COAL: 1964 VW Beetle – Baby, Beetle, and the F-14

When VWs were incredible.

In early 1967 things were humming along better than ever. Shell Oil was a great place to work. Never again in my long career would I have as nice an office as I did when I first started working there. Carpeting, wooden desk, one office mate, carafe of water and drinking classes cleaned and filled every morning. As far as physical working conditions were concerned, it would be downhill from this point forward, even when I was an owner/partner in our own company.

Annie was working on her first Masters degree at Adelphi, driving the Comet and tolerating it, and was pregnant. The fact that we would soon be three indicated that my income would need to be tweaked soon and the little one bedroom cottage, while OK for a bit more, would eventually need to be upgraded to a two bedroom “something”.

Changes were coming.

 

IBM 1401_tapesystem_mwhite

IBM Mainframe programming at Shell was right up my alley. I was heavily into Cobol programming, first from specifications developed by superiors, then from my own specifications developed from end user interviews. Cobol was an English based programming language, rather wordy and maybe a bit tedious to code, but for me it rewarded all of the neatness and organized anal-retentive obsessive-compulsive tendencies that were shallowly buried in my psyche.

Doc (my father) was also commuting from Rockville Centre to Manhattan, and while the Long Island Railroad was usually OK, there were on-time issues with their aging rail cars (especially in the winter) and the monthly fares that rose with troublesome regularity. Doc and I determined it would be financially prudent to share a small efficient car between the two of us to drive to Queens where we could pick up the subway to Manhattan. Additionally, one of us would have an extra car on the weekends.

The subway fare had risen from 15 to 20 cents a ride. Yes, I know, outrageous. The NYC Transit Authority was run by a bunch of pinko commie bed wetter railroad robber barons. But the shared scenario car made sense so in early 1967 we bought a lightly used 1964 VW Beetle.

 

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When first planning this COAL I thought most CCers would be so familiar with the Beetle that explaining its idiosyncrasies would be unnecessary. But times have changed. Once ubiquitous, these cars are now rare and treasured memory evoking antiques. If one is found today in a parking lot there is usually a group of people standing around it asking questions, taking photos, and peeking through the windows as if it were a Lamborghini Miura.

Also gathered around a Beetle these days would be a bunch of high belted geezers pointing out the tiny details that separated each model year from its predecessor, and then fondly reminiscing between themselves about the good old…

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First some specs. The 1964 Type 1 Beetle had a 72.7 cu. in (1.2 L) air-cooled flat boxer style four cylinder engine. Most Subarus also use a flat boxer design but those are water-cooled, much bigger, and less noisy. However, once in a while I have heard a slightly familiar note when a 4 cylinder Subaru with a loud muffler accelerates past me.

The 1964 VW made 40 horsepower at 3900 RPM and provided 64 lbs.-ft. of torque at 2400 RPM.  VW said it could get to 72 MPH and run at that speed all day. This was the very definition of an under-stressed engine. I think the 72 MPH number was optimistic. Maybe 65 with the gas pedal all the way down was more realistic. With no head wind. On level ground. Driver only, no passengers.

1964VWMotor

The rear mounted flat four air-cooled engine gave the bug a distinctive and loud clattering sound, and was easy to access and work on. Look at that distributor cap and singular fan belt.

Some people can even change the fan belt while the engine is running.  I always turned the motor off when working on it, but what did I know?

VW oil pan screen.

Old VW bugs did not have oil filters. There was a removable screen on the bottom of the crankcase that was supposed to be cleaned with oil changes.  There was also a simple drain bolt in the center of the screen’s round base.

1964VWInterior2

The VW’s interior had everything one needed to motor along, and not much else. That little ivory dial on the floor in front of the passenger seat was the heater control. Twist it one way and warm air from the engine’s cowling was pushed by the engine fan through long heater boxes on each side of the car to little heater doors on the floor and little vents at the bottom corners of the windshield.

The faster the engine spun, the greater the flow of heated air to the interior. That’s why so many Beetle drives kept it in 3rd gear in the winter. And even in 3rd, gloves and warm socks were usually needed. Annie drove the Beetle rarely and never in cold weather. This made the Comet look good.

VWShiftPattern

Doc and I were impressed with the build quality of the Beetle. After years of driving big American iron, this little jewel of a machine spoke to the neatnik in us both. It worked well, did its job competently (albeit noisily), and left off all of the excess glitz and glamour (and power and comfort) of our other cars.

Each workday morning, I’d wait to hear the clatter of the VW as Doc backed into the long driveway that led to Annie’s and my little cottage. Doc drove us in to the Queens Courthouse parking lot and I usually drove on the return run home.

One icy morning we got a lesson in rear engine driving dynamics. Seeing some ice on the road, Doc slowly and carefully made a right turn onto the downhill road leading to the parking lot and the little bug first made that turn and then continued into a slow gentle 360 degree rotation down the icy hill ending up pointing in the right direction and not hitting anything. We sat there together with the engine clattering, looked at each other, and then wordlessly drove into the garage.

