Golden State Projects: ’64 VW Baja Bug vs ’47 Crosley Sedan

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Good morning, and welcome once again to Shitbox Showdown! Yesterday, I featured a couple of boring-but-practical cars in an attempt to steer us away from derelict fire trucks and mutant Nissans. And it backfired. Nobody really cares about cars like those; they’re something you buy when you need to get around and the bus doesn’t come to your part of town. Nobody had much of note to say about them, and frankly, I struggled to fill space myself.

So screw it. Let’s get weird again.

In the interest of completeness, however:

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Yep. The Subaru is the better choice. And it sounds like a couple of our Colorado readers might be high-tailing it over there to look at it right now. (My finder’s fee is 5%, by the way, payable in pizza and beer.)

You may have noticed that I’ve been favoring areas west of the Mississippi for car choices. The reason for that is twofold: first, that’s where I live, and have lived for a long time, so I have a better geographical frame of reference; and second, cars don’t rust out here. Or at least, not like they do in places that use salt on the roads. I just get tired of seeing 20 year old ordinary cars with jagged wheel arches when I’m searching in the midwest or on the east coast. And for reasons unknown, the deep South rarely has anything interesting for sale when I check.

California, on the other hand, is a gold mine for cheap weird cars, despite all the various laws and regulations and fees that make owning any car so onerous there. And folks there tend to be more adventurous with their vehicle choices, choosing a Saab or a Renault over a Ford or a Chevy, say. (When Californians retire or get sick of the traffic, they move to the Pacific Northwest and take their weird cars with them, so we get a lot of strange old rolling stock up here as well.) Internet classifieds in California are always good for something out of left field, and these two are particularly good examples, I think. Let’s take a look at them.

1964 VW Baja Bug – $2,500

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Engine/drivetrain: 1776 cc flat 4, 4 speed manual, RWD

Location: Grand Terrace, CA

Odometer reading: 28,000 miles

Runs/drives? Unclear whether or not it runs, but certainly not drivable

Volkswagen Beetles have been modified to go off-road almost since the day they first came into being. They’re the basis of one of the happiest phrases in all of motoring: “dune buggy.” (Go ahead; just try to say “dune buggy” in an angry tone of voice. It can’t be done.) In the late ’60s, enthusiasts, starting with Gary Emory and Dave Deal (yes, that Dave Deal), started modifying regular Beetles as a cheaper alternative to the Meyers Manx and various tube-chassis sandrails. And the Baja Bug was born.

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This Baja Bug, based on a 1964 Beetle, is unfinished, but it appears to be all there. It has a 1776 cc engine with what appear to be dual-port heads (though just one carburetor), and a VW Bus transmission (a common upgrade that’s a little stronger and a little lower-geared, both advantageous for off-roading). It also looks like it has a full rollcage installed; a prudent move. The car is largely disassembled; the seller says they ran out of time (and probably money), but judging by the parts shown, pretty much everything you need is included. It’s like a Tamiya Sand Scorcher kit, only bigger.

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There is something really appealing about a Baja Bug. I don’t care all that much about regular Beetles, but take the fenders off, bolt on some wide flared fiberglass units in their place, and hang some big fat tires in the arches, and suddenly you have my attention. It’s like this is what Beetles wanted to be all along.

[Editor’s Note: Of course they’re appealing! Has there ever been a cheap, mass-produced economy car that had so many off-the-shelf options for converting it into something genuinely bonkers? I don’t think there has, at least not since the Model T, and I don’t know if there will be again. My wife used to drive a Baja. They’re everything right about everything. – JT]

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Or maybe I’m just a big kid.

1947 Crosley CC sedan – $2,275

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Engine/drivetrain: 44 cubic inch inline 4, 3 speed manual, RWD

Location: North Hollywood, CA

Odometer reading: 36,000 miles

Runs/drives: It runs! But I doubt it can be driven

It has been said many times that Americans don’t “get” small cars. We try, and there have been some successes, but the conventional wisdom is that small cars get lost in such a big country. Wide-open spaces demand big wide fast cars.

But that didn’t stop Powel Crosley Jr. from making a damn good attempt at it. Between 1937 and 1952 (with a four-year break for World War II), Crosley sold tiny automobiles, first powered by an air-cooled flat-twin, and later an overhead-cam inline 4 assembled from stamped-steel parts brazed together instead of a cast-iron block, known as the CoBra (Copper Brazed) engine, also sometimes called the “sheetmetal engine” or the “Mighty Tin.”

