Home » The World’s Greatest Air Show Has Dozens Of Topless Volkswagen Beetles And The Reason Why Is Sort Of Silly

The World’s Greatest Air Show Has Dozens Of Topless Volkswagen Beetles And The Reason Why Is Sort Of Silly

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The 70th Experimental Aircraft Association AirVenture Oshkosh Fly-In is well underway. The aircraft I’ve seen thus far on just one day here have been phenomenal and the history is even better. Don’t worry, I will get to those planes in time! Today, I want to talk about something I’ve been waiting literally a year to show you. When you go to an AirVenture, you’ll almost certainly see a variety of vehicles without roofs buzzing about. A lot of them are old Volkswagen Beetles but some are chopped-up minivans and the like. What’s the deal? Why do EAA’s staff and volunteers drive around in perma-convertibles? The answer relates to getting around this gargantuan event and the blazing hot summers the fly-in takes place in.

Last week, I wrote about how much of the show takes place on grounds nearby a pair of runways that are both over a mile long. Something I neglected to mention is the fact that literally everything having to do with this show is nearly incomprehensible in scale. In 2022, there were 10,000 planes at AirVenture and there were 12,000 campsites used. As a handful of EAA staff have told me, this year is shaping up to be an even bigger record than last year. When Sheryl and I arrived at Camp Scholler on Monday night, we were greeted by a frantic frenzy of traffic in every direction.

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It seemed nobody really obeyed traffic signs and there were people just everywhere. Pulling our camper through the madness was actually a bit stressful as I had to watch out for scooters, bicycles, motorcycles, and other wheeled contraptions sort of just going wherever they wanted to.

Controlled Chaos

As it turned out, some of this is because by Monday, Camp Scholler was completely sold out with all several thousand campsites occupied. The rest of us had to set down our campers and tents in fields next to the property. That’s where my family’s 2007 Thor Adirondack 31BH sits right now.

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You’ll probably notice the bright orange 2023 Tacoma TRD Pro i-Force Max parked in front of it. Yes, you’ll read about that bad boy, too!

Based on all of this, you would be right if you assumed navigating AirVenture is quite the undertaking. Last year, Sheryl and I attended the final weekend of the show and despite nearly non-stop walking up and down miles of flightline, we didn’t see nearly everything. That’s why we’ve given ourselves the whole week this time. Today, we’ve made it past the Vintage area and to Boeing Plaza, that’s it!

When EAA staff and volunteers need to get around the temporary city, you’ll see them driving an assortment of vehicles ranging from scooters and UTVs to a buggy and even an old GM dustbuster van. The most striking of the bunch are the topless air-cooled Beetles.

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EAA’s people use these vehicles to zip around the event far faster than using one of the trams or walking. When I first laid eyes on one of these cars I wondered why they’re all chopped up. They’re often seen scooting down the grass next to the runways, so I assumed they maybe existed for visibility or maybe for camera work.

Instead, the reason has to do with hot Wisconsin summers. Amusingly, Jason has begged for a story about these cars for a year now [Editor’s Note: I wrote about these at the Old Site years ago, but I’m excited to get this update from someone who has actually seen them! – JT], so finally, you get to read it!

The Hot Reason Behind These Cars

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EAA

In January 1953, the Experimental Aircraft Association was created when founder Paul H. Poberezny assembled a group of aviation geeks in his basement. EAA was originally founded to support pilots in building their own planes and that same year, it held its first fly-in at Curtiss-Wright Airport in Milwaukee. The original fly-in was comparatively small-about 150 people and 21 planes-but every year, more people touched down to enjoy aviation. By 1959, EAA had to move its Fly-in Convention to Rockford, Illinois. Even that didn’t last very long as by 1969, EAA had to expand even further. This time, Oshkosh, Wisconsin was the chosen location.

As EAA writes, when the show launched in Oshkosh in 1970, Poberezny needed a way to get around the convention. His vehicle of choice was his own personal sedan. Apparently, this didn’t go over very well as someone wondered if Poberezny should be able to ride around in air-conditioning when EAA members were not able to. I get the complaint for sure. Right now, it’s 89 degrees outside with 50 percent humidity. On Thursday, it’s going to be 92 degrees or even hotter. Late-July heat in Wisconsin is not a joke!

Poberezny agreed with the complaint and responded with a solution that is now EAA tradition.

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He reached out to Will Schaick, a volunteer, to find a Beetle that he could still drive around in but still be exposed to the elements. Schaick found an old Beetle [Editor’s Note: It looks like this one is a ’68 – JT] in a scrapyard and rescued it from death, just to have its roof chopped off, doors removed, and the remaining body painted bright red. Poberezny loved the car so much that he asked for ten more just like it. The first car would later be named the Red One I.

