By on April 28, 2007

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.

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25 Comments on “Auto-Biography 14: Bug-Eyed and Painless...”

  • avatar

    One of the nicest things about the Beetle was with it’s light weight, if you got stuck in the snow you could leave it in neutral and push it out by yourself.

  • avatar

    I am on of those who has problems placing the words “Beetle” and “fond memories” in the same sentence. I once owned a 61 Beetle, and I could not move on to something else quickly enough. The two most striking features about it were the “not present” ones; no power and no heat! Both of these definitely belong on the “need to have” list! So, Beetle, RIP!

  • avatar

    Kudos to the Talking Heads reference… My ’67 Bug was great fun, but Pennsyvania winters and rusted-out heat exchangers made winter driving a… an adventure. I used to have to spray windshield de-icer on the inside, as (on the coldest days) my breath would freeze on contact with the flat porthole above the steering wheel. The car was the closest thing to a toy you could ever own—cheap, frugal, fun, and completely unflappable (well, with a few more HP, it would have been dangerous).

  • avatar

    The only car I ever owned that was air tight and required cracking the window to close the door.

  • avatar

    VW had the most clever print ads back in the late ’60s — my fave: “…So, even though VW’s definitely float, they won’t float indefinitely. So drive around the big puddles, especially if they’re big enough to have a name.”

  • avatar

    Wow, memories come flooding back. 1967, 17 years old-first car 1957 Beetle, 27 horsepower (new) 1100 cc engine and I bought it for 25.00. A few brazing rods later to get the fenders to stay on, a couple of quarts of Mustng Racing Orange laquer and a fake spray on black vinyl roof and I was underway. First time I could afford it I got a voltage inverter to pump 6 volts up to 12 and an 8 track in her with my first tape, CCR Cosmos Factory. The well behind the back seat was great to make a covered area to store stuff and put in a couple of stereo speakers. Anybody else ever spend 6 bucks to put a chrome shifter raiser upper thing on, turn that long throw shifter into a short throw that would let you go through the shifts like it was a Porsche. I had a freind on the other side of town which meant going up and down snake hill. On the way there, down the hill, sure prayed for a green light at the bottom. I used to say if I get this thing up to 60mph. I am not stopping for anybody. On the way home up the long and winding hill, I would time it, or even pull off to get a green light so I could have a rolling start, even if I managed 30 mph. through the light I was still in first and chugging,asking freinds to push on the dashboard to get over the crest. But she never let me down and several years later I graduated to a 1966 Beetle with a 40 HP. engine. I put a bore kit in that baby and 4 carburetors and a Roller Bearing porsche throw out bearing to control the new found 20 HP. A hurst shift and wheel adapter from Empi to put chevy mags on it and it was a goer. At 21 I got a job on the line at Ford, first big pay cheque. Down to the VW dealer, $35 down and 6 weeks and $2200 more and I was in a new orange VW Super Beetle. Wow heat, rear defroster, chirp the tires and no longer diving for the ditch everytime a big truck went by and 90 miles an hour was not just kids bragging. By the way I was working on the line building Pintos., I put 350,000 trouble free miles on that last bug and even today I sometimes have dreams that it is in the driveway.

  • avatar

    My early twenties were spent a bit over a decade later, but oddly enough in an identical fashion… in a 1980 VW Rabbit Diesel. Same power:weight ratio, if not worse than the Beetle. Shockingly frugal to drive though. Diesel was literally half the price of gasoline in those days (around .60¢ to unleaded’s $1.20) and if I coasted and drafted a lot I could manage to pull out mileage numbers in the mid-60s. Just plain 55 MPH cruising (the maximum everywhere anyway) burned a gallon every 50ish miles. I could drive all day for about eight bucks. I went to college at the base of the Texas panhandle and the entire Rocky Mountains (and even Cascades and Sierra) were my playground. Skiing and ice climbing in the winter, rock and mountain climbing the rest of the year. Long weekends spent on Lumpy at Estes or in Eldorado or the Flatirons near Boulder. Summer meant 8 weeks on the road, Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, Alberta, BC, Washington, Oregon, California, Utah.

    I have a barroom tale to tell anyone of my unusual, and first speeding ticket. It was very expensive ($174) as it was a FEDERAL OFFENCE. Within the state boundary of Montana no less, where in the “55 era” speeding tickets were generally only a $5 fine. All this accomplished in a car with double-digit HP numbers, a normally aspirated anemic Diesel with a TOP speed of about 75 MPH.

