A skeleton-head shifter, seven-speed DSG transmission and a matte Army green finish are hardly the features you’d associate with a beloved Volkswagen Beetle. But for Marcel Horn, the founder and president of a Canadian custom auto shop HPA Motorsports, it’s the perfect sinister flavor for his custom Beetle build.
“The Beetle can be a little cheeky, devilish critter,” said Horn, who debuted a custom Beetle at the Specialty Equipment Market Association (SEMA) show in 1999. “That Dr. Jekyll-Mr. Hyde, white angel-red devil on your shoulder personality—the Beetle has both qualities, and that’s what we wanted to convey with this tribute build.”
Introduced to America as the Type 1, Volkswagen has sold nearly five million Beetles in the United States, and a worldwide total of approximately 21.5 million cars. After roughly seven decades of production and three generations of designs, the company retired the iconic vehicle this past June.
When Horn and his team heard that the Beetle was coming to the end of its lifecycle, they knew they wanted to say goodbye in the best way they knew how: revealing a custom-built HPA FTX700 Volkswagen Beetle at the 2019 SEMA show.
“The entire essence of the SEMA show is personalization for the look of aesthetics and performance, and the Beetle is by far one of the most personalize-able vehicles on the planet,” said Horn.
Horn’s love for the Beetle dates to his parents: he was brought home from the hospital in a Volkswagen Type 3, and his daily commute to and from elementary school was in a 1976 Rabbit, which later became his first car.
“There isn’t a person we could walk up to in a restaurant or venue who hasn’t had a Beetle touch their life in some way,” said Horn. Instead of a normal college trajectory, Horn got his degree in mechanical engineering and business and took night classes while running HPA fulltime out of his garage. HPA has now been in business for nearly 30 years and prides themselves off their creative takes on classic cars, like the Beetle.
“In a day and age before the internet and smartphones, Volkswagen offered this inherent interchangeability,” Horn said. “The fact that you could change the attitude and styling because of the cross-platform interchangeability”
With a willing customer on deck, over the course of two years, the team worked on almost every part of a 2016 Beetle Dune. Swapping the car’s original engine for a fully built 3.2L 6-cylinder engine, HPA fitted a seven-speed transmission, mated to an all-wheel-drive drivetrain. The combination delivers 700 hp and 800 lb.-ft. of torque to this Beetle Dune’s custom 19” HRE RS105M monoblock wheels.
“As you do anything with infatuated circumstances, you take a basic idea, and the complexity and the detail level in front of you grows,” said Horn. “With the exception of the bumpers, there is not a bolt, a nut, a shifted cable, a widget, an electronic control module, a wiring harness, a floorboard panel, tub suspension segment that has not been engineered, designed or built.”
Heading into SEMA this week, Horn is counting on two things to capture attendees’ attention with the vehicle: that those who understand the technicalities of the design will pause and indulge in the details, and that more general SEMA visitors will be lured over to the Beetle by its sinister stance. That combination has already landed this tuned Beetle on the shortlist of cars vying in SEMA’s Battle of the Builders award.
“It feels surreal for me as the owner and someone who has been such a passionate fan of the Beetle to have the opportunity at SEMA,” Horn said. “To be part of this is more than dreams are made of…I just hope we aid in leaving a memorable mark for the Beetle in everyone’s minds that walk through the show.”