EMPI VW Beetle How Dan Gurney made this the king of bugs Promising ‘Porsche-like handling’ and promoted by Dan Gurney, the EMPI GTV was the king of the Bugs. This one survived a near-death experience… Words Andy Talbot. Photography. Jonathan Jacob Additional images Nige Fleet.
This bug bites EMPI GTV BEETLE
It’s just a yellow Beetle, isn’t it?’ said one passer-by on our photoshoot. But this is no ordinary Beetle. It has an American accent, is dressed in racy clothes and has a bit more muscle than the usual 1972 Beetle driven by a student and sporting a Hawaiian lei garland hanging from its rear-view mirror.
This is what Joe Vittone, creator of the Californian aftermarket parts company, EMPI, referred to as The Muscle Beetle or The Sports Car in a Box. ‘With EMPIs GTV modifications, a Volkswagen can claim any mass-production sports car in the world as its peer,’ said author Sebastian Rond in Volkswagen Greats, 1970. It’s also a survivor, nearly wiped out in 2012 but saved from the scrapyard, Thus could have ended this rare car’s place in the history of the performance VW.
EMPI (European Motor Products Incorporated) was created by Joe Vittone in 1954 as a sideline to his Economotors VW dealership next to Riverside Raceway, initially to market his own quality- engineered replacement valve guides. Joe was a stickler for quality workmanship, and he hated the wastefulness of VWs suggestion that, when a Beetle’s valve guides failed, the whole cylinder head should be scrapped. Just because of a few thousandths of an inch of wear.
Economotors’ customers also wanted more power from the little VW sedan. Joe obliged by adding EMPI- branded performance upgrades supplied by the likes of Beetle-tuning specialists Denzel and Okrasa, and then began extending his annual EMPI catalogue of parts and accessories. Other innovations included developing the EMPI Camber Compensator and the Track-Tru anti-sway bar for the Beetle, a year before VW added similar items to the factory specification.
There’s even a British connection. In 1963, Vittone turned to champion driver Graham Hill and his Speedwell company. Joe granted Hill manufacturing rights to some EMPI performance products and vice versa, with both brands sold either side of ‘the pond’ for the Beetle and British sports cars. And the catalogue duly continued to expand.
Never missing a trick, EMPI built the Porsche-engined race version of Herbie for the Love Bug (1969), with race scenes filmed at Riverside Raceway, That car, H2, is also in the UK. EMPI even honed many of its performance and handling products on the racetrack, ‘The fastest VW in the world, race-tested by Dan Gurney; an EMPI promotion might read. Gurney, a friend of Vittone, was often shown at the wheel of the EMPI Inch Pincher race car in ‘Grand Prix of Volkswagens’ races and development tests at Riverside.
Well aware of the muscle cars being produced from the DNA of Detroit sedans straight from the line, Vittone wondered if that philosophy would work with the foreign cars he was selling. So, between 1966 and 1973, Economotors offered complete new VW Beetles fitted with a range of EMPI parts but still covered by a full Volkswagen warranty. Simply called the EMPI GTV, the last initial standing for Volkswagen rather than Veloce, the special Beetles were also referred to as the ‘Mod Rod’ or ‘Mini Porsche’ in marketing material, The stunning period artwork of the marketing material, by Heinz Jung, tuned into the times: ‘Happiness is an EMPI GTV’ was the vibe.
Furnished with a full Volkswagen of America warranty from Economotors, the EMPI GTV could be ordered in different specifications with the buyer able to add more accessories from the 1966 to 1972 catalogues at the time of purchase, This meant that many of the GTV Beetles sold, numbering somewhere between 150 and 200, were quite individual. Prices for fully equipped GTV Beetles made them almost as costly as an entry-level Ford Mustang.
The EMPI handling tweaks and performance carburettors made the little Bugs a very different proposition for Economotors’ customers. ‘Drive the EMPI-GTV- the new “mod rod”!’ shouted the ads. ‘It takes about 30 seconds to know that you’re behind the wheel of the best VW ever built. Our bright red test car had the camber compensator in back and an anti-sway bar in front, This, coupled with the 1967 Beetle suspension changes, provided Porsche-like handling,’ wrote Sooperwagens Eugene Martin.
