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Paul Newman's
Mid-Engine V8 Volkswagen Beetle

A Partial History by One of its Fans

version 2.5.4    13Mar2010
   One of my favorite kinds of automobile is a "sleeper," a car that looks ordinary and looks low performance but actually has lots of horsepower and terrific handling. Paul Newman's V8 VW was an excellent example that I had a lot of fun with. Externally, it looked like a VW Bug, except the wheel bolt pattern was Chevy 5 on 4-3/4, and the two stock-location tailpipes were rather large. If you looked behind the front seats, you noticed a large upholstered cover instead of a rear seat. If you looked underneath the car, you saw a widened oil pan in the middle and three air scoops. Hidden inside was a custom-built frame & suspension and a mid-engine Ford V8 for fantastic handling and acceleration. The car was fully streetable and street legal.
Newman Bug and Roy Gardner 1974
   I attended Chaffey College in Alta Loma, California in the early seventies because I'd read in Hot Rod Magazine it was one of the finest automotive schools in the country. They had an accredited racing program with weekday lecture and all-Saturday lab, taught by Kent Fisk. They designed, built, and operated Formula V cars, an El Camino drag car, a scratch-built Bonneville streamliner, a Rambler Scrambler Baja 500 car (ex James Garner, could be a whole 'nother website), race car transporter with a 455 Olds engine, and more. While I was earning my A.S. Degree in Automotive Technology, I saw the Beetle in the school's storage yard. I was intrigued and asked about it. The story I was told was Paul Newman wanted to blow off the Corvettes and Porsches on Mullholland Avenue in Los Angeles with the unlikeliest of cars and commissioned Jerry Eisert, an Indy car constructor, to build it for him. He drove it a lot then donated it to Chaffey.

   The modified car was originally one color (red) with steel wheels in the front, aluminum slot mags in the back and no grill in front. Chaffey College had repainted it in school colors and installed Keystone wheels. Keystone was a much-appreciated sponsor of the school's many racing activities. (I wasn't sure at the time why or when the grill was added, but I noticed later after I began working on the car that the radiator cooling fan temperature switch was broken and replaced it so the fan would turn on.)
   The seven color photos in this article were taken by me at Chaffey College in 1974 and that's me with the car.
   Everybody at the school called the car "the Newman Bug." (Shouldn't we have called it "the Eisert Bug?")
351W behind front seats 1974
   The machine started out life as a 1963 VW convertible that Paul had obtained as part of an advertising campaign with Volkswagen. Starting in 1967, Eisert's shop removed the drive train and all the suspension. They kept much of the floor pan but fitted in a square tube frame to carry the new engine, new transaxle, and new suspension. Part of the new frame extended up about a foot from the floor just inboard of each still-operating door to provide chassis stiffness. Construction was finished in 1969.
   I originally was told the engine and transaxle were a stock Ford 351W and ZF (Zahnradfabrik Friedrichshafen) 5-speed out of a Pantera, and that's what's usually said on the internet. The current owner of the car has graciously, through his website (more later) and phone conversations, provided more accurate information. The car was built before the Pantera, which came out in 1971. The engine came from Holman & Moody as a mildly-built street engine. The transaxle is a ZF from a Ford GT40, and one of the differences from the Pantera gearbox is the input shaft is below the output shafts' centerline, putting the engine lower to the ground, thus the circle track-style oil pan.

   Sometime before I arrived at Chaffey, the Ford carb, air cleaner, and valve covers were switched to aftermarket high-performance and dress-up items, perhaps supplied by school sponsors such as Holley.

