The idea came to me—as so many other bad ideas do—by simply wondering how to make something totally conventional into something far more creative and entertaining to watch. Our previous builds were based on the same premise. What if a plane could be made into a racecar? We built the Spirit of LeMons, a ’56 Cessna 310, into a totally reliable street/track car that handles incredibly well, despite the mundane ’87 Toyota van base. I chose that particular model van because it uses a mid-engine/RWD setup and torsion bars in the front, which made for a low center of gravity, and left no strut towers protruding from the narrow fuselage. What if we did it again, but with a helicopter? Most helicopters have quite rounded bodies and use narrow skids, so even if a fuselage could somehow be sourced cheaply enough, neither would hide the chassis of even a small vehicle inside. The solution was clear to me—use pontoons to hide the vehicle chassis, and add an extra layer of challenge to the build by making it amphibious as well! The Upside-Down Camaro presented fewer serious engineering challenges, but still worked amazingly well as a visual gag. I wanted to recreate the jaw-dropping wow factor of that build, but how? A backwards truck had already been raced. I needed to think more unconventionally.
Why not a vehicle on its side?
But, how? You can’t see through a roof. You can’t see through an undercarriage. Most vehicle bodies are much wider than they are tall, which means they will be far too narrow once flipped onto their sides. My first thought was that it needed to be both iconic, and a vehicle prone to rollovers for the visual gag to really work. But with such restrictive design parameters, which vehicle? A typical conversion van would have the longer, raised roof required, but offered nothing in the way of real aesthetic appeal, and most are far too heavy. What van has both a smaller body, a raised roof, and a look that is at once both iconic and desirable?
The answer finally popped into my head—it had to be a classic Volkswagen Type 2 Westfalia camper van.
It checked all the boxes: relatively dimunitive as camper vans go, raised fiberglass top for added inside height, and the classic 70’s hippy van appeal. It also had a reputation for tipping over when cornered hard, which would work nicely into my plan. It was decided. I needed to find a Westy. That would prove to be quite difficult, because as it turns out, these things have become ultra-collectible, and the prices have gone through the (fiberglass) roof! A rusty hulk in the vague shape of a VW microbus around the MD/DC/VA area goes for $1200, and doesn’t leave a whole lot to work with. The search had to be expanded. Finally, after many dead ends, I found a suitable ’76 Westy 600 miles away in Tennessee. Asking price was $900, likely because it had no drivetrain, the moldy remnants of an interior, and no title. It had been decaying in a field for 20 years, and certainly had its share of rust and dents, but once we settled on the price of $600, my search was over. I grabbed my buddy Joshua Martinson, and headed out on a very long one day road trip. The owner (Steven) turned out to be a really cool guy and a real gearhead himself. His small shop, Half Fast Customs, housed a running Westy that he and his wife regularly camp in, as well as some other cool toys, including a Unimog rock crawler. A whole lot of PB Blaster and leverage pipes over a breaker bar later, we had the flat tires swapped for ones that held air, and dragged the lichen-covered shell onto my trailer. It dawned on me that I hadn’t yet come up with a name for the project. I thought—it’s trippy, it clearly needed a hippy theme, and we would race it tipped onto its side. Just like that, it was decided. The Trippy Tippy Hippy Van it would be.
I knew I needed a small vehicle to fit inside the van, so that we’d have a LeMons-legal base chassis to actually drive inside the van. I already had a Festiva sitting in my yard that I’d picked up for $150, and I knew they were tough after what we put one through with the UDC. That simply didn’t have the appeal I wanted for this build, and was definitely underpowered with only 60 HP. Another brief consideration was a Smart car (also German and rear-engined), but they run afoul of minimum wheelbase requirements. I was leaning towards a Fiat 500, but even the heavily damaged examples on CoPart were fetching far too much money to be budget legal. I needed a very narrow, compact car, but one that fit more closely with the classic VW theme. I needed a Rabbit.
