The beetle and myself somewhere in Alsace, France
After missing out on a beautiful Ford Taunus 12 M I was using the classified ad to scout for prospects. A 1968 VW 1300 in my price range showed up somewhere in the Black Forest. It looked good to me and drove alright. None the less I asked the owner if she would be willing to have it checked out by a mechanic. She agreed and drove the car to Mr. Eustachi’s garage where he worked. It needed a clutch but was otherwise fine. I purchased the car and Mr. Eustachi and Werner, a friend since boyhood, helped putting it in.
Lots of beetles in contemporary Gengenbach.
Owning a VW beetle was nothing special at that time. Among friends and family it was the most popular car. C had a white one, Markus’ girlfriend had a red one, Markus himself had a Simca 1100, Franz had a white one, Hans had none, Sancho’s was white, Hubert’s was blue according to him and gray according to everyone else because he is colorblind. Fritz had a white one and Karl had a cabriolet. Gerd had FIAT 850 and the other Hans had a 2CV, then a Peugeot 204 Cabriolet.
Next door neighbor had good taste in cars.
Frat house neighbor Wilhelm owned a charcoal metallic 1961 Jaguar S-Type with the 3.8L 6 cylinder, automatic gearbox and original wire wheels. Study buddy Hans-Heinrich got his father’s 200D and study buddy Thomas chose to spend his dad’s money on a brand new VW Scirocco. “Motorrad Willy” had a white Käfer as a winter beater and Werner called his the REDDEVIL (sic) for obvious reasons. I also made two friends in some of my lengthy hospital stays and both, Volker and Peter were driving beetles, orange and gold respectively. Peter’s girlfriend Petra had a white one. And mine was hunter green. I could go on but you might as well establish a Beetles/Others ratio in the roughly contemporary postcard of Gengenbach above.
Picture found at imdb.
I put that beetle to good use going to my medical appointments, going home and visiting friends. If I stepped on it it went 130 km/h. Once on the way from Mannheim to Heidelberg the needle even went to 140 km/h for about five minutes. Then it made a horrible noise. I got off the gas and stepped on the clutch. The engine died and I coasted to a halt on the shoulder of the autobahn. The exhaust valve of the 3rd cylinder let go. This did not happen to my lead-footed friend Volker with his orange beetle because his VW dealer caught it at 75000 or so km and replaced that valve as routine maintenance.
Common cause of engine failure: dropped exhaust valve in cylinder 3.
Because of the popularity of the beetle it was not hard to find a matching and reasonably priced engine. From the clutch replacement I knew how to swap it out. The frat house neighbor with the Jaguar let me use his garage and tools and I was back on the road in short order. This was just in time to give the engine a quick shake down before hitting the road for Italy.
Traveling to sunny Mediterranean countries made sense for me because the intense UV light helped my condition. Either I did that or I would spend the same amount of time in a hospital. The hospital’s treatments were state of the art for that time but often felt worse than the condition itself. Therefore whenever possible I went for the beaches.
The white stuff at the end of July! (picture found on the web).
On July 28 of that year a lady friend, a student of the Italian and English languages, and two paying passengers with all our stuff piled in the Käfer and hit the A5 South to Basel, Switzerland, then up into the Alps over the St. Gotthard Pass. The engine ran without a hitch. When I swapped the engines out I allowed myself one omission just because I was getting tired that night. I did not connect the heater control cables. Up here at the St. Gotthard Pass the temperatures were nearing the freezing point and the road was covered with sleet and more of it was falling out of the clouds. We were cold.
View of Portovenere in summer, Liguria, Italy
The weather was much better on the second day. We stayed at Genova over night and dropped off one of our passengers. Then we continued along the Ligurian coast. There we were slowed down to a crawl by beach goers who crossed the road on foot. Italy is known as the “Teutonen Grill” for the prevalence of German sun worshipers.
We decided to find a route over the spine of the Abruzzi mountains to Civitavechia to drop off our second passenger. This turned out great. Imagine the scenery of your favorite Spaghetti Western with villages that looked like ghost towns, desolated with the exception of that one mongrel dog seeking shade. I was speeding through them at 90km/h making this stretch of road my very own Mille Milia.
International friendships were a benefit of the frat house. Every summer we would rent empty rooms to international students who participated in a four week German course at the University. Rosalba became like a family member and she invited us to visit her and her family in Catania and Leonforte.
Catania, Sicily, early 80’s I guess.
We toured the island and visited Syracuse, Agricento, Palermo and of course Catania and Leonforte. In Leonforte we stocked up on her dad’s oranges, picked straight from the trees. He planted the trees but no one would buy his oranges.
Sicilian oranges on the backseat.
In Catania we witnessed a police Alfa Romeo Giulia pursuing a guy in a FIAT 128 at high speed. The driver of the FIAT was red in his face and his hands were white knuckled. The whole scene took mere seconds. It looked very much like this clip except the chased car was a FIAT and I don’t know if it ended in a shoot-out: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oN-4QkTC8rc
I came back to Heidelberg a fan of Italy. I picked up the law books, studied and participated in the frat’s functions. A favorite event was a rally, not a race but a car scavenger hunt in and around Heidelberg. I partnered with a frequent guest of the house, a BKA detective (Bundeskriminalamt = FBI equivalent). His investigation skills and my juristic wording in answering the scavenger hunt questionnaire gave us a distinct advantage. We won. We enjoyed a round of applause and were given the honor of preparing next year’s rally. Of course I had to do it all by myself as the detective was busy rounding up Baader-Meinhof gang members. I really got to know Heidelberg and its surroundings very well. And the beetle didn’t miss a beat.
