Yesterday I took the train down to Longbridge, Birmingham to pick up the Sick Bay from one of the most talked about garages in the historic VW scene – Fellows Speed Shop. People are talking about Fellows because they are the leading players in the Subaru conversion field, and more and more Bay owners are being tempted by the triple siren calls of Subaru – namely Reliability, Economy and Power.
When I first got my Bay it had the original aircooled 1600 engine, affectionately known as the ‘lawn mower’. It was very simple to maintain and repair and I thoroughly enjoyed learning how it all worked. It was thanks to this engine that I began to realise that cars are not powered by magic but that all the parts have a purpose and if everything does what it should then you have a reliable and faithful friend at your command. All this engine requires in return is a little bit of TLC and a basic understanding so that you can fix any part that goes wrong. (Just like he says in Zen and the Art…)
When the kids started to borrow the Sick Bay I explained how to perform some of the acts of ‘TLC’, such as checking the oil levels. My son quickly glazed over and my daughter just said that if she ever sees a red warning light anywhere she will just stop and call the RAC. I soon realised that if we were going to get the most out of our Bay, we needed to move over to the dark side and get a Subaru conversion.
So about three years ago I bought the conversion kit from Fellows and asked Stefan at MAC VW to install it. The van was transformed – easy to drive, reliable, economical and, crucially, the kids would never need to open the engine lid. Put in the petrol, turn the key and drive off. It was a win-win but I must admit that some of the romance was lost. I have no more idea of how this engine works than you do of any modern engine and I can no longer do running repairs – so I have lost some of that independence which I had come to value. I also miss the distinctive phut-phut sound of the old aircooled engine. I used to listen to the engine carefully as I drove along so as to pick up on any problems, nowadays I just listen to CDs.
So what was I doing at Fellows? My 1600cc aircooled lawnmower was perfect for the little 3 rib gearbox that it was built for but to harness the full power of a Scooby, I had to have the third and fourth gears extended by the guys at Fellows. This has the effect of allowing you to cruise at higher speeds for the same revs per minute. Coming back from Birmingham I noticed that at 3000 rpm I was doing about 65mph when previously that number of revs would see me at 50mph at best. Whether the resultant fuel economy will ever pay for the cost of the gearbox modification,(over a grand), is a moot point but given that I have plans to take the Sick Bay all over Europe, (and Morocco), I think that enhanced miles per gallon has got to be a bonus eventually.
Fellows Speed Shop is a thriving family run outfit set up about ten years ago primarily to cater for the demand to fit Subarus into old VWs. The driving force is Perry Fellows, a Brummie naturally, his son Ben and his wife Carolyn who does the admin side. These days they get involved in some of the most prestigious restoration projects in the VW scene and have designed and installed complete new systems for use in racing and Ben showed me a suspension system they had recently designed for a Splitscreen. I was not allowed to take a photo as it is very much under wraps. As you can imagine, the shop is full of the most amazing vehicles, including something that Perry told me was currently the ‘oldest VW in the UK’.
Perry had offered to pick me up from Longbridge railway station and sitting on the train the thought crossed my mind that if Cornwall is the spiritual home of old VWs then the Midlands has got to be the beating heart. I have never met a Brummie who is not in love with cars and you never go far at any VW event without hearing that unique accent wafting on the breeze. All the VW women I have met who are capable of fixing their own engines have been Brummies. It seems to be in their blood – just like heavy metal which they say also comes from the pounding of the Brummie motor industry. All of which has left such an indelible mark on the Brummie character.
Perry picks his customers up from the station because the garage is out in the sticks, down a pretty little country lane, not at all like the area I had expected to find Fellows Speed Shop. He is a busy guy and drives like he enjoys going really fast. A Brummie through and through. The narrowness of the lane held no fears for Perry and nor did the icy stretches, (which he told me to watch out for when I came back in my van!) He mentioned that after fixing my gearbox he had taken the Sick Bay out for a test drive. I don’t think he’s the type to give easy praise but he did say that he liked the van and the way that it drove. Then he said there was only one issue: it ‘clunked’ a bit when you drove it at speed through potholes. Had I noticed this? I replied, perhaps a bit hoity toity, that I never drove it through pot holes. He muttered something about were there not any pot holes in Manchester but we left it at that.
Apart from pondering on my newly found admiration for the Brummie culture whilst on the train, I was also thinking about my recent visit to see my son in Groningen, Holland. As I parked my bicycle with just a handful of other bikes at Stockport station I was reminded of the scene at Groningen station. In common with all Dutch cities, Groningen is in love with bicycles and I was told that the storage facilities were designed for five thousand bikes, although there were probably even more than that. I often take a bike to the station and it is quick and convenient but if we are ever going to achieve the Dutch levels of bike usage we have to make it safer, more attractive and more convenient. In Manchester they are building fantastic new cycle lanes and people are using them in ever greater numbers. But then Manchester is the home of British cycling and is a good place to ride a bike, but even here we have got a long way to go to catch up with the Dutch.
Back at Fellows I saw a friend’s Doka, another vehicle which I have seen and admired on several occasions. I met Bern, and his wife Jenny, through the Late Bay forum and we know them well. Bern had decided to have his other Bay converted to Subaru and the Doka was part of the deal that Bern had done with Fellows. Unsurprisingly, Fellows planned to fit a Subaru to the Doka and they had sold the previous air cooled engine…to…Stef from MAC VW. It’s a small world in the VW scene.