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It’s hard to tell from the photos, but these cars are tiny. This CC sedan rides on an 80-inch wheelbase (seven inches shorter than a first-generation Honda CRX) and is only 49 inches wide (an inch wider than a standard sheet of plywood). The engine is a tiny 44 cubic inches, or 724 cubic centimeters, or an entire large dirt bike’s worth of displacement less than a Geo Metro.

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But look how cute it is! It’s like a baby ’46 Ford. And it runs! And it looks like it’s pretty much all there, so it’s a good candidate for restoring. You won’t be getting anywhere very fast – the Crosley tops out at about 50 mph – but you’ll be the center of attention when you arrive.

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It’s not the most desirable Crosley; it doesn’t have the cool factor of the wagons or the little Hotshot roadster, and it’s not as rare or odd as the Farm-O-Road (a delightful half-tractor half-pickup truck), but it’s also a lot cheaper than those options are likely to be.

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And I repeat: Look at how frickin’ cute it is!

And that’s what we have to choose from today. Neither one is ready to roll, neither one is something you could drive to work daily when it’s finished, but neither one is something you’re likely to see another of at the local cruise-in or Cars & Coffee. And either would be a tremendously fun project.

Tomorrow, we’re going to mix it up a little. Instead of a roundup of the previous four winners, we’re going to do another matchup, only different. But you’ll have to wait until then to find out more. See you then!



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48 Responses

  1. A type of beetle i actually LIKE, or the weirdo?
    Sorry Baja bug, it’s gotta be the Crosley. It’s just too different and interesting.
    And if the engine folds up like the tin can it is,there’s always the option of a Busa swap

  2. Hard pass on both.

    VW, you can find better for less, even in today’s market. I’m sure of it. Other hand, if it’s really truly complete (I at least see carpet) and doesn’t need engine work, might be okay.

    The Crosley is cute and runs, but won’t for long. The CoBra was actually developed for the war effort to make a super lightweight engine for aircraft, boats, and gensets. From an engineering standpoint, it’s a very interesting engine. But it’s also an M3 ‘grease-gun’ of an engine. Literally made as cheaply as possible, intended to be discarded as scrap at a defined point. CoBra engines literally were designed to have a very definite lifespan that was measured in hours, based on constant RPM and constant load. They did NOT convert well to the variable loads of driving. They also suffer rot-out inside the engine block assuming an overheat doesn’t warp the entire block. It’s possible this one’s had a cast-iron block rebuild, but yeah, no.

    1. Dependability on the early ones was suspect. On the ’47 and up they’d ironed out many of the bugs and they were about as reliable as any other engine of the day.
      Still had the issues with the plastic or zinc coating wearing away and causing rust, though.

  3. So we’ve gone from 2 shitboxes that nobody wants to 2 shitboxes where I want BOTH of them! It was a tough choice, the Crosley is cute, but I grew up in the back seat of an early 60s BajaBug in that same color. I have awesome memories of that car and absolutely had to vote Beetle.

    1. Brilliant! Although I’d be sorely tempted to toss the fiberglass bist and bolt in a beam extender to make a volksrod out of it. Perhaps with an AMR 500 supercharger, just to make it interesting.

  4. Way back in ancient times, an old girlfriends parents let me drive their VW based dune buggy. Try as I might, I couldn’t get the damned thing to go over 60 on flat road, but it sure was fun to cruise around in.

  5. Baja bug for me. A) It’ll make the cooler end product IMO B) I have and always will love Beetles thanks to the Herbie movies I loved as a kid.

    Hey as an aside, where are we at with notifications Autopian team? I’m getting tired of digging up my posts.

  6. I enjoy the attempt to find a rattlecan color matching the original dash in the Crosley, and then stopping after the door (and overspray.)

    At this price if you do something ridiculous with the Crosley you’ll have a noteworthy oddball. If you do something ridiculous with the bug you’ll be boring, because it’s all been done.

    Easy win for the Crosley.

  7. While I’d never heard of the CoBra engine (a 14lb block when finished?!? WTF??? Even at 44ci, WTF?) the Crosley doesn’t do anything for me.

    I would like to see a head-to-head on a Crosley and Torch’s Chang Li (provided he fixes it)

  8. Give me the Crosley – he’s a hometown hero here in Cincinnati and his original factory/radio studio is still a prominent building here in town, though it’s been vacant for decades. I’d love to be able to fix that up, and while I might not daily it, I could still drive it to work in nicer weather.