   I asked why the car was sitting in the storage yard not being used, and was told some students had taken it to the drag races and fried the clutch. They had started out in first gear, but it wouldn't shift to second. Next run, they started out in second gear, but it wouldn't shift into third. The final run, they started out in third gear, and the clutch filled up most of the length of the drag strip with smoke. After that, the clutch wouldn't release.
   Some students had thought the fault might be in the long mechanical clutch linkage and had replaced it with a hydraulic setup, but it didn't help, and the car went into storage.
   I took interest in the beast, towed it into Chaffey's big auto shop, and started diagnosing. Ultimately, I disconnected the linkage, put a long wrench on the clutch release fork shaft coming out of the bellhousing, and pushed. It felt like a properly operating diaphragm clutch, but with other students rocking the car back & forth, it wasn't releasing. The clutch was going to have to come out, but that didn't look near as easy as on my '56 Chevy wagon with its convenient open-bottom bellhousing and no tranny mount.
   Removing the engine was going to be the easiest way to do the job. After unbolting the rollover bar and some of the accessories from the front of the engine, there was room to slide it forward off the bellhousing and lift it up & out. I was glad it was a convertible!
   The clutch was definitely not stock. It was a 7-1/4 inch 3-plate Borg & Beck racing clutch. No wonder it didn't get along with a drag race standing start in 3rd gear! Such a clutch will hold well over 500 lbs-ft, but it's built light for faster shifting & acceleration and can't be slipped forever. It was the most badly burnt clutch I've ever seen: The two steel floater plates were black & blue and super warped, and the back two of the three friction discs had mostly come apart, jamming everything. No wonder it wouldn't release! If you're familiar with these clutches, you'll know big pieces can't get out through the outer housing. Maybe this is good in racing situations ... Once at an Indy 500, a team's clutch started slipping on the last qualifying day and they had no time to change it before they were going to be out of the show. I recommended pouring Loctite in it through the upper timing marks window & getting back out on the track, and they just got mad at me. Jeez, we spent a good part of that season driving our 12-ton car hauler to the races without ever disengaging the clutch because the throwout bearing had come apart and we didn't have the time to fix it. You'd think a hungry pro driver facing a DNQ at the big show could do it too. A competitor in the 29th Monte Carlo Rally cured his slipping clutch by pouring road sand into it.
   My professor Sam Contino looked into getting an exact replacement, but the price turned out to be $400, too much. Instead, for $90 we got a complete stock assembly. I installed it, and the car was back up & running. Later we put the car on the school's chassis dynamometer, but just before we could get a max torque reading, we could hear the new clutch start to slip. We backed off before there was any damage. We left it that way because it didn't really affect normal (?!) driving around.
   The gear shifting was indeed stiff & difficult. A little investigation revealed the long linkage needed its monoball guides cleaned & greased. After I did that, I had no problem going from gear to gear. Then I got to take it to the drags myself.

   Sam Contino and I took the mighty Volkswagen to Ontario Motor Speedway, just a couple of miles down the hill from Chaffey, for their Wednesday night drags. On the dyno, we had retarded the ignition timing 12 degrees from stock to keep it from pinging because the school only had regular gas and the 351W 4V needed premium. So the V-dub did the quarter mile in a whisker over 14 seconds at 99 MPH. The track announcer gave me a pretty good sendup! I had no big problems with the clutch or gearbox. With the right fuel & timing, a more aggressive clutch, and revving it higher than I did, I'm sure the car could get well into the 12's.
   The clutch feel was springier and stiffer than it should've been, but that was because the hydraulic clutch setup previous students had put in wasn't very good. It was a Corvair brake master cylinder bolted to the floppy sheet metal on the underside of the stock dashboard, and its piston diameter was larger than the slave's. I always wanted to change it back to the fine-stranded 3/8 inch diameter steel cable going around ball bearing pulleys that the car had originally, a stout setup.

   When I was first resurrecting the Newman Bug, it had a long narrow battery (looked like a mid-50's GM group 3ED) snuggled down low on the right side next to the engine compartment. It was quite deceased. The school had a spare group 24 battery, so I fabricated a new battery tray just above the transaxle. That wasn't good for road racing weight distribution.
Newman Bug rear underside view 1974
   The three air scoops you could see under the car were for three water-to-air radiators. The scoop at the front fed air to a Corvette radiator, and the two scoops at the rear fed air to two stacked Lotus radiators.
   The two-inlet / two-outlet fairly quiet (it's a sleeper, remember?) muffler was from a 1969 Mustang.
   Note the adjustable coil-over shocks and the road racing oil pan.
   The floor shifter was also a Ford GT40 item, a gorgeous two-part aluminum casting with the H-gate removed.
Newman Bug front underside view 1974
   The rack & pinion was a Gordon Schroeder Indy car item. The fabricated A-arms were attached to Corvair spindles, hubs, and finned brake drums.
Newman Bug left front suspension 1974
   Observe the adjustable anti-roll bar in the front suspension.
Newman Bug left rear suspension 1974
   The rear suspension used a Corvair trailing arm, hub, and non-finned drum brake assembly. The segmented linings suggest high-performance material. Note the multiple front mounting holes for the trailing arm that allow adjustment of anti-squat.
   One day at Chaffey, a Corvair afficianado student told me the big hole in the middle of the trailing arm was for a rubber-bushed strut on certain high-performance Corvairs that prevented the arm from yawing excessively on the big soft rubber bushing in the front. Since I thought the Newman bug had too much torque steer, I added the struts and the problem went away. Since that was the only rubber bushing in the car's suspension, I think it should be replaced with a monoball. I wonder if some of the old stories about the car's squirreliness were due to the torque steer instead of just the high power-to-weight ratio?
Newman Bug and Roy Gardner 1974
   The car easily left long black marks on pavement! One author on the internet says he watched Paul Newman do smoky donuts at a gathering.

