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A German Car With A Japanese Engine That’s Built For Baja

Axis Power

Matt EmeryPhotographer, Writer

Many of us had our start in off-roading in VW powered vehicles. Heck, off-road racing began with VW powered vehicles. And though the fast cars of those days were usually buggy’s of some sort, the Baja Bug still holds a sweet spot in the hearts of many.

Though only 28, Sean Silva has an appreciation for the old ways, and this 1961 Volkswagen Baja Bug only proves it. But that appreciation only goes so far. He loves the Bug aspect, but the flat 4 cylinder, air cooled VW engine is something that was not high on his list. It’s really not an engine that has a lot of what a street-legal off-road vehicle needs. Stock, they don’t have a lot of power; and while they certainly can be built to produce power, they tend to not live very long. We love us some built 2180, but their longevity is measured in miles that have only 3 zeros following a pretty small number.

That’s why Silva went with a 2002 Honda 3.2L engine for his Baja Bug. One of the big factors in choosing the Honda over the VW is that the Honda will last a long time and with its electronic fuel injection, it will do it while also producing respectable horsepower. The engine is stock internally, but has been equipped with a custom intake manifold, a K&N air cleaner and a custom exhaust with a Super Trapp muffler. The engine is basically stock with just a few upgrades, and it still produces 280 horsepower; and it will for a long time.

VW bus transmissions on the other hand, are tough and with upgrades, can last a long time. A 091 transmission was given the good stuff by Dave Folts while Extreme Manufacturing shafts are used to connect to the rear wheels.

Those wheels are 15-inch BTR’s that have been equipped with General Grabber tires. One thing that this bug doesn’t have are the narrower front tires normally associated with Baja’s. The Grabbers are 33x10.5x15 and are found on all 4 corners.

Other things found on every corner are the King shocks. Eight in total, four remote reservoir coilover shocks are paired with four King bypass shocks and attached to the full interior cage as well as the In Gear Technology suspension system. In Gear Technology of Beaumont, CA provided both the front dual A-arm suspension and front spindles, the rear suspension pieces and the tube chassis that they’re attached to. Wilwood disc brakes bring the fast bug to a stop.

Which is why with all that stopping power, it’s a good thing that there are sturdy Crow safety harnesses holding the occupants tightly into the PRP seats. In keeping with the classic Baja Bug design, an aluminum dash panel has been installed and a set of Auto Meter gauges keeps track of the Honda engine.

A few things found in this bug are modern touches. A Rugged Radios comm system keeps the occupants in touch with each other and with the team while another non-vintage piece found in this dash is the DeLorme GPS. The Grant steering wheel is old school cool though.

Another long ago name is Jamar, and they are well known to VW enthusiasts. The Jamar shifter, CNC pedal assembly and CNC throttle pedal could have been lifted from an early 70’s race buggy. Silva, a 28 year old, Yucaipa CA based operations manager, says he purchased the car to give it a touch of new, and though the steel body, fiberglass front clip and aluminum rear finders appear much as they did way back when, a few things that are on this car never appeared before. One is the LED light bar that extends above the windshield, and the other is the wing that covers the engine. Ever since Big Oly and Thompsons buggy, we’ve loved wings, and this one even has a storage compartment built it.

Hella lights were used then, and now as three, round 6-inch LED equipped lights line the front bumper, but the gunmetal grey paint is a color that no one would have painted their Baja back in the day. Ours, and many other bugs, were painted white, but primary colors also ruled the day. Thinking back on it, we’re not sure we’ve every seen a gunmetal grey bug, but we like it. We admit that we love us some Baja Bugs; we miss ours, but we also remember the reality of driving one. They may be neat to look at and are off the charts, nostalgia-wise, but they were honestly not great on a long off road trip. They really needed better suspension and a more reliable (and powerful) engine. Sean Silva has taken the best of what was, and incorporated the good of now, to make a Baja Bug that truly is capable of taking on Baja and getting back out in one, running, piece.

Gone is the torsion based front suspension, and in its place are huge a-arms from In Gear Technology. A pair King shocks, one coilover and one bypass, adorn each side of the system.

The rear suspension also features King shocks and In Gear Technology parts, but the design is more Class 1 than Class 5.

No “big’s and little’s” for this bug as four 33x10.5x15 General Grabber tires are mounted to 15-inch BTR beadlock wheels.

With its gunmetal grey paint, this bug looks like no other that’s come before it.

A trio of vintage looking 6-inch Hella rounder’s are actually equipped with LED lights.

Modern lighting adorns the bug the LED light bar above the windshield puts out big candle power.

Putting out 280 horses, this 2002 Honda 3.2L engine may not be a VW, but it will probably run nearly forever.

The engine has been enhanced with a custom intake manifold, a K&N air cleaner and a custom exhaust with a Super Trapp muffler.

Besides looking neat, the wing even has a storage compartment.

At home on a fast course as it is at a concourse, this Baja Bug puts the best of what’s old and new to the test.

The interior brings back memories of long gone bugs we’ve had.

The aluminum dash features Auto Meter gauges, a Rugged Radios comm system, a Grant steering wheel and a GPS system.

PRP racing seats and Crow harnesses keeps the occupants safe. Notice the red Jaz fuel cell behind the seats.

An aluminum plate holds the CNC pedal assembly and throttle.

A Jamar shifter shifts the 091 Dave Folts-built Bus transaxle.

Even looking like your average Class 5 Unlimited, this Baja has modern touches that are subtle but effective.

Silva has style, you have to give him that.