    I’ve passed snowplows, raced muscle cars on extreme twisty canyon roads (aided of course by the oelmotor’s on-demand smoke screen like a Navy Destroyer running from an enemy Battleship!), once outran/outhid the Colorado Highway Patrol, and one time on a snow-covered and plow-banked road crested a hill way too fast, with four guys and a plethora of sharp ice-climbing tools strewn all over the back deck… and downshifted at the crest of the hill in an attempt to slow without braking… only to throw the Rabbit into a violent spin. We bounced off the snowbanks like a pinball all the way to the bottom. Thankfully no other cars were on that road, and both the car and us were unharmed. My passengers all hooted and hollered like it was a rollercoaster, while I was white-knuckled and terrified! They honestly thought I’d done it on purpose to give them all a thrill.

    After graduation I packed all my earthly belongings and literally drove until I got a job… four months around the West, interviewing in every major metro area west of Denver. Landed my first gig in Seattle and been here ever since.

    I’m still driving a Diesel car by the way… a 2002 VW Jetta TDI.


  • avatar

    My first car – a 1958 Beetle. Donated to me because the engine was gone. My dad and I rebuilt it (which was interesting because we rarely did anything together – guess we found the “sweet spot”) We couldn’t get the pins to hold in the main bearings from VW so we ground down some titanium tire studs and carried on(this was back in the day when winter tires were allowed to have them). I was a happy guy wth my little sky blue bug – and never felt the car was inadequate…until I went and saw the movie Vanishing Point. Between Kowalski’s dispassionate irreverence and the helicopter shot of the Challenger pulling away from the cops at 160 mph, I knew I had to move on. I now drive one of Dr. Porsche’s other creations – both as a link to what was and a reflection of what should be.

  • avatar

    Ah yes, wondrous purple ’63 Bug. In Texas in the early 70’s. Could change out the broken throttle cable in 6 minutes (always kept at least one spare in the glove box). In winter would drive around in my sleeping bag, what heater? When it actually snowed one day in Houston, I was literally the only person on the freeway, donuts! Always find a hill or go with buddies in case the starter/battery was out to lunch that day. Absolute POS and the worst waste of $350 of my lifetime, back when $350 was real money. One time, I was cruising the back roads between Dallas and Houston (if you couldn’t manage 85 you had no business on the freeway) when a spark plug decided to blow itself through the side of the car. A couple of hippies getting a ride from a “good ol’ boy” in his aging pick up to a small town and back to get a new plug – the thing wouldn’t go 15 mph on 3 cylinders. You know, he was a hell of a nice guy, and he didn’t have to be. Actually that car has some interesting memories attached to it, now – 30+ years later. At the time, it was lucky it wasn’t filled with buckshot and left on the side of the road. If I hadn’t measured my money in nickels at the time, it certainly would have been.

  • avatar

    I went to high school in the ’90s. One of my friends had a ’63 Beetle (His father’s logic was “you can’t speed in it). He rigged an 18 wheeler airhorn and a small air tank into the car. The looks people gave us when that sound came at them from that little bitty car were priceless…

  • avatar
    Terry Parkhurst

    Nice piece of work this is, Paul. I especially enjoyed your story of trying to pass and being in a windowless Beetle at 60 mph. It reminded me of the winter of 1968, when myself and two friends from the Art Center College of Design, journied north on I5 in a VW Karmann-Ghia (the Beetle’s more comely cousin). We and innumerable people were stopped in Northern California, just before going into the mountains there, by the California Highway Patrol, who deemed the route too dangerous. So we slept, as best we could in the Karmann-Ghia for about five hours.

    Then, the CHP came and woke up those drivers still there and said, “You can try it if you want to. Visibility is better.”

    We did. There was about a couple hundred feet of visibility as we followed the professionals’ tracks – the Class 8 truckers – and somehow made it through and down into the lower ground of Oregon, without driving off the side of the road. Never has a cup of coffee and pancakes tasted so good.

    For reasons having to do with my interest in Porsche, I bought two Beetles myself, in the mid-Seventies: first a 1965, and later, a 1966.

    Generally, they were fun to drive; but only at lower speeds (as anyone who has read Paul’s piece likely knows). I used to put concrete blocks or suitcases or anything I could find, up in the front trunk, if I was going out onto the freeway.

