When Paul Combest came across a discarded '65 Beetle nearly 30 years past its prime, there was just something about it that caught his eye.
"I bought it in '92 as basically a $500 piece of junk and dragged it home," the Jamestown, KY-based racer recalls. "Then for some reason I decided to work on it instead of my Plymouth, a '70 Scamp that I'd had at home for years. I just thought the Beetle was more special, so I went with it."
Actually, the car sat for another year or two, Combest admits, but by the mid-'90s he was committed to resurrecting the forlorn-looking Bug.
"I rebuilt the whole car," he says. "It needed all the metal on the bottom, the floor pans, the heater channels, firewalls, everything on the lower couple of inches was replaced. And before this I had never welded anything, so I just figured it out as I went."
Combest also taught himself body work while resurrecting his ride.
"I didn't paint it, but I did do all the lettering, which you can kinda' tell an amateur did it. But I spent a good three years on the body and paint, until around '99, 2000, I kind of rushed the last year and went right into the motor. I was supposed to go one more year. Money-wise, I had a set schedule, but I got excited when the end got in sight."
Loosely basing his build on the famous "Inch Pincher"--a '56 Bug that began its racing life in 1963 as a road racer in the hands of Dan Gurney before being converted to a race-winning drag car two years later--Combest threw himself into the project.
Just like its inspiration, Combest's "Sour Kraut" employs a pair of 48-mm Weber carburetors feeding the air/fuel mixture into a standard VW 1500 engine that's been bored and stroked to 2276 cc.
"These were the carbs that Carroll Shelby originally imported from Italy to put on the AC Cobras, and then a guy named Dean Lowry adapted them to fit on the Inch Pincher," Combest explains. "He's the guy who thought that up, so we've been benefiting from his smarts all these years.
"So there are elements of the Inch Pincher in it, but it's not meant to be a tribute car or even a close replica, but you've gotta' just pay homage to the original. I mean, the stickers on the quarter windows are as direct as I could get, but there were other Bugs that came after and there's some of them in it, too."
The drivetrain employs a VW ring-and-pinion, but first through fourth gears, as well as the main shafts are aftermarket parts. Combest says his first test session immediately revealed their necessity.
"After I got it running and got it all tuned up, I took it out to a little track right here in Jamestown, Lake Cumberland Dragway. They used to do a Wednesday-night test-n-tune, it's only about four-and-a-half miles from my house, so I drove it over there and promptly snapped an axle, just like that. So I learned a weak point right away. They look like baseball bats, the stock axles, and the aftermarket axles are just straight shafts, so that solved the first problem."
For suspension, Combest says the rear end rides on "the original German swing axle," but he modified the front end to improve the car's stance and handling for drag racing.
"It was done the old-fashioned way," he says. "I cut and turned the center, which lightened the front springs so it sat down lower. That's the same way they did it back in the '60s, before they came out with aftermarket stuff that accomplishes the same thing, but the way I done it you can't adjust it; it's stuck that way. That was the first real modification I made."
Combest now campaigns the resurrected H/Gas Bug as an exhibition vehicle within the period-correct South East Gassers Association (SEGA), typically making several lone passes over the course of an event. He hopes, however, that more cars will be built to fit the class designation so he can become an official SEGA competitor.
"Quain (Stott, SEGA founder and owner) has been great right from the start. Right around the time that the South East Gassers started getting some attention, I watched them for about a year contacting him. I just figured it couldn't hurt to ask and he told me, sure, as long as it fits period-correct rules it could run," says Combest, who made his first SEGA appearance in 2015 at Knoxville, TN. This year, he's made it out to nearly every SEGA event.
"There have been a couple of H/Gas cars that have come out to race me at a few events, but we really need at least six or eight committed to at least start the class officially. Once that happens and people see how much fun this class is, I know there'll be more cars built."
For now, though, Combest enjoys simply showing up and sharing his "Sour Kraut" with SEGA fans.
"I'm real happy with the reaction I get here," he says. "It seems like a lot of people really like it just because it's different and so many people have had a Bug in some part of their life, whether they owned it themselves or had parents or other family members who had one. It just seems to mean something special to so many different people and to be honest, that makes it really fun and satisfying for me."
NOSTALGIA DRAG WORLD - Words and photos by Ian Tocher