   I got to drive the car to a couple of car shows. On city streets, it was a head-turner for those who knew what a VW Beetle is supposed to sound like. What, no valve clatter? No fan noise? Just a faint deep rumble?

   Before I had driven it much, it had a racey-sounding lopey idle and I thought it had plenty of power. Then one day at school while I was working on it, a small block Ford fan student walked by, listened, looked, and pointed out a couple of the plug wires were in the wrong order on the distributor cap. He quickly rearranged them. The engine suddenly had a disappointing grocery-getter putt-putt idle, but way more oomph!

   I read there was going to be a huge Beetle gathering & parade at Disneyland. I proposed to Sam Contino that we put temporary blue stars on some of the white areas of the body so it would look like the American flag, plus temporary lettering saying "MIGHT MAKES RIGHT," and go to the meet. Since a school official always had to be with the car when it was off school property and it didn't seem like the best use of his time, he declined!
   A few days after putting this page up on the internet for the first time, in early September 2009, I discovered Tom Contino's website. It turns out the Newman Bug has been in his family's possession ever since Chaffey College dropped its racing program (boo, hiss) and auctioned everything off. I'm glad to see the car has been in good hands. Not only have they had a lot of fun with it, Tom and his dad Sam just completed a full restoration. It involving a lot of research including talking to people at Eisert's. Tom supplied several corrections to this article such as the original model year of the car (he has the first registration in his possession), how Paul Newman got the original production car, the identity of the engine, transaxle & shifter, muffler, and more. See the photos of the restored Bug at Tom Contino's Back N the Day website. Tom returned the clutch linkage to Eisert's design and it works perfectly now, with normal pedal effort. He's kept the front grill, which was installed later on at Eisert's to help keep it from overheating when stuck in traffic.

   Anybody who's familiar with this car and its design & history, e-mail me with any additions, corrections, performance numbers, updates, and photos at: roygbvgw at earthlink dot net. I would like to link to your page and/or add your material to this article.

   To the best of my knowledge, this very quick & fast car has never been wrecked in its 40 years of existence. Amazing, but probably because only qualified people have driven it!
   One day at Chaffey, Sam Contino and a student in the body shop program were discussing a non-creased storage dent in the Bug's left rear fender. The student took careful aim, smacked the outside of the fender near the dent just once with his hand, and the dent popped out with no need for further work. Sam exclaimed, "You're hired!"
   Kay Kimes, assistant general manager at Eisert when the Newman Bug was built, says the person most responsible for constructing the car was expert fabricator Norman Holtkamp. For a first-hand account of the genesis and first uses of the Bug, see just past the middle of page two of Kay Kimes' story about his life at Hot Rod Hotline online magazine.

Magazine Articles
Speed Age article page one
   When the car was first built, it was shown anonymously in Speed Age Magazine, September 1969.
Speed Age article page two
   The Eisert-Chevy Indy car doesn't look turbocharged to me!
Speed Age article page three
   I wonder why the fuel cell had trouble with heat from the front radiator and had to be replaced with a stock sheet metal tank?
Speed Age article page four
   Note that the article identifies the Bug's transaxle as a Hewland and a ZF. The Bug had the ZF and the Indy car undoubtedly had the Hewland, probably an LG-500 4-speed.
Hot Rod Magazine one-page article
   The Newman Bug was was also shown anonymously in Hot Rod Magazine, November 1969. I don't think it was a "Hi-Riser" 351. Take a look at the low-profile iron intake manifold in the pictures on this webpage. Also, it was a 1963 Volkswagen, not a '69. The conversion was finished in 1969.
Volkswagen Greats article page one
   While I was at Chaffey College, Volkswagen Greats magazine did a silly article on the Newman Bug that appeared in their December 1974 issue.
Volkswagen Greats article page two
   That's fellow student Roy Mallory at the wheel at Chaffey (I couldn't be there that day).