    I can also still recall the night I came down a hill in Seattle, through various mud puddles to a five-way stop and found that the brakes – like a Chinese puzzle in their complexity – were not operating anymore. That was the night I found out what a “bootlog turn” is.

    I pulled up on the hand-brake – didn’t have much choice – and the Beetle did a complete 180 degree switch, between front and back. The benefit of the five-way stop was that I could then look out of my driver’s side windown and see that the traffic there was stopped.

    Resisting the urge to shout, “Hey, I wanted to do that!” I just shrugged, turned the car back up the next hill and motored home.

    The Beetle made me a believer in disc brakes.

  • avatar

    Drove my girlfriend's dad's sh4t-brown '69 Bug around Dubuque, Iowa a couple times when I was 16. I'm still in love with it, which is certainly less than I can say for her. And nothing worked on it, either (the Bug). In Dubuque, however, it drew a lot of stares as it was LOUD!

  • avatar

    My dad gave me a red ’70 Bug when I was 17 in the spring of 1979. Although I preferred (and still do) big American cars, I had a soft spot for VW’s and was looking forward to generating my own exciting Vee-Dub stories to tell in the future.

    Sadly, it was not meant to be. The car only lasted me two weeks – it threw a rod on the freeway while doing 65 mph. I don’t remember how many miles it had, but I’m certain it was under 100,000. Needless to say, I was very upset – it was a neat, fun little car, but I don’t recommend old VW’s for your first manual transmission experience. I had just gotten the hang of it when the engine seized.

    My next car was a ’69 Ford Galaxie 500 w/the 390-4 bbl. – the antithesis of the Bug. I loved having such a powerful car, as any 17 y/o would, but I got it just in time for the coup in Iran and the outrageous $1.00/gal gas that followed. I was wishing I had just dropped another engine in that VW…

  • avatar

    One of my girlfriends back in the very beginning of the 80s had an orange (of all things) VW open top Beetle that could do anything. We’d go for long drives around the East Coast, the car never giving up, no matter how full we stuffed it. Once we drove from Columbia, S.C. to Pawley’s Island and back just to pick up clams. Sacks of clams filling the back of the Beetle, getting them back in time for the spur-of-the-moment clambake to beat all clambakes.
    Another time we drove the VW up against a fountain in front of what I remember was then Gov. Rick Riley’s mansion, dressed in Hula Skirts and pretending to be Hawaiians. It could be that the sheer improbability of an orange Beetle with a couple dressed as we were, and the fact that she was one sexy Hawaiian, made the State Troopers pardon our unpardonable navigation. If I hadn’t found the brakes in time, I’m sure the Beetle would have managed to crawl into the fountain. It could go anywhere.

  • avatar

    I grew up on VW’s. My Grandfather purchased his first in 1956, black, red interior with wide white walls. This started a long line of Beetles, Buses, Karmen Gia’s in our extented family for over 2 decades. My brother ended up with number 1 in 1965 and managed to put it through a telephone pole. The spare tire saved his life. I always appreciated those tall skinny 15′ wheels in various snow storms. I was always going around everyone else.

    The best one was a 1967 (prior to the thin metal 68s which were a rust disaster). I believe this was the first year that the rear end had unversals at the wheels and not the solid axle. Made for much better cornering, particularly with radials.

    This was the only 2 wheel drive vehicle in my experience that “loved” snow other than the 1977 Saab 99 EMS I switched to.
    I remember being on Route 3 South from Boston during one storm and coming to the exit and realizing the exit had not been cleared. I just down shifted to second, accelerated some and with the smooth bottom of the car slid over the 3+ snow bank.

    Thanks for the memories.

  • avatar
    Paul Milenkovic

    Never drove one. Rode as a passenger on a number of occasions, both “shotgun” (front seat, passenger side to those who don’t remember Western movies) and in the rear seat. The bolt-upright chairlike seats were part of the experience. Also part of the experience was the Greyhound bus-sounding aircooled motor as well as the bus-like feeling that there was no hood in front because the hood sloped down so fast that you didn’t see anything out front out the front window.

    I was reading a bunch of posts on a thread on Google Groups where some dude was ripping into the Beetle and the whole idea of the air cooled motor, though. His take was that the air cooled motor and the need to not have to top off the radiator had its takers in the day before they figured out how to make a good water pump seal, but once they got that advance, the air cooled motor was nothing but a liability from the standpoint of getting uniform cooling, enough power per unit displacement, fuel economy (the Beetle was easy on gas for cars of the day, but not particularly frugal by modern standards) frying the lube oil at the hot spots, poor engine lifetime and durability, and so on.

