1954 Volkswagen Beetle Cabriolet: Top down and fast…sorta

1954 Volkswagen Cabrio Okrasa

1954 Volkswagen Cabrio Okrasa

Perhaps it’s not what it once was, but the cult of the radically modified VW Beetle approached minor religion status in Southern California, but then what doesn’t? It’s easy to forget that in the 1950’s the Volkswagen was just another imported car and that buying an imported car was like shopping in the weird fruit section as the  supermarket.  Most folks preferred Red Delicious.

But apparently people bought mangos and breadfruit in sufficient quantities for the A&P to stock them, and enough people bought Renaults and Fiats and Hillmans and VWs to support a flourishing aftermarket of suppliers of accessories and hop-up parts.  There were, for example, at least four different superchargers available for the VW in 1955.

1954 Volkswagen Cabrio Okrasa

1954 Volkswagen Cabrio Okrasa

The concept no doubt horrified the Germans back in Wolfsburg. No modifications should be made to its cars. Thirty-two horsepower was enough.  And anyway, VWs were raced in the 750 to 1200 cc Production Class, which back then was much closer to today’s showroom stock.

But there were speed demons who wanted more than a top speed of 68 mph, and they wanted 0-60 times under 30 seconds.  One of these was a Connecticut Yankee named Philip Jones.  Not long after buying 1954 Volkswagen Cabriolet from VW dealer George Lazaravich who had bought the car for personal use, Jones ordered a full-house hot-rodding of the convertible’s engine and upgraded the chassis.

Back in the day, the convertible, produced by Karmann, was imported to the U.S. only as a special order direct from the factory.  Convertibles had European-style “Heart taillights” (so named for the shape of the lens on top of the reflector body) and lighted semaphores just behind the doors.

Lazaravich didn’t have the car long.  It was built Nov. 25, 1954, and an invoice dated Jan, 26, 1955, shows Jones took the car to Bond Motors in Old Saybrook, Conn., for a complete engine rebuild, including a new crank, cam and heads.  On a car originally costing $1,995 (the sedan listed for only $1,655), Jones spent a total of $778.30 on modifications:  $192 for labor, $27.7 for VW parts, and $542.05 for “accessories.”

Accessories?  On a corner lot on Roberta Street in Riverside, Calif., was a small brick building, and on the front was a picture of a globe and the name, European Motor Products, Inc., and inside were shelves of Fiat, Porsche, Renault and Volkswagen parts.  EMPI, later to become one of the leaders in VW hop-up parts, was already importing speed parts made in Germany by Oettinger Kratsfahrttechnische Spezialanstalt, or Okrassa for short.  Jones opted for the Hi-Torque Power Kit: Hi Compression” (7.5:1) dual port heads, dual intake manifolds, a pair of “Porsche Type” 32 Solex carburetors, as well as air cleaners, throttle linkages, fuel line and assorted nuts, bolts, washers and gaskets.

1954 Volkswagen Okrasa-modified engine

1954 Volkswagen Okrasa-modified engine (Click to enlarge)

Jones also bought the Okrasa stroker crank kit that bumped displacement from 1192 cc to 1286 cc, the EMPI three-quarter camshaft and the EMPI Filtercooler, a finned cast aluminum canister that allegedly reduced oil temperature 20 percent.  Jones also added an oil temperature gauge, a tachometer, chrome door pulls, a glove box door pull, adjustable seats and a special white plastic steering wheel with a horn button with St.Christopher in the center surrounded by the signs of the Zodiac, apparently covering all the bases.  Jones later added a front antiroll bar.

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John is a veteran auto writer, first published in Custom Rodder magazine in 1980. Since then, he has been published in all the big car magazines, including Car and Driver, Road & Track, Motor Trend, Auto Week, Automobile, plus a variety of others, including but certainly not limited to Automobile Quarterly, Collectible Automobile, and Special Interest Automobiles. John’s work has also been featured in a number of consumer and general interest magazines such as Consumers Digest, Popular Science and others. John has written four books, including a history of the Mazda RX-7 (selling for more out-of-print than it did new), buyers’ guides for Mazda, Datsun/Nissan and Volvo cars, and is co-author of 365 Cars You Must Drive with Motor Trend editor Matt Stone, and his work has been translated into Italian, Estonian, Portuguese, Russian, and Bulgarian. John is recipient of the prestigious Ken Purdy Award for Excellence in Automotive Journalism, awarded by the International Motor Press Association, and the Golden Quill from the Washington Automotive Press Association. John has three adult daughters and has been married for more that four decades to Mary Ann, Distinguished Professor of Mathematics at East Stroudsburg University of Pennsylvania.

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