The cliche “beauty is only skin-deep” usually does not apply to show-car builders.
In Mario Peña’s case, he has the right to assess what is beautiful – or not, at the “Aircooled Fiesta,” one of the biggest Volkswagen (predominantly vintage) car shows in the San Diego county.
Peña and his car club, San Diego Air Cooled (SDAC) have been collaborating with A.B.L.E. (Abilities Beyond Limitation Through Education Club) to unite VW owners from both sides of the border. On May 22, 2016 was their fourth annual car show which also raised funds and awareness for the handicapped students of Southwestern College.
“I had to have my own car at my event,” Peña said, “I would feel out of place if I didn’t drive into the show without a Bug.”
He put the word out on his social media, then found a 1966 Volkswagen Bug in the city of Alpine. The car was sitting dormant next to a barn for about five years because it didn’t have a transmission. The interior was stripped and when Peña towed it to his home in Imperial Beach, the sunroof flew out.
This project needed a lot of attention and Peña was the best candidate. Almost everyday after work, he labored on his newly found Bug until midnight.
“On this car, there was neither a nut or a bolt on the pan four weeks ago,” Peña said, “I built this car for the show because there is no way I would roll-in in a “civilian car.””
Peña coined his relentless pursuit to build and drive (not trailer) his own VW into the event, a “marathon build.”
The three weekends prior to the show were also utilized for the 30-day “pan-off restoration” but not all people were cheering on the sidelines. “My wife was so pissed off at me,” Peña laughed, “but I did make the deadline!”
He finished the project in the early morning hours before the show, then drove the car to the Southwestern College venue.
Hard and sleepless deadlines are common for show-car builders, where the builder finally gets to rest when the car is finally parked and cleaned for the show spectators and judges.
For Peña, his day just started.
Peña owes his passion for building VWs to his old neighbor in Tijuana, B.C., Meño Carrillo, and his uncle, Eddie Machado.
At 11 years old, he said that he began wrenching on VWs in Carrillo’s dirt backyard, then on weekends, he cleaned up well and cruised with his Tio Eddie to attend car shows.
While most teens of the day were navigating the rollerskate rinks, Peña’s goal was set on rolling on four Porsche alloys, via the streets of Avenida Revolucion.
“My uncle would take me to the “World of Wheels” car show in downtown San Diego,” said Peña. Being exposed early to both auto-building and auto-showcasing, staged Peña’s destiny to bridge the baby-boomers with the millennial V-dubbers.
In 1982, when Peña was 17, he got his first car, a 1966 VW Bug.
His personal bug went viral, and the rest is history.
Throughout the years Peña built a swarm of aircooled VWs and constantly bought and sold them.
“I don’t buy running cars, the only cars that I put together (are the ones that) I find under a tree somewhere,” Peña said, “and my thing is getting them back on the road again.”
He builds and sells approximately three air-cooled VWs a year and has been since he moved across the border to San Diego in 2006 .
Peña also relocated the car club that he started in 2002, Tijuana Air Cooled. This transition was the birth of San Diego Air Cooled.
Now SDAC has over 50 active members from both sides of the border – with Peña being the president.
“To join our club you just need to hang out and buy a (SDAC) t-shirt,” Peña said, “that’s it.”
The lifestyle of Peña may seem overwhelming to some, but it’s simply another beginning for this “Vochero,” (spanish for VW builder).
“Aircooled Fiesta 5” is already in the pipeline, the “patinaed out” bug that he finished in May is listed at $6999 USD, and the “marathon build” story will be published in a magazine or blog.
It is one thing to acknowledge Peña’s 1966 VW in the timely manner that he rebuilt it – but to manage a car show with approximately 279 entrants, perform presidential duties for a car club, and still be a father and a husband; the beauty in this VW “marathon build” is more than skin-deep, or in this case, patina-deep.