    The Beetle was reputed to not be particularly reliable by domestic car standards, but VW had such an extensive service network that kept people loyal by keeping them on the road. Other European imports were also unreliable or heavy on maintenance, but they lacked the service support to keep them on the road. Then there is the thing that VW and also Porsche hung on to the rear-engine air cooled engine long past the time it made any sense because there was the notion that Ferdinand Porsche designed it that way and was anyone in the modern company worthy to change that.

    But for all its limitations, the popularity of the Beetle speaks to car ownership being an emotional experience that responds to, how do you say “Je ne sais quoi” in German? You can talk all you want about 0-60 times, interior appointments and amenities, driving dynamics, gas mileage, but there are the difficult-to-quantify intangibles of the ownership experience.

  • avatar

    Beetle Bugs – where do I start? My history with them started in the mid-80s. Female friend had a ’67 that her parents bought new with rotted heat exchange her. The fumes were awful but she just didn’t seem to notice. My buddy inherited his parent’s curved windshield Super convertible. Abused it all through high school. These cars had my attention…

    Got stationed in Naples, Italy and needed to replace my deceased Autobianchi with something else. The Autobianchi was a hoot (and I’d like to have another) but suffered from terminal chassis cracks, rust and taxi t-bone damage. I bought a ’72 Super in a gorgeous metallic blue. Well, it was when it was new… It came with a parts Super that I initially did not want but was glad I had later. Italian car dealer offered it them me for $1500. I sent in an Italian friend who was offered the same cars for half that price. I quickly entered and gave him cash. Car dealer had been beaten at his own game.

    I wrote home to tell my family about my new “pet”. Mom begged me to sell it and buy something larger. A year or so later when they visited she was surprised to find that this Beetle was larger than many of the other cars on the road there.

    2 weeks after I purchased the Beetle, I had graduated from a deep immersion school of Beetle mechanics. My resources were a very basic set of tools and “How to Keep Your VW Alive for the Compleat Idiot” by John Muir. At the end of those two weeks I had a car that idled like a sewing machine, stopped evenly and straight, and had that “perfect” grey soot in the tail pipes. Pretty good for an amateur.

    Over the next year or so I drove it from Naples to Rome several times, to Venice, to the mountains east of Rome (Abruzzi) to ski, down the Amalfi Coast and dozens of locations in between. I towed other Beetles with it, a Ford Bronco II 4WD for about 20 miles, and so on. When the friends wanted to go skiing they asked that my Beetle be part of the fleet – they knew I’d get there and home – and they weren’t so sure about their own cars I suppose. People gripe about the lack of heat but my Beetle would roast your sneakers off whatever the weather. The heater was a bit of a challenge as different rpms required different heater adjustments with the levers between the seats. I did a clutch job in a parking lot near Pisa. I unknowingly bent the two lower studs on the engine and could not figure out why the engine wouldn’t go back in. I spent all afternoon trying and retrying to fix this car. The sun went down and I ran out of light. A generous German bus driver parked his tour bus right behind my Beetle and left the lights burn and the engine idle. We couldn’t communicate but I thanked him as much as I could in English. Once I figured it out, it took 15 mins to have the engine in and complete.

    One day coming back from Venice/Rome/Florence we ran through a sudden summer downpour near Assisi. The road was covered in inches of rain water and the inside of the windshield instantly fogged over. So we were rolling down the road without any idea of what dangers might be ahead. We madly scrambled for something to wipe the glass with and I got it slowed down before there was an accident. Many times I rushed through Naples in the mad traffic on it’s autostrada. There were several curved tunnels along this highway and several times we’d round the curve to find traffic stopped. 100 kph to zero as quickly as we could… The first time it stopped well. The second time was tense and the third time was dangerous. That’s life with any car that has front drums as my Mustang had the same problem. I have been a strong believer in 4 wheel disc brakes ever since. I even carried a fully assembled Beetle engine for a 40 mile round trip on a roof rack with that car. Talk about high center of gravity. Don’t try this at home.

