The Resurgence of
Air-Cooled VW Engines
The iconic VW Beetle, known by enthusiasts and the industry as the Type 1, is probably one of the most influential and underrated performance vehicles of all time. It’s underrated because the car only produced between 36 and 60 hp, depending on which model you had. And about anyone could work on them. The Volkswagen Beetle went on to sell an astonishing 23 million cars worldwide over its 81-year run.
What was dubbed the “People’s Car” in the beginning, lives on as a healthy niche market for those trying to recapture the rapture. Today, air-cooled VW engines are still in demand and are still rebuilt in significant numbers – just not quite as much as they once were.
Volkswagen stopped selling the Beetle in the U.S. in 1977, but the Type 1 lived on until 2003 in other markets. However, the U.S. had so many “Bugs” and other air-cooled models on the road that the repair market remained healthy for decades. By the late-1960s, as VW began to lose market share to small Japanese cars and even some from Europe, a handful of companies built performance parts and essentially founded the VW aftermarket. Mofoco and CB Performance were involved early on, and SCAT Enterprises founder and CEO, Tom Lieb, was one of the first VW pioneers.
Lieb said it was somewhat by chance that he got into the VW aftermarket back in the early 1960s. SCAT and others we spoke to have remained in the VW market as many others have dropped out long ago. We talked to Lieb about the humble beginnings of what is now SCAT VW.
“In the early days, in the late-‘50s, I was a teenager in high school and building hot rods. And of course, there were no speed shops to speak of; you didn’t have Summit Racing and so forth. The junkyard was your speed shop. If you had a ‘32 Ford you went to the junkyard and you bought a Mercury flathead instead of the older 21-stud, and you put that in, or you bought a 303, 324 Oldsmobile, or a 331 Cadillac.”
Lieb said that the early hot rodders were making adapters and motor mounts so you could bolt-in whatever engine onto your ‘32 or ‘40 Ford. But everything started in the wrecking yard back then.
“I was one of seven kids. My dad was a school teacher, and we didn’t have any money. So, I mowed lawns and had a paper route and all that. Then when I got old enough, I got a job in a service station, but the bottom line was, working for a dollar and a quarter an hour was not cutting it. Guys would come in and say, Tom, ‘where’d you get this?’ Or ‘where’d you get that?’ I had scrounged to build my cars and figured out that other guys didn’t have that same ability as I did.
“They didn’t have the same talent of being able to go to a scrap yard and buy something for $10 and sell it for $30. And they didn’t know what to do. When you go into a wrecking yard, there’s a bunch of stuff laying there, and you don’t have a catalog to go look up a part. You have to be able to look at it and figure it out.”
Realizing that there was a need for his kind of talent, Lieb discovered there was a vast rebuilding industry in the Los Angeles area. “When I was in a wrecking yard, I wasn’t necessarily buying stuff for the hot rodders; I was also buying for the engine and small parts builders (clutches, starters and generators). I would buy it for a dollar and sell it for $2. And that’s how I got started.”
Lieb recounts his early friendship with the late Don Weber, who later became president of the Engine Parts Group in Denver. Weber was an accountant at a warehouse in downtown LA that was doing business with Lieb.
“I met Don in 1960. We were pretty much the same age. He had a guy working there from Ethiopia, and his dad was the distributor for Volkswagen of Ethiopia. His dad couldn’t send him any money, but he could send him VW parts instead. When he sent in his order to Germany for Volkswagen parts, he’d divert some of it to his son in LA to Don’s warehouse.”
The warehouse had VW gasket sets, valves, bearings, oversized pistons and so on. But the challenge, according to Lieb, was getting cores to regrind cranks so that they could sell a crank kit. “I was selling them cores already for other cars, and Don cornered me one day and said, ‘you know, if you find any Volkswagen parts, we’d be interested.’ And, of course, I said, ‘okay, cool.’ When you look at your life, certain things happen during that made you turn right. There isn’t any reason or a particular game plan. You just woke up and you turned right.”
According to Lieb, the right turn came after a chance meeting at the local scrapyard. “I’m at the scrapyard, and a guy comes in with a load that had tags on it with the Volkswagen lollipop. There were cranks, rods, cylinders, cases and heads and everything. This guy had the scrap contract with Volkswagen of America. VW’s West Coast distribution warehouse was in Culver City, which is just north of LAX. Once a week he’d go there with his load of VW parts.”
Lieb says he cornered the gentleman one day and told him he had a deal with Ford, Chrysler and GM already, so why not add VW? The rest is VW aftermarket history. SCAT started to advertise its catalog in Hot Rod magazine for its stroker kits, which Lieb came up with by mixing and matching some parts, and he even used Corvair cylinders for a big bore kit.
