In my early twenties, I went through jobs like a teenage girl trying on clothes at Abercrombie & Fitch: truck driver, actor, gardener, cook, bus driver, bicycle mechanic, painter. And that was just in the sales rack. My ADD extended to a seemingly endless succession of girlfriends. In fact, the only continuity in my life was my VW bug, a slow and steady anchor in those turbulent times.
I had two identical back-to-back white VW’s, a ’64 and a ’63. Both had the 40hp engine, the one that let you know it needed a tune-up by topping out at 69 mph instead of the usual 72. But I wasn’t in a hurry; I just wanted cheap and reliable wheels.
Being perpetually between jobs and on the road, fuel economy was important. My gas budget was a penny per mile. If I was running low, I knew how to make it stretch. I drafted trucks– as in ten feet or less. In that sweet spot, I could almost turn the engine off, and average 55 mpg.
If you think about it, the VW was the Prius of the day. And Detroit’s land-yachts were the SUV’s of the time. History, and oil price fluctuation, repeats itself—over and over.
Anyway, the view behind those behemoths left a lot to be desired. So I kept my mind focused by contemplating how to make an extendable tow hook. Seriously; I was going to take hitch-hiking to a whole new level.
My bugs were my home on wheels. I spent more than one cold or rainy night in the back seat, curled up in the full-fetal position. I never owned more stuff than I could throw in the back seat and on the roof-rack. And I still had enough room for a hitchhiker.
I stayed on constant mobility alert. I could say adios to a girlfriend, pack up all my worldly goods and be on the road in an hour. If I was getting help (i.e. if she threw my stuff out a window), twenty minutes would do.
How do I reconcile spending my highest testosterone years driving a 40hp German slug-bug? It was the early seventies. VW’s were cool and sexy. You obviously weren’t trying to compensate by driving one. Besides, driving a low-power vehicle at 10/10ths all the time was fun and challenging.
Caning those little bugs for all they were worth, the road was an amusement-park race track: endless full-throttle racing (at 32mpg). Passing was a carefully calibrated process. I either made my move on a downhill slope, or did a sling-shot maneuver out of a draft. I fought a never-ending battle against lost momentum, and never took my foot off the gas in the middle of a curve.
I had my peak VW driving accomplishment on Highway 36 from Boulder to Estes Park, “blasting” through Colorado’s Rocky Mountains. I navigated the entire uphill, winding road without once shifting down to third (if I had, I would never have gotten back into fourth). It took quite a few tries, as well as advancing the hell out of the timing. Lots of power is for sissies; I was a Spartan.
In WWII, the VW Kübelwagen was Germany’s jeep. Even though my bug was in civvies, I surprised lots of four-by-four drivers on Colorado’s off-road trails. The VW’s suspension could take anything, the body was unshakeable and the motor never complained, even at a crawl. My bug racked up more off-road miles than most Jeep Wranglers will ever see.
Snow never stopped us. There were few experiences I enjoyed more than fooling around on a deserted road after (or during) a blizzard.
One night, I was driving on the Indiana Turnpike in a snowstorm. Following a line of cars behind a snowplow, I lost my patience. In my infinite wisdom, I decided to pass the plow in the unplowed left lane.
When I got up to the plow, I was surprised to find that its blade was angled left, straight at me. I plunged ahead. The curtain of snow buried my bug. The wipers stalled. I found myself in a windowless (and eerily quiet) igloo in the left lane at 60 mph.
Keeping a cool head (literally), I tore open my side window and stuck my head out into the icy gale to navigate. Reaching out and around with my instantly-frozen left hand, I started clearing snow from the windshield. This incident jumped to the top of my “10 Stupidest Things I’ve Done in a Car” list.
My VW was the perfect companion. She was loyal, low maintenance, easy on the wallet, always ready for a road trip, and never jealous about sharing a good time with a third partner. If my last one hadn’t died, we might still be on the road together.