Lesson learned.

1964VWOpenFront

The trunk was in the front, a spare fan belt was kept in front of the spare tire, and a windshield washer bottle/device that ran on compressed air was under the spare tire. The washer bottle in our VW would not hold compressed air so we kept a water pistol filled with Windex in the little door map holder.

The gas filler was also in the trunk on the driver’s side; it is just visible at the tire’s one o-clock position.

1964VWInterior

The windshield was right on top of the dashboard and there was a grab handle in front of the passenger seat. As you can see here, a driver had no problems spraying the outside of the windshield with a Windex filled water pistol.

As minimal as the bug seemed then, and especially from the perspective of today’s offerings, it was much better built and more reliable than the competing products from Renault and Fiat. That’s why VW sold more than 21 million of them.

Back at work, I was becoming the greatest Cobol programmer in the world country Shell’s small-dealer and TBA (tires, batteries, and accessories) programming group. I had also discovered a software package called Mark IV. At first Mark IV appeared to be a quick and dirty information storage and retrieval tool, but as its vendor Informatics added features to it, it became a very powerful software package that I thought had great potential.

Like the Ferrari at Adelphi, the Mark IV system would also change my life. Just not right away.

I was getting raises at Shell but new college grads were coming in at higher wages. With a baby boy bouncing around the cottage we were starting to look for bigger places. In early 1969 my rocket scientist brother Jeff (literally, he worked on the F-14 Phoenix missile system) got me an interview at Grumman Aerospace in Bethpage. As I was a commercial (i.e., business) programmer, I though the interviews would be with the Grumman commercial MIS people. But no, my interviewers were from the engineering side of the fence and they listened to my brave and exaggerated tales of Cobol and Mark IV expertise and accomplishments with interest and devious plans. They competed with the Grumman commercial programming group and thought they could do that type of work faster and better.

If I passed a regular secret level security check (piece of cake) and physical (not sure why but still another piece of cake), I was in at Grumman at a much better salary. Done, done, and done.

Not a poor person’s car. But pity the poor person that works on it.

I would need a car for the Grumman job, so I offered the VW to Doc, planning to get one myself, but he said no, so I bought his share of the VW.  Doc may have loved the little bug but my mother thought it was a poor person’s car and she couldn’t wait to see it gone. Doc drove the 61 Pontiac Ventura (see Note-1) to the subway and Mom bought (and this was really a bad move) a well used off-lease red(ish) four-suicide-door, padded roof, landau trimmed T-Bird.  I think it was a 1968 model; not sure.

That T-bird was definitely not a poor person’s car, but pity the poor person who worked on it.

Note-1: For 56 years I though the color of Doc’s 1961 Pontiac Ventura was called Honduras Maroon. But just recently fellow CCer JPCavanaugh revealed that it was really call Coronado Red.  Honduras Maroon is a beautiful name; Coronado Red sounds like a California stripper. Thanks JP!

Note-2: 10 years later when I was visiting my parents who were now living in Miami, I volunteered to change the plugs and a small two inch leaking hose on that brick colored T-Bird. Doc was getting on in years (I’m older now than he was then) so this was a job best left to the young and handsome flexible. In the heat and humidity of Miami, I spent hours bent over the T-Bird on that job and that was the beginning of what would become an on-again off-again series of painful back problems that still crop up to this day.

In early March 1969 I started at Grumman Aerospace, which US Navy pilots fondly called Grumman Iron Works because its planes took a lot of flak and bullets and abuse (ever see an arrested carrier landing?).

Grumman Bethpage Long Island NY facility

Grumman Bethpage Long Island NY facility

This COAL (lets call it 5 counting the intro) runs from 1967 to 1972. COAL-6 goes back to 1967 and runs to about 1975, and COAL-7 starts in 1972 and runs to, oh maybe 1974. While Paul says every car has a story, sometime they’re telling those stories all at the same time.

Back to early 1969, the drive to Grumman was 15 miles each way. Once there, I spent a lot of time driving the VW all over the Bethpage facility visiting engineering customers and documenting what they wanted my computer programs to do.

There were a lot of VW type 1 Beetles or Type 2 Micro-buses at Grumman.  Because of all the engineers.

As this is a car site and not a Navy or NASA site, I’ll limit this section to two of the more interesting and well-known projects that the Beetle took me to. These projects ran simultaneously, so they dates are intermingled.

My job was to automate the tracking of engineering drawings. Grumman was under a lot of pressure from congressional committees to keep their defense and NASA programs on schedule. Any project design change had to be documented in a drawing and then stored in an easy to retrieve and report manner. This type of programming was not rocket science.

The two highest priority projects are probably known to most of you, not because you are Grumman history gurus, but because you went to the movies.

F14

The most evocative project of all was the F-14, the Navy fighter made famous in Top Gun.

When I first arrived, this plane had not yet flown. Grumman had to get the first F14 prototype into the air ASAP to provide its supporters in the government and the Navy with good news. This was politics in practice.