The first stroker kit was for 1500 cc engines. With the commonality between that and a 40 horsepower 1200cc engine, Lieb could take a 1500 crankshaft and combine it with other parts to make 1500cc out of a 1200cc. “The 1500cc originally for the Variant, which would be the Type 3. I had the pipeline into Volkswagen because I had the scrap deal for the cranks. There weren’t any 1500 crankshafts available except I had them because I got them from the scrap contract.”
Lieb says the VW market has never gone backward for SCAT since the beginning. While it is not growing as much as it was in its heyday, SCAT still builds two complete VW engines a day and sells many stroker kits each month. “The (VW) business is still there,” Lieb notes, “but the racing side of the parts business is no longer there.” He added that baby boomers are starting to come back to VWs as they have with old muscle cars. They’re buying old Bugs and restoring them with stroker engines.
Roy Henning, the second-generation owner of Mofoco, says the big difference with the market today versus decades ago is that the skill level of the average person has gone down significantly. “I was watching these two kids online, trying to dial a phone number with a rotary phone to win $1,000 and they couldn’t do it. Makes me want to cry,” he laughs. “But seriously, because of this trend, we build more complete engines than we ever have. We used to build tons of short blocks, tons of long blocks. People would transfer their stuff over. People can’t even do it anymore.
Today, Henning says his customers want a complete engine with everything possible included. “They want the exhaust, the clutch – everything. So, if they can take theirs out and put ours in, then they still have problems adjusting the clutch, double-checking the timing and making sure the carbs are synched, because you knock stuff when you put the new engine in and things like that.”
How has the market changed in the last few years in your opinion? “I’d say for every three or four complete motors I build; I build one long block. And it used to be probably four long blocks to one complete engine.”
Pat Downs of CB Performance echoes similar points. Downs has been with CB Performance for 35 years and is now the head engine builder. He is also responsible for producing many of the components and engine kits. “Probably the biggest difference (today) is just the quality of our product line. Back 35 years ago, we were importing a lot of stuff from Brazil.”
Bob Tomlinson, the owner of CB Performance at the time, knew Downs enjoyed coming up with new ideas for products, so he let him loose to try some things. “We started coming out with some different products, and they took off, so we started making more products in the U.S., and our product line started to improve quite a bit. It just multiplied from there.”
One of the only products CB gets from Brazil today is cylinder heads and some small parts, according to Downs. “There’s nothing wrong with a Brazilian made cylinder. It’s a factory head from one of the Volkswagen plants. We bring in the raw castings and machine it for seats and guides that we install and test on a bench before sending them out.”
Henning also started in the VW business at a very young age. He says that one of his first jobs at Mofoco was when he was 12 years old and would come to work in the summer. His dad put him to work reconditioning connecting rods – by the pallet load!
“We would do rods – about 200-300 of them at a time. I started working in the shop when I was around 10 and 12 years old. So, the first major thing I did was rebuild connecting rods. It was like a three-week process. It was pretty big for a kid.”
Henning says air-cooled VWs are making a comeback lately. “A lot of people are going back to the Volkswagens. That’s the newest thing that I’ve heard is people will call me up who are now in their 40s, 50s and 60s and say, ‘I had one in high school, and I got rid of it. I got a real job and a family but now that the kids are out of the house. I’m buying a Volkswagen, and I’m redoing it how I wanted in high school.’”
Henning says that when he took over Mofoco from his father in the early 2000s, he had to redirect their attention to the VW side of the business. “We had to transform our business over the past 15-20 years, because in the ‘80s, we sold parts for all import cars. We had a service department with eight bays. We had a complete machine shop; we had a carwash, and we delivered parts within 300 miles daily. Then in the late-‘80s and early ‘90s, there was Pepboys, Autozone or Napa on every corner. It hurt us because they had better buying power, better prices, all that stuff.”
By the late-‘90s, Mofoco was doing more and more air-cooled Volkswagen jobs. “When I got within a few years of wanting to take over, I said we’re going to build engines, transmissions and cylinder heads, and we’re going to do all the Volkswagen stuff that we’ve been doing. We wanted to focus on that because a lot of shops didn’t have a kid that wanted to take it over. Shops were closing left and right. And that’s still the case; I don’t go a week or two without hearing so-and-so closed their shop.”
Downs says that CB has seen an uptick in complete engine builds in the last few years because there are a lot of people who don’t have the time to build their engines anymore. He said they recently sold 11 engines in a week, and that complete engine builds have increased 50 percent.
“Everything I’m building now is custom. Our new cylinder head has opened up the market for me to build bigger engines that can last on the street. I have about 40 engines on order now.”
While the VW market never really went away, it may be primed for a resurgence as parts and manufacturing have produced better components and more combinations for everything from crankshafts and cylinder heads to turbos and EFI kits.