Baja Bug lowrider - Volkswagen Beetle
What do you get if you cross a Baja Bug with a lowrider? NeilHansford may well have the answer…
Words: Mark Walker
Photos: Reeve Photography
It’s funny how influences that we pick up in life tend to stick with us; we tend to park them in a long-forgotten dusty part of our minds, like a car project that we figuratively put under a cover in the corner of a dark storage unit for some indeterminable point in the distant future. Of course, many people do this with actual cars too, only to somehow return to them years or decades down the line.
I always think it’s great how diverse we are as humans and how one particular influence might hit a bullseye with one person, whereas the same influence will go over the heads of countless others. I love how diverse the human race is, which makes it really puzzling when some people don’t embrace diversity and are hyper-critical over other people’s choices to me. When I witness this kind of negativity I always just think “You do you and I’ll do me” comes to mind. Even if something isn’t to my taste, I can respect that someone else loves it.
One of the early influences that stuck with Neil Hansford is being at an early Bug Jam at age 17, when there were Bajas everywhere with stingers fitted; I remember this myself, especially being woken by the sound of a stinger apparently inches from your tent at some ungodly hour. Neil has embraced these early influences and those that include beach buggies too; he has a very nice and simple early style Manx, as well as a lowered Karmann Cab on Magnus Walker rims and a bone stock ’64 Bug.
I’ve written before in my column how some people only like a certain style, whereas others (me included) like a diverse range of things and Neil is one of these ‘others’ too; he also owns a stock Mk1 Golf Clipper convertible and I get the feeling that if it has a VW badge on it, then he’s up for owning it, but even so, this project kind of came about by accident when he discovered that a neighbour had a stock white ’71 Beetle in his garage that he’s stripped for resto.
“It was his retirement project” adds Neil, which he’d stripped for resto and then stalled with: “I said the usual that most of us would in the circumstances – if you want to get rid of it, let me know – but didn’t hold out much hope; someone else had tried to buy it but they wanted to build a buggy out of it and he wasn’t keen” added Neil. In the end he did get the call and, in the process of becoming the car’s new owner, he might have promised he’d restore the car to stock…
That was 7 years ago and it was one of those weird purchases where Neil didn’t really know what to do with it, so it just sat around for a while. The Baja idea had been at the back of his mind for decades and back then there weren’t really any Bajas around on the scene at all; Baja was a dirty word in the UK for a few decades; it was seen as the ultimate in poor taste, which wasn’t helped by the style of a lot of the builds – or questionably designed kits – back in the UK 80s Baja heyday.
Before Covid, Neil had spoken to Dean Jones at Classic Car Revivals about the idea, then more seriously at Volksworld Show 2019, to the point where work on the car was started. A lot of welding had already been done by the previous owner, but this all had to be redone. In the end, the channels and the entire front of the car were cut off, as well as plenty of work being needed in the driver’s side A-pillar, as the previous owner had reversed into their garage with the door open, which as you can imagine was a right mess.
As well as the metal restoration, there we a few mods that were decided upon to make the car seem a little earlier, as well as a more slick-looking package. The half-moon vents behind the rear quarter windows were welded up and the usual scruffy unfinished running board areas on Baja Bugs were capped over, with the lower rear quarters being extended downwards to match – something which never happens on 99% of Baja builds.
After a ton of metal repair had been done, Neil decided to pause the project for a little while, so Dean put it up on the mezzanine for a bit of a rest and recoup. This was 4 years ago: “It’s kind of a shame that the build was paused for a while, as there were no Bajas being built at that point and it would have been quite a coup” added Dean. When the project was re-started, they ordered a Bugeye Baja kit from Rob Kilham at East Coast Buggies: “He was very truthful about the kit and the amount of work that would be needed to get it to fit right, although I believe he’s made it better now, but Dean got it to fit really nice” adds Neil.
The front headlight area on most of these kits doesn’t include headlight bowls, which means water ingress in the luggage area if you get caught in the rain, so this was addressed with some Mini bowls. The rear wings were also different from side to side. The fact that Dean and his team did a complete dry build of the car before paint really helped matters – can you imagine if they’d done all the custom paint and then ran into issues with panel fit – doesn’t really bear thinking about.
With everything fitting right, the paint duties came down to Chris; he painted a black base coat and then gold before Christmas ’22. This was after a lot of decisions on paint colours; it was originally between red and green, so Chris did some spray outs and once Neil had decided on red, he was undecided between red and gold or red and silver. In the end, Chris painted 2 Beetle decklids so Neil could get a proper idea of how the chosen colours would work together, which swayed the decision towards gold.
Chris then drew a centre line down the roof of the car and just went for it, really letting his creativity run riot. Neil has always loved the custom car and lowrider scenes too and wanted the finished car to transcend just one scene: “I didn’t want a car that only fitted into one scene, as I planned to take it to lots of different shows, which is exactly what I’m now doing” added Neil.
In the end, the paint was so involved that Chris was still painting the wings the week of Volksworld Show ’23, where the car was booked to be on the Volksworld Stand: “There was no margin for error, which made things a bit nervewracking, but luckily there were no issues” adds Dean. When you’re used to building cars to this standard, a last-minute rush isn’t ideal, but it’s all part of pushing the boundaries.
But the car isn’t just about the paint; It’s clearly lowered, which in itself attracts negativity from some ranks, at least in the Vintage Baja Bugs Facebook group – some people love it and some people hate it. I love a traditional Baja, but there’s something about slammed Street Bajas that also appeals to me; it’s nice to build a car outside of the usual parameters or conceptual boxes that most people build for themselves.
The car is fitted with a stock-width beam and drop spindles, with a big brake kit and a high-ratio swing axle transmission, even though most people favour IRS when building Bajas due to being able to go higher (or lower) with less camber issues. The engine is a mild 1776cc from The VW Engine Company with 40IDF Webers and a custom stainless exhaust made by a local fabricator – Overkill Performance. Chris went crazy detailing the engine too; as well as the wild tinware he also painted the cars in gloss black.
The team didn’t rest on their laurels when it came to the interior either, although this caused some jangled nerves in the run-up to Volksworld Show too. The trimming was taken on by Dave The Trimmer from Cranfield, but the woven leather had to be ordered from Estonia and was sent back to Estonia by customs officials in Germany, so Dave donated the front seats out of his own car just to get it to Volksworld. As well as the woven and smooth leather on the seats, there’s leather on the tunnel and Alcantara on the headliner, as well as square weave carpets with leather trim.
The gauges were custom finished by Julian at Reap Automotive, who mainly does Porsche stuff, but happily took on the challenge to create something a bit different; an earlier speedo was used without the integral fuel gauge and an earlier fuel gauge added for another subtle backdate in style. The wiring loom was custom built by Iain Burns of Aircooled Auto Electrics: “It is a great bit of kit, with all of the breakout points exactly where we wanted them” adds Dean.
In the end, Neil got exactly the car he’d always dreamed about, even though he left a lot of the finer details up to Dean and his team: “I just left Dean to it – I trust his judgment” added Neil. “It was all about having a bit of fun and putting a smile on people’s faces, even if doing up a ’71 Beetle doesn’t make common sense. But I did it anyway and people love it, especially kids, who are less constrained by adult norms” added Neil. He’d obviously like to extend a huge Thank You and a big debt of gratitude to Dean and Chris for knocking it out of the park.
“There was no margin for error, which made things a bit nervewracking"