Beetles on the Bottom of the World
The story of the VW Beetles taken to Antarctica has one I have long obsessed over, ever since I discovered a reference to them in a book about vehicles in Antarctica. I soon tracked down a wonderful magazine advert, published by Volkswagen, that extolled the virtues of Antarctica 1… “The First Car at the Bottom of the World”.
Of course, Antarctica 1 was nowhere near the first car at the bottom of the world! That claim to fame belongs to a Scottish-made Errol Johnson motorcar, taken by Shackleton to Antarctica for the Nimrod Expedition.
But the story was fascinating nonetheless. For one, why Beetles?! Sure, they are famously reliable cars found on every inch of the globe but the plucky little bugs look as far from what you could possible imagine when you think of a vehicle suitable for the frozen wastes of Antarctica.
The other question that always interests me when it comes to stories like this just where are the Antarctic Beetles now? The search for the answer to these questions led me down a wonderful path
Australia has long a pioneer of Antarctic exploration, having established some of the first expeditions and research bases on the continent from as early as 1911. By the 1960s, long range expeditions which had traditionally powered dog sleds manpower along had since given way to increasingly larger tracked vehicles, such as early caterpillar tractors or WWII-era m29 Weasels but more conventional vehicles such as wheeled tractors and even motorbikes were often employed for shorter range work and transport in and around bases.
It was in preparation for becoming the new Station Leader at Mawson Station, one of Australias oldest bases on the content that Ray McMahon had an idea— if conventional water cooled tractors and trucks worked, why not a small, nimble air-cooled car like the Volkswagen Beetle?
The Revolutionary Bug
The Volkswagen Beetle, known for its revolutionary design and reliability, was already a global icon by the 1960s. With its rear-mounted engine, lightweight construction, and thin-profile tires that excelled in snowy conditions, the Beetle was surprisingly well-suited for the icy roads and winter conditions.
Volkswagen had informed its dealerships worldwide to look for opportunities to promote these abilities around the same time that Ray McMahon picked up the phone and called Volkswagen Australias head office to request a Beetle for Antarctica. Delighted by the prospect, Volkswagen agreed to provide one free of charge, along with a cine camera and film for documenting its performance.
Ray picked out for the expedition a striking Ruby Red Beetle, perfect for contrasting with the snowy Antarctic landscape. It underwent some minor modifications, including a more robust crankshaft bearing, winter-grade oil, a larger starter battery and various accessories like a tow bar and roof rack. However the car was essentially stock, having merely undergone a winterising process that all Beetles sold in cold climates would originally be put through before sale.
Bugs (Way) Down Under
Upon arrival at Mawson in 1963, the Beetle’s performance astounded skeptical onlookers. It completed a 35-kilometer round trip to the base’s airstrip in just over an hour, despite the challenging terrain. Amazingly, Antarctica 1 didn’t even have a full set of winter tyres, with only the rear wheels being swapped out for Dunlop Wintertreads.
The expeditions photographer, Geoff Merrill, numerous photograph and footage of the Beetle in action which was sent home with the departing supply ship and became a media sensation and a marketing success for Volkswagen Australia. The Beetle’s abilities in the harsh conditions were beyond expectations, earning it the nickname “Red Terror” among those at the base. It became a particular favourite for base scientists, who found the reliable and easy to operate bug perfect conducting short survey runs or scouting along the coastlines.
After a year of service in Antarctica, the plucky red Beetle was soon ready to return home. She was replaced by Antarctica 2, a newer Beetle decorated in a striking International Orange and with some upgrades based on Feedback from Antarctica 1. However this new bug soon faced a setback when it got buried in a fierce blizzard, swamping the engine with fine powered snow. The damage was irreparable for the base mechanics, and she was returned to Australia the following summer. Surprisingly, the replacement Antarctica 2/3 that replaced it would go on to beomce the most reliable and long-lasting of the Beetles in the Australian fleet.
Fate of the Frozen
So what happened to all the Antarctic Beetles? My video goes into more detail but both Antarctica 1, 2 and 3 all vanished over the course of only a few years.
Rather than retiring quietly upon her return, Antarctica 1 was handed over to BP and entered in the 1964 BP Rally of southeastern Australia. In a remarkable turn of events, it triumphed in the rally, driven by Ray Christie and navigator Joe Dunlop. The Beetle, still adorned with its famous Antarctica 1 plates, covered hundreds of miles of challenging Australian terrain, securing first place. This victory was another marketing success for Volkswagen, solidifying the Beetle’s reputation as a versatile car capable of conquering various conditions and climates.
After its rally win, Antarctica 1 embarked on a promotional tour, visiting dealerships and BP service stations across the country. However, just a few years later, this once-famous vehicle seemingly vanished into thin air. The last sightings were reported in Seymour, Victoria, but there’s no trace of its number plates or confirmed sightings. Rumours suggest that a former dealership site where it was last seen might have been redeveloped, possibly burying the Beetle beneath new buildings.
