Conquering the Sani Pass in a 1968 VW Country Buggy

sani pass

Collector Leon Potgieter bought this rare Volkswagen 36 days before he planned to tackle the challenging Sani Pass. The car had to be partially restored and painted before the trip, and to make matters even more difficult, he would be away on business for several days during the lead up to the big day. As expected, it was a memorable adventure nevertheless. 

Words: Wilhelm Lutjeharms
Images: Reuben van Niekerk

Browsing the Internet classifieds can lead to some fascinating finds. Restorer and automotive enthusiast Leon Potgieter has been featured on this site before. He is well versed in all things air-cooled, be it Porsches or Volkswagens. But when a very rare 1968 Volkswagen Country Buggy crossed his path, it would ultimately lead to one of, if not his most memorable, trips but also an almost emotional experience. 

VW Country Buggy

“Volkswagen Australia got the idea to manufacture a car for their military as well as for the Outback. They had to get approval from VW Germany, which they eventually got. Initially just over 800 were built, followed by another batch in semi-knocked down format. In total, less than 2 000 were manufactured. 

“I know of this guy that sells old, second-hand cars in North Pretoria, and he posted this Buggy on his Facebook page. I had also already signed up for Targa Sani, a trip I would do with fellow enthusiasts to head up the Sani Pass in June. However, I initially thought I'd do that trip in my VW Amarok bakkie. But when I saw this, I thought... gosh, I have a month to buy it, restore and assemble it… and then head up the Sani Pass!

Sani pass

“I realised I would have to respray the Buggy, the side sills would need some serious bodywork as they had been grinded away and the Buggy was also not running, and no one knew when the last time was it actually did so. It didn’t have tyres on and it had different wheels. So I thought to myself, I think I can do this in month!

“Even before I purchased it, I phoned the panel beater and asked him if he could do this job in such a short time. I actually made a number of phone calls before I purchased it, to make sure I would be able to get parts and everything ready should I decide to buy it. 

Sani Pass

“When I bought it, I took the car home for a week. During that week I stripped the car and built a prototype roof. The engine and lights came out, the wiring and all the rest. The bodywork and painting took two weeks, before the car was returned to me. I then had the assemble the car in a week and a half, fit the roof, the engine and test it.”

While the car was in the bodyshop, Leon did a lot of the work (like rebuilding the brake system) and many other jobs to have these parts ready for when the car was returned. 

Sani Pass

“This Buggy is made from a Beetle’s bottom pan (with a Beetle’s 1.5-litre, air-cooled flat-four cylinder engine) and a Kombi’s front suspension and drum brakes. It has a Kombi’s 4-speed gearbox in the rear with very low ratios. Part of the reason I was able to finish this car so quickly was that there are no windows, window winders, doors or loose parts and a minimal amount of seals. This is a true utility vehicle. 

Sani pass

“It was basically just project management to get the car out of the door. On the Wednesday evening before the trip I started it for the first time and drove it a couple of times around the block. There were a few things to fix and change, which I did. On Thursday I drove it around the block again, did some work and drove it onto the trailer. Then I towed it to Himeville at the bottom of Sani Pass. 

“From Himeville to the top of the pass is around 40 km. As you leave Himeville it is a beautiful stretch of tarmac before you get to the pass. Heading up we found some ice and snow. It is not the most difficult route, but if you make a mistake it can become very dangerous. 

Sani Pass

“I searched for good off-road tyres before this trip, but then I quickly realised 15-inch off-road tyres were non-existent! Thankfully with the help of friends local rally tyres were sourced and fitted to the Buggy. The result is that the car didn’t break traction once on the way up. It does help that the engine is positioned over the rear axle. It was really easy up the pass in the Buggy – almost a non-event. 

Sani Pass

“We left Himeville at 10:00 in the morning and at around lunch time we arrived at the top. We kuiered (partied) there for a part of the afternoon, before attempting an even higher mountain pass, as high as 3240 meters, later that afternoon. Here we found the thicker snow. We stayed up there for the night and the next morning we headed back down the passes. 

Sani Pass

“This experience gave me a very strong attachment to the car. I don’t lie when I tell you this has been the most emotional experience I’ve ever had in and with a car. I’ve done some European trips and tours in cars, but this really stood out.

1 comment

  • that is such a cool story taking on a weekend in Sani pass in such a short time after purchasing the vehicle, well done to Leon. hope he enjoys many more trips in his super rare VW Country Buggy


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