Unlike some dealership-created muscle cars, such as the 1966 Chevrolet Corvair ‘Yenko Stinger’, the first EMPI GTV Beetle was as much about marketing the EMPI brand and Economotors as it was about the product catalogues. Volkswagen’s HQ in Wolfsburg was intrigued by the EMPI sideline and what Economotors was doing in Riverside, even allowing an EMPI GTV to join the line-up of Volkswagen show demonstrators at the 1969 Frankfurt motor show. In lateryears VW would have its own range of motorsport- inspired ‘Formula Vee’ products.
Nige Fleet of Cheshire is one of the foremost EMPI collectors in the UK. Given the history of the GTV, it’s no surprise that this long-time fan of air- cooled Volkswagens fancied a genuine EMPI GTV Beetle. GTVs weren’t sold outside the USA, and Nige believes there are only about six GTVs surviving in a near-original state. Any chances of finding a genuine and complete GTV were slim, then.
‘I wanted a GTV so bad,’ Nige says, ‘I had to jump at it and take the risk of importing a write-off.’ He had been following a topic thread on a global VW enthusiast site, thesamba.com. Zach Gomulka had been writing about a Texas Yellow 1972 EMPI GTV Beetle that he had spotted and bought in Wyoming. Zach recalls. ‘I saw the C-stripe out of the corner of my eye and stopped the car immediately. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. It was like being face-to-face with Bigfoot or something, The owner had owned the car since new and had recently taken it out to replace the garage doors, but the car didn’t make it back in. That’s when I found it. The guy said: “It’s the EMPI model, whatever that means.” I knew.’
This lucky find was still equipped with its EMPI GTV package of parts and upgrades, such as the EMPI Lemmerz Sprint Star wheels, EMPI gauges, wood- effect dash trim and E-Z-R quickshift gearstick. The surviving parts also included the rare brass oil temperature and pressure sender unit with embossed EMPI logo, the original fanbelt guard, the ‘Santana- style’ degree-marked pulley, the deep magnesium sump and the cast aluminium valve covers. Inside the engine, the oil pump, camshaft gear and rockers all featured a cast EMPI logo, but this GTV retained the stock four-speed gearbox, The EMPI GTV C-stripe stick-on decals were also on the car, without which Zach might not have spotted it for what it was.
The GTV was put back on the road in March 2007. By May 2010 the 1679cc engine had been removed and rebuilt. Sadly, in the summer of 2012, the very original GTV suffered devastating damage while returning from a big VW classic event, ‘The show had been an absolute highlight of my life,’ remembers Zach ruefully. ‘I was searching for the freeway entrance sign. I missed the red light and went through it. A Toyota Camry didn’t see my mistake and hit me square in the passenger side. I was crushed [luckily, not literally]. Best weekend ever turned completely on its head.’
The crash looked terminal, with a Toyota-shaped concave impression in the GTV’s right side. At the very least the roof, chassis, floorpan and a whole side of body panels were contorted. Zach was ready to part- out the car piece by piece after he found no takers for the wrecked whole. ‘I felt gutted, and that’s a massive understatement,’ he says, ‘The car was driving absolutely brilliantly: power, handling, stopping, comfort. It was extremely well-balanced. I give credit to the original EMPI engineers, They knew just what the car needed, without going too far.’
We all know how it is when a love for motoring history narrows the perspective and helps us make decisions with heart rather than mind, and it’s one such story that saved the little yellow Muscle Beetle. Nige says: ‘I had followed Zachs thread on thesamba. com, and I wanted it! After studying photos, and ascertaining it still rolled, I bought the GTV in its damaged state. It arrived in the UK in December 2012.’
Once the GTV was at his house, Nige contacted David Lowe at V Dub Bodyshop of Audlem, Cheshire to put together a plan to repair the nearside and resurrect the GTV, or to see if a plan were even possible, This was not going to be a simple restoration job.
Each panel of the GTV retained history of a life lived, a few marks here and there and those C-stripes that had survived since their application to the paint in 1972. Thankfully, most of the EMPI exterior parts had survived intact. For Nige, the heart of the project was about maintaining the patina and the original paint, keeping the replacement of panels and parts to a minimum and matching paint that had been exposed to variously extreme winters and summers in Wyoming and Phoenix, Arizona.
