Volkswagen Magazine

History

Herbie goes bananas.

The Sachsen Classic means 180 driver teams in 180 beautiful automobiles competing to win the title of the most reliable vintage car. They all want to win, but racing pro Manuel Reuter and I enter the race with Herbie, the most amazing Beetle in the world.
Text Jo Clahsen
Photos Bernhard Huber

Allow me to present Herbie. On behalf of those who don’t know the famous film series: Herbie is a Beetle with a lot of character – and an adventurous spirit. Sporting a mere 30 hp, it weighs only 730 kilograms. This weekend its driver will be Manuel Reuter – two-time Le Mans winner, former pro driver in the Deutsche Tourenwagen-Meisterschaft (DTM) and currently spokesman for the DTM DA, a type of drivers’ union. He’s also a big Beetle fan. “There was plenty of room behind our house”, says the 53-year-old with a broad smile. “So at 13 I took the body off a Beetle and bombed down the farm tracks with the rest.”

In Zwickau we still feel that we are on the path to success.

Pro or not, even Manuel Reuter seems a little tense. He’s wearing lightweight running shoes on this humid Thursday in late summer, is highly motivated and in good physical shape from numerous triathlons. First he walks around Herbie, refreshes his memory. It’s a squeeze inside. The seats barely have enough room for the race driver’s 1.87-metre height. Manuel puts the key into the ignition, turns it, listens. His eyes sparkle, the corners of his mouth turn up in a big grin of fond remembrance. Can we pull off a kind of “Herbie Reloaded” with this crazy car? Two men, one car, one glance. Yes, we can!

Manuel Reuter – two-time Le Mans winner and a big Beetle fan.

The route

Day 1

The Sachsenring leg is 125 km.

Start and finish: Zwickau, Hauptmarkt

Day 2

Ore Mountains – Czech Republic leg covering 255 km.

Start and finish: Zwickau

Day 3

The Dreiländereck leg, 258 km.

Start: Zwickau. Finish: Leipzig, Augustusplatz

The Sachsen Classic is considered to be the most demanding of what are known as regularity or reliability rallies. It isn’t about speed, but about adhering exactly to the specified route and finishing it precisely in the defined time. Any deviations are given penalty points, no matter whether for being too fast or too slow. In other words: the fastest person doesn’t win, but the most consistent one does. Now in its 13th year, the 3-day Sachsen Classic 2014 will encompass a total of 638 kilometres, from Zwickau via the Czech Republic, the Fichtelberg and the German-Polish-Czech tri-border point, all the way to Leipzig. Manuel, Herbie and I are competing in the hourglass class, which prohibits the use of any electronic equipment. The odometer is our only instrument for getting approximate bearings. Two analogue stopwatches are on board for timing special stage routes. Tripmaster, GPS? Not a chance! We will fight it out using analogue the whole way.

Day 3 on the clipboard: special stages, time checks, rally routine

Racing pro Manuel starts things off calmly. His job is to drive Herbie’s ideal “driving line” with as much care as possible. My job consists of optimal briefing. Resting in my lap are the clipboard, stopwatches and road book, which contains all the details of the route and its special stages: total distance from the starting line, partial route since the last action, direction, possible signage, countdown of the distance still to be driven, the allocated time and the prescribed average speed of 36.5 km/h. Special stage notes read as follows: 13 km in 1,234 seconds, the final 100 metres in 15 seconds.
Driving, checking, adjusting, spurring the driver on and counting down become part of our daily routine.

Our race cars

Beetle Export 1200 “Herbie”

Construction year: 1960
Type: 1200 Export
Engine displacement (cm3): 1.192 ccm
Output (kW/hp–at min-1): 30 PS/156 kW at 3.400 rpm

max. torque (Nm – at min-1): 76 Nm at 2.000 rpm

Golf II G60 Rallye

Construction year: 1990
Type: Rallye (type G mechanical compressor)
Engine displacement (cm3):  1.782 ccm
Output (kW / hp – at min-1):  210 hp/156 kW at 6.500 rpm
max. torque (Nm – at min-1):  225 Nm at 5.000 rpm

A great many spectators wherever the rally goes. The Sachsen Classic is a huge public spectacle.

