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Baja Forums -:- VW Volkswagen Bug, Baja, Bus, Sandrail and Thing -:- VW Volkswagen & Baja Bug General Discussion -:- End of an Era
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End of an Era
Bug, Baja, Thing and Buggies. Most every thing that will not fit any any other area. See list of other Forums for better topic placement...Volkswagen General Discussion
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1st SGT.
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Joined: Nov 25, 2007
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Post Post subject: End of an Era
Posted: Thu Feb 25, 2010 06:32 AM
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Another one of the first giants in the VW high performance world has left us. Yesterday Joe Vittone passed away he was 86 years old. Many years ago Joe started Empi and along with Dean Lowry and Gene Berg made VW history.

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Post Post subject: End of an Era
Posted: Thu Feb 25, 2010 03:58 PM
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I had just read a story on him in an old magazine I have. RIP Joe!

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1st SGT.
1st SGT.



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Post Post subject: Re: End of an Era
Posted: Sat Apr 24, 2010 05:12 AM
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Only one reply. Perhaps it is because some of you don't know wat EMPI was before the name became a joke. Well here it is courtesy of Keith Seume.

It all began when Joe Vittone opened a Volkswagen dealership in 1954 with his business partner, Holt Haughey. The agency was known as Economotors and was located in Riverside, California which is 60 miles east of Los Angeles. The agency quickly become a popular spot to sell and service Volkswagens. Joe discovered after a short time that the valve guides wore out very quickly which led to the need to rebuild cyclinder heads of the 25hp and the 36hp engines that were in production. There were no repair parts available that were approved by Volkswagen. He was advised by Volkswagen to throw out the entire cylinder head and replace them with new parts. Joe didn't like that suggestion so he decided to make his own valve guides. They allowed old or worn cylinder heads to be repaired instead of junking them. This saved Volkswagen owners a fair amount of money and the tools were a hit. The guides sold very well and thus European Motor Products Inc. (EMPI) was born in 1956.
Another complaint Joe always heard was that Volkswagens were too slow. Okrasa, a German based company that produced performance equipment, was added to the EMPI line in 1956. This allowed Volkswagen owners to upgrade to a heftier engine. At first, the idea didn't take well because some owners thought a 36 hp engine was the biggest size they would need. Then in 1958 Joe added the Austrian company Denzel to his line-up. Denzel also produced high performance engine parts but they were much better quality and more expensive than Okrasa.

In 1958 Joe designed the anti-sway bar to counter the effect of the poor handling characteristics of Volkswagens. At the same time other car manufacturers were installing anti-sway bars on their cars and stated that the car would lean less when driving around corners or in the wind. Only a year later, in 1959, Volkswagen made the anti-sway bar stock on their cars. Next Joe designed the rear stabiliser to fix the problem of the wheels tucking under during hard cornering. This became known as the camber compensator and was installed on the famous Inch Pincher drag racer.

Around this time the name of the company changed to Engineered Motor Products Inc. as Joe thought it emphasized the product development and quality. When Joe went on a trip to Europe he met with Speedwell owner Graham Hill. Speedwell was then granted the manufacturing rights to some EMPI parts like the camber compensator.

The EMPI catalog mainly consisted of dress-up accessories but also had such performance parts as the high-ratio rocker arms, 88mm slipper-skirt pistons and cylinders, carburetor kits, centrifugal advance ignition distributors and of course the famous BRM wheels. EMPI was promoted not only by its catalog but also posters and clothing.

The BRM wheel was introduced in June 1966 between EMPI and Speedwell. The cost of the wheel was $50 each. It was cast out of 90% magnesium which made it light and fragile. It was highly prone to corrosion so that if you polish it on a Friday afternoon it would look horrible for cruising that night. This was solved when a VW driver polished his wheels to a mirror finish with wire wool. They looked so good that soon everybody had to have a set of BRMs. Adaptors were required which some drivers looked down on. Then in 1968 when Volkswagen introduced the 4-lug wheel which BRM's could no longer fit. EMPI came up with the GT Spyder wheel which was a two-piece cast aluminum wheel. Other popular wheels were the 5-spoke, 8-spoke, and the Rader.

