Volkswagen Magazine


Memories of mawson.

Even with its reputation for reliability, no-one foresaw that a Beetle could conquer the harsh terrain of the Antarctic so convincingly.

Text Paul Rodger
Photos Australian Antarctic Division

The Beetle took to the extreme conditions with aplomb. With its air-cooled engine, it was never at risk of a frozen radiator.

These pictures look as foreign now as they must have done to the Australian public in 1963. That was the year a Volkswagen Beetle De Luxe sedan arrived via supply ship at Mawson Station, a lonely research post on a natural deepwater horseshoe harbour on the coast of the Antarctic plateau. Established in 1954, Mawson was the first station in the Australian Antarctic Territory. A ruby red Beetle amid the glowing, white snow of Antarctica? Not as fanciful an idea as it might first sound.

19km was the furthest distance covered by Antarctica 1 in any one direction.

Volkswagen had already forged an excellent reputation for reliability in the 1950s as a result of its participation––and success––in a series of fierce rally events called the Round Australia Trial. But it wasn’t until Antarctica that it proved its mettle in the cold. Transported aboard the Australian National Antarctic Research Expedition (ANARE) supply ship Nella Dan, the Beetle bore the number plate Antarctica 1. It wasn’t long after reaching terra firma, however, that the 25 scientists at Mawson assigned the vehicle a more affectionate moniker: the Red Terror.

Antarctica 1 being relieved in 1964 after a successful year in the frozen wilds.
An original Volkswagen brochure celebrates the remarkable resilience of the ruby red Beetle.

blazing a trail.

Instrumental in getting the vehicle to Antarctica was a young engineering draughtsman named Raymond McMahon, who headed Australia’s research team at Mawson during the 1963–64 season. He recognised that a production vehicle could alleviate some of the transportation problems affecting the outpost. Sensing an excellent PR opportunity for Volkswagen, McMahon approached the company about sending a Beetle to Mawson. Volkswagen agreed and he was tasked with handpicking a Beetle from the production line at the company’s factory in Clayton, Victoria. How odd it must have seemed to see the red Beetle being unloaded. But a trial run along the Polar Plateau showed that the Beetle could more than hold its own in the rugged conditions. In his first cable to Melbourne, McMahon declared: “Have pleasure stating drove Volkswagen to Rumdoodle. Performance excellent. Indeed happy motoring.” The trusty Beetle joined the ranks of tracked vehicles stationed at Mawson such as Snow-tracs and Caterpillars, which had a maximum speed of barely 5mph (8km/h) and poor fuel consumption. Not only was the Beetle able to do much of their work, it could run at a higher speed and use much less fuel. It’s a testament to the hardiness of Volkswagen Beetles that few modifications were made to Antarctica 1 before it was shipped. An oil pressure gauge was added, as well as an aluminium cover for the fan air intake to keep snowdrifts out of the fan housing when the vehicle was parked. Otherwise, Antarctica 1 had undergone only a standard ‘winterising’ procedure, which included encasing the manifolds in a protective material and fitting winter-tread tyres.

then and now:
McMahon on the Beetle

Ray McMahon was only 28 when he became expedition leader at Mawson Station. Like Antarctica 1, he stayed for only one season; he married soon after his return to mainland Australia and raised a family while pursuing a career as a mechanical engineer. Fifty years after the 1963–64 expedition, he recalls the exploits of the hardy Beetle with affection. “We parked it outside and even in the wildest blizzards, no snow got into the car. A glaciologist, if he needed to go out onto the sea ice, would just hop into the car, throw his drills and bits and pieces onto the luggage rack and off he went. It became a very useful vehicle for the research station.” Over the past decade, McMahon has renewed his acquaintance with the planet’s coldest terrain, working with One Ocean Expeditions as a tour guide in the Antarctic and the Arctic. “To get back among the icebergs and penguins, cold and glaciers after all that time was unbelievable,” he says.

The Beetle took to the extreme conditions with aplomb. With its air-cooled engine, it was never at risk of a frozen radiator. It did, however, need kerosene-thin oil to stay lubricated in the freezing conditions. Scientists at Mawson recall the vehicle starting under its own power at temperatures as low as -38°C. The rear-engine design also gave the Beetle ideal weight distribution and helped it to move through snow and slush. That’s not to say the vehicle didn’t cop a battering. The winds blew so hard on some of the Beetle’s expeditions that they were sufficient to “turn the doors inside out, overriding the door check-rods and folding the doors against the front hub cabs”. Just as well the door hinges were easily bent back into shape.

life after Antarctica.

Antarctica 1 was one of five Volkswagens to assist at Mawson until the 1980s. It was replaced in February 1964 by Antarctica 2 and returned to the mainland. What happened then can barely be believed. Antarctica 1 was entered into the 1964 BP Rally of South Eastern Australia, a dusty 3200km odyssey through parched outback. The Beetle won outright. With such a storied history, one might expect the vehicle to now sit behind glass at a museum—but that’s not the case. Having taken on extreme road conditions of virtually every kind––and survived––the vehicle disappeared quietly from public view in about 1966. What became of Antarctica 1 remains a mystery.

Antarctica 1 covered a total distance of 24,000km during its 12-month stint.
Surely the strangest sight these emperor penguins had ever encountered.


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