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The New Wave VW Scene: Shows, Cars and Shops

The New Wave VW Scene: Shows, Cars and Shops
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The New Wave VW Scene: Shows, Cars and Shops

We've run a few articles over the years about various VW styling trends, and one that you can't ever avoid is the 'New Wave' style, and the 'Back 2 89' movement that lives to preserve the cars built in period, celebrating this unique time in UK custom car culture. Stu Betty takes us on a journey back through space and time... Fasten your lap belts!

The heart of Back to ‘89

Those old enough to have started their air-cooled VW journey in the mid to late 80s would have seen this transformation play out first-hand. The fashion swung from wide wing, porthole, Crager wide wheels and mural artwork, to low, de-chromed colour-coded 80s pastel, California-inspired bugs off the pages of VW Trends Magazine and the ‘Aircooled Volkswagens’ book by Colin Burnham.

It was a key time in the VW scene as there wasn’t just a huge shift from the transformation of VW styles, but an influx of younger enthusiasts rubbing shoulders with the old guard before them. The UK youth culture was changing too; the fashions of 501 Jeans, Benneton clothes and Swatch Watches, along with the lifestyles of the skate, surf and of course, music with Warehouse parties arriving, all charged the world forward. VWs had gained in popularity with a boom of younger owners flooding the roads. And this culture was all encapsulated into an American-inspired one-day VW show, on a former WW2 Bedfordshire airfield in July 1987.

Photo Credit: Stu Betty / Steve Buckmaster 

The Bug Jam!

Bug Jam #1 was the brainchild of Brett Hawkesbee, and with its West Coast USA-style show at Santa Pod Raceway was a world away from the longstanding VW Action show of the period. It even had a drag strip for those fancying a free run on the quarter mile. Future Bug Jammers would experience demo drag cars and those new VWDRC members in their super quick drag bugs; Moody, Mr Beetle and Humbug all come to mind.

Above all, Bug Jam #1 was one place where many fresh-looking VWs were in the spotlight and projected into the ‘New Wave’ VW Scene. In the absence of the internet, they would be seen across the pages of magazines in months to come, including the newly launched ‘Volksworld’ Magazine of September 1987.

Over the next few years momentum grew, and Bug Jam was flooded with enthusiasts and friends as word got around this was the coolest place to be. Other shows followed a similar format, such as Volksfest in Long Marston and later at North Weald, Essex with the ¼ mile strip taking centre stage with the show cars. Beetle Bash was to come in 1990 and move the formula into a festival of headline music artists, drive-in movies and BMX ramps, alongside the car show and drag racing that everyone knew and loved. 

Archive photo from Boo66 - Flickr. 

The Essex Riviera

It was Southend, the seaside town in Essex which was the place to head for your VW fix, as the new German Car Company (GCC) shop run by Ritchie King, an established car customiser of the early 80s had opened up. GCC hosted their Rad Sundays and Local Commotion meets, with a Golden Mile seafront cruise becoming a popular attraction. You could look at the latest Cal Look parts for your ride or the newest Hot VWs and VW Trends magazines from the USA on sale to catch up on Stateside news and show car features. Yet-to-be-named faces in the scene were making the pilgrimage from all over the country to come and talk VWs and meet like-minded owners.

Other VW shops took off around that time in other parts of the country too (Heritage was started in 1986, initially as Union Air Cool, later as Karmann Classics, and eventually VW Heritage). Big Boys Toys in Thurrock, was another name of the era, and a place where CEO Barney and Purchasing Director Paul cut their teeth in this trade.

Shops were the place to hang out at weekends, and this became the culture of the UK VW movement through the late 80s and early 90s:  shows, cars and shops.

Photo Credit : Rob Amos

The show cars

The late 80s was a time when creativity and imagination ran riot. No two feature cars were the same, and there was an eclectic mixture of styles. The key was that VWs were plentiful and cheap to buy, run and above all modify. You could change your VW Beetle wheels and just lower it for immediate coolness, go up into a Baja or down into a cool de-chromed looker on coded 8 spokes or morph into a Wizard Roadster or Turbo kit. Zoom Tubes made way for dual quiet packs and upright headlights to pre-67 sloping US Spec lights with wings and early panels to match.

One-off creations from auto stylists were all the rage, with the removal of pillars, hidden carburettors, Targa roofs and surf-inspired rides. Some took ideas from the custom car scene such as frenched rear lights and ariels, vent scripts, billet aluminium details and shaved door handles all as subtle tricks to make you do a double take at a show.

Then you had the paint: mirror-finished pastel hues and no chrome anywhere with everything colour-coded. Graphics came next, giving a bit of extra creativity to the canvas and changing the dynamic once more.

