Paul Newman’s Volkswagen Beetle once rocked the motor racing world
The red 1963 Volkswagen convertible in the “For Sale” ad appears to be a cherry version of the automaker’s popular Beetle. It has chrome bumpers, a black cloth top and a bright finish to its paint. The rims are shiny and the tires barely worn.
The trim little California car looks ready to drive to the beach or cruise down the Sunset Strip on a Saturday night. But buckle your seatbelt before you get to the asking price — $250,000.
Obviously, this is no ordinary Volkswagen. Indeed, it has an extraordinary history. In car talk circles, it’s known as the Newman Bug, the VW that the late Paul Newman had customized into a “sleeper” racecar in the late 1960s.
It’s an Indy Bug with a 300-horsepower engine, racing suspension and five-speed gearbox. On the outside, it looks like Herbie the “Love Bug.” But try to beat it off the line and it will blow off your door handles.
Newman bought the car in 1963, and later he and the convertible appeared in some magazine advertisements for Volkswagen. In 1969, he asked Jerry Eisert, a renowned Indy Car builder in Costa Mesa, to make some modifications on the car, which included installing a bigger motor.
Eisert took out the backseat and replaced the stock VW motor with a Ford 351-cubic-inch engine — the equivalent of putting a rocket on a kid’s red wagon. After Eisert’s work was complete, Hollywood gossip had Newman racing the car on Mulholland Drive with some of his industry pals and also competing against all comers at local racetracks. Cool Hand Bug.
Newman’s passion for racing blossomed after he made the 1969 film “Winning,” and the experience of learning how to drive for that movie turned into a second career. For the next 15 years, he was a successful driver on the Sports Car Club of America circuit and, driving a Porsche, finished second at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1979.
Newman once told ESPN, “It actually took me three years of rearranging my schedule before I could find time to get my license and everything. After that, I never did a film between April and September or October. [Racing] was all I did.”
In preparation for “Winning,” Newman and the film’s co-star, Robert Wagner, took lessons at Bob Bondurant’s driving school at Riverside Raceway. Soon after, Bondurant moved the school to Ontario Motor Speedway, and it was there one night in 1969 that Newman met Sam Contino, head of the automotive technology department at Chaffey College in Alta Loma.
Contino and his students were testing a car they had built — a Trans-American Sedan Series Camaro — as part of their “race car preparation technology” class, a three-unit course.
According to Contino, that night John DeLorean brought a new 1969 Camaro to the track for Bondurant, and Newman, who was on the speedway’s board of directors, was putting a Formula Four open-wheel racer through its paces.
When Newman saw Contino and the students, he introduced himself.
“He looked at our Trans-Am Camaro and asked if he could drive it,” Contino, 82, recently recalled. “After he drove it, he said, ‘I’d like to show you one of my toys.’”
That’s when the Chaffey class first saw the Newman Bug.
Newman told Bondurant that he was thinking of giving up the Volkswagen, but didn’t know what to do with it. Bondurant suggested that he donate it to Chaffey’s auto tech department.
“He said, ‘It’s yours if you want it,’” Contino said. “I had gotten some Chaffey jackets from the football team for our students to wear and we gave him a jacket.” From then on, Newman was a sponsor of the Chaffey program.
The class added the Newman Bug to its collection of cars, which included a Trans-Am Boss 302 Mustang and two Ramblers that had been part of the James Garner Racing Team. The class turned one of the Ramblers into a Baja car for competition in Mexico road races and the other into a dragster.
They painted the VW the Chaffey school colors, white with red trim, and put on four Keystone chrome rims. Although they prepared the car for racing, it was used mostly as a training aid to show workmanship and construction.
In 1986, Contino retired from teaching at Chaffey and the school presented him the Newman Bug as a retirement gift. Contino and his son, Tom, did a complete restoration of the car in April 2009 and had plans to show it to Newman. But the actor died before the car was finished.
“The car is a tribute to Paul Newman for all that he did for us,” Sam Contino said.
The Newman Bug was recently shown at the Long Beach Grand Prix, where it drew sizable crowds. “People look at it from a distance and think it’s just a Volkswagen,” Contino said, “but then they get closer and see the big Ford motor where the back seat should be, and it blows their minds.”
Mostly, though, the car sits in Tom Contino’s garage in Hesperia, awaiting a new owner.
“Sometimes I drive it around the block,” Tom Contino said, “and my wife will take it out for ice cream.”
Sam Contino said he hopes a car collector will buy it. Or, if a museum was interested, “I would be willing to give it up.”
Additional photos and information about the car are available on the websites oldbug.com and californiacar.com
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