Joe realized that in 1966 he was a great advantage by owning a VW agency that he was able to offer complete new cars that had many EMPI parts. Thus, the EMPI GTV (Grand Touring Vehicle) was born. These cars were available at 4 levels. The MkI was a VW 1300 with the addition of a front anti-sway bar, camber compensator, E-Z-R gear shift, sports exhaust system, chrome wheels and of the course the GTV logo on the front quarter panel. This kit was $437.20 plus the cost of the new 1300 Bug. The MkII added even more accessories such as a rear parcel shelf with additional speakers, engine lid lock and dual reverse lights. This package was $566.85. The MkIII added extra instruments, more dress-up parts and the coveted BRM wheels for $755.05. And the MkIV had everything plus a ram-induction carburetor kit, brake servo, seat recliners and Boge shocks. This was $1238.75.

EMPI expaned into 28 distributors and 489 agents throughout the United States. These agencies also sold Volkswagens which Volkswagen did not like. Volkswagen tried to get the agencies to stop selling EMPI products and even threatened to cut their shipment of new Volkswagens.

During the peak of business EMPI sold $6 million worth of parts a year. In 1971 Joe wanted to devote more time to Economotors and so EMPI was sold to Lee Eliminators. Joe's son, Darrell, which had been a part of the EMPI business left in 1972 to open The Race Shop. EMPI went into decline until 1974. Then Filter Dynamics came along and bought the EMPI name. Filter Dynamics never had the experience needed to make the business work, and they let the logo/trademark expire. After EMPI/Filter Dynamics went out of business a former employee, Jaime Halvorson & Lyle Cherry bought the EMPI name and decided to carry on the EMPI tradition, but Mr. Bug, also known as Dan Weldon, in Anahiem, California came along some time later and reregistered the name having different ideas. Mr. Bug is notorious for grabbing old names from the past and trying to pass his products off with the old names that meant quality. He sued Lyle Cherry and won because Lyle didn't have the time and didn't want to waste the money to fight Mr. Bug so he just said forget it. The EMPI name is currently owned by Mr. Bug.

The Inch Pincher
The relationship between Joe Vittone and Dan Gurney was one that would have some interesting developments. Dan was part of the Eagle racing team and Joe sold Dan a Porsche Speedster to help get Dan's racing career started. Joe took an interest in the racing sport and wanted to compete in the Grand Prix of Volkswagens that would be held in Nassau. He also wanted to promote his EMPI products at the race. Thus the Inch Pincher was born.

The Inch Pincher began as Darrell's 1956 daily driver which had bumper guards, Type 2 wheels on the rear and Porsche rims. It was cherry red with a stock 36hp engine. For the event, the car had to remain fairly stock which would become a challenge. An anti-roll cage was installed along with a camper conpensator. The only mechanical modification was a sports exhaust. Dan tested the car in Riverside prior to the race in Nassau in 1963 and it gave them an edge at the event. At the next year's event engine mods were allowed. Dean Lowry who worked at the EMPI shop ported and polished the heads and gave it a little pep. At the race the car was too fast and was disqualified for having non-stock valve springs. So the first place trophy was handed over to the second place winner.
Joe wasn't happy with what happened and turned his interests elsewhere. So Darrell got his daily driver back, but not for long. Dean was more interested in the racing scene now and built a 1700cc engine to put in the car. At the strip the car ran well especially with the interior gutted. In 1964 the car could run a quarter mile in 14.9 seconds at 91.5 mph with Darrell driving. The next year at the NHRA Winternationals, the Inch Pincher was given its name because it could win with fewer cubic inches. It ran a 14.79 quarter mile but due to transmission problems it kept it from breaking records. Now the Inch Pincher was running Denzel heads on a 36hp-based engine with Solex 40P11 carbs and velocity stacks from an old Porsche Super 90 supply the fuel. The car could run in the 13-second bracket. When the BRM wheel made its debut in 1966, the Inch Pincher was one of the first cars to have them. Several photos show the wheels as an unusual set, with the the spokes being shaped rather than flat. Nobody knows if they were a prototype or simply modified to be more lightweight. Dean exchanged that engine for a 1900cc 40hp-based unit with Okrasa heads and dual 48IDA Webers. He ran it at the Riverside 1/2 mile drags in April 1966 with a time of 22.04 seconds and high speed of 115.5 mph. At this time Dean assembled a Shorrocks supercharged 1600cc engine with a British SU carb. It registered 220 bhp on EMPI's dynamometer and helped the car to record a best ET of 12.7 at 106 mph at Carlsbad Raceway. It ran on straight methanol. In 1967 the engine was removed and put into the Jouster which was a lightweight glass-bodied Bug sedan. It didn't get very far and eventually crashed in 1968 while racing at Orange County.