One cold Saturday in the winter though I was traveling from my hometown Achern to Heidelberg and something strange happened: the fuel gauge dropped very fast. So fast that I could only explain it by a leak. I stopped and I could not find a leak. This is not a good time to get stuck. Shops and garages are closed and won’t open until Monday morning. Near Bruchsal I got off the autobahn hoping to find a garage that might still be open. I was lucky in a small village. The mechanic was nice enough to have a look and couldn’t find a leak either. He encouraged me to carry on. I did carry on, scared as I was. The beetle made it.
Next day I was trying to figure out what was going on. I turned the key and the gauge was dead. At some point I disconnected the sending wire at the tank and reconnected it. The gauge worked again. The unusually cold temperatures must have shrunk the connector and increased the electrical resistance, thus dropping the needle.
Other little things happened. The horn started blowing when I turned the wheel. The wire that goes up inside the steering column chafed trough the insulation and caused a short. The starter failed. The fan belt broke, the speedometer cable broke and the tires wore out.
That was a good thing. When I bought the car it was rolling on four Pneumant tires. This brand may not be familiar to you because it is East German. When one pair was worn to 1 mm tread depth I replaced it with new tires and put these on the front wheels. The idea was to hasten the wear on the remaining Pneumant.
This made for some interesting handling characteristics. The Pneumant were about as grippy as a hockey puck on ice. On wet pavement the rear broke out in any corner with barely touching the accelerator. The excellent tires on front made it a piece of cake to catch the car. I chauffeured my car full of frat brothers when this happened. I got off the gas, counter steered and accelerated away in one fluid motion, totally bored. Of course the frat brothers had no idea and freaked out. They were about to beat me up when I said: “The rear tires are Pneumant from the GDR and they brake out when it’s wet. The front tires are really great so don’t worry!”
Indeed, they were great: Semperit. They were at least as good as the famous Michelin radials. Soon I had Semperit on all four wheels. What a handling and safety upgrade they provided!
I did not modify the beetle. Most changes are “verboten” anyway and those that are allowed have to be checked by the TüV (MOT). However, I wrapped the steering wheel with leather and I found a VDO quartz watch cheaply and I mounted that. The previous owner put some magnetic ladybugs on the dashboard and my mom gave me a magnetic plaque of Saint Christopherus who carried little Jesus across troubled water. It looked quite livable in the cabin.
Ferrari F1 testing at their Maranello track.
That winter (78/79 I believe) I reconnected with Werner and we went for another trip to Italy during the summer. We took one of our Italian friends home to Padova and visited another in Castelerano di Regio Emiglia. That is just a few kilometers from Maranello. When we stopped by the Scuderia it was closed. Only the lobby was open and guarded by two uniformed security guards. We asked them if we could sit in that F1 car that graced the lobby. They allowed us. What a feeling it was to sit in the same car that Gilles Villeneuve piloted to GP victories.
Was it the same car? I cannot find a picture with Gilles in a car with the number 11.
My VW 1300 in the Abruzzi mountains.
With all that traveling I started to feel the shortcomings of the beetle: noisy, crammed and relatively thirsty. It also needed constant correcting to go straight. I was pretty good at that. Once a passenger asked why I keep moving the steering wheel when we go straight. I let her do the steering for while and we were dancing a Waltz in our lane: left-2-3, left-2-3. I could feel in my fingertips when the car wanted to change direction and I countered early by applying very little pressure. The heating system had idiosyncrasies as well. You got better heat when you opened all registers and opened the vent windows too. But when the heat exchangers burnt through some exhaust gases were blown into the cabin. I anticipated to keep traveling because I had a good enough excuse. Thus I longed for a more suitable car. A visitor to the frat house had an aging Audi 60 that I liked.
TüV was coming up again and I knew I had some work to do. The upright connectors of the double tube front suspension were rusted through and there was no chance of them passing inspection. Just recently frat bother Markus’ girlfriend had to retire her red Käfer with a busted engine.
It ran better than ever for all of 5 minutes and then the exhaust valve of the 3rd cylinder let go. They allowed me to pull the front axle off this car. Again the neighbor with the Jag let me use his garage and tools.
The job required messing with the brake hydraulics which was new territory for me. When I thought everything was in place I took it to the TüV station. On the way there I heard a pop and then a clack with every steering move. The exam was a disaster. The steering gear was loose on its mount (ah, that’s what popped!) and the brake pressures were all over the place. That clearly is a fail. I fully agree with that. But then he continued to fill his sheet with red marks as if he had an unlimited supply of pens. As the sheet went from white to red my face went the other way. These were some of the infractions: the vent window closer was broken, a tear in the skirting below the hood needed welding, the pedal assembly needed lubrication, and plenty more nit-pickings. Everyone hated the TüV.
My brother runs an errand with the beetle.
A frat brother pointed me to his favorite “Auto Klinik” right in the old part of Heidelberg. They showed some heart and fixed everything on the sheet at reasonable cost. It still hurt though. Soon I sold the Käfer to a student who planned long trips herself.
This beetle was important car to me because I gained much experience with it. In fact I thought I had it much longer than my reconstructed time line would suggest. However, I don’t think it was a superior car in terms of reliability and other properties. Thus it was not hard to part with it.
Promotional picture by Volkswagen AG.
What’s next? An Audi 60?