  9. Baja! Haha! Central Florida Man here so DDing wouldn’t be a problem, also going with what I know.
    But gosh, that Crosley sure is cute, and I do hope someone with more skills than I have can make it go again!
    Nice choices Mark!

  10. Of the two I’d go with the Crosley.
    Back in about 63 or 64 my far more well to do cousins had one – a wagon if memory serves – that their father bought for them to drive up and down their very long driveway. They were around 12 or so at the time.
    You can imagine how I took that.

  11. You mentioned my old friend and flight instructor Dave Deal. Dave had some very cool cars. An original Porsche Spyder, a Ferrari 275 GTB, a 6 cylinder Porsche powered Meyers SR, and the only Meyers Kübelwagen ever built. But, when he set out to build a hot rod his weirdness came out. He chose a Hupmobile and powered it by a long-forgotten engine, a Pontiac overhead cam 6. Dave could be pretty weird and he would be all over the little Crosley. He would probably power it with some small, totally obscure engine.

    As Dave did I also raced Baja Bugs in the desert many years ago I probably wouldn’t want this VW as it is a swing axle. Sure it can be converted to an IRS, but why start with someone’s project that was probably hacked?

    1. You were his friend? That’s so cool! His artwork was a huge part of my formative years, both from CARToons and the Revell “Deal’s Wheels” model kits. I spent many happy study halls scribbling drawings of cars in notebooks, trying unsuccessfully to emulate his style, and other artists like him.

      1. Like you, I was a big fan of “Big Deal.” Each month as the car magazines came out I would always check out his latest advertising illustrations. He worked for some very cool companies! In 1977 we moved to Vista California and opened a new small business. A couple of weeks later this big bearded guy walks in and puts his hand out to shake mine. He says I’m Dave Deal and I’d like to help you promote your business. I was stunned but managed to tell him I liked the idea a lot. Dave was very important to the success of our business. In our second full year, we had over
        $3,000,000 in sales. Not bad for the original $10,000 we invested. I sold my interest the next year but they are still in business.

        Dave was also an excellent pilot and flew both a Cessna 172 and a fabric wing 170.

  12. Oh, the Crosley for sure. I’d even DD it (in town I rarely get up to 50mph anyhow) IF it proved reliable and I could fit inside it. Two very big ifs, I’ll grant. The VW is more likely to meet those criteria, but it’s sorta “meh” and anyhow unsuitable for life in the rust belt.

  13. “And for reasons unknown, the deep South rarely has anything interesting for sale when I check.”


    The most interesting vehicles I’ve bought down here came from Florida. It seems that the sun cooks everything and cars get a crapton of miles put on them due to large distances between cities. That, combined with higher scrap metal prices leads to cars leading hard lives and being recycled much earlier than the same make/model in, say, Beaverton, Oregon or Placerville, California.

    I mentioned that I scrapped an early FWD Datsun, not an F10, yesterday. I got $40 for it in Marysville, Washington. At a low point, I could have gotten $150-200 for the same car in, say, Hattiesburg, Mississippi or Mobile, AL. Not that it would be worth hauling across country for recycling, lol, just showing the difference in scrap price. Once a car falls below a cost-to-repair threshold, it’s scrapped. That threshold is a bit higher down here, and the car itself tends to be worse for the age/mileage.

    There’s lots of meth zombies with “we by ur scrap carz” ads paying $500+ for cars. That’s tempting when your sun-cracked and brittle, paint-less, non-A/C working 260k mile Altima just shit it’s engine.

  14. From my experience, Crosley owners are some of the nicest car owners you’ll ever meet. There’s a big car show every year in the town I used to live in and they have a featured brand every year. One year Crosley was the featured brand and everyone was so nice. The one owner even let me pick up and hold his prototype sheet metal cylinder block, the only one known to exist and he also let my girlfriend sit in his car.

    With that being said, I’ll take the bug. Baja bugs are just so cool and a bug is both so much more usable in modern traffic and still has a good amount of parts availability so I can actually drive the car without worrying about some unobtainable part breaking.

  15. Can we do some kind of Autopian raffle for something like these? Maybe to get Tracy out of a vehicle he could offer one up with tickets for like $1 or $2 each, I bet we could get a vehicle off his property, someone would get an interesting project and he’d be financially better off albeit slightly more rust deficient.

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