Remember the New Beetle? No, not the current new Beetle, which is technically the new New Beetle, but the old New Beetle, which was the new version of the old old Beetle — oh never mind, I’ll just start again.
Remember the 1998 Volkswagen Beetle? Sure you do. It was that super kitschy, super retro, super cute faux bug that consisted of a Fisher-Price-styled three-hemicircle design running on the chassis of a Golf.
It was a pretty successful machine and, despite somewhat questionable features such as an on-board vase and some odd forward visibility thanks to the three feet of dash mandated by the Golf underpinnings, it sold well. Seeing as it drove just like a Golf, that meant it handled pretty well and did a good job as a practical daily driver with a hint of style.
Yeah, so anyways, these guys over in Langley? They built one with almost 500 horsepower.
Let me set the scene for you. It’s 2001 and you’ve just bought yourself the Ferrari 355 you’ve always wanted. It’s gorgeous, perfectly proportioned in red, properly side-straked, and possessed of a sonorous V-8 howl. Then some guy in a car with a dash-mounted flower-holder blows the doors off your Italian thoroughbred. I’m thinking that might be a little annoying — or hilarious.
The mad scientists behind the high performance Beetle are no hack-job homebrewers either. You might not have heard of HPA Motorsports — a small shop that’s been doing business out of the Fraser Valley since 1991 — but the world has, and it likes their cars. I took a trip down to their new headquarters to find out what they were up to.
It’s a pretty innocuous looking building, a beige mass plonked in a business park surrounded by gravel and concrete companies. The 12,000-square foot facility is a new home for the expanding company, and they haven’t even had a chance to put a sign up.
Instead, parked out front is a clear advertisement of the sort of hijinks these folks get up to: a slammed Audi TT coupe with a prominent big-brake kit, a bright red R32 Golf with a front-mount intercooler and ... is that a brand-new Scirocco? How the heck is that legal? Marcel Horn, the dark-haired, gregarious, loquacious founder and president of HPA simply grins mysteriously when I ask how he’s able to have two examples of the sleek, Euro-only Scirocco on site. One car belongs to the company, the other wears Texas plates and a vinyl wrap covered in signatures.
The owner of the latter, who has had the car shipped up for some tuning work, had the car wrapped in matte-white but didn’t like the look. He charged $5 to sign the Scirocco at a car show and raised several thousand dollars towards cancer research. Most of the things written on his car are hilarious. And unprintable.
Both Sciroccos have around 565 h.p. from twin-turbocharged V-6s, all-wheel drive and tuned-up dual-clutch transmissions. They are ridiculously fast, and ridiculously well put together. Almost every car in the HPA shop comes from far away. Along with the Texan car, there’s a GTI from New Jersey, another from Hong Kong, a Euro-only old-school Rallye Golf being built for an older collector out in New York. Another big-horsepower Golf sits in pieces on a lift, bound for Trinidad once it’s completed.
HPA’s expertise at tuning a twin-turbocharged version of the venerable VW narrow-angle V-6, the VR6, has led to an international following. Winning the aftermarket’s most prestigious event, the SEMA show, garnered one of their twin-turbo Golfs a place in the best-selling Gran Turismo gaming series, meaning that kids everywhere would grow up knowing what HPA is.
There’s something satisfyingly Canadian about these cars. Special effort is made to use locally sourced parts and expertise, with almost all the performance parts either made in-house or nearby. HPA’s machines are certainly aggressive looking, but they’re as easy to drive as regular Volkswagens, with all-wheel drive and smooth-shifting dual-clutch automatics.
Despite the big brake kits, most of the cars here are built to handle 18-inch alloys, meaning that fitting winter tires isn’t really that expensive. They also provide tuning solutions for the ubiquitous VW 2.0-litre turbo, and have done amazing things with the low-availability Golf R. However, it’s a much slower vehicle that Marcel’s most excited to show me this afternoon — a rough-and-tumble looking Jeep. He fires it up, and instead of the thrum of a big six-cylinder, there’s the signature clatter of a four-cylinder VW diesel.
Sandwiched between the Jeep running gear and belt-driven accessories is a low-mileage junkyard motor, the whole thing having been cobbled together for less than $16,000, including the cost of all parts and the purchase price of the Jeep.
It’s still as agricultural as you’d expect from an offroader, but there’s huge torque and reportedly excellent fuel economy.
Instead of sucking down gas, the project Jeep runs clean, sipping diesel on its way down the highway to find the trailhead.
It’s very different than the spare-no-expense nature of HPA’s lightning fast machines, built to be easily repairable and durable off-road, rather than dominant at the track.
However, it’s the same idea as that first high-performance Beetle — an exterior shell with something unexpected underneath, all sewn together with care, made in Canada.