The History of Der Kleiner Panzers
An extract from “California Look VW” by Keith Seume
The story of the most famous southern California Volkswagen club of all time, Der Kleiner Panzers, begins over 45 years ago. By the summer of 1964, a group of young, car-crazy college students had discovered the pleasures of owning a Volkswagen and formed themselves into a small club, Volkswagens Limited. The link between its members was simply a love of the VW Bug and the desire to spend time with other like-minded people.
DKP1 Club display with Mike Mahaffey’s ‘split’
and Greg Aronson’s ragtop
Amongst those early enthusiasts were John Lazenby, Pete Dayton, Gary Huggins, Jim Edmiston, Dwight Magill, Dick Herr and Brian Rennie who had met through high school. Lazenby had taken delivery of his first Volkswagen on July 31st 1963 – it was a red sunroof sedan to which he soon added a set of chrome wheels and Porsche hubcaps. Not far behind was a Judson supercharger to give the little 40hp motor some extra get up and go.
Volkswagens Limited gradually became more organized but remained very much just a social gathering. The first event these early members organized was a ‘caravan’ from their home territory of Anaheim in Orange County up to Hollywood in March 1965. Magill’s mother, Sally, worked for the Anaheim school system and allowed the club to use the duplicating facilities to print some handouts that were duly put under the windshield wiper of each and every Volkswagen the club came across.
DKP1 Club display with Rick Meisner’s bus
That first event was a huge success, with as many as 70 cars – all VWs – parading across Los Angeles. John Lazenby remembers the excitement of cruising down Hollywood Boulevard and back on Sunset, driving two abreast with friend Rich Kugel. Kugel’s own car was a gold ’58 with a Jardine Headers logo on the rear fenders – typical of the pioneering California Look cars. The ’58 was generally thought to be the best looking car in the club, with its owner having a reputation for keeping it scrupulously clean.
At first, the club would meet at various members’ homes as well as at Schneider Motors in Anaheim, a Volkswagen agency owned and run by Joe Schneider, a German ex-patriot who was to remain a friend of the club for many years. He sponsored the club and also carried out a lot of work on the members’ cars, as a result of which many carried Schneider Motors licence plate surrounds.
On the freeway with DKP1
By the end of 1965, new cars began to appear in the club, with Gary Huggins purchasing a new tan sunroof sedan and, as the club was starting to grow in size and structure, a new name was discussed. After much debate, the title Der Kleiner Panzers was decided upon in December of that year. It was felt that the Germanic-sounding name captured the spirit of the club, even if the German grammar left something to be desired. Roughly translated as the ‘The Little Tanks’ (the Panzer having been the most feared of all German tanks in World War II), the name should, strictly speaking, read Die Kleine Panzers.
Der Kleiner Panzers’ membership continued to grow, with the arrival of Gregg Bunch, Bob Sechi, Mike Touseo but, at the same time, others began to depart as marriage or the draft began to take their toll. Gregg Bunch acquired his first Volkswagen in 1966 as a graduation present from his father. He had seen a few VWs running around Orange County but had never really shown too much interest in them until it came time to buy a car. His father decided that, rather than buy one from a local dealership, he would order it straight from Germany. Gregg recalls the day he drove with his father down to Long Beach to collect the Bug and feeling slightly deflated when he saw the huge parking lot filled with hundreds of VWs fresh off the boat. Suddenly a VW didn’t seem quite so unusual after all.
At college, he saw a few other VWs that had been customized with wider wheels and Goodyear Blue Streak tires on the back. He gradually began to modify his own car by fitting a pair of Chevy 5-1/2in rims grafted onto some VW centres to the rear. Through a friend who worked at Goodyear, he bought a pair of Blue Steaks for these rims and then added a pair of Pirelli radials to the front. Tinted glass completed the look. The engine remained stock aside from a few chrome parts and an aluminium velocity stack on the original Solex carburettor.
While driving this car, he met four other young VW owners, including John Lazenby and Pete Dayton, whose cars carried a decal of their club, Der Kleiner Panzers. They invited him along to Lazenby’s house where they occasionally held a meeting. Bunch turned into the driveway and was immediately impressed by the quality of the cars he saw, each having a superb paintjob and being well presented. By early in 1967, the DKP spirit had well and truly rubbed off on him and his car acquired dual Weber carburettors, an uprated camshaft and a Porsche clutch.
The membership continued to grow steadily. When Bunch was first introduced there were only 6-8 active members, but by the time he left to join the army a couple of years later it had increased to 25-30. Jim Edmiston, who had been one of the instigators of the club’s success, left in February 1967 to join the army. When he returned in 1969, the emphasis had changed as Greg Aronson, Dave Dolan, Don Crane and Ron Fleming all became members and their interests lay heavily with drag racing and high-performance cars.
