(Our Sunday COAL series has a temporary interruption, so here’s one of my favorites from the past) The saga of my 1959 Beetle and I is interwoven in the story of how Volkswagens became an integral part of me. I’ve owned this VW since I was three years old, and I’m still driving it today. Call me Volksman.
When I was still a toddler my grandfather bought my then sixteen year-old Aunt Stacy a mid 1970’s Beetle as her first car. That in itself was a bit unusual since he never bought a foreign car before. According to my mother, aunt and grandparents, the two year-old me immediately took to the VW, and would point out other Beetles on the road by exclaiming “Tacy Car!”
When I was two and a half or so, my aunt totaled the car as she was pulling into her high school parking lot, so I really have no memories of that Beetle. After that, the disabled Beetle sat beside our driveway awaiting its inevitable trip to a junkyard. However it had one more mission to accomplish, securing Volkswagen’s hold on my psyche. In early 1988, we had a bit of snowfall here in central Alabama and my mom and grandfather took me outside to see the snow. My grandfather said I started to squirm out of his arms so he put me down and I immediately ran straight to the battered Beetle. This picture is when I was on my way, turning only briefly when my mother called my name and snapped the photo.
After this, the Beetle became my playhouse. I would sit in it and pretend to drive. It was a skill that would serve me well in the years to come. A few months later, my grandfather sold the car to someone for parts and by all accounts I was not happy. It was decided that I would get a non-running Beetle for myself as a play car in the backyard. Being the eldest and at that time the sole grandchild has its perks.
I was three years old by the time my grandparents took me to a man’s house who had a few Volkswagens sitting around (funny,now that would be me) so that I could pick out the one I wanted. My vague memories of this day are in fact my earliest memories. I recall my grandmother trying to get me to look at another Beetle but I would have none of it, my eyes were set on the faded red one with mismatched white doors and no seats. I remember pointing at it and saying “That one”.
After my three year old self picked out my first car, my grandfather paid the man a whopping $60 and had it towed home. I also recall seeing the tow truck pull out onto the street with the car. Once home, my grandfather sourced me some two bucket seats of the five-gallon variety and I was set to go. On my bucket seat, battered steering wheel in hand I drove everywhere imaginable without ever leaving the backyard. I would lay in the backseat and play with my toy cars (usually Volkswagens, naturally) or look through the literature that helped me learn to read before I ever entered school, Auto Traders, Hot VWs and VW Trends magazines. When I entered school, I quickly became “the little boy who loves Volkswagens” My kindergarten teacher even asked me if Istill liked VWs when I saw her a few years ago.
The following years were rather uneventful as far as the Beetle was concerned. Life changed, I grew up, my mother married and we moved, my grandparents divorced, my grandmother remarried, I became the oldest of three brothers and that VW was there, always ready for an imaginary road trip. It and my infatuation for these cars never changed.
When I was around eight or nine or so, I read an article in Hot VWs magazine about the various turn signal son Beetles and it was then that I learned that the little light things on the B pillars were semaphores, meaning that my’59 was a European-spec car and thus more rare and valuable than the average 1959. I’d pretended that they were James Bondesque guns that poppped up from the sides of the car.
I got sidetracked from that car as a teenager and young adult with other VWs, a 1971 Beetle that I drove in high school, and a string of Buses after I became infatuated with them after I drove a friend’s ’67. It wasn’t until 2008, 20 years after I first got the car that I started working on it. With my limited funds, a full restoration was out of the question, but making it run and drive and look decent was not.
Out came the blown up 40 hp and in its place the correct 36hp; brakes were gone through, correct front seats (no more five gallon buckets!); the tired old 6 volt electrics nursed back to life, and a little ride height adjustment (here’s were I get flogged for “destroying” my car with bolt on lowering parts). In October 2009, 6 volts of electricity spun over a 36hp engine and a 1959 Beetle that had last moved under it’s own power in 1985 triumphantly roared to life again.
I pulled out of the driveway and took a quick (relatively speaking) spin around the block. It still needed tuning, aligning and various other things but it was moving. The speedometer needle was moving and the odometer ticked over a mile for the first time in my eyes. It was so surreal driving the car. I pulled back into the driveway, got out of the car and looked back when the significance of what I’d just done hit me. I will admit I got a little misty eyed. It’s not often that you truly make a childhood dream a reality.
I’d brought two Buses back to life that had both been sitting for over 20 years and as awesome as that felt, this was totally different. Another misty eyed moment was a little over a month later at Thanksgiving. My grandfather came over and asked “where’d that green Volkswagen come from?” I asked him “You don’t recognize that car? You bought it” “That’s the ’59!?!” he said.
The look on his face when I said “You want to go for a ride?” was something I’ll never forget. Going for a short drive with him was a moment I will always remember. As we were pulling back into the driveway, my grandmother had just pulled up and I opened the door and said “You’re next, c’mon!” She had a big grin on her face the whole time. I’d always told my grandmother that I was going to pick her up one day in that Beetle and drive her around and there it was actually happening.
Everything was just more special with this car. The first road trip I took it on, to a Volkswagen show in Chattanooga, when I crossed the state line I thought “I sat here when I was three years old and made engine noises, and here I am crossing the state line in it.
When I drove it on vacation to Panama City Beach, FL it was the same way, I remember being so small standing in the front floor that the top of the steering wheel was as tall as I was and here I am cruising up the beach in it. I’ve been through a couple of engines (one that ran with a crankshaft broken in two pieces!) I installed a factory sunroof clip (again, don’t flog me for that, I’m keeping the car so I made it what I want) and I’m slowly but steadily collecting parts and fixing the battered car as I drive and enjoy it.
I had to press it into daily service in late 2010 in one of the coldest, snowiest and most icy winter here I remember in a long time. I didn’t have much money and my e30 BMW was dead and needed too much $$$ to fix. My trusty ’59 pulled through for me. It only failed to start one time and it was due to my negligence in checking the water level in the battery. Aside from that, even with the car covered in a thick sheet of ice, a pull of the manual choke knob and a turn of the key and 6 volts brought 36 horses to life. Sure it was slow, drafty and I had to use an old rag as defrost but true to it’s original mission, it always got me where I needed to go. As always, when I needed that old Bug, it was there.
Just to recap on the car itself. I got the birth certificate from VW and it stated that the car’s original home was Freiburg, Germany, a city in the southwest corner of Germany near the Swiss and French borders. How it ended up in Alabama in the mid 1980s is unknown, however the Marines sticker on the front bumper is a clue since many Euro spec VWs were brought over by military.
I can’t even imagine my life without Volkswagens. They are interwoven with just about everything I do. I converted my V8-Ford man dad to Volkswagens (he owns three) and we go to VW events together. My youngest brother has a 1962 Bus, and the vast majority of my friends I’ve met because of these goofy little cars. So here’s to you aunt Stacy’s Beetle: Even though you didn’t make it, you started it all, and I can think of at least ten VWs that might have never seen the road again but did because of my direct or indirect doings.