Herbie goes bananas.
Manuel Reuter – two-time Le Mans winner and a big Beetle fan.
Manuel takes hold of the delicate gearstick. The “standing” clutch takes some getting used to, as does the pull switch for the lights, the wipers and the slender Bakelite steering wheel, which turns out to have some play in it. On the way to the starting line, enthusiastic spectators who recognise Manuel jump in front of the car. They all want to wish him and Herbie luck, request an autograph on their programme or simply a picture of the driver and his sidekick. Manuel is a true pro – all smiles while continuing to play with the accelerator.
Driver and Herbie may be in synch after only a few miles, but the first special stage is a disaster. We are more than four seconds late at the Steile Wand in Meerane, a very steep gradient over 200 metres. The best teams rarely complete a daily stage with a deviation of more than a second.
Another half-day goes by before we have more or less synchronised the road book and reality and configured the heating, sun roof, crank handle and pop-out windows to keep the conditions inside Herbie comfortable. A curse erupts from Manuel’s lips after repeatedly losing our bearings, but there are more than 500 kilometres 310 miles and various special stages still waiting ahead. Besides, every metre driven brings a better flow to our performance. Our mood lightens. Slowly there emerges a solid mixture of short commands (“out of next roundabout at 9 o’clock!”), elegant manoeuvres, Beetle memories and tuning from earlier times. “I later built a campervan engine onto my Beetle-based ‘driving module’,” Manuel recounts, “because it was even flatter and lowered the centre of gravity further.”