There were no suitable or affordable examples advertised in my area, so once again I expanded my search radius. A check of the LeMons forums turned up an ad for an ’88 Rabbit race car in Texas. It belonged to a fellow racer I’d run with before—Brandon Spears. The asking price was $900, but it included a pile of spares. I offered $500 for the car and $100 for the spares, and he said yes. Base vehicle obtained. These days, with some calls, you can locate a cheap shipper with some room on the truck. I found one and sealed the deal for $650. A week later, it was in my yard. The car needed cage updates (new rear stays, an added door bar on the passenger side), the awful green fur (glued with industrial adhesive on every square inch of the body) removed, tires, brakes, exhaust work, axles, a harness, and a steering wheel, but it did run. The old Maserati Biturbo heap my friend and former teammate Fritz Dahlin had just given me still sported the original Italian wooden Nardi steering wheel, and it matched up perfectly to the aftermarket hub in the Rabbit. Now we could wheel in style!
I rounded up my trusty Gang of Outlaws, and filled them in on the plan. We would strip the van of the rotten interior, unbolt the roof, remove the windshields, pull the suspension, cut out the floor and chassis, and lop off the entire driver’s side. We would then mount what was left onto the Rabbit, repair the rust and dents as best we could, and re-create the missing sections with ACM (aluminum Composite Material) and one-way vinyl covered Lexan. A generous aircraft transparencies supplier (CLI) had sent us some aircraft quality clear acrylic panels for the SpeedyCopter, and I had just enough left over to create windows in the fiberglass roof, nose, and what would become the faux undercarriage panel. I needed to find someone willing to wrap the panels in one-way vinyl without blowing my entire build budget. Fortunately, the owner of my local (Waldorf, MD) Fast Signs franchise, Eric Kriemelmeyer, turned out to be an SCCA racer and general automotive enthusiast. He heard my plan out, and jumped in with no hesitation. He not only stayed until almost midnight with me in my garage to expertly apply the vinyl personally, he heavily discounted the cost to help support the project! He even created the awesome bumper stickers and vinyl art you see on the van. We planned on hand painting the hippy stuff, but he saved us the trouble, and it looks worlds better. My steel supplier, Posner Industries in Hollywood, MD, gave us discounts on the many sticks of square tubing we needed. Our final generous sponsor, Captain Michael Foster, donated funds to the effort to defray some of our build cost.
The Outlaws worked extremely hard on this build! I would realistically put the build time at close to a thousand hours, and we did it in one month flat. My wife Jaime sanded, painted, cleaned the debris out inside it, and vacuumed out the rust and dirt. She also padded the roll cage, made endless material and food runs, and was a gracious hostess as usual to those who stayed with us during the build. Cousin David Mills made a number of 7 hour round trips from NJ to strip the chassis, cut, saw, grind, sand, mask, prime, and he cut the lower right side half tires and fabricated their removeable mounts. His girlfriend Maegan Clark is a graphic designer who made the logo for our shirts and stickers, handled the t-shirt orders, and helped with masking and painting. Matthew Stewart, a young college student and LeMons first-timer, spent more days on this project than anyone but myself. He did electrical, mechanical, paint prep, cutting, grinding—basically anything that was needed. John Cox spent multiple days rebuilding the axles, drilling and mounting hinges and clear acrylic panels, and rebuilding the brake system. He also mounted the seat and harness. “Old Man” Don Trevett did most of the bodywork. Josh Martinson spent several days welding body mounts and square tube framing. Christopher Albright rode nearly 7 hours each way on his motorcycle to thrash with me on it one weekend. Damion Jedlicka stayed overnight and worked until the wee hours to frame out and hinge the roof pieces. Scott Shelton worked on it for several days, sanding the rust and old paint off of the bus body. Nick Keifer met us for the first time a week before the race, but instantly took to the team and the project. He not only used his leave to help us finish the car, he went with us to the race. Matthew Williams, Craig Harrigan, Justin Gunn, Matthew Ocheltree, Karl Applegate, Matthew Luehmann, John Watts, Johan Samanta, Brandon Yant, Kevin Yant, Brett Werts, and Mara Fain all helped in various ways.
Many thanks to all of these people for their amazing dedication and efforts! Without them my dream would not have become a reality in such short time.