Meet the Mach 1, Belgium’s thwarted attempt to produce a hotrodded Volkswagen Bug

Photography by Dirk de Jager

Mach 1. The name makes you smirk almost as much the go-fast stripe does. But then this VW Bug spins its rear wheels and shoots up the road. Ordinary Beetles don’t do that. They just can’t. 

And when you get behind the wheel of this Mach 1 Beetle, it feels like you’re driving Herbie. The world passes by in an exaggerated fast-forward that seems unfit for this car. 

This is a genuinely fast Beetle sold through an actual dealership network. How come we’ve never heard of this one before?

Belgian Beetles

The plan was as ambitious as it was brilliant. Starting in 1954, Belgian Volkswagen importer D’Ieteren had been assembling Beetles in Brussels to escape hefty import fees. 

Ten years on, in 1964, D’Ieteren was anxiously looking to attract younger buyers to the Volkswagen family. Racing served as an effective way to grab the youth’s attention, but in Wolfsburg there was still a “no motorsports” policy in place. 

Then a Scandinavian VW importer, Scania Vabis, entered the 1964 Marathon de la Route with a very much non-sanctioned Beetle 1200 tuned with an Oettinger performance kit. The modified Beetle turned in a more-than-honorable result in the 3750-mile, nonstop road rally from Spa (Belgium) to Sofia (Bulgaria) and back. 

Of the 98 starters that year, just 21 managed to return to Spa. One of them was that Beetle, placing ninth overall. 

Sensing possibilities for a sporty Beetle in the showroom, D’Ieteren seized the opportunity and decided to launch a Beetle Mach 1 later in 1964. A cheap offering it was not, costing close to $3000 more than a regular version. However, buyers did get a lot more Beetle in return.

Just like that rally car, the Mach 1 looked to Oettinger and its Okrasa performance kit to extract more horses from its air-cooled engine. The Okrasa kit was already a bit of a legend in Germany thanks to its dashboard plaque: “Please be careful, you are driving a high-performance Okrasa version.”

The Beetle Mach 1 couldn’t run down Porsches, but it offered startling performance for a Bug. Credit goes to Oettinger performance parts, well established at the time, along with meatier tires, upgraded suspension and just the right exhaust note. Orders quickly came in. 

Okrasa stood for “Oettinger Kraftfahrtechnische Spezial Anstalt,” roughly translating to “crazy stuff from Oettinger to make your Volkswagen go faster.” No, really. Gerhard Oettinger had been tuning air-cooled Volkswagens as far back as 1951. 

D’Ieteren’s commercial director, Jacques Gijsels, reached out to Oettinger in 1964 to see if the company might be interested in a deal. The response was laid-back: Just bring over one of your Beetles, preferably with a couple thousand miles on the clock; it will take us one day of work, and then you can take it back to Brussels to experience the results for yourself.

When Gijsels returned to Brussels bearing a freshly tuned green Bug, he shared it with his fellow company directors. Everyone thought the Mach 1 Beetle was a wicked idea.

The Magic Box

Now, what exactly is this Okrasa kit? A period publicity photograph shows all the Oettinger parts laid out in front of the engine bay of the Mach 1 Beetle. 

Foremost, the Okrasa kit included a new crankshaft, made with strengthened steel, that enlarged the engine’s capacity from 1200cc to 1295cc. Then there were new cylinder heads as well as Solex 32 PICB carbs–same as you’d find on a Porsche 356–and Knecht air filters. This Mach 1 also received an additional oil cooler. 

Of the 40 or 50 Mach 1 Beetles built in Belgium, only three are believed to survive. This is one of them.  

The Okrasa treatment raised horsepower from about 34 to something close to 50. Performance figures jumped accordingly: Where a normal Beetle 1200 would take half a minute to reach 60 mph, the Mach 1 Beetle needed just 16 seconds. And because the top speed increased to 152 kph (95 mph), a new speedometer was needed, with the replacement going all the way to 160 kph (100 mph).

For the Mach 1, extra upgrades were made in Brussels as well. The clutch was replaced by the heavier one from the Volkswagen Type 1 van. The Belgians also fitted an adjustable BRS suspension that not only lowered the Mach 1, but also allowed for a bit more camber at the rear. 

The wider wheels were the same ones found on a Porsche 356B, as D’Ieteren produced that model for a short period–1961-’62–in Brussels as well. They were fitted with Goodyear Grand Prix radials. 