Engines didn’t miss out either, being detailed with off-the-shelf chrome or dress-up parts. Many were upgraded to bigger capacity, which led to a thriving industry for performance engine parts on both sides of the Atlantic. Some engines were works of art with hidden wiring and HT leads to make the whole compartment look as simplistic as possible - it was barely imaginable that they could run! Drag strip-inspired Stinger exhaust screamed and echoed off urban buildings, but these almost always ended up attracting traffic police attention and earning a fine. 

It was a fun time; everyone had a way of being part of the new scene, and it was extremely inclusive.

A handful of builds went full custom with tube frame chassis, chopped roofs, doors opening backwards, decklids opening sideways and bugs without roofs with wild paint. Ghia’s didn’t miss out either with Porsche 911 headlights grafted in or removable roofs such as the Rad Roadster of Ritchie King.

Back then, Buses were not yet popular, but that was to come with the likes of Derrick Day’s ‘Dolly Mixture’ shorty bus, Darren Quinn's smoothed Splitty and Steve Murphy's Graphi-Cal Split built by a new paint and body shop called ‘The Paintbox’. Type 3’s were already being modified as they were cheap to buy and easy to slam, with the editor of Volksworld at the time building ‘Fast Company’ a Fastback street and strip car. However, during the late 80s and early 90s it was VW Bugs that were the popular ticket.

Photo credit : Ben Pascoe

Heavy hitters

Many ‘New Wave’ show cars were featured in magazines over the years, and many of those feature names have stuck. Billabug, Smart Oval, Targa-bug, Dolly Mixture, Flat Attack, Scal Look, Mirage, Rad Roadster, Framboise, Als Cal and many more. By showcasing all the creativity on the pages of the magazine, the next time you saw that car at a show you looked more carefully, to take it all in. Naturally grabbing some snaps on camera (non-digital) and helping to secure their status in Volkslore for decades to come.

Giving a helping hand to enthusiasts who wanted a piece of the action were the many ‘How To’s’ running in VolksWorld, following the trends of the time such as fitting one-piece windows, de-chroming the body, and shaving the door handles.

Back then, show cars debuted at Bug Jam and the prestigious ‘Europes Most Beautiful VW’ Rose Bowl trophy was the ultimate accolade. Chris Jory’s coded Oval won the first ever EMBVW at the ’87 Bug Jam and plenty of cool cars followed in his tyre tracks. 

Recap of the 1990s trends

After 1990 we saw an evolving scene; those fun colour-coded pastel lookers were still being built but progressing across to a custom style. The pinnacle of cars pushing a new level of detail was Bernard Newbury's Karmann Ghia by ‘The Paintbox’ and ‘Homer’ by Machine 7 (M7). These two cars were accepted into the Custom Car culture, with the Ghia winning Best in Britain, the most prestigious trophy in that scene; things had gotten serious by the mid-90s.

By the time we got to 1996, vintage Cal Look cars had landed with a bang. This was helped along nicely with the California Look book by Keith Seume going to print and there was a huge push by Ivan McCutcheon, the editor of VolksWorld magazine to put these cars in the spotlight. These were mixed in with highly detailed Resto Cal’s running fully polished Fuchs or Empi 5’s inspired by the Stateside cars. A shift of trends was occurring and still remains to this day. That doesn't mean you can't like both, or own both, but there are definite styles. 

Archive Photos: Back to 89 Facebook 

The Back to '89 movement

What is known as Back to ’89, B289 or simply ’89 was born during the Christmas and New Year period of 2000. On a simple forum run by Machine 7, a thread was started asking where various old show cars were now. Why? Well, those old show cars from yesteryear either got retired from the show scene and put away, rebuilt into something else or were long gone. They became Volkslore and there was an appetite to see them again.

Pictures of these cars were added, and the thread and enthusiasm grew. Cars were located, leads were found, and we were off with a register of cars. Thanks to Alex Markille, Michael Leche and Simon Tomlin plus those who contributed to the M7 forum. A few months went by, and the list of cars and owners grew, with pictures of what the cars looked like now.

With Bug Jam 2001 approaching we were asked if the cars found could be put into a display in front of the bank at Santa Pod. So, we put in motion the first Back to ’89 display. The criteria was to bring back the old show cars of the 80s and 90s.

The reason and the key ethos were twofold. The first was to show those new to the scene what we used to build and for them to take inspiration and the second was for those who were in the scene at the time, the survivors still with us, to enjoy reliving it all again.

VolksWorld also helped in the Back to ’89 quest and asked readers to get in touch if they owned an old show car.

It was a small box out at the end of the feature on ‘Coffee and Cream’ a custom bug (that wouldn’t look out of place in the 80s in VolksWorld magazine) a week before Bug Jam which coined the display as Back to ’89. (So that is where the name came from). It was a huge success, cars not seen for a decade were all parked together in their own area. It was even featured on Satellite TV with the coverage of Back to ‘89 in the Bug Jam report.

