Ultra VW talks to… John Maher
John is a leading light in the world of aircooled performance engines and transmissions, whether it’s a 30hp Vintage Monte Carlo rally engine, or a fuel injected turbo motor, John will, and probably has built it. The engines he produces will always run the numbers and his technical ability is second to none. Some of you may also know John as the drummer in 70’s punk band ‘Buzzcocks’ , is there nothing this man can’t do!! We caught up with john at his workshop on the remote Isle of Harris, off the coast of Scotland.
UVW: Hi John, and thanks for giving UVW the time to talk to you. How and when did you first get into VW’s?
JM: I bought my first Volkswagen in 1978 – a moss green metallic 1303S. I was in the band at the time and when the mileage got to 80,000 I started getting paranoid about it dropping a valve – a favourite topic of the letters pages in Safer Motoring (the only VW magazine available at the time). I booked it into a local ‘specialist’ for an engine overhaul while I was away on tour and a few days after getting it back I had a major engine fire which resulted in the car being written off. After that I swore I’d never let anyone else work on a VW of mine again.
In 1981 I attended VW Action and decided the following year I’d have a crack at the engine change competition. I roped my brother-in-law into the attempt and we came last! For the next two years Mike Silvester volunteered to partner me in the competition. We blew it in ’83 but in 1984 everything went right: we won the competition and set a new record, which as far as I know still stands today. Total time was 1 minute 16 seconds: 20 seconds for removal and 56 seconds to refit, get it running and drive it forward one metre. This was way before the VWDRC existed so I guess this was my competitive VW streak coming out in some shape or form.
UVW: What about the engine building side of things? How did you get involved in assembling VW motors?
JM: My second VW was a 1963 Karmann Ghia. I paid £250 for it in 1979. It was still on the original 6 volt system and I remember mastering the art of solo push starts if I hadn’t managed to find a convenient slope to park on! Within a couple of months it dropped a valve while driving on the M6. With the aid of the John Muir ‘Complete Idiot’ book I set about stripping the engine down and repairing it. That was my first full engine build.
UVW: when did you start John Maher Racing?
JM: Next year  will be my 25th anniversary operating as a VW business. In 1983 I started trading as ‘Mr Beetle’. This was two years after the band split. I placed fliers on the windscreen of any aircooled VWs I could find around Manchester. Initially it was a mobile service, travelling to the customer’s home or workplace in a bay window bus full of tools and welding gear. I reckon it’s called paying your dues! Within the year I took on a four car lock-up near my parents house. Rent was £2.39 a week!
The change of name to ‘John Maher Racing’ came about after a guy introduced himself to me at VW Action one year and explained he’d been running a business called ‘Mr Beetle’ in Norwich for many years. By this time I was racing in the VWDRC and ‘John Maher Racing’ seemed a logical choice as it was more descriptive of the way the business was heading.
UVW: JMR was once based in Manchester, which was fairly central within the UK. Is there any reason why you chose to move to such a remote location, and did the move have any effect on your trade? (and what are the roads like on the Isle of Harris?!).
JM: My wife Helen and I had been to the Outer Hebrides many times on holiday and we both love the place. I was up here in 2000 and saw a row of industrial units available for rent. My first thought was: ‘what a great place for a workshop’. I’m sure many people experience that when they’re on holiday – a ‘wouldn’t it be great to live here’ type of thing. Most people go back home and forget about it. We decided to go ahead and make the move. I guess I’m lucky the specialist nature of my work allows me to operate from such a remote location. I’m sure the distance must put some people off but in the five years I’ve been here the order books have always been full and the typical waiting time for an engine is usually around six months. Sometimes its been longer but I’m doing my best to address that!
The roads here are mostly single track. More suited to a stage of the WRC than drag racing but a major bonus is lack of traffic. I have a nine mile drive into work and I rarely see another car on the road. There are no traffic lights, roundabouts or double yellow lines and there’s only one part-time policeman.
[Note: since this article was first published, drag racing has arrived in the Outer Hebrides… more here]
UVW: What car do you currently own/drive?
JM: My daily driver for the past seven years has been a Honda Insight petrol electric hybrid. It’s an amazing piece of engineering: it’s the most aerodynamic production car ever made, it has a lightweight aluminium chassis and body and is capable of 100mpg plus. A lot of people find it an odd choice for someone who earns a living building high performance engines but I’m interested in the technology and how every item on the car, down to grade of oil, suspension geometry, tyre choice etc has been designed with one aim in mind – maximum fuel economy. I was hoping VW would put the 300mpg 1L into production but it appears they think it’s a little too radical for the general public. Are the car buying masses really as narrow minded as the motor manufacturers think or are we being restricted to what they want to sell us? [Note: VW have announced a modified version of the original 1L will be made available in 2013].
UVW: Which of your past racecars has been your favourite?
JM: Of the two, I don’t have really have a favourite as such. The ‘Mr Beetle’ car was inspired by the racecars I’d seen in ‘Hot VWs’ and ‘VW Trends’ and limited by the tools and skills I had at the time. We didn’t have the internet back in those days so the range of information available with regard to building a VW drag car was pretty limited. I bought the car, a ’57 Oval, with the intention of building a Cal Look street car. A trip to the first ever Bug Jam saw the plans change overnight. I managed to get it ready in time to debut at the following year’s Bug Jam. The car was written off in a bad crash at York Raceway in 1989. It rolled six times and went through the finish line on its roof at 104mph. Fortunately my home made roll cage kept me safe and I escaped with nothing worse than a scratched thumb. It certainly made me appreciate the importance of having the right safety equipment!
