The legendary Baja 1000 will take place in Mexico again in mid-November, and it’s claimed that VW buggies still take part – they won the first Baja in 1967.
The pearl of Mexican rally history is perhaps relatively overlooked, but the Baja 1000 isn’t just an old race (which initially was called the Mexico 1000), but also a particularly tough rally. In all honesty though, it’s probably mostly here in Europe where the rally is somewhat unknown, as it’s always been a big deal in both South and North America.
Maybe it was just their unorganized hippie-approach at creating and executing motorsport events, which prevented it from breaking through in Europe? It was born from the simple and fun vehicles which Americans used in the sixties to race on beaches and through dunes. Or it could just have been because none of the participating Europeans had much luck promoting it on this side of the pond?
However, that last point probably wasn’t merely down to lack of luck, as VW really didn’t do anything at all to promote that first victory in 1967. One would have thought that there was plenty of potential for advertisement? But fact of the matter is, VW didn’t applaud the whole Buggy trend one bit back then when it was at its highest. From their perspective, it was just a craze of chopping up old Beetles and fitting them with a fiberglass bodies largely resembling a bath tub.
After that first operation, the engines were normally modified. Some even went as far as fitting engines from other marques, after which there arguably wasn’t much VW left to promote.
It was none the less the basis of an effective dessert racer: Light, strong and they clearly managed to also maintain the Beetles reliability, as 1000 miles in dessert conditions is always going to be rather harsh on any mechanical components. Regardless, the first Baja rally was won by a Manx Buggy, and the final results clearly showed that it wasn’t just a fluke win either, as buggies populated a large portion of the top places. This became the norm for many years to come.
Naturally the time came where the simple buggies started getting outclassed by modern four wheel drive and similar high tech, but by then the legend had already been established: The Baja Buggy was famous and respected as a dessert rally winner. The fame of course wore off on the very similar Baja Bug, which however retained the majority of the stock Beetle bodywork, and basically ended up defining a completely new genre within customized Beetles.
There were obviously other cars competing in the Baja 1000, but few others manifested themselves so reassuringly as the Beetle and the Buggy. I even recall at one point dreaming about owning a Beetle of my own in the extreme Baja-style – though I didn’t have a clue why or for what I would use the Baja Bug.
Finally though, it seems to have dawned on Volkswagen, that it might be worth embracing the Baja Bugs in the corporate history. A bit of a paradox considering the whole movement was born from anti-establishment hippie-motorsport. Even more of a paradox seeing as their rear-engined products have long since ceased production, and also no longer manage to be competitive in the Baja 1000 or other dessert rallies. But I guess that’s just the way the dice rolls? Besides, the Baja 1000 was probably better in the good old days anyway…
I came across this tasty piece of footage documenting the adventures, the challenges and the festivities of the long and tough rally. In 1967 it was a 900 mile run through a very harsh environment, which the winner managed in 27 hours and 38 minutes. Achieving that in what is essentially just a stripped and modified Beetle is no small feat – due respect, even to this day.