Does removing the top double the fun?
February 1, 1999
On the road for more than a year now, Volkswagen’s New Beetle no longer draws gaping stares from slack-jawed onlookers. It’s not from its lack of technical prowess or impeccable road manners, but it’s the simple fact that there are more and more of them on the streets everyday.
Hell, it’s a great car all by itself. Buy one. Be happy.
Since its conception, convertible design studies have been spied in various states of trim. But, as Dr. Piech bluntly stated, “A convertible iteration of the New Beetle is not a high priority for us. Certainly, we could build it, but our New Beetle production line is running at maximum capacity right now; we have more important items on our agenda.”
Enter the aftermarket tuners, an industry that’s been both blessing and bane to the O.E. manufacturers. For every genius like Steve Dinan or Art Lingenfelter, there are those selling snake oil products with results that ultimately “de-tune your suspension for maximum inefficiency” or “reduce your engine’s dangerous horsepower.” Like a double-edged sword, cottage industry fabricators are looked upon with mixed emotions.
Newport Convertible Engineering (NCE, curiously located in Placentia, Calif.) is one of the better guys in the world of customizing. In business for more than 16 years, it’s focused its efforts on convertible conversions for Ferraris, BMWs, Lincoln MK VIIIs and Bentleys. NCE recently took on the formidable task of removing the lid from a New Beetle, and the results left this editor more than a little impressed.
Half expecting the New Beetle to snap mid-frame during an exceptionally hard corner, the car instead held a tight line with nary a creak or moan coming from the cowl section. Uneven pavement (e.g. railroad tracks) presented little problem for steering feedback; it remained tight and responsive. Lesser convertibles have a tendency to “corkscrew” during chassis loading. Not so here. The NCE New Beetle exhibited the tightness I’d expect from a factory-built unit.
“We’ve done a significant amount of strengthening to the body,” explained NCE’s Al Zadeh, a engineer from USC. “The New Beetle is actually very well made; even with the top removed it’s still very stiff. But we insisted on adding a significant amount of reinforcement to its structure for good driving characteristics.” All told, the New Beetle gained about 100 lb of steel reinforcement – structures placed in a box section in the rear and front, and an elaborate ladder-type frame underneath the floor pan. Moreover, NCE added beefy side impact beams beneath the lower rocker panels for additional security. The trunk section was also cross-braced between the shock towers – but not at the expense of trunk capacity. Looking at the weld seams revealed close attention to bead uniformity; a lot of work went into the subframe.
Bob Kozen, a retired engineer from Chrysler’s prototype and experimental division, commented on the NCE conversion. “It seems to have done everything right,” said Kozen. “The load-bearing sections are very well enforced – this makes it exceptionally rugged and tough. NCE has done its homework.”
While I admired the handling of the NCE New Beetle, the top styling could benefit from a little more development. Fabricated from triple-layered canvas, the top provides a moderate amount of sound deadening and is secured with clasps from the Mazda Miata. Sealing around the windows is not bad and could be best described as a Miata-like fit. The downside to NCE’s top is its lack of rear passenger side windows; the effect with the top up is like sitting in a cave. Moreover, the folding mechanism is manually operated, and, while it’s not exceptionally heavy, it does take a some effort to raise and lower it. The convertible’s frame intrudes slightly into the rear armrests, but rear passenger room is entirely intact. These are not mortal sins, however, and I can even live with the plastic rear window, but as they say: “Things are only going to get better.”
While NCE is responsible for actually converting the New Beetles to ragtops, Special Vehicle Concepts in Newport Beach and Convert-a-Beetle in Scottsdale, Ariz., are in charge of sales and marketing. SVC can also equip New Beetles (convertible or otherwise) with a host of go-fast goodies, including remapped computers, upgraded exhausts, sport suspensions, hi-po brakes, custom head work – you name it and SVC can make it happen. Plan on giving NCE $12,000 for a convertible conversion –and don’t forget to bring a New Beetle with you. In three weeks, you’ll be the envy of the New Beetle elite.