On Dec 21, 1970 Grumman employees everywhere were standing in their lunchrooms staring at many small B&W TVs mounted high on the building columns waiting for the first flight of the F-14 out of the Grumman Calverton facility further east on Long Island. The weather was bad and the flight was cut short. Maybe tomorrow.

Nine days later Grumman tried again. It was a crisp cold winter day and the F-14 prototype took off and retracted its landing gear. The lunchroom TVs only showed us the ground camera so we waited for the plane to come into view. We did not hear the transmissions from the chase plane observers when they reported something streaming out from the F-14. The F-14 came back in towards the runway with the wheels down. Then everything happened so fast – and yet seemed to move in slow motion too.  The plane was near the ground, just above the trees, maybe a mile out, puffs of smoke showed above it (we later learned these were two ejections), and then we all saw the black smoke and flames of a crash.

It was gone.

Someone in the room was saying oh God, oh God, oh God, over and over.

Even if we didn’t really know them personally, we all knew the test pilots Bob Smythe and Bill Miller. They were our heroes. No one spoke; we saw chutes but that didn’t mean much because they ejected at such a low altitude (maybe a 100 feet) and then drifted into the flames and smoke. We waited in silence; no one moved.  A voice soon reported over the building PA system that both Bob and Bill were on the ground and OK.

We looked around at each other through tears, but relieved.  Thank God.  We also wondered, mostly to ourselves, if this was the end of the program. The TVs all went blank and we went back to our desks.

Tomorrow was New Year’s Eve.

If you’re curious, here’s the video, and an article on that first flight. The “drop” tests in the video are memorable; I witnessed a few of them up close (but behind a thick window).

The cause of the first Tomcat’s demise was its lightweight titanium hydraulic lines. Welding titanium was problematic back then; probably still is. Grumman switched to stainless steel hydraulic lines.

Lesson learned.  At great expense.

 

LM

My other hot drawing tracking project was the NASA Apollo program Lunar Module (LM).

The 1995 film Apollo 13 got some details wrong. Ron Howard portrayed the Grumman Apollo 13 workers at NASA as a bunch of white polyester short sleeve shirt pocket protector wearing whiners.

They weren’t whiners.

These people were the best of the best; Grumman engineers built a space ship (the LM) that did exactly what it was designed to do. Perfectly.  Six times Grumman LMs landed two US astronauts on the moon and then safely return that crew to the orbiting command module. Six perfect times.

In the case of the seventh LM on the Apollo 13 mission, it did much more than it was designed or intended to do.

The seventh LM saved the lives of all three Apollo 13 crew members by acting as a lifeboat after the Rockwell built command service module (CSM) experienced an explosion in an oxygen tank.  The movie was quite accurate about that fact.

There was a rumor that shortly after the Apollo 13 crew returned safely to earth, someone at Grumman sent a bill to Rockwell for “… towing and accommodations for three guests”.  It wasn’t me.  But I wish I had thought of it.

When the Apollo program was over, NASA awarded the follow-on space shuttle orbiter contract (in which Grumman was competing) to a team made up of Boeing and Rockwell. ROCKWELL?.  Did we hear that right?

Later we would learn that the Grumman shuttle orbiter design, while more expensive than the competition, was rated best for technical design. But NASA thought the Rockwell response not only cost less, but also incorporated more quality checks, perhaps based on their autopsy of what caused the Apollo 13 CSM explosion.

Definition of irony: See above.

Back to late 1967, the cottage, and the 1961 Comet. We had a baby son named Chris.  More accurately Annie had the baby; back then fathers waited in the waiting room.  How things have changed since then. In a future COAL I hope to include some “labor and birthing” details of my second son.  Don’t all car web sites have those types of details?

Forget the suitcases; great place for kids (back then). Probably frowned upon now-a-days.

Chris was still in a crib in our bedroom but soon he would warrant his own bedroom. Chris loved to ride and sleep in the back of the VW in the cozy cubby space behind the rear seat. The sound of the transmission under him and the air-cooled motor just behind him with its warm vibrations must have been very soothing.

The blue Comet still ran OK in its pleasant, albeit minimalist manner, but it needed new tires, and brakes, had a loose feeling in the front end, was smoking a little more than before, and looked a bit worn. I had already replaced the battery after it stranded Annie in town, and she wanted something newer, a little bigger (especially the trunk), and more “up-to-date”, meaning power steering and an automatic transmission.

So, a bigger car and a bigger home were in order.

Well, one thing at a time.

OHC6

1967 to 1968 was a tumultuous period in this country and things were getting more fearful outside our comfortable life in the little cottage. Soon MLK and RFK would be dead, the Vietnam War would continue to grow at a terrible rate, and the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago would leave many citizens wondering what the hell was going on in the country and the world.

It was as if everyone was going crazy.

Perhaps that’s why the music of that time, no matter how good or romantic, still evokes troublesome feelings and memories.

Be back soon with more ramblings.