In the summer of 2005 I received an interesting phone call. It was Jesse James on the other end of the line and he wanted a VW. Now I had found a couple of cool VWs for him prior to this, so we knew each other, but this time what he was after was a VW for a Monster Garage build. I jokingly told him that I will find one for him if he put me on the show, and much to my surprise he said "ok...cool, now who else should we get?" I asked him what sort of build he wanted to do and then tailored my pics for crew mates so I knew we could pull it off. The goal was going to be a drag car, so I made some calls to the best of the best and begged them to join up. Clyde Berg, the son of VW legend Gene Berg was my first call, followed shortly by drag racing guru Ron Lummus. Ron suggested Jack Sacchette and with one spot remaining I threw by buddy Jason (Ransbottom) Murphy in the mix as we always have a good time together and he is one hell of a fabricator. Admittedly I was the weakest link in the chain, but with the deck well stacked in our favor, I think we all went in feeling pretty confident about the project and the prospect of "winning the tools"
With the crew lined up I had to find a suitable car to build from and started scouring the ads online and sending them to Jesse. When I saw the image above in an ad on TheSamba website, I sent it to Jesse just as a joke. Jesse being the joker that he is, he said "thats perfect man!" and I went on looking for others to send his way. I figured he would pick something local and easy, but when the day came to arrive in Long Beach for the filming, I realized that he went for the "swamp find" split window. At that moment serious doubt entered my mind that we could accomplish the build in the short week ahead.
The chassis of the car was rusted to the center spine, no heater channels or supporting steel remaining, certain parts of the body were rusted to the point of looking like lace and the transmission was so badly corroded that you could see the gears inside. This car was an absolute heap of crap and as all the builders entered the room I think we all knew we were up for a serious challenge. I was chatting with the shop manager about just how screwed we were, and he gave me a tip. It seems that the teams that end up failing are the ones that end up sitting around waiting for parts. Since all we had to start with was trash, I knew my most important contribution to the team would be in sourcing the goodies we needed to build the car. Im not a welder, and Im no race car builder, but I know how to find stuff and know how to chat up suppliers and get them excited enough to be involved. I found my niche to dive into...and boy am I glad I jumped straight into the deep end. There was a long way to swim through shark infested waters.
In the back part of the warehouse were several past Monster Garage builds and the show folks asked for some help with VW related decorations for the set, and I brought out a bunch from my stash. The coin op kiddie ride and VW signs and toys I hauled in made it feel a little like home. I drove my custom New Beetle one day and my chop top old Beetle another day. Jesse pulled up one morning in his "bug", a black Porsche Carrera GT. There was a lot of eye candy to take in and inspire us and the workshop itself was equipped with a dream assortment of every possible tool you could imagine and even some I never knew existed. This was an absolute gear head's dream world. But would this dream become a nightmare? Only time would tell.
I was chosen to be a part of the design crew as well as the build crew. A local automotive design student was brought in to draw the concept and very quickly we realized that he had never drawn an old VW before and really was not a great fit for what was needed, but the show must go on. After filming that day I went home and drew up my own concept sketch with some of my kids colored pencils and crayons and the next morning pinned it on the bulletin board right over the other artists drawing. The Sour Kraut name I put on the door stuck as well and ended up a part of the final design. Now we knew the direction to go and it was time to get dirty and make things happen.
The first thing I attacked was gathering a donor car that actually had some metal to work with and then started making calls to parts suppliers to get them on board with the parts that we would need. The fine folks at Empi were gracious with their offerings as well as many other suppliers. The other build crew guys also pulled the strings they could pull and very quickly the parts trucks were rolling up to the door and filling the workshop with awesome new goodies while the sparks were flying and the rusty split window carcass and a more solid 60's Beetle we joined together in welded matrimony. Things were looking very good for us and we were getting a little cocky about it. The tune would quickly change when it came time to fire up the freshly built turbo engine.
The time came for the fire up on the final day of the build and the beast roared to life much to the cheers of all of us. The cheers were short lived when the engine came up to operating temperature it suddenly wheezed a sickening wheeze and seized up tight. Something was horribly wrong inside and it all just locked up solid. Our hearts sank and our minds raced for a few minutes and then a flurry of hands and wrenches came to life and the motor was quickly stripped down to nothing and a crank bearing failure was identified. Jack jumped to the rescue to take the crank to his workshop for machining and repair and the rest of us readied ourselves for his return. When he came back the wrenches and fingers started flying again and the engine went back together. When the long block was all assembled, Clyde went to give it a spin and it was still locked up tight! Absolute panic as it came apart again and Clyde went ghetto with a hand file on the journals in the case to relieve a little tension. Metal shavings all over the place, mixed with tears and some blood and it all went back together. The crank spun freely so all the rest of the parts went on and while we all said a prayer, the engine fired back to life. This was about 10pm or so at this point and midnight was our deadline. We still had to race it and prove that it would hold together. More prayers were uttered as we all loaded up to take the car to a local stadium where there was a long enough stretch to give it a proper drag run.
Local VW nuts had been called in for the reveal and they lined the racetrack with headlights on and Jesse saddled up in the car to give it a blast. We all dreadfully feared that the engine would come apart at the seams and we knew Jesse wouldn't hold back. He lined up and stabbed it and the car blasted off into the darkness and out of sight. A shockingly long period after, Jesse and the car came back into view and slowly rolled to a stop. The engine kept together, but the brake pedal pin slipped out at the end making the brakes useless. Quick thinking and fast reflexes kept the car off the fence and once stopped, the pin was refitted and he came on back to see us. The verdict? We still got the tools and we posed for a photo in the darkness and breathed a major sign of relief.
Since the parking lot run was not the best for filming or for actual testing, we all gathered together at the drag strip in Fontana for some proper runs. The cosmetics had now been done and the car looked fantastic. Im sure some additional engine tuning was done as well and the "gurus of speed" were on hand to further tweak and tune to extract the very most from the air cooled flat four. While the car failed to get into the "9's" as we had first dreamed, but the car did run strong in the 10's . I think all involved knew the car could make the grade with just a little more effort at attention to the fine details and we were all proud of the accomplishment and opportunity to be involved with the build. It was an absolute blast.
The final part of the filming was the icing on the cake. The plan was for Jesse to pull in to the local VW cruise night at Nicks Burgers in the Sour Kraut. As luck would have it, Fullerton's finest was in attendance as well and wanted no part of a drag car being on the street. Right in front of the crowd the red and blue lights flashed and Jesse pulled over across the street. No paperwork, no license plates, no headlights, brake lights, etc, they really could have had a field day with him, but after a tense 10 minutes or so and some conversations with the producers, he was written a small citation and was allowed to drive it across the street into the parking lot of the burger joint where the crowd was waiting to meet and greet the man and his machine. A lot of folks thought the police deal was staged, but it was absolutely not. But it did add a lot to the excitement of the scene and to the show as a whole. If you google "Monster Garage Sour Kraut" I am sure you can pull up the show online. It is well worth the watch I can assure you.
Monster Garage is available on Amazon at http://a.co/d/8tOUlYW
I believe there may be other versions out there on the web as well...just Google "Monster Garage Sour Kraut"
Massive thanks to Jesse for letting me play a part in the show, it was an experience I will always remember. Long live Monster Garage!