Manuel takes hold of the delicate gearstick. The “standing” clutch takes some getting used to, as do the pull switch for the lights and wipers and the slender Bakelite steering wheel, which turns out to have some play in it. On the way to the starting line, enthusiastic spectators who recognize Manuel jump in front of the car. They all want to wish him and Herbie luck, request an autograph on their programme or simply a picture of the driver and his sidekick. Manuel is a true pro – all smiles while continuing to play with the accelerator.
Driver and Herbie may be in sync after only a few kilometres, but the first special stage is a disaster. We are more than four seconds late at the Steile Wand in Meerane, a very steep gradient over 200 metres. The best teams rarely complete a daily stage with a deviation of more than a second.
Another half-day goes by before we have more or less synchronised the road book and reality and configured the heating, sun roof, crank handle and pop-out windows in such a way that the conditions inside Herbie are comfortable. A curse erupts from Manuel’s lips after repeatedly losing our bearings, but there are more than 500 kilometres and various special stages still waiting ahead. Besides, every metre driven brings a better flow to our performance. Our mood lightens. Slowly there emerges a solid mixture of short commands (“out of next roundabout at 9 o’clock!”), elegant manoeuvres, Beetle memories and tunings from earlier times. “I later built a campervan engine onto my Beetle-based ‘driving module’,” Manuel recounts, “because it was even flatter and lowered the centre of gravity more.”

Welcome to Karlsbad. Information about the spa town and the stamp are given out at the checkpoint.

As we turn into the Sachsenring, a circuit rich in tradition, Manuel is in his element. He churns out the lap time on the race track like a driving computer. In the evening in Zwickau we discuss an “optimised approach” for Day 2 – starting immediately, I’ll note the special stage data on a white sheet of paper and hold them in his field of vision if they are complicated – for example 200 metres in 17, 100 in 15 and 250 in 19 seconds. Then we plough through the road book together. After all, we are heading into the Czech Republic, which means understanding names of places we have never heard of.
On Friday morning we are at the starting line feeling very motivated. “Our Herbie sounds really good today,” Manuel jokes. The second leg of the Sachsen Classic is quite demanding, as are the special stages. From low-lying country up to nearly 1,400 metres altitude – Herbie runs and runs and runs.

Day 3, after Herbie’s breakdown. A wedding is taking place at Burgscheidungen. As is the Sachsen Classic 2014.

We drive through idyllic scenery and cities like Karlsbad as if on a cloud of good will, ambition and motivation. By our return to Zwickau, we had played through the Beetle’s four gears with relish and once even reached its top speed of 120 km/h. Manuel tells me about training runs performed at more than three times Herbie’s top speed, like an unearthly 410 km/h at the Le Mans training in 1988. We are still very satisfied with our crazy Beetle. The bulletin board confirms it. 147th place out of 180, after being 165th the previous day. Progress. “And tomorrow”, says Manuel, “we’ll heroically fight our way into the Top 50.”

Time check: the Golf Rallye, Manuel and I were due at 3.32 pm. And off we go!

Saturday begins well. It isn’t particularly warm, but the sun is shining, and Herbie is chipper and sounds as if he had spent the night bathing in a fountain of youth. Yet after the first special stage Manuel sends an SOS. The classic car team diagnoses steering problems. During the second attempt the steering wheel’s play has increased to nearly a half-turn. Manuel: “It might be alright up to 50 km/h, but we can’t drive a whole leg like that.” So that was that for Herbie. We spend an hour in quiet mourning for our wild little friend with the dedicated technicians from Volkswagen Classic.
Time travel, part two. We skip three decades. The T5 Transporter takes us to Burgscheidungen, where we can join the last part of the rally – in a 1990 Golf II with type G mechanical compressor. A rare edition model of which very few with 210 hp still exist – the “normal” G 60 Rallye had 160 hp back then. A turn of the key awakens the racing dragon. In place of a nasal Boxer rear engine, a 1.8-litre, 4-cylinder engine with a type G mechanical compressor roars to life under the bonnet. Manuel can barely contain his joy in the bucket seat. “At the time I almost bought a Rallye Golf like this in red, but I ultimately got a white Corrado”, he exclaims. “You just can’t replace performance – except with greater performance!”

Herbie is broken. The old Beetle’s steering mechanism has given out.
First time check with the Golf Rallye after the switch in Burgscheidungen
Fresh start: after Herbie had to withdraw, we continued in the Golf II Rallye.

We are still nowhere near the podium places on Saturday. Herbie falls out of the standings, while we at least manage to place 131st with the Golf. Wolfgang Stracke and Fabian Mohr win in a 1980 Mercedes 123, Christian Schwamberger and Sebastian Singer garner an impressive 2nd place with a 1979 Beetle 1303 cabriolet.
The sun beams down on Leipzig’s Augustusplatz for the grand finale in front of thousands of spectators. We roll up to our spot feeling tired, listening to the introductions and applause. Three long days full of challenges and impressions, setbacks and happy moments are behind us. I muse: It’s a pity that Herbie didn’t make it to this point. He had the makings of a winner. And certainly the personality for it.

It’s a pity Herbie didn’t make it to this point. He had the makings of a winner.

At the finish line in the Golf Rallye: Applause, photographs and beer for the teams. Thanks, Saxony!