Australian Volkswagens
in the Antarctic

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The information in this section comes from a number of sources. Phil Matthews and Dave Long wrote a fascinating book called "Knowing Australian Volkswagens", if you are interested in the history of VWs in Australia - this is the book to read. I (Rob) have an official VW advertising publication regarding "Antarctic 1", and I have met and spoken to a number of people who have been to the Antarctic and had first hand knowledge of the vehicles themselves.

Not many people know that several VW beetles have been used in the Antarctic; but they have, and here's a brief history of their involvement.

At the end of this article you'll find links to 8 VERY LARGE pictures of a "VW Australia Review" (advertising booklet) which records the first VWs visit to the Antractic.

There were several previous attempts to use "passenger" cars in the Antarctic. Ernest Shackleton took an Arrol-Johnston 12-15hp 4 cylinder vehicle with him on his 1907 expedition. It was an open two seater, with skies under it's front wheels, and proved to be of little use as it constantly sunk in the snow to it's axles.

Shackleton tried again on a later expedition with a modified Arrol-Johnston which had a large roller in place of the rear wheels. This vehicle is now in a museum in Christchurch New Zealand.

Sir Hubert Wilkins took a "baby" Austin - an Austin 7, on his 1927 expedition.

In 1962, ANARE (Australian National Antarctic Research Expedition) wanted an inexpensive form of motorised transport to complement the expensive Snotrack vehicles they were using at the Australian Mawson base. The 1963 the expedition leader, Ray McMahon, asked VW Australasia if they would supply a vehicle. At that time, VW Wolfsburg was encouraging publicity for VWs in Arctic conditions, and so VW Australasia thought the ANARE request would be an excellent opportunity to gain some publicity for the Australian built cars (Volkswagens were being manufactured in a factory in Melbourne, Victoria) in harsh conditions.

They supplied a 1962 Ruby Red beetle, with lots of spares, together with a movie camera and film (for the publicity of course).

This vehicle had the licence plate "Antarctica 1" and left Melbourne for the Antarctic on the supply ship Nella Dan - arriving at Mawson on 2 February 1963.

It proved a very useful vehicle. Being aircooled - it never froze, and could be started without assistance at temperatures as low as -38c, and driven in temperatures down to -52c. To compensate for poor battery performance at low temperatures, it was fitted with two 6 six volt batteries in series, with just the main starter cable using the second battery, so it started on 12 volts but ran on 6 volts (those who have had their 6 volt beetles converted to 12 volts know that the starter doesn't need converting - it copes very well with 12 volts).

Being tightly sealed once the doors were shut, it was very comfortable, and able to keep out the drifting snow which was so fine it could "find it's way through tack holes".

The wind was often so strong that the doors were "turned inside out" - slammed back against the front mug guards (fenders) - breaking the restraining rods and bending the door hinges, but these were easily straightened. The only major problem was cracking in the frame head (where the front torsion bars are attached to the floor pan) on the rough corrugated ice. The car had a number of visits to the workshops for re-welding this area. There are no roads of course - all driving was "cross country" on ice, snow and rough rock.

On return to Australia in 1964 it was sent on a promotional tour of Australian cities, and then entered in the BP Round Australia Rally which it won!

One of the 1963 expeditioners, who returned to Australia on the same ship as the car, managed to get a good look at it whilst it was touring Australia a few months later, and reported that the frame head area was factory new - no welds, even though VW insisted the car was untouched on it's return from the Antarctic!

It's fate after the BP Rally is uncertain - what a shame it's been lost!

The publicity must have worked - a group of US scientists visiting Mawson some years later stated that but for the VW publicity they would not have been aware that Australia had a base in the Antarctic. This is perhaps more an insight into those Scientists though - Australia has had three Antarctic bases (Mawson, Casey, and Davis, plus a 4th station on McQuarrie Island) for many many years, and administers over half of the Antarctic continent.