    One day while working there in Naples a new arrival cruised across the base. It was red, had the moon hubcaps and the headlights were covered in glass lenses… A 60’s Beetle! A 1965 to be exact. I had seen them in books and magazines but never seen one first hand. I quickly made friends with the owner and offered my repair assistance if she ever needed any. A week later she requested that I examine the car – take it home if need be – because it was overheating. Indeed I saw it one humid morning when she parked it and steam billowed out of the vents under the rear window. I took it home and pulled the engine only to find – nothing. Much later I came to understand that the engine was a cheap mail order engine with line bore problems. And all the cheap chrome Taiwan cooling tin did not work as well as the stock VW parts.

    A couple of months later a coworker asked me about my blue Super and told me if I ever wanted to sell, he was ready to buy. Less than an hour later the owner of the red Beetle found me at work an offered to sell it to me for a fair price. I did not even negotiate the price. We made the deal and I rushed off to find the coworker that wanted my blue Beetle. The deals were sealed and I drove home in the red Beetle. It had that VW smell. It made those Beetle sounds – including that high pitched fan wail on the highway. The valvetrain clattered happily. And a few months later the #3 rod bearing joined the discussion with a knock… I didn’t care. When it died, I’d replace the engine with something better. The first day I owned the car I washed and waxed it. As I polished the rear bumper I tried my best to read the bumper sticker – long faded and scratched – almost beyond recognition. I walked back about 15 feet and realized the bumper carried the suggestion – “Follow Me to Tennessee”. I had gone all the way to Naples, Italy and bought a Tennessee car that spent much of it’s life just a few hours west of where I had grown up in Tennessee. If I were superstitious…

    Friend had a yellow standard Beetle that we described as “possessed”. It took had a 1200cc 40 HP engine that drove like it had much more than 40 HP. We shared a spare engine that we would swap in and out of our cars as necessary. We had the routine down to less than 25 mins. In his car one day we hauled a 1978 VW Westfalia 2.0L Type IV engine for 40 miles from a junkyard near Vesuvius. It took up the whole back seat area (with the back seat laid flat) and we had to remove the front seats to get the engine inside the car. For some reason my buddy brought his girlfriend and we drove home with her sitting on his lap while I drove and then later the other way around. We had to swap so we could maintain circulation in our legs.

    I finally had the money saved up to go home on leave. I worked at night and stayed awake for a couple days to get ready to travel. Could not fly on a military flight standby so I drove across town to see if I could buy a regular ticket for a flight home. I offered a friend a ride (same flight problem, also going on leave, and also 30+ hours since sleep). I could not stay awake so he offered to drive us. I woke up to find us sliding sideways through an intersection. He too had fallen asleep when approaching the intersection, awoke at the last moment and slammed on the brakes. The car immediately tried to swap ends and I briefly saw a street sign, a traffic island, and a VERY large city bus. To this day I don’t know where the city bus went. We should have hit it. Maybe the Neapolitan bus drivers are as talented as the common Neapolitan driver. The Beetle suffered from a dented rear fender and a flat tire. I changed tires and I drove him home. I made it on a flight later that day in Rome via a bus ride.

    Right before it was time to transfer out I got the itch for more HP. I wanted a sleeper with better brakes, a better engine, and the same good basic looks. My goal was the same performance I had out of an ’84 VW Rabbit ‘vert I also had there in Italy. 190 HP, 1800 lbs or so and a 123 mph top end. I didn’t want to go that fast in my Beetle but I did want a similar weight to power ratio. 100 HP was my goal.

    The magazines showed all sorts of high powered shiny chromed out race engines that promised mondo power but I suspect also included lifespans of 10K-15K miles. I wanted a reasonable bump in power with factory longevity. I cruised the catalogs but my Beetle buddy recommended a slightly warmed over TypeIV engine. (See trip with engine, 2 guys and 1 girl in Beetle referenced above). In an age before the Internet we had to reinvent the wheel. Nobody in the magazines were doing this so we had to do our own head scratching… I couldn’t get the project done before my transfer date so I had two choices: scrap the car or replace the TypeIV (not running) with a stock engine and ship the car stateside. We figured out secret option #3 – ship a non-running car. Once in VA I got it running and installed 4 wheel disc brakes. Dual carbs. Dual turbo mufflers hidden in the fenders. Dual Dellorto carbs liberated from an Alfa Romeo “AlfaSud” going to the crusher. Later model chassis without the swing axles and king pins. The car was still ugly when I found myself at my separation date and I had two cars. A Hyundai Excel (an excellent trade car -another story- but I did not have the title yet so I could not sell it) and the Beetle. One driver, two cars…. Bought a towbar and the Beetle towed the Hyundai back from VA to TN. I drove at night so the temps would be lower and the police fewer. Got stopped in Salem, VA at a DUI roadblock… Beetle with Italian license plates, 600 lbs of tools and gear, dubious vehicle lighting, Italian hitch on the Beetle, modified Keep tow bar on the Hyundai and no registration on the Hyundai… I came down the hill shifting down to stop the rig safely. Sounded like something much more impressive than it was. Lots of exhaust noises, lots of carb noises unmuffled by the open air cleaners. They circled the car inspecting it from every angle. I had visions of jail time… We played 20 questions and to my surprise, they sent me on my way. I crested the next hill at 30 mph but worried it sounded like I had done it at 90 mph thanks to the intake and exhaust…

