Resto-modding VWs in the Philippines: An Interview with Al Aguila

How one man’s love of resto-modding VWs took him on a very special journey

It was the early 70’s when Al Aguila first started going to salvage yards. He was just a small boy from Manila who wanted to tag along with his dad and help him find the right parts to fix their second-hand cars. Al recalls his dad, a lawyer, didn’t need to buy second-hand but figured ‘why let a perfectly good vehicle go to waste?’ He didn’t know it yet, but this idea was a seed that would later blossom into a beautiful lifelong love affair with resto-modding VWs and other classic cars.

It was love at first sight for Al.

Al’s first VWs

By the mid-80s, Al was just finishing up an engineering degree. With the help of his mom, he decided to invest in his first VW. It was a 1961 VW Type 34 Karmann Ghia that caught his eye — the ‘Razor’s Edge’ of motors. It was love at first sight. Al speaks of his first car as if it was fate that brought them together. “Sometimes, these cars, they just find you!” he exclaims. So when his friend later came to him and asked if he would be interested in a 1959 white Ragtop Beetle, Al knew he had to jump at the chance . And as any true 70s kid would, he painted that old ragtop with a blue and red stripe tracing from top to tail with a bold number 53 stamped on the hood, doors, and trunk. Yes, Al got himself his very own Herbie. 

Al remembers, “It wasn’t in perfect condition. Instead of getting it professionally painted, I just asked this guy to copy what was in the VW Magazine and he did a pretty good job”. But it didn’t matter how ‘professional’ Herbie’s paint job was. He was the first of his kind in the Philippines, and boy did that garner some attention. Soon enough, Al and Herbie were even featured in Good Housekeeping magazine. But as much as Al loved Karmann and Herbie, he thought “Ok I have a type three and a type one, but there’s really something missing. It’s the type two, right?!”

A steal of a deal

Shortly after, believe it or not, another friend came to Al with some information about an old 1962 VW Bus. He described it as “funny looking at the windshield with a post in the middle”. At this point, it was around 1998 and slow VW Splitties had been cast aside for the speedy and sleek Karmann convertibles. So in the deal of the century, Al snapped it up for 10,000 pesos/ $200 dollars in today’s money. With full documentation. Now, if you’re shocked by this steal, imagine how Al felt! “Man, it was great. Oh, God, Crazy, man!” he chuckles, almost lost for words. It’s clear he can’t believe his luck. “I had the money in my pocket, man, I was jumping for joy”. Assuming his bargain-basement Splittie was a non-starter, he asked his dealer to arrange towing to which the dealer replied “No need — this thing drives.” 

It was a Christmas Day when Al picked up his VW Splittie, early in the morning. The roads were empty and after hooking up a fresh battery, Al hits the ENSA, the main artery in Manila to drive it home. “It was exciting man, that loose steering, 10% breaks, but I had gas. I told myself I could make it home with this thing. And I did.”

The first VW Bus.

Diving deep into the world of resto-modding 

Only after triumphantly taking home his new prized possession, did Al consider what to do with this big, clunky VW Bus. Its previous owner used it as storage for his Japanese automotive parts business, but Al knew it deserved a brighter future. “I had a vision” Al stated unequivocally, “the ultimate dream for me is to have a camper”. Without hesitation (and in true Al style) he found a banged up 1967 Westfalia, removed the furnishings, popped out the windows, scrapped the body, and grafted it to his 62 Splittie. He admits it wasn’t the orthodox way of doing things, but he didn’t care — Al was doing things his own way.

With a new-found love for resto-modding and the rule book out the window, nothing could stop Al now. One day, another buddy of his came and told him there was a scrapped a Split Bus ambulance with safari windows available. “It was like the bus heaven opened and it was shining down on me. That’s got to be the coolest accessory ever, man! I mean, once you flip that up and drive at least 30, 40, 50 kilometres down the highway with no brake, heavy steering, and bugs in your teeth. Oh, man. It’s just a wonderful feeling” Al said, beaming with excitement. Little did he know yet just how limitless his possibilities were.

Where Al’s love for VWs led him

During this time, Al was working in a manufacturing role for Toyota Motor Philipinnes which he describes as ‘a good break’ coming straight out of college. He would make government-standard local parts like rubber fittings, brackets, and mufflers. Of course, being around motors every day only perpetuated his passion and drive for resto-modding. It also gave him the inside scoop for where and how to find parts, as well as valuable contacts.

When his son was born in the early 2000s, Al sold his precious vehicles and moved his family to Canada. When an old buddy of his asked him to join him in research and development for Yokohama Tires in sunny Southern California though, Al couldn’t say no. “That was the icing on the cake” he recalls.

