The California Looker

In the 60s, Ron Fleming was one of the pioneers of the “California Look”, still the most popular style within the Volkswagen tuning scene to this day. An interview about the initial explosion of the international Beetle cult. “I often had the funniest moments at traffic lights,” says Ron Fleming. “I was in my Beetle next to a genuine US thoroughbred beast, twice as big and three times as heavy. And then this bewildered look in my rear-view mirror as the traffic lights turned to green, and within seconds, my lawnmower car achieved a few Beetle lengths between itself and the so-called muscle car.”

It’s 1965, the so-called lawnmower car is a rebuilt VW Beetle called Ovali and Ron Fleming has just founded “Der kleiner Panzers” (that’s how they actually spelled it), the first and to this day most glorious club of the so-called “California Look” scene. The tuning style, often called “Cal Look” or “Cal Style,” began an explosion of the international Beetle cult. It was initiated in the early 60s by a small group of Beetle aficionados from Orange County near Los Angeles, who, on their own, converted their Beetles into true racing machines. The names of these tuning pioneers have long enjoyed hero status in the Cal-Scene with their tens of thousands of fans worldwide. Joe Vittone and his coral red “Inch Pincher”. Greg Aronson and his “Tar Babe”. The Schley Brothers with their “Lightning Bug”. Dean Lowry in the “Deano Dyno-Soar”. And of course, Ron Fleming with his “Underdog”. 

34-years later, Fleming became – for the first time – a guest in Wolfsburg, the birthplace and home of his cult object. The Californian gladly accepts the invitation to a cruise and chat in the cult Beetle “Herbie”, through the Wolfsburg countryside. There is much to talk about regarding the legendary creation of the “Cal Look”. And you don’t sit behind the wheel of a cinema hero like “Herbie” every day. “The first Herbie film, ‘The Love Bug’, was a milestone in 1968. In the USA it triggered a true Beetlemania, which was also noticeable in the tuning scene,” says Ron. “Even though we were already in Beetle fever for many years, Herbie itself had nothing to do with the Cal Look.”

Cheap and robust, compact and cool

Several books have been published on the history and birth of the “Cal Look”, and recently there has been a flood of blogs and fansites. Ron Fleming describes the pioneers’ attitude to life: “We were a colorful troupe who wanted speed, but also understatement. Unlike Hot Rods, popular with racing fans in the 50s, the Beetle hit the zeitgeist of the 60s. “The Beetle was cheap and robust, but also compact and cool at the same time,” says Fleming. “Not a show-off car, but one for individualists.” And as mentioned in the introduction: “You provided some amusing surprises at traffic lights.”

And last but not least: on the dragstrips. The short race tracks, mostly around 400 meters long, on which the fastest accelerators of the tuning scene were chosen, enjoyed steadily growing popularity in the USA from the 1950s onwards. Beetles were initially exotic there, but due to their low weight they soon began to show their advantages. With more and more powerful engines, the “Cal Look” Beetles on the drag strip became more and more popular.

What distinguishes the typical “California Look” exactly? “Quite simple: leave out everything that is not absolutely necessary. Out with bumpers, rear seats, spare wheels, trim strips, steel rims.” A certain purism combined with clever performance tuning. In order to make the most of the horse power from the rear-engine of the Beetle as efficient as possible, the Cal-Look-pioneers chose large tires on the rear axle and small tires on the lowered front axle. The “nose-down” appearance of the first “Cal Look” generation was finished.“Our motto was: Minimum weight with maximum performance. And with as much style as possible,” summarizes Fleming. The design of the early California-Lookers was also characterized by painted headlight rings and original monochrome paintwork, sports steering wheels and an exclusive focus on Type 1 engines.

Stylised design for the entire car

The birth of the collective Beetle fan cult generally dates back to October 20, 1968. On the grounds of the Orange Country International Raceway (OCIR) and the first BUG IN – the first major Volkswagen fan event – was held at which tuners and mechanics of all the relevant models – Beetles and Buggies, Bullis and Karmann Ghias – gathered for a joint meeting. The size of which had never been witnessed before. Until 1983, the BUG-IN was held twice a year and also attracted international attention.

But as enthusiastic as the first generation of “Cal Lookers” was – the style only became truly world-famous and trading under this name following Jere Alhadeff coining the term “California Look” with his article in the industry magazine “HOT VW’s” in 1975. The name has been on the agenda ever since. Today, the number of active “Cal Looker” fans worldwide is probably in the tens of thousands, the “Cal Look” itself is changing and constantly evolving, depending on the decade and zeitgeist. The early “Cal Look”, today however is not only considered a milestone in the tuning scene but also influenced the style of car design in general.

How does someone like Ron Fleming see the future of car tuning in the E-era? “I think electric mobility is an important step for the environment and the economy. As far as I can see, cars are like the ID.31 or ID. Buzz2 are fast, smart and sustainable. But I want to be honest: I love the sound of real combustion engines. Hopefully E-cars will soon cultivate a similarly strong lifestyle. By not only being clean, but also sporty. By not only being intelligent, but also fun. Then we old Cal-Lookers hold nothing against it at all.”