For the 1967 season the Inch Pincher underwent major surgery when the NHRA allowed cars in the H/Gas to run a 10 lb. per cubic inch weight break. The front suspension, floorpan, doors, fenders, and front and rear decklids were removed. The original torsion bar suspension was replaced with straight axle and the floorpan was reskinned in aluminum. The body panels were replaced with fiberglass parts. The original oval window was removed to save weight and provide a better view for the driver. All glass was replaced with plexiglass. The car was repainted in a scheme of red Metalflake with flames and had the Inch Pincher name on the door.

In 1968 Dean left EMPI to form Deano Dynosaurs with his brother Ken. So the Inch Pincher was returned to Darrell who raced it in NHRA competitions. That year the car was treated to a vinyl roof, new fenders that housed the later one-piece headlights, and eyebrows. The engine was a 1952cc with a Porsche transmission. It was racing in the low 12-second category and was feared by most competitors.

By 1970 Darrell was looking for ways to improve the race car. The Inch Pincher was known as "the car that Dean built." So Darrell decided to build another whole car from the ground up. Actually he kept the chassis and running gear but rebuilt everything else. It had 88mm bore x 82mm stroke with SPG roller crank assembly and dual 48IDA Webers, EMPI 851 camshaft and 39mm x 35.5mm ported heads. The new body was that of a chop top 1959 Sedan with a plexiglass moon roof. BRM Wheels finished it off along with primer and Inch Pincher Too written on the door. The car ran the first time at a small race prior to the 1971 NHRA Winternationals. It ran the national record of 12.11 seconds at 111.1 mph. After the one race it was painted in an outrageous paint job of reds, oranges and blues. The interior was aluminium, polished wheels and lots of chrome. The roll bar was plated and had hand-stitched upholstery. Gold cadmium detailed both the engine and transmission.

Darrell left EMPI in 1972 to start The Raceshop with Dave Andrews and Fumio Fukaya. The Inch Pincher Too was sold to Filter Dynamics when they bought the EMPI name. It was then driven by Jim Carlson and eventually resold from one driver to another. Nobody knows of its whereabouts today or if it even exists. It has most likely been sold to someone in South America where it was completely disassembled like so many other race cars of that era. However, someone emailed me stating that it is in a wrecking yard in Waco, Texas.

There was an Inch Pincher III which operated out of EMPI's east coast operation which ran under the NED Bug name by Denny Grove and Skip Hamm. They were good, but not good enough to recapture the spirit of the original Inch Pincher.

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SGT. 1st Class
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Joined: Jan 07, 2008
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Post Post subject: End of an Era
Posted: Sat Apr 24, 2010 05:53 PM
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Cool post. Bummer about Vitone, but he lived a good, long life.


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Joined: Jun 10, 2009
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Post Post subject: End of an Era
Posted: Sun Apr 25, 2010 06:01 PM
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Interesting story... thanks for the background - I didnt recognise his name but Im still new at this stuff...

Baja driving around now-- gettin better..
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Master SGT.
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Joined: Sep 20, 2006
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Post Post subject: End of an Era
Posted: Mon Apr 26, 2010 06:59 PM
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Thanks for the history leason Perri. So sad the reputation got jacked up by "MR Bug".

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Joined: Sep 10, 2007
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Post Post subject: Re: End of an Era
Posted: Wed Jun 02, 2010 04:43 AM
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Cool history lesson. Thanks.

The Constitution is not a suicide pact.
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