My second race car was heavily inspired by the Pro Stock class that had just been launched in the US as part of the PRA championship. I built my own tube frame chassis and mounted the recently acquired body of a 1954 Oval onto it. I was still using the engine from ‘Mr Beetle’, a normally aspirated 2165cc IDA motor. My aim was for it to be the first VW in the UK/Europe to run a 10 second quarter without the aid of nitrous or turbo. The first meeting I went to after converting the IDAs to 51.5mm it ran 10.95 @ 125mph. Mission accomplished. I later sold the car, minus engine but as far as I know, its never reappeared on the track. [Note: the car was rediscovered in 2012 and is currently being restored by the new owner].
UVW: Do you have any personal projects you are currently working on (drag car or otherwise)? And are we likely to see you out racing again?
JM: No car projects in the works at the moment but I have a set of plans and sketches I’ve been working on for some time of a car I’d like to build. It features numerous ideas I’d like to see incorporated in a vehicle but at the moment its made it no further than the drawing board. One day….
I’ve no plans to return to racing right now but I don’t rule it out for the future, especially if I find time to build the project car at some stage.
UVW: You were a well-known member of the VWDRC for many years. Of the many races and opponents you raced, which was the most memorable?
JM: Probably the second race I ever attended, which was the German Car Company Summer Nationals towards the end of 1988. It was the first time the car appeared in public in its dayglow green paintjob and ‘Mr Beetle’ signwriting. I’d raced it in primer at its debut at Bug Jam ’88 a month or so previous. I was hoping the car would get some air under the front wheels, just like those stateside racers in Hot VWs. In the UK nobody had seen a Beetle wheelie, so it was a big deal at the time. I modified the front shocks and limited the front suspension travel. In the final round the front wheels cleared the ground by three or four feet. The other guys who always put on a great show were Terry’s Beetle Services, with Moody. They’d always get the crowd rushing to the fence when it came over the PA they were about to make another pass.
Although we were running brackets, I don’t think any of us got too serious about trying to be an expert bracket racer. Nowadays the VWDRC has some incredibly talented bracket racers who would no doubt knock me out in the first round if I were to show up on the startline today. Back then we were all just trying to go as quickly as possible. If we won a round we looked on it as another chance to try and go faster. In an ideal world there’d be enough cars of the same type to create a heads-up class. Then we’d see some interesting engine development take place. But in the bracket race scenario I set myself a goal e.g. run a 10 second ¼. In effect I was racing against myself.
UVW: We’ve noticed a lot more EFI and turbo motors (both on the street and the strip) of late. Is this the way forward for aircooled VW tuning?
JM: Mappable ignition and fuel injection has always been the way forward! Although a properly jetted set of carbs can work incredibly well on most mild to moderate performance engines, say up to 160bhp, once you go beyond that level it’s difficult to deliver a consistent air/fuel ratio throughout the engine’s full rpm range. The only way you can optimise fuel and ignition for maximum performance throughout the entire rpm range, at all throttle positions is with a mappable EFI system. The level of control it allows over both fuel and ignition simply can’t be matched by any carburetor/distributor setup. I first used engine management in 1995 and I’ve been advocating its use ever since. There’s more awareness of it now amongst the VW aircooled crowd than ever before and it’s good to see it appearing on more and more engines. There’s still a reluctance to adopt it amongst many of the retro/nostalgia/Cal Look crowd who are still having a lingering love affair with IDAs. Think back to the ‘60s and how radical a step it must have been to fit a VW engine with a pair of IDAs. That kind of innovative thinking brought forward to today would see those same ‘60s pioneers embracing whatever was available to improve the performance of their VWs – and it certainly wouldn’t be carburettors!
Having said that, I’ve got to admit there’s a certain appeal to a well tuned, high compression, high performance IDA motor, and for a drag race application it’s perfectly possible to dial in a pair of carbs to near optimum fuelling for maximum power within the narrow rpm range and wide open throttle setting used during a quarter mile pass. The difference nowadays is an EFI engine can make that same level of peak power but also deliver more power and torque everywhere else in the rpm range i.e. more area under the curve.
UVW: How do you get your kicks nowadays?
JM: Much of my spare time is spent at the workshop. I’m motivated by the quest to find more torque and power! To that end I’ve equipped the dyno with a computerised data acquisition system (Depac) which allows me to analyse each power run in minute detail. It’s amazing what you can pick up on when you’re not trying to observe everything in real time. I can record EGTs, cylinder head temps and air/fuel ratios on all four cylinders, along with oil temp, oil pressure, fuel pressure, air temp, blow-by etc. It’s easy to spend an hour or so analysing data from a 30 second dyno pull. If someone else was paying the bills I could quite happily spend weeks and weeks to-ing and fro-ing from flowbench to dyno and back in search of the best combination. It’s such a huge and fascinating subject. The deeper you go, the broader it gets. The flowbench and dyno are two of the tools I can use to go deeper and further in that search. Does that count as getting your kicks?
UPDATE | Feb 2013
In 2009 John finally found a non VW related hobby to give him a break from the workshop. His long exposure night photographs have generated a lot of interest. John has received orders for his images from individuals and organisations around the world. A couple of examples:
More of John Maher’s photography here: The Flying Monk
In May 2012, John briefly reunited with his former band mates for two one-off shows at Manchester’s Apollo Theatre and London’s Brixton Academy. Entitled ‘Back to Front’, the shows featured all members of the original 1976 line-up. John was later interviewed about his involvement in the ‘Back to Front’ shows by Mudkiss fanzine.
Following his brief stint behind the drum kit, normal VW service was resumed in June 2012.