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Graduating from Porsche to Volkswagen seems backwards. Counterintuitive. A regression of sorts. But Steve Gaspár is not one to follow the crowd, and he’s happy to explain how his tenure as the driver of a trophy-winning Porsche was proper preparation for New Beetle ownership. We’re inclined to agree, since this is one of the most original and thoroughly transformed Bugs to grace the VWvortex forums in recent memory.
For all the New Beetle’s character and charisma, it’s never been a particularly popular car for the hard-core modifiers. In fact, during the car’s ten years in North America, only a handful have risen to fame. It seems that the rotund Beetle, sincere and sweet, tends to attract drivers who are content with its stock form, and Volkswagen churns out enough candy-colored special editions to satisfy those with more flamboyant tastes. Despite the Beetle’s role in VW’s history, the modern watercooled version is quite a departure for a Porsche enthusiast.
Steve was influenced early on by VW and American car cultures; his dad was an aircooled Beetle aficionado, and his friends drove muscle cars. “There wasn’t much you could do to an aircooled in those days,” Steve said, but he had caught the bug, so to speak. From then on, he always looked for creative ways to make improvements.
“I had to settle for a VW Bug and a J.C. Whitney Catalog,” said Steve. “I always thought it was a really fun little car, but one that unfortunately couldn’t get out of its own way. I’d dream of a Beetle that could kick butt!”
As life went on, Steve’s interest shifted towards the upper crust of the German marques. He fell in love with a Triple Black 1980 911SC, which he used exclusively for shows. His crowning achievement was winning the Best in Class trophy at the Porsche Parade in Lake Placid, NY, an honor which was bestowed upon the car by Ferry Porsche himself. But despite the thrill and prestige of attending shows and concours, he felt something was lacking.
“I became a slave to that car,” Steve said, “keeping it garaged for nine months out of the year, under two car covers, and only taking it out when the roads were clean and there was no threat of rain, and even then practically detailing it top and bottom when I got home.”
He found the Porsche a new home, but all was not lost; the seeds of the next project were sown. Although the New Beetle caught his eye when it hit the streets in 1998, he was deterred by the base 2.0 drivetrain and its reputation for being a “girly car.” When the Turbo S landed in 2002, featuring a 6-speed transmission, a stiffer suspension, and a modest bump in power from the previous 1.8T trim level, Steve took home a Reflex Silver – surely, he thought, it would be an adequate daily driver for his wife. Within hours, she’d been clocked at 90 mph and slapped with a speeding ticket; Steve, imagination already working overtime, was happy to take back the Beetle’s keys and hand off the Jeep to his better half. (Incidentally, Steve says, she now refuses to drive the Beetle at all.)
We wonder why the car’s stock configuration even mattered—it wasn’t long before Steve was researching parts and nurturing relationships that would help his Beetle’s metamorphosis. On the journey from the people’s car to the elite and back again, he’d picked up a few tricks of the trade, as well as perfecting some of his own. During the arduous process of maintaining a show-perfect car, he learned a lot about the Porsche marque and its aftermarket. One name, in particular, intrigued him.
“The more familiar I became with Porsches, the more the name RUF came up,” said Steve. “I began to do some research, and discovered that Alois Ruf was probably the most world respected aftermarket modifier of the Porsche marque, one that even the Porsche factory itself collaborated with on occasion. How cool it’d be, I thought, if Alois Ruf ever had the desire to do one of his aftermarket jobs on a New Beetle?”
RUF Automobile cars are built from unmarked Porsche chassis, using parts that are mostly designed and tuned in-house by the RUF team. As an extension of this method, Steve refers to his car not as modified or a project, but as a concept. This gave pause at first—on the surface, it’s somewhat arrogant—but we’ll allow this indulgence. His challenge, just like that faced by tuners, is developing and implementing a cohesive series of changes in which the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Steve says that clean OEM styling and the marriage of form and function are RUF’s defining values. If done well, the finished product retains the spirit and integrity of the original, but also suits the vision of the owner.
“Unlike the ‘buy it off the shelf and bolt it on’ approach to modifying a car, choosing the RUF theme has given me a clear focus and direction, which has helped immeasurably in deciding each step of the process along the way for this particular New Beetle,” he explained.
The car quickly received all the usual treatments, such as APR chip programming and exhaust, VF performance mounts, and Vogtland coilovers; that was the simple part. Considering RUF’s usual elite clientele, it’s amazing that Steve’s been able to obtain the parts essential to his concept. When he owned his Porsche, he had developed a relationship with the RUF dealer in Canada that has since closed up shop. He says a stroke of luck put him in touch with Mark, parts manager for the RUF Auto Centre in Dallas.
