Paul Newman with his 1963 VW convertible Beetle, shooting an ad for Volkswagen in the late ’60s. Soon afterwards race car builder Jerry Eisert was enlisted to stealthily turn this little bug into a covert Corvette killer. Paul Newman’s “Indy VW” would become one of the most radical VW Bugs of its time, and a sleeper legend was born.
“I know some of the history on Paul Newman’s 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 Chaffey 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.” –-Anon via
“I did one project that was a lot of fun. Paul Newman came to us and wanted to put a Ford engine in the back of a Volkswagen Bug. It took a year and a half to complete. He used to call every week and ask how things were going. He always asked about our race car teams. I believe that he just wanted to get away from the other world that he was in so I never once talked to him about or asked about his career. He was a real gentleman. He used to come down on Saturday mornings when he lived out here. One day he brought his daughter. I asked her if she wanted to go for a ride in one of our fancy dune buggies. She said yes so we asked her Dad if it was ok. He said yes so we took off. We went over by the Orange County Airport where there were empty fields and she saw a snake cross the road. She wanted to stop and get it but when we went back it had disappeared. Then we saw a rabbit running across a field. On the way back she saw a bird way up in the sky and exclaimed, “There is a red-tailed hawk.” When we returned to the shop her Dad asked how she liked the dune buggy ride. She said, “Oh, we saw a snake, a rabbit and a red-tailed hawk.” That was neat. She didn’t really care about the car. She was very polite and thanked me for the ride. Nice people. I always felt that he came to our shop to get away from his busy life so I never asked him about his work or never got an autograph, souvenir or took any pictures.
Paul used to come to the shop on Saturday mornings and we would take his VW to Orange County Raceway and run it around. He just seemed to enjoy being out with the guys and sometimes the mechanics and I would drive the car around and he would just watch and talk with the guys. He had another VW with a Porsche engine in it and he was always asking me to drive it because he liked it so much. Well, one day as we went to track I said OK. One of our mechanics rode with him and I drove his VW with the Porsche engine. After we started I thought of the fact that he hadn’t been to the track too many times and didn’t remember where to turn off. The mechanic probably wouldn’t know to tell him. So, I took off to catch them and we ended up catching them on the San Diego Freeway at about the same time he was passing a Camaro. He went on one side and I went on the other of the Camaro. We were probably doing well over 100 mph when this happened. There is always a possibility a hot VW is out there somewhere but two of them. The Camaro pulled to the side of the road and stopped. I bet that he was shook.” –Kay Kimes
“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 asked 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…” –Anon via
“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 (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 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?’)” –Roy Gardner via
“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!
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!'” –Roy Gardner via
When the Paul Newman Indy VW was first built, it was shown anonymously in Speed Age Magazine, September 1969.
The November, 1969 issue of Hot Rod magazine featured Paul Newman’s epic Ford-powered “Indy VW” soon after it was completed. Newman’s name was not used, but there were enough heavy-handed hints and innuendos (A Cool Hand’s Hot Rod…) to leave no doubts that it was indeed the famous blue-eyed actor’s ride.
“A COOL HAND’S HOT ROD”
If you were a movie actor with a yen for rapid machinery, what kind of “Sleeper” would you build?
“A movie actor who prefers anonymity commissioned Jerry Eisert of Costa Mesa to build this little runabout. A complete Indy-type suspension supports this 352 Ford Hi-Riser powered bomb. The trans-axle rear end is a Grand Prix-type ZF 5-speed gearbox coupled to a Schiefer clutch and flywheel. The VW pan was cut off at the fwd, bulkhead, and a complete tubular Indy-type double A-arm suspension with Corvair brakes and spindles was installed.
Steering is via Gordon Schroeder “Indy” rock and pinion unit. Rear suspension utilizes Corvair trailing arms; Monroe coil-over shocks support weight. Cooling was a problem; radiators are used both fore and aft. VW pan was stiffened by adding a 1 1/4 inch, 1/8 inch wall square-tube space frame down both sides. Seating is in normal position, and car appears stock except for roll bar. Bob Bondurant did testing.”
Forget about souping up that Beetle mill– why not just drop in a V-8?
“The sleeper has always been with us, though there are few, indeed, can resist putting some obvious signs on the outside of their hot machine to tell us what lies underneath.
Perhaps one of the most subtle VW-based “sleepers” of all time is the VW convertible shown here, now the property of Chaffey College in Ontario, California.
The car was built by race car designer Jerry Eisert for film star Paul Newman. Newman, who has owned at least 15 Volkswagens over the years, donated the car to the college, which has a course in race car technology, taught by Kent Fisk.
The car is structurally more race car than Beetle, though the components used are heavier than they would be in a race car. The engine is a cast iron Windsor 351-cubic-inch Ford V-8, mounted longitudinally behind the two front bucket seats.
Behind the engine is a ZF (Zahnradfabrik Friedrichshafen) five-speed, much like that used in the DeTomaso Pantera.”