A SPORTING CHANCE

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By Stuart Grant with images by Etienne Fouche

By the mid-1970s Volkswagen’s Beetle, which had been on the South African market for 25 years in various guises, was starting to look and feel a little outdated. Add to the equation the arrival of the firm’s front-wheel drive Golf and the writing was on the wall for the original people’s car. Or was it? VWSA had a plan to extend the nameplate’s lifespan that little bit more and launched the Beetle SP1600 – then the most powerful factory-built Beetle.

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Dolling up a run-out model is a tactic often used by manufacturers and Volkswagen South Africa have over the years topped the pile when it comes to putting on some decals and flogging regular machines as limited editions to squeeze out a few more sales. Think of the Silver Anniversary Beetle, the Jeans Bug (with denim seats), Snug Bug (tartan upholstery) and the plethora of limited-run Citi Golfs and Jettas later on. While the SP of 1976 could be seen as one of these, it is in fact more than just a badging job with extra performance and comfort equipment being added to the sticker kit. The result is something quite spectacular: a factory-hotted bug that can today lay claim to being the world’s most powerful factory-built air-cooled Volksie ever.  

While regular 1600 Beetles (including the curved windscreen 1600 S Super Bug) were making 50bhp, the SP claimed 67 horses thanks to a set of twin Solex carburettors pulling  air through pancake air filters and thumping out its boxer tune through a rowdy free-flow exhaust. A top speed of 143km/h beat the likes of the 1600S with 138km/h but in the zero to 100km/h sprint the SP was no faster at 16.8 seconds, with the wider SP rubber not allowing for some wheelspin being blamed for this. The wider rubber on the SP came about as the regular Beetle 15-inch wheels were replaced with every boy-racer’s dream 14-inch Rostyle rims. These were sourced from the Volkswagen Kombi and the fitment of radial rubber also went some way to dispelling the myth that Beetles like rolling (a legacy created by many radial tyre-shod Beetles turning turtle). Looking the part and curing the rollover myth to a certain degree, the smaller rolling diameter did, however, effect the gearing with the result that the Beetle’s top speed was limited more by the rev counter (with 4600rpm being the safe limit) than the pulling power of the 1584cc air-cooled lump.

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Yes, unlike the majority of the Beetles on the road, the SP features a VDO rev counter as standard. And it has an adjustable ‘rev limit’ needle that as mentioned is best set for 4600. In keeping with the race the rest of the gauges are purposeful white on black round VDO units and display voltage, oil pressure, speed and fuel – all clearly visible through a tasty vinyl-wrapped 3-spoke sports steering wheel.

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Front seating is also somewhat sportier than most, looking for all the world like Golf-derived units and wearing some fabric tartan inserts framed by vinyl support side supports and headrests. A centre console with shortened gearlever rounds out a tasteful but athletic interior. And this theme carries on externally with the addition of a tapered black ‘rally’ stripe running down the flanks and over the rear of the roof, echoed by black door handles, headlight trim, external vents and bumpers. But the coolest addition of the lot has to be the fibreglass bib spoiler under the front bumper that looks the part, and if the PR department is to be believed, improves aerodynamic stability at speed.

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While the SP is at the sharp end of Beetle power and sports all the go-faster goodies any aspiring boy-racer could want, it is by no means a super car. It does however climb up to legal road speeds reasonably well and makes for an ideal daily classic. The boot (in the front of course) is a decent size and there is also a fair bit of storage space on the sunken shelf behind the rear seat. The engine is surprisingly smooth and even the exhaust noise, which is a bit fruitier than most Bugs and encourages some spirited driving, is acceptable. Feedback from the steering is top notch and even with the fatter-than-normal rubber on the rims isn’t of a bicep-bulging weight – in fact one wonders why so many modern entry level vehicles feel the need to fit power-steering rather than just getting the geometry right.

Competition in the hotted-up humble saloon’s race was stiff at the time though with prospective buyers also able to go the Mini, Datsun and even Mazda route. The Mini to have was the 1275 GTS, which also came with bumble bee stripes and some go-faster equipment like 12-inch wheels, rev counter, disc brakes up front and twin SU carbs. Leyland trumped VW in the price department at R3 270 (against the R3 360 SP1600) and also in the power ranks with 74bhp on tap. And the way the Mini handled the corners is of course legendary.

Datsun had the 140Z coupé in the game but at R5 250 it was a level up on the price list. This makes sense when you see that it had the obligatory sticker kit as well as modern high-back seats in fashionable fabric, alloy wheels, twin Dellorto carbs, front disc and a rear spoiler. It churned out over 100bhp too, with a claimed figure at an impressive 114.

Mazda fans had the Capella rotary in the arsenal, and this got even better in 1977 with the arrival of what the marketing gurus tagged as ‘the lowest, meanest Mazda ever’ – the RS coupé. This limited edition machine featured a 128bhp twin rotor Wankel rotary, sat 2.5cm lower than a regular Capella, racy seat cloth inserts, Rostyle wheels and side stripes and sat between the SP and GTS at R4 739.

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With the Golf variants arriving thick and fast the SP1600 was on borrowed time and by July 1978 the Beetle SP fell off the product lineup (all Beetle manufacturing came to a halt in February 1979 when the last 1300 rolled off the line). Where Volkswagen pulled the plug on its last ditch attempt at selling an older model, Ford had only just started with the announcement of its Escort Mk2 1600 Sport – another South African ‘special’.

Introduced in February 1979 the 1600 Sport was based on a 1600GL but featured a full width front spoiler, widened steel rims, round headlights, spotlights and matt black exterior mirrors and ¼ bumpers. And let’s not forget the go-faster decal running down the side and ending in a not so subtle ‘1600 SPORT’ graphic. Seats, again with headrests, featured vertical striped fabric inserts and the steering wheel was of a sporting 3-spoke nature. In its launch year the 1-6-double O sold for R4 665.  Production lasted until 1981 when, like the Beetle, the Escort was replaced by front-wheel drive technology and the Mk3 Escort.

Any of these run-out model cars from the above manufacturers is worth adding to a collection of local legends. Prices vary depending on condition but as with so many cars at the lower end of the collector ladder, originality is the key to a good buy. With the SP1600 making up only 2 900 units of the 288 353 Beetles sold in SA, they are relatively rare today. Of course the fact that any Beetle went the way of a cheap student car in the 1980s and ‘90s means that a hefty percentage of them were broken, crashed or cannibalised, making it a difficult car to find today. Keep an eye out for replicas as the sticker and spoiler kit was available over the counter too.

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So what exactly does the ‘SP’ stand for? Nobody really knows …

At the launch VWSA sales director threw in the curved ball when asked what the lettering meant. His answer was that it could mean anything you wanted, maybe “Special”, “Super Performance”, “Saves Petrol” or the one that might cause the most upheaval, “Small Porsche”.

We think ‘Sport Production’ would have made most sense seeing that it was a sported-up version of a production unit but for now though, standing as a genuine uniquely South African classic we will go with ‘Super Purchase’. The time is right to own the world’s most powerful original Beetle.

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