   This article is full of errors. The worst ones are:
  • The V8's bellow? The car was actually pretty quiet. I think the author was hearing the intake, not the exhaust. The engine cover was off, and the air cleaner was unsilenced.
  • The rear half shafts do not serve as control arms. As can be seen in the photos, the half shafts are splined and there are two radius (or track) rods to each rear upright.
  • The front radiator didn't have twin cooling fans. It had one motor with one large thin two-blade fan.
  • The occupants are not necessarily subjected to the heat of the engine. The car had an insulated upholstered cover over the engine. Us car freaks at Chaffey usually left it off because, well, we're car freaks, and we liked having the engine live with us. I used to reach back and tweak the carb & ignition while driving. Are automotive journalists less hardy than mechanics and engineers? :-)
  • The transaxle didn't have to be shifted progressively. It had a standard H-type pattern and I never had to change gears sequentially.
   Finally, I can't say I agree with the characterization of Paul Newman as a bored conspicuous consumptionist with a short attention span. I'm more inclined to believe he had a lot to do with the design of the car, drove it skillfully and purposefully, and ended his ownership of the car for pragmatic reasons. Read Jay Leno's thoughts on Paul Newman. (If this link doesn't work, cut and paste the URL with no changes into another window.)
   There are apparently at least three more magazine articles, in Motor Trend, VW Trends, and Sports Car Graphic, but I don't know the dates. Can anyone help here? roygbvgw at

Newman Bug Info from Web Forums:
   The Continos took the restored Newman Bug to the 2009 SEMA show and several blogs enthusiastically reported:
   "Beardog" in an forum wrote in 2006:

   I know some of the history on Paul Newmans bug so I thought I would chime in here. In 1986 I opened a business in Phelan Ca. Down the street was a race team called Rick Mill's Racing. They had Super V's and Formula Fords. I became friends with the guys on the team and attended a few races with them. The driver for the team was Tom Contino. Tom's dad was Sam Contino and the story as I understood it was that Sam was at one time involved with the Chaffefey College racing program. One day while visiting the race shop I noticed a car under a cover and asked about it. The cover was pulled off and I was shown one of the most awesome street cars I have ever seen. Paul Newman's bug. Tom explained to me that the bug was built for Paul and when he was done playing with it he gave the bug back to the college for $1.00. Somehow (I don't remember the story) Sam ended up with the car. It was red/orange in color with a monster (Ford?) motor sitting behind the front seats. If I remember correctly it had a Pantera drivetrain on it. It sounded stock at idle and from the rear the only giveaway that it wasn't stock was the mammouth exhaust pipes coming out of the stock location. It had a full roll cage with racing seats and a full harness belt system. I was lucky enough to get to go out in the car cruising one night in Victorville, Ca. I am 43 years old and have owned some pretty fast cars in my life, 70 Olds 442 W-30, 12 second Turbo Trans Am. but the Paul Newman bug was by far the fastest thing I have ever ridden in. Tom explained to me that at one point in time Paul had it at Laguna Seca Raceway and put it in a display race against some formula Fords and blew them all away. One of Tom's favorite things to do with the bug would be to sit at the beginning of Hwy 2 (winding road to Wrightwood) along with another team member and they would wait for unsuspecting Corvettes and Porsches to come by and then they would pass them and blow their doors off! Basically it was a racing chasis with a VW body on it with slots in the hood for the radiator in front. I ended up moving in 1987 and shortly after that Tom and his team broke up and I lost all track of them. V8 bug guy-if you have any knowledge of these people or their last whereabouts I would appreciate hearing about it so I could track them down again. Maybe you could share some pics with us. The things I remember is that the car handled like it was on a rail, and I remember Paul Newman's name engraved on a silver plaque on the dash. I have often wondered where this car is and hoped that it fell into good hands.

   "OldStroppeTeam" in a forum wrote in 2008:

   I got to meet Mr. Newman while attending Chaffey College. He had donated a Pantera (351w/ ZF box) powered Super Beetle to the College and we had it on Display at Ontario Motor Speedway during a NASCAR Race. He and Bobby Unser walked up to our display and aked if they could look at the car. After looking at the car Bobby asked Paul " Well why did you get rid of it ? The reply was " My attorney and my insurance agent said I had to, before I killed myself !.. They both laughed ,thanked us and walked away... Thanks PLN....GodSpeed

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