It was a Friday in the middle of August when he started his job and on the very same day his boss came to him and asked if he was free to attend the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance the next day. It turned out that Yokohama was one of its major sponsors. No big deal, it is only one of the most prestigious car events in the world. As he talks about attending the event and meeting automotive royalty like Gordon Murray and Sirling Moss, Al still can’t quite believe his luck to this day. “It was mind-blowing, man!”. But judging from his immeasurable passion and contagious enthusiasm for automotives, it seems only natural to us that Al would end up there. 

And just when Al thought his luck couldn’t get any better, he was invited to The SEMA Show at the Las Vegas Convention Center, a prestigious invite-only car show. Al exclaims “ I was floating on air, man. I mean, for a simple guy who just likes to tinker with VWs, I’m now here in in the SEMA show.” This dream continued for four blissful years, during which Al remembers having to continuously pinch himself, but sooner or later he had to “try to mellow down” and take care of the family business. 

Does Al still do resto-modding?

After 12 years across the pond, Al and his family returned to his home country, the Philippines. Of course, it wasn’t long before another of Al’s buddies approached him with a proposition. This time, it was a 1968 Volkswagon Type 3 Fastback. The beginning of an even greater romance with resto-modding.

Today, Al talks about one of his latest projects; A Brazilian Beetle featuring arcade gaming seats with built-in speakers and an ignition that’s powered by dropping a token in the arcade slot machine and pressing ‘start’. Between his creativity and his mechanical experitise, it is clear Al is unstoppable. You ca also often find him at VW events and other car shows selling spare car parts from his ‘store on wheels’, another converted VW Bus. 

Al selling spare parts at a swapmeet

“For me though” Al explains, “the fun is not walking to the store and buying a good collector’s piece, it’s treasure hunting in flea markets. Bartering is the best. Yeah, you learn to use your negotiation skills, right? I love it.” As he talks about his resto-modding projects and his flea market finds, Al’s face beams with a pure sense of joy and it’s clear there is a boyish excitement bubbling up in him. Perhaps it brings him back to the days when he would tag along with his dad on trips to the scrap yard.

Sometimes, Al wishes he still had his original three motors. After all, these were the most legendary of all his resto-mods and he knows how much they’d be worth now. “You know what, though?” he says, “ I had fun, and it gave me funds to move to another country. These things cannot be yours forever. You know, sooner or later, you have to let it go, but the thing that you really have to treasure is the memories, right? I know it’s kind of cheesy and corny, but that’s true, man. That’s true.”

The VW community in the Philippines, with Al in the far right.

The legend of Al

It probably wouldn’t come as a shock to most that these days Al is somewhat of a legend in the Philippines’ VW community. People still tell him how much his Herbie inspired them. What might come as a shock though, is the Philippines VW community is one of the largest in the world,. Al explains it’s because “Filipinos are artisans. They’re craftsmen. They can restore anything that you want, you know, just give them the proper tools. I mean, these guys are gifted, patient people that would really excel given the proper inspiration and motivation.” Little does he realize how accurately he just described himself. 

Dreams for the future

Al might be reaching his mid-50s, but his young heart still has big dreams. He talks about all of the different ways people are resto-modding VW Buses these days. VW Bus cafes, VW Bus candy dispensers — you name it. But what he really dreams of doing is driving Route 66 in his very own VW Bus camper conversion. He tells us “I drove four times across Route 66 from Chicago to to California. I mean, literally from the signpost in Downtown Chicago to the signpost in Santa Monica. I did that. But I thought, wow! If only I can only do this in a VW Bus. That’s the ultimate dream for me, man.”

That’s the great thing about Al. Just when you think his life couldn’t get any more interesting, he casually mentions he drove Route 66 four times. It makes you wonder: what else has this guy done in his life that he hasn’t even mentioned yet? Hopefully one day we will find out more. What we know for sure, though, is that for a ‘simple guy who just likes to tinker with VWs’ (as he describes himself), Al has become one of the most inspiring VW enthusiasts, not only in the Philippines, but in the world, man!

Al today.

If you’re inspired by Al’s story and fancy trying your hand at resto-modding your VW, here are 7 things to consider before starting your renovation.

Emily Draper
Author: Emily Draper

Having visited over 70 countries across all seven continents, it's safe to say Emily has the voice of a true traveler. She has lived with the Hare Krishnas in Chile, an Amazonian tribe in Peru, and a retiree named Jerry in a Wisconsin trailer park. Now, Emily has embarked on the coolest adventure yet: across Europe in her self-converted bus.

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