through the Internet, I learned of a restoration shop in Fullerton [California] that specializes in Volkswagens. I made a trip up to see Lenny Copp, owner of West Coast Classic Restorations. He also sold quality VWs on consignment. He listed his current offerings on the shop’s website, to which I quickly became addicted. Despite his nice selection of Beetles, Buses, Karmann Ghias and Squarebacks, Convertibles were nowhere to be found, until April 2000, when early one morning, I visited the site and saw a ‘survivor’ 1960 Convertible that Lenny had just listed.”
Volkswagen treated the Type 1 variants to many upgrades through the 1960s, and 1960 models got some of those changes. That was the first year when U.S. sales topped 100,000 units (127,159, up from 1959’s 96,892), and while 1960s were the last Type 1s to use the 36hp, 1,192cc engine, “split case” gearbox with unsynchronized first gear and the manual choke, it was the first year for pushbutton door handles, a steering damper and an improved heater. The Karmann-built Convertible cost $2,055, $500 more than the Sedan.
“I immediately made the half-hour trek up to his shop to see it,” he says. “The car was dry and not missing anything. Lenny took me for a spin; it started quickly and ran really well. There was something about this particular car that drew me in. I could tell that it had been cared for by someone who appreciated it. This Convertible was actually a one-owner vehicle, and it came with a stack of documents.” Michael knew, from his research into the Convertible market, this car represented a unique opportunity, so he made an offer, and by the end of the day, owned the car. “Lenny used to say that I held the record for the quickest purchase off of his website.”
Michael’s 1960 Volkswagen was built to U.S. specifications, but delivered new to an American serviceman in Italy; the car’s vintage registration papers indicate that it moved here permanently in 1963. He spent the spring and summer of 2000 getting to know the Convertible, and that August, he brought it back to West Coast Classic Restorations for “the works.” “I originally wanted a sunny weekend driver that would be fun to drive and show and simple to work on, but since the car was so original and complete, I decided it was worthy of a ground-up restoration.”
Lenny’s firm has been specializing in vintage air-cooled Volkswagen restorations since the mid-1980s, and they’re noted for their use of factory-correct materials and methods. This unmolested Convertible made an excellent choice for an authentic restoration. “All of the original paint was there, but it had worn down to the primer in places,” Michael remembers. “The original seat upholstery was intact, but it had faded. The convertible top had been re-skinned in white vinyl. The engine leaked a little oil by the oil cooler seals, but it started quickly and ran flawlessly. The transaxle didn’t pop out of gear, but it whined when idling in neutral with the clutch engaged. The bumpers were very pitted, but restorable.”
The team at West Coast Classic Restoration disassembled the car, separating the body from the chassis, or “pan,” in VW-speak. “We took the doors, fenders, and hoods off, and took the whole car down to bare metal using chemical stripper. I won’t sandblast the body of a nice car that’s never been wavy, even using walnut shells–I don’t trust it,” Lenny explains. “We found just one quarter-sized dent in the entire body.” While the floors, and even the notorious-to-rust battery box were solid, the Convertible’s special strengthening rails, which run from front to rear under the rocker panel for added torsional rigidity, required replacement. “We drilled out all of the spot welds to take it apart the same way that it was put together. We installed new metal using a spot-welder.”
While the bodywork was being done, they had the chassis, spring plates, brake backing plates and other components sandblasted. “We powdercoat these parts in the correct satin black, for durability,” Lenny says. “There are powdercoaters every other block out here, so the cost isn’t prohibitive–it costs around $200 to do the entire chassis.” The original 15 x 4-inch steel wheels were also powdercoated in the correct two-tone finish for “L41” black-painted cars: Pearl White centers and black rims.
The bare metal body, doors, fenders and front and rear decklids were sprayed with PCL Automotive green etching primer. Lenny’s painters followed this with PCL high-build yellow primer-sealer. Knowing the car would be returned to its factory black finish, they took great care ensuring the smoothest surface with a light black guide coat. “When your body work’s done, you dust this on, sand it, and if any black shows through [after block sanding], you know you have more work to do,” he says. “You’ve got to make it that perfect, because it should be like a mirror when you’re done.”