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EAA says that the cars have multiplied over time and the fleet grew to include about 40 of them:

One of those 10 was an automatic, which ended up suiting Paul’s needs better. That Bug became Red One II, and Red One I was transitioned to serving as Orange One after a paint job. Orange One found plenty of work as the lead flightline operations vehicle.

After one more switch to an even-more improved Red One III during the 1972 convention, Paul’s vehicle of choice was set, with Red One II also going to flightline ops. Over the years, through both donations and savvy purchases, the fleet of Beetles grew from 11 to around 40.

Bugs Photo Credit Alden (1)
EAA

[Editor’s Note: It’s interesting how few of these are actually factory convertibles, which you would think would be a lot easier to use for the open-driving purposes they want. In fact, in this picture above of 40 Beetles (and three Type 181 Things, and that custom-built buggy) only one – the yellow one between the red one with the white stripe and the silver one in the second row – appears to be a Karmann-built VW factory convertible. My guess is that Beetle sedans are just far more plentiful and cheaper than the convertibles are. Also, is that a trash can set into the trunk of the white one on the lower left of that picture?– JT]

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The Beetles aren’t the only vehicles, either. Another notable operations vehicle is the Smoke Oil Car. This used to be a 1966 Buick Special, but in 2016, the Buick was replaced by a custom-built VW-based buggy. During air shows, some aircraft will deploy dazzling contrails. Before those planes get into the sky, they need to have their smoke oil reservoirs filled. This little buggy was built to carry two 55-gallon drums of the stuff to fill up stunt planes before they go into the sky.

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EAA

Still Practical After All Of These Years

The Beetles are color-coded, too.

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Orange topless Beetles are the ones you’ll see racing down the flightline, green Beetles will be driven by the communications team, white Beetles for departure briefings, blue Beetles for airplane greeters, and yellow Beetles for security. Think of these cars as like a John Deere Gator decades before that was even a thing.

EAA notes that each year, the Bugs need a ton of work before getting put out there in the air show, but the organization’s staff and volunteers include a crew of skilled wrenchers. Check out this short by AVweb on how EAA Maintenance keeps them alive. The Beetles get new spark plugs every year and it takes a month to prep them for AirVenture:

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The organization says that the cars aren’t just for show, either. Staff still use these cars in their day-to-day work and they help get people to different places quickly. These cars also help people on the grounds when they need to speak to staff; it’s hard to miss a bright Bug, after all. Still, they do have some star appeal, from EAA director of communications, Dick Knapinski:

“I’ve had one now for better than 20 years,” Dick said. “It’s absolutely essential to what we do, but being part of the culture and having that fun factor, that’s great too.”

“There’s the fun, there’s the practicality, and there’s the number of stories I’ve heard from people,” he said. “I’ve had Apollo astronauts riding in the Bug. I have had B-25 pilots riding in the Bug. I’ve had people with magnificent stories, and I don’t know how many kids have ridden in the Bug with their families.”

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So, the next time you’re at AirVenture and see some old, topless cars rolling around, you now know why. The modifications to these little cars technically have nothing to do with planes, but with the blazing-hot Wisconsin summer. Hopefully, EAA keeps the little cars going because they are pieces of history of their own among the old birds in the show.

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(Images: Author, unless otherwise noted.)

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Opa Carriker
Opa Carriker
10 months ago

It would appear that I have been censored for being to mean to Mercedes. Oh Well.

Opa Carriker
Opa Carriker
10 months ago

You are at an airshow. Where are the airplane photos and a write up to match?

Extremely-Good-Opinions
Extremely-Good-Opinions
10 months ago

surely a perma-convertible is not convertible anymore isn’t it?

Lockleaf
Lockleaf
10 months ago

Isn’t a permaconvertible technically a roadster?

Mike Harrell
Mike Harrell
10 months ago
Reply to  Lockleaf

The automotive definition of “roadster” has changed considerably over the decades but typically (although not universally) the presence of a rear seat is disqualifying. It used to be the case that “touring car” would apply for something without a top that seats more than two but that definition, too, has been subject to change. The safest general term is “open car.” It’s definitely not a convertible, in that it does not convert between open and closed.

Chronometric
Chronometric
10 months ago

Another reason for choosing the VWs and an interesting air-cooled factoid. You might think that going slow in an air-cooled machine (no air flow!) might be bad but that is not true. While many older water-cooled cars will overheat if left idling in the sun, a properly working air-cooled car with its belt-driven fan, air-directing shrouds, and standard oil cooler works great and will idle all day. Just make sure you check for a mouse nest blocking the cylinder fins!