    The trip up the TN mtn where my family lives was uneventful – mostly. It was the final challenge. A bolt that fell out of the oil pan along the way in VA and leaked a case of oil into the slipstream under the engine. I kept feeding it, and it never had a problem. The Hyundai was COATED. Whatever happened to that car after I sold it, I am certain it never rusted… Coming up the TN mtn where my parents lived early the next morning a full sized domestic van began to pass me when they decided to watch the show. Maybe to see if I could make the climb. They couldn’t believe a lowly Beetle was pulling another car up a mountain. On hard curves the Beetle leaned an the CV joints popped and I was sure one would shatter. They never did. At the top of the mountain the road returned to two lanes and the van passed. Inside where 4-5 people all giving me the thumbs up… Nobody would believe their story… I made it home safely and after Mom took one look at my rig in their driveway – she was ready to send me back to the Navy…

    I still have the Beetle. It sits in a shed behind our house patiently awaiting restoration.

    I still yearn for the basic cars I grew up with. I have no need the for the luxury that seems to be so important to much of the American public. Though I dislike the cost of fuel these days, it is still cheaper than the nearly $5 a gallon Italian prices in the early 1990’s. I look forward to a possibly small fleet of cars on American roads someday soon. Maybe with the smaller size will return the simplicity we knew back then – small engines, light weights, a/c and heat, and disc brakes. That’s enough for around town.

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer


    Thanks for sharing your wonderful VW story. Brought back lots of memories of dropping engines out of beetles. Your 25 minutes beat my 45 minutes. Congratulations.

    • 0 avatar

      Paul, the key to the quick engine drops was beer, three guys and tipping the Beetle onto two wheels, rolling it forward and then dropping it back onto all four tires. Oh, and an flat driveway… GRIN!

      Sat in a Jetta Sportwagon TDI yesterday. Oh, how far VW has come… The Nashville VW dealer had a Tatra loaned to them for display from the Lane Motor Museum. I thought how ironic that the Tatra was in a VW dealership. It was Tatra that won a lawsuit against VW for several patent infringements way back when. I doubt the dealer knew that…

      Just reread my comment. My VW Rabbit definitely did not have 190HP! It had 90HP. I type faster than I think… ;)

  • avatar

    First car out of college was a 1973 standard Beetle (Supers were for wussies!). My sister had bought it new in Hialeah FL for $1,995. She bought the absolute base model with no radio, no nothing. Yellow with black interior.

    She sold it to my brother, who gave it to me. Between us, we put 250,000+ miles on that car. Two engine rebuilds, and countless memories.

    Heat was not so good until I replaced the heat exchangers, then it melted my boombox on the back floor by the rear heat outlet. I wodered what that smell was.

    Had a set of Cibie Z-beams with 55/100 watt bulbes. On long trips to Mississippi to see my girlfriend, I’d run with high beams for a long time. When I’d pull over for gas, I had to let it idle for about 10 minutes to recharge the battery or it wouldn’t re-start.

    Speeding? I once got a ticket in Oxford, MS, late on Friday night. I was the only car on the road, coming down a long hill into town, when I saw a lone set of headlights coming at me in the distance. As I slowed, he turned on his lights and made au-turn to get me. I just pulled over and waited.

    The cop get out of his car, and asks, “Did you know how fast you were going?”

    I said, “would you believe 75 mph?”.

    “Well, I clocked you at 83.”