Nige and Dave put together a plan that involved the replacement of the damaged lower rear quarter and a complete passenger door. Nige still has the twisted door in his garage as a reminder of the car’s trauma. Damage to the front and rear wings was repaired or straightened, maintaining most of the original Wolfsburg steel, The floorpan and chassis were completely refurbished and detailed, again keeping as much of the original metal as possible. ‘What we hadn’t accounted for was a bad dip in the roof and a stretched effect on the non-impacted side,’ says Nige. ‘The door fit was appalling, which demanded some careful pushing and pulling of the major structural areas.’ Thanks to David Lowe and his painter Julian Adair, the paint restoration is something to behold. Quite apart from the issues of matching 21st Century paint colours and chemicals with patinated 1972 lustre, the restoration process had to work around delicate 40-year-old decals, The car was painted only on the nearside, and only where necessary, Then, rather than applying new decals for the restored side and then ageing them, Nige decided to leave the story to be told by the car’s condition, with one half looking a little cleaner than the other.
So the GTV has been preserved, and it’s on the road again. Its cleaned and detailed cabin is an Aladdin’s cave of EMPI catalogue goodies and a great place for Nige to indulge his EMPI passions, The accessories range from the elegant under-dash map-light, the wood-style trim, the scuff plates and the EMPI- branded revcounter, ammeter, oil pressure and temperature gauges to the ’68 Mustang-style EMPI GT DeLuxe ‘big button’ steering wheel, here’s even an EMPI garment hanger for your EMPI-catalogue racing jacket. And yes, Nige has one of those too.
And the Muscle Beetle’s performance? ‘It produces 75-80bhp and comes alive between 3500 to 5500rpm; Nige reports. A stock Beetle boxer engine is done by 4500rpm, but this one will happily pull quickly from idle to 5500 in first and second gear. Its characteristics feel very similar to those of a standard Porsche 912 from the late 1960s. Maybe there really was something in EMPI’s use of the ‘Mini Porsche’ phrase.
In the early 1970s, VW of America decided it was a little unhappy at the idea of tuners tinkering with its Beetle sedan and restricted supplies of the little Bug. So Joe Vittone diversified, extending his range to cover GTV-style dress-up parts for Datsun’s 510 and 240Z. Nige’s GTV was one of the last made; a year later, in 1973, Vittone sold up his EMPI enterprise and the name has adorned products of varying quality since then. Although there were other performance and dress-up items available for VW Beetles, from names such as Okrasa, Denzel, Judson and Shorrock, Joe Vittone did it in the greatest style.
Thanks to this EMPI GTV’s custodians, Zach and Nige, the story of EMPI’s marketing innovation and the Muscle Beetle is still a tangible one, existing in this GTV’s patina and originality and in the vision of these two enthusiasts. Many couldn’t see how it would survive, but Nige found a way. ‘I was very worried that a new owner wouldn’t respect the heritage of the car,’ Zach says. ‘Nige did an amazing job with it. It couldn’t have found a better caretaker. I’ll visit him and the car someday soon. I can promise that.’
TECHNICAL DATA FILE SPECIFICATIONS 1972 Volkswagen EMPI GTV Beetle
Engine 1679cc rear-mounted air-cooled flat-four, OHV, two Solex PII 40mm twin-choke carburettors
Max Power 80bhp @ 5000 rpm
Max Torque 90lb ft @ 4000 rpm
Transmission Four-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
Steering Worm and roller
Suspension Front: paired trailing links, transverse torsion bars, anti-roll bar, telescopic dampers. Rear: swing axles, torsion bars, camber compensator, telescopic dampers
Brakes F/R discs/drums
Top speed 112mph
“The crash looked terminal and there was a Toyota-shaped impression in the GT” s side”
Above Fake wood might be a questionable upgrade, but camber compensator and Koni dampers make a real difference to the Beetle’s chassis dynamics.
Above and opposite EMPI catalogue and advertisements reflect the US’s love of Bugs; wide wheels, awood-rim steering wheel, two twin-choke Solexes and a free-flowing exhaust put the GT into V.