And then there were the external changes that identified the car as a Mach 1. The base vehicle was a 1200 G-model, a slightly more luxurious Beetle that added a tach and oil temperature gauge. The Mach 1 cars all received a black interior featuring simulated leather seats as well as the two-spoke steering wheel from the Beetle 1500 S. 

Clients were limited to two exterior color choices: Java Green or Ruby Red. The white striping was optional.

Wolfsburg’s Revenge

By September 1964, the marketing machine was in motion. Advertisements in the leading Belgian newspapers informed readers of the “electrifying performances” that the Volkswagen Mach 1 could deliver. The two-tone horn was the icing on the cake. 

The Belgians loved the Mach 1. In a matter of weeks, 200 orders were in the books. D’Ieteren set up a separate line in the assembly hall in Brussels for the car. 

Gerhard Oettinger insisted on providing personal quality control for the Mach 1 cars equipped with his Okrasa kit. From the first production run of some 50 cars, he greenlit only 28 of them. 

At the same time, D’Ieteren distributed some Mach 1 demonstrators to the press. That’s where the trouble started.

The hurrahs from the Belgian press didn’t seem to reach Volkswagen’s headquarters. All seemed good. But then a German newspaper, Welt am Sonntag, published something that caused the proverbial manure to hit the fan in the home office: that if you want a great Beetle, you’d better turn your attention to Brussels and not Wolfsburg.

Legendary Volkswagen boss Heinz Nordhoff allegedly screamed his dissatisfaction: Make sure these Belgians understand there is only one place to go for Volkswagens, and that is Wolfsburg!

In January 1965, the phone call to Brussels came: Stop this at once.

That Volkswagen was planning a more powerful, 40-horsepower Beetle for 1965 undoubtedly played a part in this decision. With D’Ieteren having more to lose than gain in an open war with Wolfsburg, the Mach 1 was canned at once. 

Production had started, but to this day it remains unclear how many Mach 1 Beetles were sold. The best guess is between 40 and 50. Just three of them are known to exist today.

One of Three

“Many of these Mach 1 Beetles were used for autocross or other competitions,” notes Frederic Peeters, owner of this Mach 1 as well as several other Volkswagens. “With the toll this takes on the engines, many of these were replaced as time passed–or just the engine was retained.”

The Mach 1 is pretty much the holy grail among Volkswagen enthusiasts in Belgium. Frederic himself searched for more than 10 years before finding one; his was produced on January 15, 1965.

“It was a project in boxes when I bought it,” he says. “The previous owner never got around to restoring it. If you are searching for a Mach 1, you need to have a 1965 Beetle produced in Belgium. The next big clue is a full black interior. Normal 1965 Beetles don’t have a black interior.”

Another sign of a Mach 1 can be found beneath the floor mats: the letters SP, written by hand, possibly a note that the car traveled down the special production line. “And if you strip the trim around the handbrake lever, you will find another inscription,” he adds. 

A clue that Frederic Peeters owns a legit Mach 1 Beetle: Pulling back the floor mats reveals a hand-written “SP.” The press raved about the new car, but the home office objected. 

“But these are the only clues for a Mach 1,” he continues. “They did not have specific chassis numbers.”

Frederic’s car is equipped with the original engine that’s believed to have covered some 70,000 kilometers–close to 44,000 miles. He did have the cooling system changed a bit. “It was a bit prone to overheating,” he says, explaining that the Mach 1 cars were known to get unhappy once the outside temperature rose past 20 degrees Celsius–about 68 degrees Fahrenheit. 

Frederic also upgraded to disc brakes, along with an Inox exhaust that’s responsible for the deeper growl from the air-cooled engine.

Such a Shame

Volkswagen came so close to offering a performance car in the ’60s. Instead, the VW performance community had to wait until the next decade to get one, the original Golf GTI. 

Lately, Volkswagen has been hunting for speed records with its R-branded performance cars, like the electric I.D.R that conquered both Pikes Peak and the Green Hell at the old Nürburgring. 

The Mach 1 Beetle, though, had all the potential to change the company’s image long before.

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Comments
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Noddaz
Noddaz UberDork
1/5/22 12:53 p.m.

Thank you, that was interesting!

Belgium:  We are producing a performance model of your Type 1.

Germany: Nein!

End of story. sad

 

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