There was a time that Baja Bugs were a dime a dozen. As a generally inexpensive vehicle, they were a mainstay in the 2-wheel-drive off-road world. Now, however, they aren’t nearly as common. Whether it is because the once plentiful vehicle is no longer as available as it used to be or that many other low-cost alternatives are now ripe for customizing, the Volkswagen Beetle Type 1 will always have a hold on a section of off-road history. For Trent Matheis of High Ridge, Missouri, his VW holds even more history.
The car that would turn into the Thug Bug you see here was originally belonged to Trent’s grandfather. He intended the car to be a project for Trent and his brother. After he passed away, his grandmother kept the car in the garage, waiting for the right time.
Before getting into the bug as a project, Trent was no stranger to building and customizing vehicles. His father, Rob Matheis, owns and operates Matheis Race Cars and Trent’s earliest car related memory is a shop full of race cars every time he walked in. Trent’s off-road addiction started with a Wildcat 1000 UTV that he and his Dad purchased several years ago.
“Seeing Blake Wilkey’s Urban Assault Video,” explained Trent, “and knowing there was an old ’65 Bug in my Grandma’s garage motivated me to build Thug Bug.”
The car was completely stripped down to the pan and body. After teardown, the first step was to build a full-tilt, race-ready cage and chassis combination. Using careful planning and 4130 chromoly steel tubing, the bug started to evolve.
Under The Shell
Using 4130 steel, a custom double A-arm front suspension was put together with custom spindles. Uniballs and Heim joints were used throughout so there was no question whether the suspension was travel smoothly or not. Using King Shocks Performance Race Series 2-inch diameter 12-inch long piggyback reservoir Coilovers and 2-inch diameter 12-inch long triply bypass reservoir shocks, the front suspension is just begging to hit the whoops and land with ease.
The rear suspension is a custom 4130 round tube independent swing arm system that ties into the newly expanded chassis. King Performance Series 2.5-inch diameter 14-inch travel piggyback reservoir coilovers and 2-inch diameter 14-inch travel triply bypass reservoir shocks tie into the vehicle at the rear windows at the fully integrated chassis.
Out at the ends of the suspension links resides Wilwood 6-piston front brake calipers and 4-piston rears, both of which using 13-inch brake rotors. Those big brakes easily give the driver braking control over the 37-inch Federal Couragia M/T tires wrapped around 17×9 KMC XD-series wheels.
The sheet metal was then carefully extracted from the chassis. Now with easier access, the finishing touches were done to the chassis. The massive amount of work that goes into a full build is staggering. There is an incredibly large amount of small details that have to be worked out, including driver positioning.
Trent also got to work on the body itself. The hood was modified for radiator clearance, custom front fenders were fabricated, a custom fuel fill was designed, and the body needed to be clearance for the King shocks. The headlights would later be relocated to custom mounts on the upper control arms.
The interior of the bug received lots of attention too. The driver and passenger are held securely in the vehicle in Kirkey Racing Fabrication Aluminum 17-inch Pro Street Drag seats and DJ Racing harnesses. Power, braking, and shifting are controlled by custom-built expanded steel pedals and pistol grip shifter. Gauge information is translated through a seven-inch Holley touch screen display. Thug Bug riders also get to enjoy diamond suede headliner and door panels, and full working heating and air conditioning.
A project like Thug Bug couldn’t live up to its name or potential with a standard VW motor, or any VW motor for that matter. Instead, Trent chose a 2004 LS1 V8. But wait, there’s more! The LS was treated to a host of upgrades including a Brian Tooley Racing Stage 2 Turbo camshaft, Holley Terminator EFI system with a 102mm throttle body, custom 304 stainless steel headers and twin 58mm IHI America turbos with matching twin air to air intercoolers.
Running at 12-lbs of boost, the power plant puts out around 700 horsepower. To handle the power and divert it to the wheels is a Weddle sequential shift S4D manual transmission with a custom 4130 shifter.
When asked what his favorite part of Thug Bug is, Trent had two answers. “The attention it gets, and it does wheelies.”
Trent’s fondest memory of the build is that he got to build it with his Dad. The memories they created together only feed the beast of history wrapped up in Thug Bug. Trent would also like to thank his Mom and Dad, Matheis Race Cars, Chris Watkins from Midwest Turbos, Jason Stelling for some LS parts, Eric Laundrie from Transworks and Big Ben from DJ Safety.
Like the build and want to emulate it? Trent is totally onboard. “I have one of the only sand cars in Missouri.” Explained Trent. “and definitely one of the only street legal ones. So, I’m hoping to see this become a trend in the midwest.”
Trent and his family will continue to add to the history of Thug Bug and to follow their progress, make sure to check out #thugbug on Instagram.