“Mark and I have been working together for the last year or so, although I’m purposely been a bit vague with him, as I want to keep it under wraps until it’s completed,” said Steve. “He has been very helpful, however, in assisting me in obtaining some rather hard to find stuff. Mark has been a godsend, and has gone so far as to have parts that aren’t even available in the US shipped directly to me from Germany.”
As Steve mentioned, success of his concept has also depended on customizing existing parts, but it’s been difficult to find fabricators and machinists who can make his ideas a reality. These efforts have resulted in some of his favorite pieces, such as the pod-mounted boost gauge, the custom molded rear valence with exhaust blend, and a custom exhaust tip. He is eagerly awaiting the arrival of a custom grab handle fresh from the machine shop, which will be sent immediately off to RUF for some tweaking.
“Not things that jump out at you, but like a RUF automobile, things you don’t even really notice until you begin to walk around and study the car, because they blend in to the overall theme so well,” he explained.
Other “blending” efforts include a shaved hood and hatch and an Audi TT gas cap conversion (“a bear to do,” according to Steve). Smooth rocker panels are another example of a subtle change that makes a considerable difference, the kind of details
Steve thinks are often overlooked.
“That textured finish, along with those OEM dents and dimples, always drove me crazy,” said Steve. “I think the car looks 100% cleaner in a nice OEM kind of way with them smoothed.”
A new set of rollers is another recent upgrade; Steve says that committing to a wheel design was a difficult choice, aesthetically and financially. Wheels, he says, are “probably one of the most significant and personal modifications someone can do to their car,” because of the visual impact they contribute to a project. A staggered 19” setup from the RUF portfolio met the criteria, accompanied, of course, by the same Continental Sport Contact 3 tires preferred by RUF. A set of 25mm and 30mm H&R Trak adapters was essential to tuck the combination under the Beetle’s fenders, no small feat for wheels 8.5” wide in front and a stunning 10” in back.
Of course, he couldn’t just tighten the lugs and dust off his hands. The brakes, which he had more or less taken for granted, were suddenly on full display. Although he says the Turbo S stock brakes are fantastic and served him well on the autocross course, the new acquisition deserved a better backdrop.
“Obviously, the only sensible thing to do seemed to be going with a set of RUF big blue calipers,” said Steve. “Unfortunately, adapting the actual RUF brakes to the Bug was going to require a much bigger nut than I was able to spend at this point, so I came up with what I think is a really cool compromise.”
A Stage V big brake kit was quickly sourced from ECS Tuning, comprised of 14.1” rotors and 6-piston Brembo calipers, which Steve says are the same calipers used by RUF. The rear kit provided 12.1” lightweight floating rotors and 20th Anniversary Edition GTI calipers. All four calipers were sent out to be “RUF-i-sized,” in Steve’s words. He says this “RUF-specific” treatment includes pistons, piston seals, dust seals, retaining rings, proportioning valves, and rather ominous-sounding “slight tuning.” Thanks to the simplicity of the ECS kits, he said, all components bolted right back together.
The interior follows OEM cues, inspired by the New Beetle RSi. Although it’s notoriously difficult to purchase genuine RSi elements, Steve has an acquaintance in Mexico who owns an RSi and ordered some billet A/C controls to be shipped to Steve from Germany. The centerpiece of the cabin, however, is a one-of-a-kind shifter console featuring RUF badging, built to incorporate what Steve describes as an RSi-style shift ring and boot, although the ring and boot are actually borrowed from the Audi TT parts bin. The console is complemented by a B&M short shift kit and topped off with a RUF shift knob, sourced through Mark in Dallas.
Steve’s finally content with the execution of his concept, but the Beetle is under the knife so often that seat time has decreased considerably. He’s also a lot more selective when deciding which occasions are worthy of an appearance by the Ruf Bug, and now logs only a few thousand memorable miles per year.
“I refused to let myself do to this car what I did with the Porsche,” he said, “but as each mod on the Ruf Bug has progressed, I do find myself pampering it more and more. My son, who’s been with me from the beginning of the modification process, does enjoy getting behind the wheel whenever we go to shows. He’s also gotten better quarter-mile times than I was able to.”
It’s somewhat unusual to meet a tuner who has maintained enthusiasm for the same car for so long, especially when the car has reached a point that many people would consider complete, but Steve has no other plans on the horizon.
“Each time I reach a plateau and say to myself, ‘Okay, I’m done,’ a bit of time will pass, and my wheels start turning again,” he explained. “Quite honestly, I think that’s part of the beauty of the modification and customizing process, and why I never tire of it.”
Steve didn’t specify how he plans to take his car to the next level (hinting only about punching up its performance) but we at VWvortex look forward to watching our favorite New Beetle evolve. After getting acquainted with the pristine Ruf Bug, it’s clear that this VW is no “poor man’s Porsche.”