Whilst Michael at Machine7 took a step back to concentrate on business, I took the movement forward with another display the same year at VW Action at Peterborough Showground.

The following year at VW Action I was invited by Brian Burrows and Brett Hawkesbee to take over the main hall. We had posters of the cars from the pages of the magazine with the cars next to them. I had a few bags of Thump! Thump! designed T-shirts to sell, and we awarded the first nostalgia trophy to ‘Billabug’ the light blue surf-inspired bug which made its debut in 1989 and was later rebuilt in 2000.

It was at Bug Jam in 2003, which in a nod to the late 80s we were allowed to park the cars on Santa Pod’s start line for the break at lunch. MC Paul Venners handed me the mic, and nervously I started telling the stories of all these cars.

Photo Credit: Steve Whitehead

Finding the old favourites

Many of the famous show cars of the period were found over the next 20 years and added to the register, however, some have since vanished again. A car that particularly comes to mind is Ritchie King's Red Karmann Ghia convertible from the mid-80s. A guy called Jon used it to smoke about in Bristol not knowing it was iconic. To see it drive into the display was amazing. A few years later it disappeared again and has never been seen since.

The Alan Smart Oval a Tube Framed car was also another one that no one knew where it was before the first display. Ireland and Scotland had been mentioned but in fact it was two miles from the original owner sitting in a factory. It was in the first display looking the same as its debut in 1989 bar the wheels changed to Centrelines. It has only been shown at four Back to ’89 displays over the past 22 years.

Some of those iconic cars have been rebuilt including Billabug, Als Cal a Milka Violet bug by The Paintbox and of course the original Targa bug built by Thump! Thump! More recently Back to ’89 has been lucky enough to have the Gasser Garage rebuild some of the original 80s cars including the Chris Jory Oval bug from that very first Bug Jam, Colin Burnham Street Machine Bug and Keith Seumes Fast Company to name a few. Cars in the late 80s style have also appeared on the scene, with coded wheels, graphics and bodywork tricks. Even cars off the pages of Colin Burnhams book ‘Aircooled Volkswagens’ have made their way across the Atlantic including Keith ‘Kid’ Dean Squareback with its roof chop and Ford Thunderbird front grill restored back to perfection by James Russell since it was first shown in 1984.

Media support

Over the past 22 years, we've had plenty of coverage in VolksWorld, and I was lucky enough to write the VolksWorld Vaults with Brian Burrows for several years. This was a look back at the feature cars and where they are now, this has been the whole ethos of Back to ’89 from the beginning. The VolksWorld show also agreed to 10 car displays over the past few years including the VolksWorld Vaults display featuring the cover star of Issue #1 back in 2010.

When you see Back to ’89 or B289 cars for sale, they are usually a nod back to the late 80s style of colour-coded Cal lookers or an old show car resurrected. They have their place in the UK and US scene and the US have just begun their resurrection for cars of the same era with an amazing display at the Grand National Roadster Show a few years ago.

Over the past 22 years the 'bible' was always Colin’s ‘Aircooled Volkswagens book but there are others, especially with Brett Hawkesbee's ‘Bug Jam and All That…’ being printed in 2008  giving an insight into the start of the scene and his amazing journey over the decades. Another of worth is the late Mike Key’s ‘Custom Beetle’ book and of course, all the custom handbooks by Keith Seume focussing on building those 80s Cal Lookers, Wizard Roadsters and Baja’s.

Social Media hasn’t escaped either and we now have over five thousand members on the Facebook Group called ‘Back to 89 Volkswagens’ set up by Kendra and Ian 14 years ago.

The future for B289

Where’s B289 heading for the future? I feel it remains an important part of the UK scene showing where we have come from. More cars are being recommissioned and bought out of hibernation and who could have failed to miss the Car SOS TV show and Andreas Wizard Roadster as seen at this year's VolksWorld Show B289 display, which put us under a mainstream spotlight once more.

At the same show, James Self’s resurrection of the most imaginative show car of 1990 is back debut called ‘Silly Sid Roadster’ with a host of tricks stopped everyone in their tracks. The square-shaped fan shroud, the lack of roof with capped door tops, the square grid graphics and the insane detail of the floorplan in hot pink and suspension components. This was another saved, which always gives me a sense of accomplishment.

The future of Back to ’89 is alive and kicking, and picking up momentum and interest across the globe. 

Our thanks to Stu Betty for taking the time to compile this article for us. A great trip down memory lane for some, and a fantastic history lesson for those a little more youthful. 

Be sure to give B289 a follow here, and do take the time to check out these cars up close when you get the chance. They paved the way for what we do today.

Andy 

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