Breaking the mould: it might be built for off-roading but Jim Ley doesn’t limit his Baja Bug to adventures off the beaten path.
Here, he tells Charlotte Vowden how he’s crafted his Baja Bug into a reliable daily with serious road presence.
Born in the USA, the Baja (pronounced ‘ba-ha’) Bug rose to popularity in the late sixties as a budget-friendly alternative to the iconic Meyers Manx beach buggy. Both vehicles were Beetle-based and excelled in off-road terrain, but unlike the Manx, which were produced in a limited run of around 6000, Bajas were widely homemade using aftermarket fibreglass panels and modified parts. Here, Brit-based Baja builder Jim explains how he crafted his very own wild ride.
“No sane person would choose a ‘73 Baja Bug as their daily but life’s too short to drive a boring car. Unlike other classics, it isn’t tucked away, it cruises over rough terrain, it’ll happily sit at 65mph and it can overtake, plus, you don’t see many cars with a prolapsed engine so it certainly catches people’s eye. If people don’t stop and stare at the Baja, they stop and stare when my Miniature Schnauzer (who loves a breeze in his face) is hanging out the passenger window grabbing at the air. The Baja is a hilariously fun car to drive.
It all started four years ago when I’d finished my grand restoration of a 1972 bay-window campervan. I’m too stubborn to buy a ‘normal’ modern car and I didn’t plan to buy another classic until I saw a Baja Bug at a classic car event with mud all up the side of it. I thought I’ve got to have one of those.
I found the donor Beetle for my Baja Bug on Gumtree and got the price down from £850 to £650. I knew if I went for a sixties Beetle and Baja’d it I’d get a lot of hate because they’re the ones people like to restore to stock, but this one was an economy model made towards the end of Beetle production. The owner had lost the love for it, so it had been sat in a garage for eight years and was pretty rough around the edges, but because I was doing the conversion I sold a whole bunch of stuff I didn’t need off it – including the metal wings, running boards and bonnet – and ended up making a profit. This left me with a shell that was ready to start building on.
A Baja Bug is not quite in the kit car domain because the chassis remains as it is and the body is still about 80% Beetle. The wings and bonnet are now fibreglass, which reduces the weight and length significantly, and the headlights are off a Caterham. It’s still running drum brakes on all four corners so I have to actively push it to get it to stop and the crumple zone has a fuel tank in it so if it gets into a crash it’s not going to be pretty. I could fit a roll cage but it would make it even smaller inside and I don’t think it would suit it. The answer is to drive with more care.
The Baja is running the same 1.6 engine (originally a 1.2) and four-speed gearbox as my camper because I wanted to be able to interchange parts if one of them goes pop but the difference is the Baja is a fraction of the weight of the van so it can feel alarmingly nippy. My other half, Maxine [Max], has shouted at me for taking roundabouts slightly too quickly. In contrast, the original single speed wipers are in no rush. It’s an interesting ride!
To get the off-road look and a bit more ground clearance I had the stock Beetle spindles at the front lifted to make it two-and-a-half inches taller. It’s the only piece of work I outsourced because from a safety point of view it was better for a specialist to do it. The original swing axle gearbox at the back was then converted to IRS. It’s still MOT exempt because I’ve not fitted anything that wouldn’t have been available at its original time of manufacture. Another modification I’ve made is to run the Baja on Porsche 924 driveshafts and stub axles. The stub axles allow the bus gearbox to be used with the stock beetle trailing arms, while the driveshafts are able to cope with a higher operating angle to cope with the slightly higher rear end – up to 22 degrees versus 12 degrees from a stock beetle driveshaft.
The Baja is noisy, but not unbearable, let’s just say you’re aware there’s a 1.6 behind you growling away, but half the noise comes from the rolling resistance from the all-terrain tyres – the front ones are slightly bigger than stock and the back ones are 29 inches. It’s a bit of a cheeky car but there’s a limit as to how far you can go with modifying certain things legally, such as tyre size and exhaust type. I stuck to the rules because I wanted something that would get attention, but not unwanted attention from the police.
With any classic car restoration, don’t be afraid to ask questions. I’d say 90% of the knowledge I have about Baja’s came from a book called Baja Bugs and Buggies. It was really useful when I was squeezing the bigger bus gearbox in. Rather than directly mount it to the chassis, I used a rubber mounted gearbox cradle, but once the engine was in place I had to trim a bit off the body to get it all to fit. It’s very snug.
Baja Bug interiors are always a bit scrappy but I wanted to make an effort with mine; I think it’s the thing that separates it from all the other Bajas out there. I taught myself how to upholster and established my own classic car upholstery business, Ray Ley Restorations, which I would love to do full-time. With the Baja, I was inspired to go with a Mexican vibe for the interior fabric because of a race called the Baja 1000 that’s been taking place in the Mexican desert since the sixties, but at £80 a metre (I used about four) it was a bit spendy. The seats are out of a Mazda MX-5 and to cover each one I had to make and sew together sixteen panels. It took a while to make sure the pattern lined up.
During the build, the most satisfying thing was getting rid of the rusted guttering at the back – it’s the most complicated welding and repair I’ve ever done – and after the build it was driving it home to show Max for the first time. I half expected something to break, especially when I got it up to 70mph, but nothing did. The first proper trip we took was on country roads to the Great Dorset Steam Fair but the Baja came into its own when we got to the car park, a field that was pretty rutty, because instead of slowing down we skipped across it. Turn up in a Baja and you don’t have to think, you just drive. If we’re ever feeling a bit miserable we take the Baja out. The longest journey we’ve done is 400 miles so I think it’ll do 4000 quite happily but I’ve got a few bits left to sort before it’s ready for a bigger trip, including fitting a roof rack and running boards.
Max doesn’t currently drive, but she has been learning in the Baja, which we named Myrtle, inspired by its licence plate. I might argue that Myrtle isn’t that practical as a daily but we make it work and we’ve got packing it down to a bit of an art form.
Over a period of three years I’ve built something that I can be proud of from what was essentially a scrap car, which is really satisfying because without me it wouldn’t exist. I have ploughed money into it, I think it ‘owes’ me about £12k, but it’s going to stay with me for a long time.”
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