Highland Green Miata
Highland Green Miata
10 months ago

I just checked out the airshow performances scheduled. Kind of disappointing. My memories are of when they would fly dozens of WWII planes in formation and denotate simulated bombs along the runway. Saw Concorde do touch and go’s. The SR-71 Blackbird before it was retired. The Voyager abound the world plane flyby. The aerobatic teams that were 3 pilots in aerobatic planes (Tom, Charlie and Gene as the Eagles in particular).

Philip Dunlop
Philip Dunlop
10 months ago

10/10 would street drive any of those paint jobs.

Stef Schrader
Stef Schrader
10 months ago

Is there anything a cool aircooled can’t do?

(Shh, don’t answer that. The 411 might hear.)

Highland Green Miata
Highland Green Miata
10 months ago

I worked for the EAA when I was a teenager and they let me drive one of these in a parade. It was a groovy beige one with yellow, brown and orange stripes and a screaming eagle graphic. Utterly terrifying to drive on the freeway to get to the parade with no doors or roof. The fact that there was an extra seatbelt that clipped across the empty void where the doors would be was not reassuring.

Stef Schrader
Stef Schrader
10 months ago

I’m still jealous, though! Then again, I’m a “how soon are you taking the doors off?” person every time there’s a Jeep around. Roof, leave it. Doors? OFF WITH THE DOORS NOW

VolksWinkle
VolksWinkle
10 months ago

Great story Mercedes! My Grandfather had a Mooney Super 21 that he used extensively through the 70’s and 80’s. I was the only grandchild that begged to be on his trips to the Upper Peninsula to his hunting cabin on Drummond Island. We landed on a grass strip that was the 18th fairway of the golf course there. And then took a Willys Jeep to the cabin. Great times.

Mr Sarcastic
Mr Sarcastic
10 months ago

Just wondering if sneaking in your own convertible beetle might get you good access?

Geoff Buchholz
Geoff Buchholz
10 months ago

This is fantastic. What a great tradition! Thanks Mercy!

William Domer
William Domer
10 months ago

Oh Mercedes, that heat up there is insane and made worse by miles of asphalt and concrete becoming heat sinks, and of course zero shade One year I came within a hairs breath of passing out. I think the day was 98 and of course there is no shade. In fact the food tents and other tents were worse than being out near the air field. But the planes were so worth it. Hoping to snag my brother and get up there this week. Glutton for punishment by heat.

Slow Joe Crow
Slow Joe Crow
10 months ago

Cool history, have they considered replacing the Beetles with anything? It seems like a good application for Kei trucks, although lots of them have air conditioning, but also optional dump beds, or firefighting beds

Juliarasen
Juliarasen
10 months ago
Reply to  Slow Joe Crow

nice

Ron888
Ron888
10 months ago
Reply to  Slow Joe Crow

Yes! Kei minivans chopped then a shade top added

Last edited 10 months ago by Ron888
MaximillianMeen
MaximillianMeen
10 months ago

Right now, it’s 89 degrees outside with 50 percent humidity. On Thursday, it’s going to be 92 degrees or even hotter. Late-July heat in Wisconsin is not a joke!

Meanwhile here in Austin, we are on our 18th straight day of triple-digit heat with 100+ forecasted for the next seven days. Wimps! [Feel free to make fun of us in winter when the city shuts down due to temps below freezing and a 20% chance of precipitation.]

Strangek
Strangek
10 months ago

Summer in Wisconsin is typically pretty magical, 70s and 80s mostly, but we get a few cookers in there too. This week looks to be the hottest of the summer, which doesn’t seem that hot to me having grown up in New Mexico (although it is quite humid). Folks from around here start wearing shorts when it hits the 30s, and they start complaining about the heat when it hits the 70s LOL.

William Domer
William Domer
10 months ago
Reply to  Strangek

and you are 100% correct, but shorts at about 40 for the bicycle rides

Lew Schiller
Lew Schiller
10 months ago
Reply to  Strangek

“Square Days” 98 Degrees and 98%

MaximillianMeen
MaximillianMeen
10 months ago
Reply to  Lew Schiller

Oooof! I’ve been to Houston in summer, I know what that is like. I’ll take our 105 deg 25% humidity over those 90+/90+ days.

10001010
10001010
10 months ago

I had similar thoughts when I read that bit. I’d kill for highs of only 92 with 50% humidity right now.

Stef Schrader
Stef Schrader
10 months ago
Reply to  10001010

for REALS

get me out of here

Stef Schrader
Stef Schrader
10 months ago

Yeeeeeah, “willing to relocate” has been getting a lot of play in my job search this year, sadly. Willing to stay, too, sure, but uhhhh, maybe it’s time I gambled on a place that can handle its winters. Every time I’ve gone outside lately, even the wind isn’t a relief—it’s been like getting blown in the face with a hair dryer.

