Words & Photos by Henry Phull
There’s no hiding the fact that the UK car scene has become somewhat stale as of late, and this isn’t just my point of view, there’s plenty of you that agree with me… Let’s not hide it. The idea of buying a newer car, paying it off monthly, and sticking on some air ride and wheels, is extremely tempting. It’s a sure way of becoming involved in the car community that we all know. But, where’s the fun in that? Although I still admire each car that has undergone any sort of modification resulting in a better look than stock, there’s a massive lack of passion by just bagging a modern car and changing the wheels. Obviously, this isn’t the case for every ‘show car’ out there, which brings me on to our latest feature, Ben Rye’s ’57 Beetle. I first came across this neck-breaking project at the VolksWorld Show 2016, where it was wearing a slightly different guise, but still looked absolutely badass… plenty of patina, visible rust and it was laying frame. It was just cool. Throughout the rest of the year, I kept seeing the Beetle at all the big car shows – particularly ones you wouldn’t expect to see a ratty Beetle at. From my experience, most air-cooled fans tend not to get involved with a lot of the events that we attend. What I love about Ben, along with a handful of his friends, is that they don’t care about what others think. They build cars that they truly love, but still like to show them off to the mainstream show scene. I love their whole attitude… a sort of big “fuck off” to what the masses are led to believe what cool is. This is really rare for such young people and an absolute breath of fresh air.
Aged 25, Ben has had his fair share of project cars already, including a Mk2 Golf track car with full race cage, floor-mounted pedal box and much more. His real craving, however, has always been for air-cooled Volkswagens. “As long as I can really remember I always wanted a split-screen camper” he recalls, but with the price of these sky-high and steadily rising, he ended up with a modest T25 camper, which consequently planted his passion for old VW’s. With the ease of working on these cars himself along with the sheer amount of parts still available to keep them on the road, he could really get involved in every aspect of building a car.
On to the Beetle in question, then… Ben came across the car whilst doing what he does on most of his breaks as a full-time builder, searching every Beetle-related page on the internet for something cool to pop up! Eventually, a Beetle caught his eye on a page in Holland. It wasn’t just any Beetle, but an ‘Oval’ factory ragtop, a very special combination. Ben admits that it didn’t even look that great in the photographs, but he knew it was worth saving and bringing back to life.
Consequently, this meant a roadtrip to Holland with his daily T5 van and trailer. Incredibly, he made the journey over all on his own. “When I got there my heart sort of sank. It was way worse than I thought it was going to be”, that would’ve been enough to put anyone off, however, Ben loaded it up and brought it home anyway! “I was already in Holland and I had euros to spend” he laughs.
Ben already had a vision and knew that he wanted the Beetle bagged and laying flat on the floor, even before he had bought it. However, the car was in such a bad way, that it needed restoring first. This actually gave him the chance to learn how to get it sitting on the floor in the best possible way, as he got to experience the car as a bare shell throughout the rebuilding process. After six months of cutting and grinding and generally making it roadworthy including recommissioning the single port 1300 motor, he was finally at a point where he could experiment with getting the Beetle to lay frame.
Starting with the floor pans, these had to be cut, flattened and welded back into place. The front of the car then had to be pie cut, which involved cutting a pie-shape section out of the chassis, and bending the chassis itself upwards to allow for more ground clearance. Doing this also realigned the wheels into the centre of the arch when driving the car low. “Lots of people miss this part on a beetle” Ben hints.
Finally, Ben had to raise the engine and gearbox to get the car sitting absolutely flat on the floor. He next turned his attention to the custom air ride setup. He opted for Air Lift Performance universal bags, but this still meant that he had to work on custom bag mounts to attach them to the chassis, mocking up everything at first with hardboard and a glue gun. “From there I could take the mock-up to the computer and replicate it into a cutting file” Ben explains. He then had his dad help with the technical CAD drawings before sending them off to be laser cut.
He received the finished mounts back already cut and folded, ready to be welded straight to the car. This was just one of the custom components that had to be fabricated, with each going through a similar process. “Design something. Make it, test it. There isn’t really a company out there that can make a kit up like I wanted. I found it much easier to make it myself, probably saving a couple of grand throughout the process, too.” he reveals.
With the airbags secured in place, the suspension was brought together using Air Lift Performance’s Autopilot V2 digital management system, with the controller tastefully mounted in the passenger glove compartment, along with a VIAIR 444c compressor and a 4-gallon tank visible through the rear oval window. This allows Ben to completely lay frame when parked up, and drive at a reasonable height – a lifesaver when he has to get in and out of his home… the local roads are atrocious!
With the Beetle restored, roadworthy, and slammed, Ben turned his attention to the wheels. “Following the theme of building as much of this car as possible, I decided to have a go myself…” With a few sets of 3-piece custom Beetle steel splits surfacing prior, he wanted to do something similar for his Oval. However, the existing sets were built into 17″ diameter – far too big to lay frame with. Ben knew he had to stick to a 15″ wheel, for the overall look of the car.
“I just figured it out; made a custom centre, purchased the lips and barrels and had some new hubcaps waiting already… that’s it really” he explains. The splits were paired with 185/45 and 165/45 tyres. The wheels are the icing on the cake with this build. Albeit a ratty, rusty looking shell, it’s made super-cool and approachable with the ‘icy’ wheels. Since these turned out so well, Ben already has plans for more custom 3-piece Beetle wheels this year to change things up slightly.
It’s not often that a car can bring a lifestyle change and business opportunities, but the process of building the Oval has helped bring Ben’s new business, HR Autoworks, into fruition. Teaming up with Jake Hilling, another Beetle enthusiast that Ben actually met through Instagram, they first got talking about their love for air-cooled cars, which led on to designing parts together and talking about a business. “It’s now becoming something more than just building a car for me. It’s building the next car that excites me more. I don’t know if that’s a good or bad thing, but I just keep seeing people building cool stuff which really makes me want to step it up” he says. The guys are half way between building a spray booth in their unit and already have cars lined up for their custom air installs. “It’s all just escalated very quickly but we really can’t complain as we will both get to do this full-time in the near future” he says gracefully. This is just the beginning of HR Autoworks, I think we’ll be seeing a lot more of these boys in the near future. If Ben’s Beetle is anything to go by, I think they have a bright future ahead of them.