In early 2013 Eric Ackroyd noticed a yellow Beetle ‘parked’ under a tree when visiting a friend. The Beetle was Anton’s first car; he and his wife had many a romantic holiday in it and he was not interested in selling it – his intention was to fix it up one day…
Fast forward to 27 May 2014: the Beetle is still parked under the tree and I am having breakfast with Anton. Casually interrupting our business talk, he mentions that he is selling the Beetle and that someone is coming to look at it over lunchtime. “How much”, I ask. “Three thousand Rands”, he answers. We agree, and while he gets the breakfast bill, I walk over to the ATM and withdraw the funds. There are conditions though: the next breakfast is on me and he will have first option to buy the Beetle back should I ever want to sell it.
Our ‘Classic Journey’ was underway. To me every car should have a purpose, it gives it soul. My first objective was to get the Beetle through roadworthy for as little money as possible. I decided to lay down pen and paper, take up tools and get the Beetle running. Changing Beetle spark plugs proved to be a mission. Finding time to take up tools was proving to be a mission. It did not take long for me to realise that I was more useful in the pen and paper arena. The Beetle was promptly towed over to Joe who runs a ‘basic’ VW operation about 500 metres from my house. One new ignition switch, a clean fuel tank, a carburettor kit, plugs, condenser and points and a new windscreen and we got the Beetle through roadworthy at a total vehicle cost of R8 500.
The classic journey continued as I proceeded to test the Beetle’s stamina. A few breakfast runs to the Cradle of Humankind resulted in a couple of breakdowns. Getting a classic car to drive is one thing, getting a classic car to drive far is another thing altogether.
As I gained confidence in the Beetle’s ability and reliability, the idea of an adventure started brewing, an adventure up Sani Pass, Lesotho. In 1956 Sy Symons became the first person to drive a two wheel drive car up Sani Pass, nogal a Beetle. The Beetle had a new purpose and I started to build my trust in it. I also started to experiment with tyres – big ones for good ground clearance. I bought 5 second-hand Jeep tyres (700 X 15) but despite having the ability to drive the Beetle over an ant heap, they proved to be just too big. The gear ratio was very high and the tyres were getting stuck on the body. After some research I traded the Jeep tyres for new 195 X 80 X 15 eight ply white-wall taxi tyres. I figured that these would be more versatile, both good for rough terrain and also good for ‘boulevard cruising’ down 4th Avenue, Parkhurst.
The adventure was coming together, D-day was 2 days away, Sani Pass was 640km away…and the Beetle was backfiring and the carburettor was leaking. It seemed like the adventure was in jeopardy, not unusual for a classic adventure. I needed a Plan B. I could take my 1970 Mini 998 MK3. She made it to the Equator and back in 2008 and managed to conquer the Roof of Africa route through Lesotho and down Sani Pass in the winter of 2013. I consulted Scott Rainier from Emgee Workshop who had attempted Sani Pass with his 1275 Mini, only to run out of power at the Sani Pass switchbacks. “No ways”, he responded. “Your Mini is way too underpowered.” I did not like his advice so I put pen to paper and calculated the loss of power at altitude. The Mini had 28kW coming out of the factory, she lost a number of them over the years and the Wikipedia formula said she would lose approximately another 9kW at an altitude of 2 876m, that would leave her with 19kW at best. Scott was right, but I was going to Sani, come hell or high water.
I phoned Pierre ‘Bugger’ Eksteen from VdubTech. Unbeknown to me he had driven up Sani Pass in his Beetle a number of years ago. My brief to him was short – make sure the Beetle can make it to Sani and back.
D-day dawns and I collect the Beetle from VdubTech at 12h00. It is not ideal for me to set off in a car that has not been tested thoroughly close to home, but off we go. We reach Old Halliwell near Currys Post in the dark. Next morning sees an early rise and we head off for Sani Pass. We stop at the South African border post at the bottom of the pass and I notice the sign stating that only 4X4s may continue up Sani Pass.
I am generally apprehensive at border posts. All goes well and then the border official asks for our registration number. Celeste points towards the Beetle that I had purposefully parked as far away as possible. “What is that?” he asks. “Beetle”, replies my son Danny. The dreaded question follows: “Is it a 4X4?”
An inspection follows. I explain the benefits of the high rise 195 X 80 X 15 eight ply tyres, the spade on the roof rack and the tow hooks front and rear. I explain that the engine is at the back for more weight and traction on the rear wheels and that the Beetle is more reliable because it does not have a radiator. I then show him the left and right heater levers next to the handbrake; he may have mistaken them for diff-lock levers. Fortunately we passed the test and thankfully without even a hint for a bribe
Sani Pass shows no signs of being tarred. We cross the occasional water stream and the road starts snaking its way up the mountain. The road is quiet; only two Land Rovers pass by us. Fortunately we only have to traverse some minor mud patches due to the previous day’s rain. The sky is clear and the road is dry. As we approach the notorious switchbacks I feel the tension in the car mount.
I notice the kilowatts lost to altitude as I gun the Beetle into the switchbacks. The road is narrow, the hairpin bends are sharp and the corners are blind. I am in first gear, pedal is on the floor and the flat four is working as hard as she can. So far so good. The tactic is to focus, give it horns, read the track, choose a line on the bends that maintains momentum, keep that motor alive, and most importantly, not to look down.
Attempting the last switchbacks the Beetle labours, she loses revs and settles into a desperate crawl. “Go Beetle, go, beep-beep!” come our shrieks of encouragement. The Beetle digs deep, gathers her last kilowatt and drags herself to the top, Sani Top.
That evening we celebrate in the highest pub in Africa at Sani Mountain Lodge. I reflect on our journey. To me there is so much joy in bringing a car to life, to give it purpose and to get to know its character, behaviour and heartbeat. It would not be half as much fun if we were to bring an ‘off-the-shelf’ 4X4 along for the journey; it would simply be too easy and without soul. The joy of a Classic Journey is just that – the joy is in both the Classic and in the Journey.