Antarctica 2‘s story in many ways mirrors that of its predecessor. It was sold to a Volkswagen employee named Klaus Peters who fixed the broken engine and returned the unique Beetle to running order. Like its sibling, Klaus then went on to race Antarctica 2 in the BP Rally of Victoria, where he also emerged victorious. However, in 1969, Klaus emigrated Australia and put the car up for sale, with this notice in The Age newspaper.
The fate of Antarctica 2 remains shrouded in mystery, much like Antarctica 1.
Antarctica 3, unlike its famous predecessors, led a less notable but similarly impressive retirement. After enduring wear and tear in the Antarctic, the hardworking Beetle found a new home with a Sydney VW dealer and racing driver named Chris Heyer. Heyer transformed Antarctica 3 into a rallycross racer for the Catalina Rallycross series, but already worn out from it’s long service at Mawson Station, once the series had ended Antarctica 3 likely met its fate in the scrapyard.
Antarctica 4… and-three-quarters?
However, there’s another, final, chapter to the Australian Antarctic Beetle story. While Antarctica 1, 2, and 3 were the official VW-supplied Beetles, Mark Forecast, an ANARE scientist, saw the value of these vehicles during the 1964 expedition and in 1967, brought his own battered 1957 Beetle to Antarctica after rescuing and repairing it from a scrapyard. This Beetle, informally known as “Antarctica 4 and three-quarters” has the unusual distinction of being probably the only remaining beetle in Antarctica. Antarctica 4.75 met a watery end when it sank through thin ice near the Forbes Glacier, becoming a part of the icy depths and almost claiming the lives of Mark and his colleague.
Assembling the Story
This was a fantastic story to research and tell and it couldn’t have happened without the help of Phil Matthews, whose incredible history of the Antarctica beetles (which goes into far more detail that this or my video does) helped massively in the initial stages of research.
Also had the opportunity to reach our to Club ANARE, which is the veterans club for those who have served in the Australian Antarctic Programme. Club ANARE’s extensive archives and interviews are a rare gem when it comes to Antarctic history I’d love to see similar organisations in the US and UK make an effort to record and share the amazing history of their Antarctic expeditions in ways that are easy for anyone to access online.
Finally, and perhaps the most rewarding part of the story, was talking to Sue! Sue Maher is the Daughter of Ray, who famously raced Antarctica 1 to victory in the BP Rally. Sue has long held an affection for Antarctica 1 and the childhood memories she has of her father racing it, and a few years ago stumbled across a similar-aged beetle that she has lovingly converted into a faithful replica of Antarctica 1 in it’s “rally clothes”. Literally the day I was due to publish my finished video, I was able to track down Sue and get and interview with her where I was able to chat to her about the story and see her amazing replica in (digital) person!
I’d highly recommend checking out Sue’s Facebook page, where she has a lot of excepts of her fathers time with the car. He was quite the man – racing all sorts of cars for VW and other companies in various races across Australia!
For the video, I also created (or rather decorated with lots of help from my father) two models of Antarctica 1 and Antarctica 4 and Three Quarters. A lot of my videos tend to feature me talking to camera (especially when footage or photos are hard to find!) and I always feel like some ‘props’ that I can point to or cut away to while I waffle on about the topic help make things more engaging. For the Calypso video that came in the form of dozens of models, and in my “Arrows Across America“ video, it was a single cut away-gag done with a very quickly assembled cocktail-stick tower!
For this video I sourced two model Beetles, both not exactly of the same model year as the Antarctic ones but at the very least close in colour and styling. My Antarctica 1 model handily came with a roof rack, and my dad was able to not just fabricate some skis, jerry cans and other bits for the roof, but even swapped over the steering wheel to make it accurate to the original right-hand-drive Antarctica 1!
I then used printable decals to apply a (rather messy but acceptable for video) ANARE crest and even a little miniature Antarctica 1 number plate! I made sure to film this as I wanted it to line up with the original video showing the VW techs applying their own modifications to the Beetle in preparation for Antarctica.
Finally, for Antarctica 4-and-three-quarters I was quite lucky, as the car arrived pre-worn! It was a wonderful model I found online that features mismatched wheels, rusty arches, dirty windows and even a mismatched door which, luck would have it, matched almost perfectly with the car I was trying to model it after!
For the decal, I actually took the original image of the (presumably hand painted) “4 and three quarters”, isolated it out on Photoshop, sharpened it and then stuck it onto the Beetle via another decal. How’s that for authentic?
So there we have it. Antarctica is an endlessly fascinating place, but for me it’s especially interesting when viewed through the lens of how we have approached efforts to explore and survive there. The ANARE Beetles also feel like, to me anyway, perfect example of the Australian attitude; one of ingenuity, confidence, good humour and being able to stick a pair of winter tyres on an old Beetle for an expedition to one of the harshest environments on earth and saying “yep, that’ll do us just fine”.