Dolan bought the chrome rims and Goodyear Blue Streak tires off Gregg Bunch when he joined the Air Force and added them to his ’67. The engine was modified, fitted with a two-barrel Holley carburettor and a performance exhaust system from Pat at Anchor Mufflers. Greg Aronson was progressively changing his ’63 sunroof sedan, ultimately turning it into the first of the true California Look VWs. Don Crane bought a brand new red ’67 Bug and immediately turned it into a street-legal race car, adding dual-port heads, 48IDA Webers and a set of BRM wheels. Across the decklid was painted the slogan ‘DKP Racing Team’. Ron Fleming’s black 1956 oval window sedan sported a set of ET mag wheels with Goodyear Blue Streak tires, a mildly modified motor and the DKP trademark, an Anchor Mufflers exhaust system.
Between them, Bunch, Dolan, Crane, Edmiston, Fleming and Aronson began to bring about a change of emphasis in DKP. Whereas prior to their involvement it had been almost purely a social club, it soon became performance oriented. Along the way, some of the original social members who had less of an interest in high performance were lost, but others through their passion for racing took their place. Gradually it became that, to qualify for membership of this increasingly elite club, your car had to be highly tuned. However, at no time could anyone who simply owned a hot VW join DKP – the club had to approve of any prospective new member.
Ron Fleming’s Oval with BRMs and no bumpers
If a club representative happened to see a good looking, well-modified Bug he would approach the owner to discover if he was interested in coming along to a couple of club meetings. The prospect would be expected to attend four meetings at the DKP clubroom and also participate in a number of other events over the next thirty days. At the end of that trial period, he would be asked to stand up and say why he wanted to join the club and then he would be sent outside while the existing members debated whether they wanted him in the club or not. A vote was always taken and at least 75% of members had to be in favor. Generally, the voting was either almost 100% in favor, or very heavily against. Rarely were there many mixed feelings.
The hardest part of all was having to tell somebody why they hadn’t been accepted into the membership. The most common reason was that their car wasn’t up to scratch, but occasionally it would be simply that their face didn’t really fit, and that was the most awkward news to break. If it was only a matter of the car not being to a high enough standard, then somebody like Ron Fleming would take them to one side and tell them what they needed to do to make the required grade.
What the DKP looked for most in a new member was dedication, not only to the club, but also to maintaining his car to a very high standard. It was not unknown, for example, for a member to have his decals scratched from the side windows if his VW had been involved in a minor accident. The decals would only be replaced once the damage had been repaired. Club gatherings were held regularly at the Pickwick Hotel, where DKP rented a room, and always on a Sunday night – Friday night was kept for cruising (usually over to Select Autosales, opposite Carl’s in Anaheim) and Saturday night was for going to watch a race meeting at Orange County or Lions drag strips. The club room was long and narrow with church-like pews down each side. It was decorated with club banners and the window at the front used to display the trophies won by racing members. Needless to say, it wasn’t long before an impressive display of cups had built up. As the club evenings wore on, youthful exhuberance would come to the fore and some members would hold an impromptu burn-out contest in the car park, much to the distress of the residents of the hotel!
With the club’s new preoccupation with performance, it was inevitable that street racing would become one of the more regular unofficial events. A ‘Top Ten’ ladder was kept at the clubhouse, consisting of a record of the fastest ten members’ cars. Each of the ten would be capable of running the quarter mile in thirteen seconds or less, with another five or six cars all able to run within a second of that. By 1971, the majority of cars in the club ran large capacity motors with dual 48IDA Weber carburettors. Most cars were 1960s models, but some, like Mike Mahaffey’s or Bill Aroyo’s 1951 split-window Bugs, were very much older. Mahaffey’s Concorde Green version ran a 2180cc motor with Webers and was equipped with a set of BRM wheels, all guaranteed to make a vintage VW enthusiast red with rage.
Many of the clandestine displays of horsepower would take place behind the Nabisco factory or way out on La Palma Avenue where the road split into four lanes. Other popular areas included a street right by the Kimberley Clark factory or close to the original Carl’s drive-in at a meat-packing plant. One street the racers used was about half a mile long and led up to a retail store. When the store was closed up for the night, the street was empty, so somebody thought of painting start and finish lines on it to make things more fair!
Nobody ever believed that this racing was a good thing, but Ron Fleming recalls members being fairly responsible when it came to safety. Each vehicle almost always had seat belts fitted and just two cars at a time would race against one another. The chosen street would often be lit by the headlights of spectators’ cars so as to allow the ‘competitors’ to race in something other than pitch darkness. Frequently the police would break up these illicit races, on some occasions arriving in a helicopter equipped with a searchlight. That was the cue for everyone to dive in their cars and head off into the darkness.