The painters started with the inside of the car, spraying the body’s inner fender areas, footwells and engine and luggage compartments first, then carefully masking them off with paper to avoid overspray from the dashboard and exterior paint. The body and, separately, the doors, fenders and decklids, were treated to five coats of single-stage Glasurit acrylic urethane paint. They were wet-sanded between coats with 2,000-grade paper.
Following the factory’s practice, the pan was fitted with the mechanical components required to drive, shift and stop the car. The transmission required rebuilding, Lenny explains, “If the car is running and you press the clutch and the rumbling noise goes away, that indicates the main shaft is failing–this happens a lot in Volkswagens. There are no aftermarket replacements, so we have to find an NOS part to install. I make sure that my transmission shop doesn’t paint the case black, because most shops do that automatically, but these weren’t so painted at the factory. We insist they use our original nuts and bolts as well, because if not, they’ll use new ones that aren’t the right type.”
These specialists take authenticity seriously, fitting Michael’s bug with factory-style one-piece axle boots instead of the common split replacements. “If you go to a repair shop with a leaky boot, they’ll replace it with half boots that bolt together, but these are the original style that goes on before the axle is put together,” Lenny says. West Coast Classic Restorations ran new clutch and brake lines, and fit the brake cables with their lettering up, to show the “Made in Germany” stamps. “You can still get most of the good German mechanical parts–wheel bearings and cylinders, the brakes–from Wolfsburg West.”
One component that didn’t require much work was the flat-four engine. “They refreshed the heads during the restoration, and compression is good, but to my knowledge, the bottom end has never been redone,” Michael reflects. “It runs very well, but I know there will likely come a time when it needs a complete teardown. For the past few years, I’ve been building a collection of hard-to-find NOS and OEM engine components; to date, I’ve amassed enough parts to completely rebuild my engine from the bottom up. Since it is a numbers-matching car, I realized early on that it’s vital to preserve the engine, and having these parts ready will ensure the car’s ‘pedigree’ is maintained.”
After the body was mated with the pan, the wiring and dash assembly followed. “The gauges were not re-faced as they were fully operational and in excellent cosmetic condition,” he remembers. “All gauges had original VW date stampings on the back, confirming their originality to the car. The dealer accessory Becker Europa radio was working when I bought the car; I restored the faceplate by stripping the satin silver background, polishing the chrome, masking off the outer edges of the chrome and applying the satin silver paint I purchased from Eastwood.”
Lenny’s shop has been specializing in VW upholstery for 20 years, so they were able to hand-stitch new seat covers in the correct patterns and True Red leatherette color, also creating new carpeting and a canvas top boot. “Michael’s door panels are the original ones that came with the car,” he says. “That’s why you see a bit of staining on them…those originals were better than new aftermarket ones.” The complex cabriolet-style top was rebuilt with original-style materials, including the proper stretch wool headliner. “A lot of people won’t use that because it’s very expensive. They call it stretch wool for a reason–it stretches with the top. I’ve seen others use regular headliner material, but that rips when you put the top up and down.” Final details included reinstalling the original bumpers and hubcaps, which Michael had re-chromed by South Bay Chrome in Santa Ana, California, and fitting the period-style Denman Eleganté bias-ply tires.
Although the entire restoration took about two years, it was a comparable breeze, according to Lenny. “You don’t normally find cars this solid and complete, but if you can find a car like this, don’t be afraid to do it. Although we did a nut-and-bolt body-off restoration, it was the dream car to restore.” And for Michael, this show-winner was the culmination of a life’s dream. “When the restoration was complete, my dad flew down from Washington to pick up the car with me. We drove it home together, and it was a real ‘blast from the past’ for both of us. I bet he never figured he’d be doing the same thing 40 years after buying his 1962 Beetle.”
This article originally appeared in the March, 2012 issue of Hemmings Sports & Exotic Car.