MaximillianMeen
MaximillianMeen
10 months ago
Reply to  Stef Schrader

Good luck on the job search!

In the meantime, maybe you can convince Mark or Thomas to let you crash in their basement?

Stef Schrader
Stef Schrader
10 months ago

KEEP ME, CANADA

I LIKE POUTINE

AC2DE
AC2DE
10 months ago
Reply to  Stef Schrader

Reminds me of Iraq. The only thing you would need to add is somebody sprinkling dust and sand in front of the hair dryer!

Freelivin2713
Freelivin2713
10 months ago

Yeah, it’s been ridiculous & no end in sight…thought it wouldn’t be as bad this year since it stayed cooler than normal into May & got a lot of rain. It doesn’t even feel cool at night (just warm) The A/C basically runs nonstop most of the day…I miss the perfect summers up North (but not the long, cold winters)

Brockstar
Brockstar
10 months ago

So these exist because of a need to create a shared misery? While the outcome seems charming and has created a heritage to me its much less charming than the Canadian Airline using chopped up Neons. All of that said, we need a regular feature on used up cars gaining a second life with needs specific modifications.

Cyko9
Cyko9
10 months ago

[Also, is that a trash can set into the trunk of the white one on the lower left of that picture?– JT]

There’d better be an Oscar the Grouch puppet stuffed in there. He’s a fan of convertible Beetles, you know.

A. Barth
A. Barth
10 months ago

The modifications to these little cars technically have nothing to do with planes

I thought they removed the roofs so that passengers could still see the planes in action while they were being driven from A to B. 🙂

Mr. Fusion
Mr. Fusion
10 months ago
Reply to  A. Barth

That would be the only thing that makes sense to me. If you want to cause suffering by taking away the air conditioning, fine. But what’s the point of causing additional suffering by taking away the roof?! And in a place that’s already notable for having no shade? (Also, it does often rain at AirVenture — see Mercedes’ story from last year for a good example.)

Reminds me of the quote, “Tradition is just peer pressure from dead people.”

MkeZ
MkeZ
10 months ago

Thanks for the write up! Always have loved seeing these Beetles zipping down the flight lines at EAA… makes the event even more special!

Gubbin
Gubbin
10 months ago

Hoping to finally go this Sunday, what a fun thing to look out for!

Duke of Kent
Duke of Kent
10 months ago

With so many people concentrated in the area and even camping right alongside the airport operations, how do the organizers handle potential FOD hazards? Even if everyone is pretty careful, it’s easy for debris to get blown around when there’s such a large crowd and so much stuff.

The bugs are a downright charming way to handle staff ground transportation needs. They may be better suited for the job than a fleet of golf carts or ATVs and a certainly more appealing to look at.

The orange Toyota truck looks like it’s been crying. “It’s ok, Taco! Don’t be scared. You’ll like this event! It’s fun!”

OverlandingSprinter
OverlandingSprinter
10 months ago

Pulling a trailer through chaos is stressful. But I must say the photo of the EAA fly-in traffic is nothing compared to the exodus traffic at Burning Man.

Great story on the VW bug fleet. I’ve been to the fly-in, and loved seeing the topless bugs. They’re a great signature for the event.

Arrest-me Red
Arrest-me Red
10 months ago

Do they argue over who gets Red 5?

A. Barth
A. Barth
10 months ago
Reply to  Arrest-me Red

They all drive around in a prescribed path.

It’s called Red Route One. 😀

Jack Trade
Jack Trade
10 months ago
Reply to  Arrest-me Red

Probably not as much as they argue over telling whomever it is to be more damn descriptive over the radio/stop just saying “this is Red 5 I’m going in!”

MaximillianMeen
MaximillianMeen
10 months ago
Reply to  Arrest-me Red

Red One needs to be renamed Red Leader.

Lew Schiller
Lew Schiller
10 months ago

“Over to you Red Leader!”
(Am I alone in my affection for “The Magic Christian?”)

Data
Data
10 months ago
Reply to  Arrest-me Red

That’s great, Kid. Now don’t get cocky.

Canopysaurus
Canopysaurus
10 months ago

Been over 30 years since I last made the EAA scene in Oshkosh. Nice to see they’re still Buggin’ out.

Mike Harrell
Mike Harrell
10 months ago

I suppose the name for the first car makes perfect sense considering it was rescued from a scrapyard and completely redone.

Chronometric
Chronometric
10 months ago

And being air-cooled boxers, they have much in common with many of the homebuilt planes. In fact, VW and Corvair engines are often repurposed as aircraft engines.

Stef Schrader
Stef Schrader
10 months ago
Reply to  Chronometric

Was about to say…the plane folks probably know a lot about how to maintain these.

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