    “Seriously? Wow, I didn’t know it would go that fast! Can I see the radar gun? I mean, I’m guilty as hell, but I just want to be sure my speedo is correct.”

    He laughed, and wrote me up a warning.

    The day I sold, it, it needed a battety. Off to Sears, and back with the new battery for installation. As I stepped into the back to install it, my foor went through the floor. Battery acid and floorpans do not get along well. Went out and stole a real estate “for sale” sign (They fit perfectly), dropped it into the floor, replaced the mats, and sold the car. The new owner didn’t care. A 21 year old Beetle that sold new in 1973 for $1,995, sold in 1994 for $900. That’s holding value.

    I still miss that car…

  • avatar

    What a wonderfdul account! I had a ’77 Toyota Corolla w/ the 1200 engine which I bought after it had been well-used. I floored it all the time. Thought about getting a personal license plate that would say “redlinin.”

    I was impressed the first time I drove a beetle (illegally, aroiund ’68), how tight and responsive it was compared to US land yachts.

    Jared Diamond, author of Guns, Germs, and Steel, drove a ’63 that he bought while in college for nearly several decades, I think, replacing it only when he became a father during his 50s at which point he decided he needed to keep himself safer for them.

    I too have very fond memories of the old beetle ads. they were hilarious. I also remember what I think was a Harvard Lampoon spoof: “If Edward Kennedy had been driving a beetle, he’d be president,” or something to that effect.

  • avatar
    Ashy Larry

    While I too loved the Beetle, the article speaks more generally of an important point — in the automotive technology arms race, coupled with increased congestion and safety-nazi regulation, cars have become mere appliances. They are a gadget to be used like a DVD player or lawnmower.

    What we have lost is the era when cars were not just cars — they were experiences. They had discernible character. You kept them despite their flaws either out of necessity or, even better, out of slavish love and devotion.

    Can I (or anyone else) look back on my past ownership of a VW Passat as an experience that I will talk about for decades to come? Not in a million years. By contrast, I used to own a base model 1987 Saab 900. Wheezy, underpowered with 110 hp of 1960’s engine technology straining under the hood, hand-crank windows, and vacuum lines out the wazoo, no modern technology, no DVD navigation or active steering or lane departure warnings or computer controlled climate functions or ceramic anything. It was often a fussy car to own, requiring a few repeat repairs and having some minor issues that always seemed to appear and disappear mysteriously. Acceleration was an afterthought, passing an art, and on-ramp merging required minutes of planning — and God forbid I actually have the AC on, which robbed the straining engine of another 10-20 hp.

    Yet it never left me stranded, and ferried me and my belongings all over creation without complaint. The memory of selling it still brings a tear to my eye.

    I want that feeling again. Except for a Saab Viggen that I was forced by circumstance to sell, I haven’t even come close.

    • 0 avatar

      I think another part of the experiences equation is that in so many of these stories we are young and reckless and we survived to tell the tale.
      I sold a 5×8 generic utility trailer that I purchased new at the local farm supply store and actually got a little sad watching it drive away. Why? Because there was so much of my family’s history that included that little trailer. It was the little trailer that could. We have moved four times and never rented a moving truck. We always did dozens of trips with that little trailer and our CR-V or VW van carrying everything we owned back and forth across our town. We towed that trailer home with my table saw on it over the icey TN mtns one time. Why we didn’t die, I have no idea. Carried different motorcycles. Retrieved engines. Carried my Beetle’s body to a place where I could use a welding machine. Brought home all sorts of tools and building materials. Ran a lawn service with it and our CR-V to pay for college. The memories of our dog rushing to lay on it so we wouldn’t forget to carry her with us on some trip (she rides in the car but positions herself so we see her every time we put something into the car). The times we took our kids on some bike riding adventure using that trailer to the starting point.
      I think as we get older we become more cautious or more adept at planning trips and there is less uncertainty about if we will arrive without inconvenience. All the more reason to go places we don’t know well and reasons to drive something old that has a carburetor… It still isn’t SCARY b/c most of us have cellphones. Heck how many of us took crazy trips without any cellphones or even pay-phones easily available? I drove all over Italy. Nobody knew where I was and I never had a good plan about what to do if I really broke down “hard” (blown engine). I guess I’d get the car towed to some place safe and ride the train back to Naples and return with a buddy and an engine in a few weeks. Never gave it much thought. I was 20 and immortal… ;)

  • avatar

    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)

  • avatar

    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.

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