A Yankee Notebook

NUMBER 1793
November 30, 2015

THE BEETLE: THOUSANDS OF MILES OF SMILES

MONTPELIER – With the recent discovery that the auto-manufacturing giant Volkswagen has been cheating with its emissions control software, a lot of us old-timers who cut our automotive eye teeth on the beloved Beetle have been grieving over that great (and public) loss of innocence. It’s as if some cynical entrepreneur had despoiled our sweetly remembered first love. And it’s sent a lot of us rummaging through youthful memories and old photographs.

By the late winter of 1958-59 I’d been through a few old cars – 1929 Ford coupe, 1933 Chrysler sedan, 1938 Ford pickup, 1946 Plymouth sedan (a beauty!) , and a 1944 Jeep with no doors or windows that got a little brisk in the Adirondack winters. But with the prospect of some steady employment ahead, I began to think hopefully of automotive reliability and economy.

The hatreds engendered by the horrors of our recent war with Nazi Germany had begun to abate a bit, helped along by the Soviet occupation of East Germany and our aid to West Germany, particularly during the blockade of Berlin. Unknown to most Americans, a small, efficient, rear-engined, air-cooled sedan developed in Germany at the behest of Chancellor Hitler in the 1930s had been selling very well in Europe, and was ready for a larger market. It had originally been conceived of as a way to do for Germany what Henry Ford had done for the United States. The production of the Volkswagen (“People’s Car”) had been preempted, however, by the war effort, appearing instead in olive drab as the Kübelwagen (“Bucket Car”), the German jeep that you can spot in World War Two-era movies, like “The Monuments Men.”

With the help of the postwar Marshall Plan, Volkswagen converted to civilian production and became a Wirtschaftswunder, an economic miracle. During the time of my youthful search for reliable transportation, full-page glossy ads began to appear in popular magazines. The inspired creations of the Doyle Dane Bernbach Agency in Manhattan, they featured a simple photo of a black Volkswagen in the middle of a page of white space. Captions like “Lemon” – a car rejected by factory inspectors for a ridiculously insignificant imperfection; “If you run out of gas, it’s easy to push” – which was perfectly true; and “Think Small” – a tiny car off center on the big page – created in readers a warm, friendly, almost protective feeling. It was an easy decision. A new Chevy six-cylinder sedan cost about $2500 and got will under 20 miles a gallon; a new Beetle (the nickname was inevitable) cost about $1650 and got about 32. The warm, fuzzy feeling and the economy combined to make it the clear choice.

I traveled to Bromley Motors in Glens Falls (67 miles; I checked) to buy my first new car, and was promptly seduced by the one sitting next to it: a glossy gray convertible with body by Karmann, red leatherette seats, an insulated beige top, and costing only $200 more. Mr. Bromley, a cheerful lifelong car salesman perpetually florid and clad in a loud houndstooth sport jacket, helped me see the virtues of the upgrade. My father – a car guy himself; may he rest in Paradise! – cosigned the note, which entailed a $45 monthly payment (a 45-hour week’s wages after taxes at the time), and I zoomed back to the mountains in near-ecstasy.

I had never before been exposed to such minute attention to detail as that Beetle displayed. Everything from the little rubber bands that held down the tonneau cover to the nickel-silver latches that secured the convertible top was thoughtfully designed and meticulously made. I’d heard Beetles floated; so when confronted one day with a railroad overpass three feet deep in water, littered with stalled cars, and dozens of people watching, I drove slowly into the flood. The front wheels bobbed up; the back wheels spun; and I was boating!  On the far side, the back wheels caught, and shortly I was climbing the bank, to the cheers of the watchers. I beeped, but the horn made a gargling sound. That car’s top speed was 68 miles per hour. With gas at 32 cents a gallon, it cost a penny a mile to drive. There was the inconvenience of the lack of a gas gauge; you needed to keep an eye on the odometer to guess when the engine might suddenly quit (usually, it seemed, just as you were making a tricky pass), when you had to bend swiftly down and flip the floor-mounted lever that gave you an extra gallon from the “reserve tank.”  A nasty rumor has always impugned the Beetle heater, a valve in the rear that diverted warmth from the engine shroud through a tube to either the front floor or the windshield. I never had any problem with any of mine, though Mother at one time commuted to her teaching job in a bright gold ‘57 Beetle, with a blanket wrapped around her and an ice scraper in her hand. Its battery was perennially dead (Remember the ad, “It’s easy to push”?)   I could get her going in just eight feet), and the sun roof worked.

Our first date was in the convertible, and over the years, while we were both teaching and there were only two kids, we had black sedans – ‘61, ‘63, and ‘65. Then a couple of Squarebacks one after the other, that trundled back and forth to Florida for spring vacations. Later, during a period of hard times in my then-business, a couple of diesel Dashers, which we liked all right – quick-starting, swift and nimble on the road – except that almost every time anybody closed a door, a piece of interior trim fell off here or there, and with the air conditioner running, it didn’t have enough power to start up on a hill with more than two people aboard. During all this, I found a couple of VW Things, civilian updates on the old Kübelwagen designed to operate at low cost in primitive communities. I loved ‘em both, and would love to find another I could afford. But it would mean dealing with the growing reality of old air-cooled engine mechanics dying off.

I loved those cars, and would have stayed with them for life. In the end, I didn’t leave Volkswagen; like the Republican Party, they left me. But I’ll always have these lovely memories.

Photo by Willem lange