Auto-Biography 14: Bug-Eyed and Painless

Paul Niedermeyer
by Paul Niedermeyer

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.

Paul Niedermeyer
Paul Niedermeyer

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  • Shrique Shrique on Apr 30, 2007

    Ashy Larry I'm way too young to have seen many for sale by the time I bought my first car but I have a similar devotion to my old 1988 Honda Civic DX HB. It was the upgraded model with a whole 5 speeds! I drove that thing all over hell and back and loved every minute of it. A whole massive 92hp. Stupid kid in a k5 took care of that car. (sigh)

  • David C. Holzman David C. Holzman on Apr 30, 2007

    The following letter to the editor, a wonderful paean to the Bug written by one Marion Mayer of wash dc, appeared in the 21 May 1997 Washington Post, in response to an editorial they wrote about the return of the (new) Beetle: So glad to learn in The Post’s May 8 editorial “Return of the Bug”about Volkswagen’s decision to recycle the bug next spring. Here’s one 62-year old who might buy one. I loved my baby-blue Bug. Okay–so it didn’dt have a gas guage or windshield washer. Picky! Picky! Picky! There was this little auxiliary-tank thingamabob on the floor of the car that, when pressed properly, provideed an extra gallon or two of gas to get to the nearest station. I drove my Bug for five years in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s and never ran out of gas. So what if it swiveled and swayed on windy days? A 20-pound bag of cat litter in the back seat gave it the gravitas it needed. And the stick shift! Loved gearing down with that stick shift. Drivers were drivers way back then. None of this namby-pamby automatic stuff. My Bug took me everywhere in this days in Philadelphia: to work, auditions, coffeehouses (Dharma Bums, where are you?) and to the Jersey shore in the summer (all great towns then). But this is not a story with a happy ending. Unfortunately, I totaled my little bug one day on the Schuylkill Expressway in Philly. I swore I’d get another but never got around to buying another car for a long time. When I was finally ready to get another Bug, they weren’t on the market anymore. Well, they’re back.

  • SCE to AUX This year is indeed key for them, but it's worth mentioning that Rivian is actually meeting its sales and production forecasts.
  • Kjhkjlhkjhkljh kljhjkhjklhkjh a consideration should be tread gap and depth. had wildpeaks on 17 inch rims .. but they only had 14 mm depth and tread gap measured on truck was not enough to put my pinky into. they would gum up unless you spun the libing F$$k out of them. My new Miky's have 19mm depth and i can put my entire index finger in the tread gap and the cut outs are stupid huge. so far the Miky baja boss ATs are handing sand and mud snow here in oregon on trails way better than the WPs and dont require me to redline it to keep moving forward and have never gummed up yet
  • Kjhkjlhkjhkljh kljhjkhjklhkjh Market saturation .. nothing more
  • Lou_BC I've been considering a 2nd set of tires and wheels. I got stuck in some gooie mud that turned my Duratrac's to slicks. I personally would stick to known brands and avoid Chinesium knock-offs.
  • Carson D How do you maximize profits when you lost $60K on every vehicle you produce? I guess not producing any more vehicles would be a start.