Aside from the street races, a popular form of club entertainment was the navigational rallies. Virtually every VW club organized a rally of some kind, but Der Kleiner Panzers members went out of their way to make sure theirs were better than anyone else’s. Theirs was the first club to give away professional-looking dash plaques at each rally and then, as soon as other clubs began to copy that idea, they made them ever more intricate. Each rally was given a name such as “Watch out, she’s got curves” (a reference to the twisty nature of the route), “Deep Throat” (a play on dual Weber carburettors – well, maybe) or the more obvious “Takin’ it to the streets again”. There was a whole series of “Odyssey” rallies, too, with questions that could only be answered if the competitor had taken part in the previous rally.
The DKP members would attend events organized by other clubs and always made a point of caravanning to them in single file, the Top Ten club cars being at the front of the line. As they drew into the parking lot of somewhere like Montgomery Ward, where many rallies started, each car in turn would do a burn-out to prove the point about DKP’s obsession with horsepower. There was a lot of ritual attached to club outings and one was that nobody should ever be seen without their club jacket. These were simple maroon zip-front jackets, usually made by London Fog or Peters, which featured a patch on the back embroidered by a local lady by the name of Lucille. Try as she might, Lucille coudn’t quite get the hang of emroidering a round patch, so they all turned out slightly oval in shape.
As the rallies grew in importance, so did other events such as the Carlsbad Drag Days and the Bug-Ins at Orange County Raceway. Der Kleiner Panzers was the first club to host its own drag race meetings, choosing the somewhat basic facilities at Carlsbad to the south of Orange County to hold them. The events were a great success, attracting up to 250 cars on more than one occasion, with the extrovert Ron Fleming acting as master of ceremonies.
At each of the Orange County Bug-Ins, an area was set aside for use by clubs to put on a show, with an award being presented for best club display. Naturally, Der Kleiner Panzers felt the need to out-shine all the other participating clubs by building increasingly complex displays. To ensure they had the best spot at the event, some members would show up at the preceding Saturday night race meeting and wait until the car park had emptied. As the gates were closed, they would drive up and park by the entrance to make sure they were first in line the next day. When the Bug-In organizers made overnight camping available, some DKP members would turn up on the Friday night to claim a space!
Many of the members would race their VWs at the Bug-Ins, so an area would be cordoned off in the pits and club banners raised to mark out DKP territory. At first, the club display would center round Rick ‘Mother’ Meissner’s VW bus, parked with its side doors open and decked out with club regalia. Then, when another club followed suit, DKP would build a more permanent display setting, eventually leading up to a two-tier set-up with viewing and hospitality areas, with food provided by wives and girlfriends.
The matter of girls being allowed into the club was a prickly one as far as some members were concerned, even though as early as 1966 there were at least two girls in Volkswagens Limited. Many felt that it should remain a male-only organisation in line with Paragraph 8 of the amendments to the written club constitution: “No girls allowed in the club”. Others thought differently and there were many heated debates on the subject. Several of the members did bring their wives along to events, but Dave Dolan remembers one club meeting where someone jumped up on a table and screamed out “No f***ing chicks in the club!”. A vote was eventually taken and girls were allowed in, but there werer never many takers. As the club was not a social one in the true sense, most girls who did show an interest soon fell by the wayside.
The first chapter of Der Kleiner Panzers began drawing to a close in 1972 and, by the following year, it was all over. The whole club scene had started to diminish and for many, like Dave Dolan, who had been caught up in the draft, club life on their return seemed trivial. The armed forces had made men of them – or at least, instilled in them a sense that there was possibly more to life than, to quote a former DKP President, “Getting drunker than skunks at the car rallies and raising hell”. Others grew out of their VWs, selling them to buy a Porsche, while those for whom the main draw was drag racing watched helplessly as, one by one, the southern California drag strips began to close.
The club remained inactive for some while, although many members continued to keep an active interest in Volkswagens. Some, like Ron Fleming and Greg Aronson, concentrated on building up their successful VW-related business. Others settled down to a more responsible family life and a career. None have ever denied that their period of membership in Der Kleiner Panzers was a special time in their lives. For many, at the time, the club was their whole life.
As the door was closing on the first chapter of Der Kleiner Panzers, some new faces began to appear on the Volkswagen scene, among them Roger Grago. He had taken a part-time job while going to college and his first recollection of the club had been in 1968 – actually on the very night that Richard Nixon was nominated for President. A friend of his sister had a mildly modified Bug with chrome wheels and Grago went out cruising with him to Carl’s on Harbor Boulevard, in Anaheim. There, he met a bunch of guys who turned out to be members of DKP, among whom was Doug Gordon and Ron Fleming who, between them, campaigned the Underdog race car. Gordon did a burnout out of the parking lot, chasing a Chevrolet Chevelle down the street. The display of horsepower impressed Grago, who was still too young to hold a licence, and he vowed that one day he, too, would have a VW like that.
