Robert Freeman’s 1959 Beetle takes “buggin-out” to new heights.
No, you didn’t pick up Hot VWs Magazine by mistake. This is HOT ROD, so relax. Behold Robert Freeman’s “Berlin Buick,” christened as such because there’s a whole lot of Buick wrapped in that Volkswagen shell. Robert has wanted a mid-engine Volkswagen since he was a kid, and this is the manifestation of that childhood dream. The key to this fantasy fulfillment was to find the right people to help with the hard stuff, and that happened when he took the old Beetle body with a sunroof grafted sometime in its ugly past to Gary Brown at Browns Metal Mods in Port Leyden, north of Syracuse, New York. Robert arrived seeking only a top chop for the body he’d owned for 15 years, to kick off what would be a two-year build. When Robert confessed he was after a mid-engine bug with American V8 power, Gary suggested the 215ci Buick would be perfect because it’s light, narrow, and there’s still a ton of speed parts for the little aluminum terror. He also offered up his shop’s services, and the rest is Deutschamerikaner synchronicity.
The diminutive 215 Buick has been a go-to engine for tight engine conversions since the 1960s. Introduced in 1961, it’s light weight and 4.24-inch bore spacing combined with 3 ½-inch bores, making for compactness that’s just part of the reason it’s a popular engine swap. Only in production by Buick for three years, the rights to the design and tooling were sold to Rover in England, which kept it in production until the mid-1980s, finding its way into MGs and Land Rovers among other British marques. In 1961 it was the lightest weight, mass-produced engine made, at 315 pounds.
Robert’s engine has seen some massaging performed by Jack Dineen, including custom flat-top pistons increasing the compression to 12.5 to 1, a polished stock crank, and adapting a 1999 Buick oil pump with bored galleys and chamfered oil holes. The heads are later Rover 4.0 heads with stainless valves. A Schneider flat-tappet cam was used with .484-inch lift, .305 duration at 0.050, and 106 lobe separation angle. In addition, Chevy small-block valve springs were used. Up front a double-roller chain keeps things in sync.
Crowning the Buick is the Hilborn stack fuel injection using a Holley stand-alone EFI system with custom BMM fuel rails, a FAST regulator set to 47 pounds, and ACCEL injectors. An MSD Pro Billet distributor and MSD coils control the spark. Exhaust is dramatically handled with Brown-built zoomies. Cooling things off are twin Davies Craig water pumps, and custom twin SPAL radiators.
Of course all of this power has to be harnessed, but not with a weak VW transaxle. A new Medeola 4-speed was adapted to the Buick with a Kennedy Engineering bellhousing, enclosing a Stage 2 Kennedy billet steel flywheel. The Driveshaft Shop created the 8-inch 930 CV drive axles, spinning ET Classic V aluminum 15×12-inch wheels, and 15×4-inch ETs up front, mounted with 345/50R15 Nitto Drag Radials and Firestone 145SR15 tires respectively.
The ball-joint front suspension beam was narrowed 6 inches, with dropped spindles and modified shock towers all combining to get the beetle low and riding smooth. Ride Tech Shockwave shocks are at the corners. Brown’s attached all of this to the stock VW pan that has been reinforced with tube rails front to back. Brakes are 8-inch JBugs up front, and Wilwood 8-inch rears, actuated manually, with stainless lines and fittings throughout.
All of this gave the Berlin Bug a stout foundation for the body mods Robert had fantasized about, which were all executed by the Brown brothers Gary, Luke, and Dylan. Things got going with a 4 ½-inch top chop, then roll pans were fabricated for both the front and back, along with rolled fenders, which were left stock width. Both the (former) engine lid and trunk lid were smoothed and also peaked. The running boards were eliminated, and the doors were converted to rear hinges with electric poppers. All of the door corners were rounded, an ode to 1950s customizing where no straight lines or corners were allowed. The stock bumpers were split, narrowed, and tucked tight to the body. 1957 Buick side trim sweep was frenched into the body sides, and 1953 Buick “Venti-port” portholes were added that now function as exhaust ports. Emblempros created all of the Berlin Buick chrome badges.
After all of the body mods were completed, Browns blocked it out, gapped all of the shut lines, then shot a combo of PPG Tonic Brown and Ginger Beer, buried in four coats of clear.
Inside, a rollcage, fire system, and belts were all incorporated. A 1949 Buick dash was sectioned to fit, and then dash-to-door surrounds were fabricated. The portholes, trim to match the exterior, shift knob, and shift boot bezel are all the handiwork of Mike Ripp. A 1949 Buick steering wheel was cut down to fit the stock VW ring, and one-off Classic Instruments gauges fill the Buick dash. Stock VW seats were cut down for clearance, and then Rich Perez at RP Interiors in Horseheads, New York, covered everything in beige replicate leather.
There are many pitfalls and detours that can kill such an involved project like the Berlin Buick, but when everyone is on the same page and the owner has a concept in mind he and the shop he chooses sticks with, then unique and impactful vehicles such as this can be the result. As Robert’s VW attests, the wildest cars are yet to come.
The Berlin Buick hides its motivation well, with the only hint the wide ET Classic-V rear wheels and Nitto Drag Radials. Wheel tubs were fabb’d by Browns Metal Mods, who did virtually all of the body mods, body prep, and paint. Colors are PPG Tonic Brown and Ginger Beer.
Robert Freman originally purchased the 1956 oval-window Volkswagen body for $1,000, then spent years formulating his mid-engine plan. The tucked-in stock rear bumper incorporates 1959 Lincoln bumperettes housing the round taillights. Stock lid has been shaved, and while the fenders look widened, they are not.
Hiding in the back seat is the heart of this mid-engine Beetle beast: the 1963 215ci Buick/Rover aluminum engine. Jack Dineen at Dineen’s Repair in Little Falls, New York, handled all building aspects of the aluminum V8, including the Hilborn stack injection, now Holley/MSD-controlled. Through-the-body zoomies are by Browns, exiting through 1953 Buick portholes.
The entire car is a combo of Buick and Volkswagen, which is no more evident than inside where a 1949 Buick dash was modified to fit the bug, and the steering wheel is a mashup of Buick and Beetle. The gold shift knob is by Mike Ripp.
The Buick dash extensions are prominent here, as is Rich Perez’s upholstery work at RP Interiors in Horseheads, New York. Retro/contemporary beige replicate leather and rich cloth pattern blend well with PPG paint. Doors were converted to suicide with electric poppers. Note all of the rounded door and sill corners.
Check out the nasty profile. Windshield posts have been leaned back, and there’s a nice, subtle rake to the heavy top chop. Besides the removal of the stock running boards, the rockers have been rolled in to finish off the car’s bottom.
Stout Medeola 4-speed was adapted to the Buick with a Kennedy Engineering bellhousing, all supported by a tubing structure by Browns, who also created the belled panels. The Driveshaft Shop built the 8-inch 930 CV drive axles, all slathered in PPG Ginger Beer paint and chrome bracket accents.
It all looks so natural and like it was produced this way when you see it shiny and finished, but hundreds of hours went into planning and fabricating so that it looks this way. Robert says there is no tire rubbing or mystery noises, and that he plans on driving it every weekend he can, New York weather permitting.