The People’s Car – a Memoir

old bus
The automakers are trying to entice me by stuffing their products full of the latest technology – things like on-board wifi, touch screen displays and silky-voiced “assistants.” Sadly, it’s all in vain. For reasons beyond my control, I still find myself gazing fondly on old-school Beetles, those bulbous symbol of the sixties, though they’ve been gone for more than a decade now. Volkswagen pulled the plug on the best-selling car ever when it closed the last remaining factory in Mexico back in 2003. I still haven’t decided if it was the end of an era, or just the end of an error.

You see, I’m a recovering vintage vee-dub addict. If you don’t count my toy car collection, I have been clean now for several years. That means no VW association newsletters, no parts catalogs, no fall color tour auto rallies. Conversely, it’s also meant no pools of oil collecting on the garage floor, no bloody knuckles and no spontaneous cursing jags.

As near as I can figure, this all goes back to my first sexual encounter, which took place in the backseat of a yellow Volkswagen squareback sedan. Parked in one of the scenic turnouts along Trail Ridge Road high in Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park, it was a magical convergence of nature, libido and machine. The moonlight reflecting off the snow-capped peaks, the lights of Estes Park twinkling below and the bold yet unassuming lines of the minimalist interior combined to leave an indelible imprint on my psyche. The scenario may have also included a woman, but that seems almost inconsequential now.

My particular obsession focused on the vans, having owned a total of four, although my short-lived “playboy” phase included a Beetle convertible and a Karmann Ghia convertible. That last one was never officially road-worthy (I suppose none of them were, really) seeing as how, at the time of purchase, many of its internal organs were sitting in a jumbled pile where the back seat should have been. But this is standard practice when it comes to bartering in these relics of the Third Reich. That the vehicle can’t move under its own power is rarely a hindrance to closing the deal. “Project cars,” like the cryogenically frozen, exist in a kind of limbo, waiting for the day when someone will find the means necessary to resurrect them. Until that time they simply go from one owner to the next, leprous members of the automotive undead kept hidden under a blue tarp at the back of the garage or out in the barn, along with an ever-growing collection of uninstalled parts. Some even come with their own tow bar.

Just a short step above that is what the die-hards refer to, with great optimism, as the “daily driver.” Typically the term is held to a pretty loose interpretation. So long as the car can be started (pushing is allowed), attain a speed that keeps you from being run over by traffic coming up from behind (a stiff tailwind is the vintage Volkswagen driver’s best friend), and then brought to a stop, the basic criteria have been met. Should things like the heat, windshield wipers and turn signals work, well, that’s just icing on the cake.

My initiation came behind the wheel of a two-tone microbus – the quintessential “hippie” van – hand painted by its previous owner. To the man’s credit, he did use an exterior latex and a short-napped roller. One of my early attempts to tune up the engine resulted in a minor fuel leak. The ensuing fireball was quickly extinguished and my eyebrows grew back in only a few months, but the vehicle was known from that time forward as “The Hindenburg.”

The interior was designed to accommodate the outdoorsman but could just as easily provide haven for the recently evicted, a trait that endeared the Westfalia campers to countless under-achievers like myself in the post-Haight Ashbury era. Along with a fold-out bed there was a galley area neatly fitted with a stove, sink and small refrigerator, as well as several cubbyholes for stashing gear (or drugs, of course), all shoe-horned into a space no bigger than a phone booth. Add an engine in back that produced roughly the same horsepower as a ceiling fan, and the package was complete.

These vintage models – defined as anything Before Radiators – are not for the timid. Handling and maneuverability are on par with your basic soap-box derby entry, and often times the road is visible beneath your feet due to a tendency of the floors to rot away like vampire flesh caught in a shaft of sunlight. Every trip requires a stockpile of spare parts, along with the ability to install them at a moment’s notice. And, yes, it pays to keep things such as chewing gum, panty hose and a bag of marbles on hand for when you have to pull a “MacGyver,” like the day you look in the rearview mirror and see sundry pieces of smoldering metal strewn across the road as you’re coasting to a stop somewhere between Barstow and Needles. It’s been said that, to fully appreciate the air-cooled driving experience, one must develop a Zen-like acceptance of breakdowns as part of the journey. That and a knack for reaching your “happy place” while being seared by red hot engine parts. Peace, love and pass the metric tools, dude.

Thanks to an intervention where friends forced me to watch Little Miss Sunshine for 3 days straight, all that remains of my addiction is that old oil stain on the garage floor. I can now say with certainty that I am happy to be driving a vehicle that doesn’t require scraping the inside of the windshield during the winter months. But sanity, like sobriety, can be a tenuous thing. If my eyes start to glaze over the next time I pass an old Beetle broken down on the side of the road, just punch me as hard as you can while shouting “Slug Bug” at the top of your lungs. That usually does the trick.

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