His family moved to La Habra and he found a job washing cars at the Don Burns Volkswagen dealership in Anaheim. There he met a VW enthusiast called Brian Vaughn who belonged to Der Guteeneine VW Club which he duly joined. Working at the dealership brought him into contact with many of the local Volkswagen owners, including several members of DKP. At the time he owned a stock ’62 Karmann Ghia which he had bought off his father and knew nothing about how to make a VW go fast. At the time very few people had ever even considered working on a Karmann Ghia.
By the time Grago decided to leave Der Guteeneine, Der Kleiner Panzers had already wound down and, for a period of about a year, the club lay dormant. However, along with Randy Welch and Mike Dunfee (formerly of Der Renwagen Fuhrers), he felt that there was a need for a Volkswagen club that maintained the high standards of performance and presentation set by the original DKP. They were keen not to upset any of the members of the old club and so met with Ron Fleming and others to canvas their opinion on starting up a second generation DKP. The majority of people they made contact with were more than happy for the club to start up again, although it would be fair to say that a few did express their dislike of the idea of the club being resurrected.
The trio began talking to others who shared their interest in getting the club together again. They started to have regular meetings at Mike Dunfee’s house, and then at the Al Martinez body shop, and had decals made, just like the original club. Initially, the new DKP was harassed by some sceptical former members, but as soon as they saw the standard of cars that were being allowed into the club, the animosity gradually subsided. Indeed, Grago’s own Ghia was one of the cars to be featured in the first California Look story in Hot VWs magazine, so gaining more credibility.
Membership grew until there were as many as 37 club cars at one point. Once again, high standards were maintained, with members being asked to cover up their decals if their car became scratched. The club held its first rally and that was a great success, and after the rallies came the street racing. Most of the cars in the club were very fast and many challenges were turned down by outsiders as the club’s reputation spread. Roger Grago recalls cruising in convoy into a drive-in one night where the local Camaro club met and being asked if any of the VWs wanted to race. “Sure” he replied, “pick whichever one you want”, such was the confidence in the VWs’ performance capabilities. None of the Camaros would take up the offer.
Grago’s Karmann Ghia suffered its fair share of damage, mechanical and body. No less than thirteen engines were built for the car throughout its life as hard driving took its toll. However, it was at Bug-In 18 that fate took a hand and saw the car destroyed in a monumental accident which is described in detail in the earlier chapter on the Bug-In events. This lead to a show of club solidarity which remains unparalleled to this day.
Following the crash, Grago was loaded into an ambulance and driven to hospital but, while lying on the stretcher, all he could hear on either side of him was the roar from dual 48IDA carburetors as fellow club members escorted the ambulance to the Saddleback hospital. All the club waited in the reception area until the doctors decided that he was too badly injured for them to cope with and would have to be moved to another hospital. For a second time, Grago’s ambulance was escorted by the rest of the club members. At least 15 members stayed until they eventually got thrown out by the medical staff and, over the next three weeks, Grago got constant visits from his friends in DKP.
While he lay in hospital, other club members had pooled together and bought him another ’62 Karmann Ghia from Mike O’Neal. The Martinez family bodyshop donated a sizeable proportion of the paint and bodywork. Everything that could be salvaged from the original car was removed from the wreck and the new car built up to a sufficiently high standard to win best of show, less than a year later, at Bug-In 20. That was quite a day for Der Kleiner Panzers because club members took not only the Best Of Show award but also Top Eliminator in the drag racing and Most Represented Club. At that point, any doubts about the worthiness of the club to carry the hallowed DKP title should have been dispelled.
Following the meetings at Martinez’s bodyshop, the club met at various pizza parlours before gaining use of a carpet warehouse in Fullerton. After a while the club decided to get its own club house, like the old days, and moved to an industrial area where they took over a pair of adjoining offices. The clubhouse remained until the demise of DKP II and each member had his own key so that he could go there whenever he wanted, for whatever reason.
The second generation Der Kleiner Panzers began to wind down in 1978/9 when the Volkswagen scene went into decline as the new mini-truck fad appeared on the horizon. The ever-increasing cost of gasoline and the shortages brought about by the gas crisis sealed the fate of DKP II and many other car clubs. Grago sold his Ghia at the end of 1978 following his victory at Bug-In 20 and the club continued for approximately another year before it died for a second time.
History has a habit of repeating itself and, in 1990, a group of hard-core VW enthusiasts from Orange County began discussing the formation of a third generation DKP. Bill Schwimmer, Dave Mason, Hector Bonilla and several others approached Ron Fleming to seek his blessing to re-form the club and, having reassured him of their high standards, went ahead. Their VWs capture the true spirit of Der Kleiner Panzers, with dual 48IDA Weber motors being the club standard, along with BRM wheels and the classic nose-down California Look stance.