In 1964, a second VW , "Antarctica 2" was sent to Mawson. This one was "International Orange" for high visibility. "Antarctic 1" and "Antarctic 2" passed by each other on the beach as "1" was loaded on to the ship for the return to Australia. Antarctica 2 served for 5 years until 1969. It also suffered from frame head cracks. Another problem developed as this car was in Antarctica longer than the first - it's mudguards (fenders) were flogged to death by the 4 wheel chains fitted permanently to the car. Castrol 10w oil proved to thick (!) for the low temperatures, and an oil called 5ZED-ZED - which had the consistency of kerosine - was used instead. The engines worked well with this oil, and no harm was done to them, although the engines did have a special crankshaft bearing material - designed for low temperatures. Both vehicles also had a large part of the air intake blanked off to prevent over-cooling from the fan.

Antarctica 2 returned to Australia in 1969, and was also used in publicity material. It was then used as a rally-cross car for several years on tracks near Sydney.

A third beetle was taken to the Antarctic too. This was a 57 oval window model, taken as "personal luggage" by one of the Weather Observers on the 1967 expedition. Mark Forecast (what an appropriate name!) was apparently quite a character. He'd rescued this car from a wrecking yard and rebuilt it with the help of his brother, prior to the Antarctic trip.

This vehicle was "lost at sea" (or should that be "lost under ice") in September 1967, when Mark and another expeditioner took it out across sea ice to examine an area of the Forbes Glacier on the coast - about 20km from Mawson. The sea ice broke under them, leaving the car floating, and the driver's door blocked by ice rubbing against it. They were both dressed like Michelin Men in their Antarctic clothes, so it was quite an effort to open the passenger's door and climb on to the ice before the car sank (we all know VW's are so well sealed they'll float for some time - until you open a door! Mark ended up pushing himself off the roof gutter to reach the safety of the ice as the car sank under him. They were fortunate that the weather was "perfect" for the Antarctic - very cold but no wind, as they had to walk back to Mawson. A "good breeze" at Mawson requires crampons on the shoes just to stand up against the wind - 200kmh is not uncommon. They'd walked a good part of the 20 km back to base before they were picked up by a rescue party which had been sent out after they failed to return at the expected time. They both had to "thaw out" in front of a large fuel stove used to heat the main workshop, before hot showers and a little rum (for the inner man).

In 1978 a "beach buggy" version of the beetle was sent to Mawson. This vehicle was an open frame vehicle, with a square shaped "roll cage" used to carry the spare wheel and luggage. It was originally a 4 seater, but following a major overhaul in 1990, it was converted to a two seater. This vehicle is now fitted with a 2 litre "Porsche" engine - actually a type4 engine which is used in the VW411 and larger Type2s, they had several of these engines spare, as they were used in the large transporter vhicles called Sno-Track. It's still there (in 2001) providing a useful light transport service for the Antarctic expeditioners.

There you have it - VW's "down south" proved the worth of a light, aircooled, well sealed vehicle in remote, cold conditions. Apart from a few special "winterising" parts the sedans were not special vehicles, but they coped well with the rigors of the cold, and rough driving conditions. What a pity Antarctic 1 has disappeared - it would make a great attraction to a motor museum.


Links to 8 VERY LARGE jpeg files of a VW Australia advertising booklet featuring excellent photographs of "Antarctica 1". The booklet is dated June 1963. Rob has the original booklet, in perfect condition.

Cover Page - great picture of "Antarctica 1" on the ice, with mountains behind.

Text introduction "Volkswagens go anywhere...and everywhere".

Conditions in the Antarctic - "It's COLD"!

The Volkswagen's advantages and a picture with the Snow-tracs (Which use aircooled Porsche industrial [Type4] engines).

Cablegrams from Mawson base and another great picture of Antarctica 1 crossing a small cravass.

Australia's long association with the Antarctic.

The subsequent advertising campaign in Australia.

How they chose and prepared the car, and another good picture of Antarctica 1 on the Polar Plateau.

 

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