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By Glenn Torrens, 26 Dec 2015 Features


Phil Mizzi's antique, ratty-looking Kombi is no joke. This tasty bread bus named 'Grover' had the nine-second zone in its sights when we featured her in our June 2014 issue

RATTY pantina is pretty cool out there at the moment, but surface rust is a whole lot cooler when it conceals crazy engineering, meticulous craftsmanship and a whole lot of horsepower. Just check out Phil Mizzi’s ’54 Volkswagen single-cab pick-up from our June 2014 issue.

“The Volkswagen thing is relatively new for me,” Phil says. “To cut a long story short, we had kids early, back in the days of high interest rates. So for many years we were always busted-arse broke. The cars we drove were shit-boxes.

VW-Kombi -GROVER-03About 50 per cent of the internal sheet metal has been replaced due to rust, but more than 90 per cent of the original external panels remain intact

“Anyway, one day I had a brain snap and fell in love with Cobra replicas and built one.” The result was a Street Machine feature (SM, Jan ’08) and a Top 60 place at Summernats 21. Not a bad first effort!

“But I always had a thing for VWs. When I was a kid, my dream car was a Super Beetle with a Porsche fibreglass kit and a whale tail.”

Now a family man, Phil went for an elderly Kombi, rather than a little Beetle.

VW-Kombi -GROVER--01Phil sourced an original wooden frame and bought a repro canvas cover to complete the look

“The Kombis were horrendously priced here in Australia so I bought two out of the USA,” he explains. “One of my kids named them Bert and Ernie after the Sesame Street characters. Bert was a 13-window Deluxe and we loved it. We converted it to right-hand drive and I went right through it, adding disc brakes and a 2110cc motor.”

That cubic increase was significant because these early Kombis had engines ranging between 1100 and 1500cc, and were flat-knacker by around 95km/h. The four-wheel drums were similarly mediocre. The larger, stouter 2110cc powerplant – built on a later-model engine fitted with a stroker crank and twin carbs – hustled the Kombi through the quarter-mile in 16 seconds. That’s not hanging around for a butter box.

VW-Kombi -GROVER-underneathUnderneath the Kombi is some crazy re-engineering to handle a whole lot of horsepower 

“But I was really keen on getting a single-cab,” says Phil. I found this one up in Byron Bay, went up for a look, and brought it home.”

Phil sat on the ’54 rolling relic – named Grover, continuing the Sesame Street theme – for a couple of years. “Then when I started on it, I realised how knackered it was,” he admits. “It was more paint than metal.”

VW-Kombi -GROVER-02Double the throttles, double the fun

VW restoration specialist Das Resto Haus on the Gold Coast was commissioned to start sorting out the Kombi’s cancer. Most of what you see is original – preserving the patina of a life well-lived – but Phil reckons DRH replaced more than half the Kombi’s internal sheet metal, with the paint craftily blended to match the patina of the remainder of the vehicle. Much of the work was traditional resto-style stuff, but they also tubbed the old girl, which should tell you something.

“The idea was to go stupid!” Phil says. “I wanted a big motor and for it to be a bit of a weapon. There are some fast buses out there, but this [single-cab] is more my style.”

VW-Kombi -GROVER-09The water/air intercooler sits in front of the blower, with a apair of ECU-controlled Spal centrifugal fans on either side. The round tank at the front is for the dry sump

Street registration wasn’t much of a priority. “I thought: ‘I’ll do what I want and not worry about rego.’ There are plenty of events these days – like Powercruise – where I can have fun in a controlled environment.”

Plus – believe it or not – there is growing interest worldwide in drag-racing Kombis.

VW-Kombi -GROVER-19The water, oil and fuel tanks take the place of the original fuel tank

“There are quite a few quick buses being raced internationally,” Phil says. “The quickest full-bodied Kombi belongs to Michael Cruz in the US. He’s run an 11.26 with a turbo motor and should run a 10 soon. My goal is to run a nine-second pass eventually, but we’ll have to work up to it.”

VW-Kombi -GROVER-22This T-handle is a battery isolator switch for emergencies

To make the Kombi track-capable and ANDRA-legal, Phil entrusted it to Paul and Cain at ProFlo Performance. The boys treated Grover to a rollcage, boxed chassis rails, wheelie bars, radically modified rear suspension and plenty of underbody strengthening.

VW-Kombi -GROVER-38“Then I had a car worthy of a good engine,” says Phil. “So I thought: ‘I gotta supercharge this!’”

VW-Kombi -GROVER-33Plenty of sixes, V8s, and yes, Porsche 911 engines have been shoved into VWs over the years, but Phil wanted to stay traditional with an air-cooled mill and went with an Autocraft donk straight out of the US.

VW-Kombi -GROVER-07There's two versions of the interior. The 'street' version uses the factory bench seat and original bus-sized wheel

“It’s like the Dart block of the VW world,” Phil explains. “Their heritage is in speedway. What Autocraft did was take the basic flat-four design and make it tough and serviceable.”

VW-Kombi -GROVER-13The 'strip' version interior uses a Kirkey race bucket, aluminium wheel and bolt-in intrusion bars 

One of the features of the Autocraft design is to stretch the crank and cam centreline dimension to allow longer-stroke cranks to be installed without fouling. In Phil’s case the 2.8-litre capacity comes thanks to a very V8-like 88mm stroke and 101mm bore, with 1.6-inch and 2.2-inch valves.

VW-Kombi -GROVER-20Aluminium steering wheel completes the 'strip' interior setup

The blower is a 2.3-litre Harrop, and if it looks faintly familiar, that’s because it’s what you’ve seen on plenty of later-model Commodores. Fuel delivery is controlled by a Haltech EFI system, complete with data-logging. The intake was hand-fabricated by Shaun Mellish at Shaun’s Custom Alloy in Narellan, south-west of Sydney.

“I’m the tack-weld king!” Phil says. “But Shaun is sensational. If God needed some aluminium welding done, he’d get Shaun on it.”

VW-Kombi -GROVER-35The Kombi will run on E98 fuel, with provision to change to methanol in the future, if needed. Phil is loathe to talk horsepower figures at this stage, but he’ll need at least 600hp to run a nine.

And while the VW may not see rego, Phil built it to be ‘streetable’.

“For me, streetable is useable. I want to be able to take this to Powercruise and Summernats, cruise it and not kill it.”

VW-Kombi -GROVER-10With that in mind, it was important to put some thought into keeping Grover cool. Air-cooled engines – especially higher-performance ones – rely heavily on their oil systems for cooling, as well as the motorbike-style fins on the barrels and heads of the engine. Grover has an under-belly oil cooler as well as a radiator for the water-to-air intercooler, and a dry sump set-up too.

VW-Kombi -GROVER-39Believe it or not, there's a growing interest worldwide in drag-racing Kombis

Then there’s another German bread loaf in the oven – Trevor.

“Trevor is a 1954 double-door panel van that I’m restoring. And you know what? I’d really like to build that Beetle with the Porsche kit and the whale tail, with groovy bright colours and stripes straight out of the 70s!

“But for now, I’m looking forward to racing this one.”