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THE RISE AND FALL OF EMPI by R. MARSHALL WEBBER




In the story that follows in the first part, R. MARSHALL WEBBER examines the rise and fall of the grandfather of aftermarket performance companies, EMPI. In the two followings section, he focuses on the EMPI GTV and how Joe Vittone almost lost his dealership because of it...


Rise & Fall part 1

Rise & Fall part 2

Rise & Fall part 3
EMPI

After a brief stint with another driver for EMPI-FDI, The Inch Pincher Too was unscrewed for its parts and to this day, no one knows for sure what happened to either the body shell or the engine.

Left picture : Inch Pincher Too - L. Davis

Darrell had good reasons to get out when he did: like a lucky rabbit's foot, it appeared that FDI had acquired EMPI so that some of the 'magic' would rub off. One of the first signs of trouble in the new management was with the GTV. FDI, after evaluating the potential legal trouble that the GTV dealership program constituted, promptly dropped it like a rock. 1970 was the last year for the dealership program, though GTV parts continued to be available in kit form for aftermarket refits of existing cars. The EMPI IMP dune buggy was axed at the same time. After several other key employees left and other interests failed, EMPI-FDI closed it's doors forever in 1974. When FDI went under, all of the stock that Joe Vittone had received for his ground-breaking company was not worth the paper it was printed on. Joe Vittone changed the face of the Volkswagen industry, developing products that are still being reproduced today, and challenged Volkswagen to make a better car than it already made. For all of his effort, he received nothing but admiration for his pains. He now lives in retirement in the Pacific Northwest.



                                                             Right picture : Where it all started, Economotors. A young Darryl Vittone is pictured on the left - G. Miller

In essays like this, the component most frequently missing is an answer to the question, "and then what happened?" As in life, the story doesn't end with THE END... In 1974, with the closure of EMPI-FDI, the rights to the EMPI name were Joe Vittone's ... if he wanted them. While some might wonder why Joe didn't simply fire-up the shop again, when you consider the state of the VW market at the time, it comes as no surprise that he didn't. By 1974, the bottom had fallen out of VW's market. VW's determined resistance to cosmetic changes that had kept their products honest for decades had come under attack by a barrage of market forces. In the early 1970's, the American auto makers finally began making small cars to compete with the VW on price and efficiency and exceed the humble Beetle in luxury and comfort. Additionally, Heinz Nordhoff (Volkswagen AG's Director) had died in 1968. Nordhoff had fought stylists tooth and nail to keep cosmetic changes from ruining the company's reputation of only 'improving' a car for safety or reliability reasons. In Wolfsburg, West Germany, that attitude was buried with Nordhoff.

By the middle of the 1970's the Beetle had undergone several convulsive restyling efforts in an attempt to retain the market share it once owned in the 1960's. With each successive revision, the poor car began to look like what it was: a funny looking people mover left over from the Nazi war era. VW (which was trying to rev up the market for it's new water cooled cars), made some half-hearted attempts to prop-up sagging sales, including "Special Edition" versions that badly imitated the suave GTV that VWoA had tried so hard to bury. The writing was on the wall for the American market, however, as the Beetle went out with a gasp in 1977 for the coupe and in 1979 for the convertible.

Left picture : Inch Pincher engine on the dyno, circa 1970 - G. Miller

In 1974, however, Joe Vittone, with the prophet's eye, saw no point in reviving a specialty shop for a vehicle breed that was dying in the USA. In Southern California, drag strips were failing, written out of the culture by an increasingly powerful environmental lobby. Thus, Joe allowed the name to be sold off to the first bidder, Mr. Bug. Mr. Bug (now operating in Anaheim under the EMPI name) continues to do inexpensive reproductions of the original EMPI dress-up components while other manufacturers reproduce many of Vittone's amazing performance and suspension innovations. The 8 and 5 spoke wheels that have been the main-stay of the California Look Beetle began life as the EMPI "GT Alloy" and chrome kits for the engine, degree ring pulleys, wood trim kits and chrome sill and anti-scuff panels, all which started with EMPI as well. While the name EMPI continues today, the original EMPI in Riverside is gone forever.

Today VW racing remains strong throughout the USA and the European Union, with many active racing companies tracing their roots to EMPI. Volkswagen's release of the New Beetle to middle-aged drivers trying to recapture their misspent youth has proved to be the best thing to happen to the company since they abandoned the Beetle two decades ago. Perhaps they will have learned something this time. Many youngsters (and their more 'mature' but young-at-heart peers) are rediscovering the simplicity of the Beetle. Driving an air-cooled VW makes a statement, more so today than ever before, and today's VW hot-rodders are approaching the Beetle the way their parents did, by customizing it to their taste using the parts that Joe Vittone and the other geniuses at EMPI designed or inspired. Fully 60% of today's VW customization market owes its existence to EMPI. We of the old generation hope that the new generation has fun the way we first did.

On the inside back cover of the 1970 catalog (published just after the sale of EMPI to FDI) is a short feature proclaiming "The Sound of a Vanishing Era." The passage details how the Inch Pincher had been permanently retired to make way for a new muscle Beetle to take EMPI into the 1970s (the as yet unnamed Inch Pincher Too). The text of the feature is chilling in it's prophetic nature; the 1970 catalog was the beginning of the end for EMPI of Riverside, Drag Racing in Southern California and the hey-day of Volkswagen racing.



Copyright 2003 El Dub - All rights reserved.

E-mail : eldub@cal-look.com