Some things will always seem timeless to me, including any of the original Peanuts holiday specials and the Volkswagen Type 1 (Beetle) in any configuration. I don’t care what else is on TV when I get home from work and one of those specials is on. Around any given holiday season, watching Charlie Brown and his friends (and frenemies, like that perennial witch, Lucy) beats pretty much anything else I had planned to watch, and so it’s almost a given that I’ll be tuning in and switching my phone to “silent” or “vibrate” mode.
What’s also great is that even though many of my friends and I are in our forties, watching these Peanuts specials often becomes a long-distance, communal activity. It can take one person to start a group text to unleash our individual expressions of collective joy that come from watching these charming, old, primitively animated shows. The only things lacking from the total, childhood-throwback experience (in my household, anyway) are sweet, delicious Dolly Madison snack cakes, from the original sponsor of these shows.
While attending the 39th annual Chicago Jazz Festival at Millennium Park in September of 2017, this (very) orange Beetle came chugging along in Saturday afternoon traffic on Michigan Avenue. I very much miss hearing the distinctive, insect-like whirr of the exhaust note of these cars in traffic on a semi-regular basis. If you’re of a certain age and even you don’t care a thing about cars, the sound of an accelerating Type 1 (or any other air-cooled VW) is instantly recognizable. You may not be able to correctly identify the model name, but you’ll know that it’s a Volkswagen by sound long before you see it.
You may ask how I know this one’s a 1974 model. If it were April Fool’s Day, I might have gone on with some elaborate spiel, but the truth is that: a.) I don’t know for sure as I’m not a Carfax stalker, but b.) if its custom license plate is any indication, then yes, it’s a ’74. What I do know is that while ’74 brought bigger bumpers, it was also the last year for those nifty, front fender-mounted turn signals (except on North American-spec cars) before they were moved to the front bumper for ’75. The Super Beetle was only a couple of inches longer than the standard model, but the quickest and easiest mnemonic device for me is the Super Beetle’s curved windshield. From the factory, this car would have weighed about 1,800 pounds and would have had 50 horsepower on tap from its 1,584 cc (“1600”) four cylinder. While I’d trust this car to move me around in traffic around the downtown area, I’d still probably opt to keep it off the Dan Ryan Expressway.
In a lot of ways, the VW Beetle is very much the “Charlie Brown” of cars of its era. It was humble, honest, and likable. Its shape was round, like Charlie Brown’s head. Neither the car nor the cartoon character had a shred of anything remotely threatening about them, and as garages, driveways, and the “funnies” section of newspapers across the United States would attest, both were everywhere at one point. I felt the Jack-O-Lantern “face” painted on the hood of this one was the perfect touch of personalization. I wonder if anyone has ever taken a yellow Beetle and painted the trademark, black zig-zag pattern of Charlie Brown’s shirt along both sides. I wouldn’t doubt it if this has already been done, as these little cars seemed to invite the kind of mild (and sometimes wild) customization that only a car this beloved could inspire.
Also, like the Peanuts specials, there’s a warm feeling one gets just by seeing one of these Beetles in traffic. Whether these Vee-Dubs are a reminder of family (my parents had owned one, before my time), or favorite movies (any of the “Herbie” flicks, “Freaky Friday”, etc.), their wholesome simplicity and onetime ubiquity harkens back to a time when a brand new example of a little, lightweight, reliable, fixable car like this was within the reach of many incomes. That’s worth celebrating, with or without any candy. Happy Halloween!
Downtown, The Loop, Chicago, Illinois.
Saturday, September 2, 2017.