“I don’t need time, I need a deadline.”
– Duke Ellington
I’ve been participating in various forms of creative endeavors for most of my life, across a span of categories that includes instructional design, fiction and non fiction writing, training videos and documentary films and I have come to recognize that I seem completely unable to marshal the discipline required to complete a task until a deadline appears. Although I remain a devout reader of Curbside Classic, it has been almost six years since my last contribution on my 1979 Mustang turbo. So here I return, now with a Sunday deadline for this and future contributions.
Without going into too much detail at the moment (which I will save for a future piece) I feel I was born preternaturally obsessed with cars. I’m not sure if I could remember the names of all the people on the short (37 house) street I grew up on some sixty-plus years ago in Ferguson, Missouri, but I’ll bet with some prompting I can recall at least one car per home. That’s what I noticed. But I’m going to jump ahead to the first car I ever purchased.
Like many Americans from the 1950s through the ’70s, my initiation into automobile ownership began with a VW Type 1; better known as a “bug” or “beetle.” Like anyone growing up in the States that was into cars, they just had to catch your attention because they were so damned different than the “normal” American offerings. For many, the first adjective that likely came to mind was, “cute.” But the deeper you looked, the more there was to see. The late Artie Shaw once said that one of the most difficult things to achieve is simplicity. The Type 1 was the essence of simplicity. Along with the DC-3, which arrived about the same time, it became one of the iconic symbols of mass transportation and like the Douglas, will likely be in use forever.
Now, I’d never even driven a Volkswagen, until I test drove the first one I took a look at in the classified section of the Post-Dispatch, a 1960 model with around 50,000 miles on it. A high school friend had owned an MG Midget and I had learned the rudimentary skills of shifting a manual, but this was about as far from the Midget as you could get. The car was actually in exceptional shape for being 16 years old, but the lack of a fuel gauge, and more importantly seat belts (which came in handy in a subsequent car) kept me looking. The older sister of a high school acquaintance had a red 1966 Beetle for sale. I took a look and a drive, and offered $500 (the asking price was $550) for it, and it was mine on my nineteenth birthday in March of 1976.
I couldn’t have been happier. Having grown up with the classic VW look, I preferred the cars with covered headlamps (1966 being the last year in the U.S.) and bumper overrides. The windows had been enlarged in 1965, and the front seats made slimmer to add space for rear seat passengers. (We now take the ability to adjust the rake of your seat back for granted, but for those of you who are younger, for decades all you could do was slide your seat – most often a bench for all front seat occupants – fore and aft.) While not infinitely adjustable, there were small cams on each side of the front seats that allowed at least a choice of three positions. Also for 1966, the outer edge of the wheels were painted white and the formerly moon shaped wheel covers were flattened (not unlike those on the Porsche 356 models).
Overall it was in very good shape (I seem to recall the mileage being somewhere between 50-60k) with the exception of the left rear fender, which had a mysterious dent at its very peak centered above the rear wheel. With the exception of a walnut shift knob, it was about as stock as you could get, including the original Sapphire IV AM radio. I bought a generic VW “manual” published by Petersen that told me just about everything I needed to know. And at that time, VW replacement parts, like the oil screens, could be purchased at discount stores like Target. I’d learned from my father the value of adhering to a strict maintenance schedule, so I began a schedule of regular oil changes and also changed the transaxle oil (I still have the 17mm hex tool). There were also some skills I acquired that were not the norm for American cars, like adjusting the valves and manually adjusting the drum brakes. I also bought a very popular, at the time, auto polish called Star Bright. Their advertising featured someone going to a salvage yard and restoring the finish of a junked car. Entirely possible in the days before clear coat, but not recommended today.
I replaced the radio with a low-end Audiovox AM/FM cassette player connected to two six by nine speakers that I mounted on a carpeted piece of plywood and placed in the space below the rear window. This necessitated the installation of a six-volt converter (another relic of the dark ages that was easily obtainable even into the mid-seventies).
I was in my sophomore year at college at the University of Missouri, St. Louis, where I was among the 90+ percent of students who commuted daily and as I’m sure was a common VW experience, my Beetle provided me with reliable transportation (with an exception I will get to). I spent most of a spring break attempting to repair the dent in the rear fender, and the results were, well, appalling. It was an early lesson in false economy (not that I didn’t fall into similar traps later on) as I later discovered that a brand new primed fender could be purchased for under $30 from the dealer, and a friend of a friend with an auto body shop sprayed it for me for $15. After I bolted it on, the color matched perfectly, but that only served to call attention to the age of original paint on the rest of the car.
Nothing I had driven was quite like the Beetle. In 1976 my parents owned a 1971 Plymouth Sport Fury Hardtop and a 1971 Plymouth Duster. Both automatics, the Duster, with the base 198 cubic inch slant six, was just plain slow. On the other hand, the Fury, with a 2bbl 383, was the most powerful car we’d ever had (though acceleration was somewhat slowed by the 2.73 final drive). Both handled (like most American cars at the time) like large barges. You turned the steering wheel and sometime afterwards your direction began to change. By comparison the VW was a speedboat.
It was also quick enough that I managed to get two speeding tickets. The first in Calverton Park, a local speed trap municipality. Fortified with the righteousness of the young, I vowed to get my day in court. I showed up and pleaded “not guilty,” and was directed to show up two weeks later. I had no idea what my plan would be, but I dutifully showed up and the cop who issued the ticket did not, so I “walked.” However because of that I missed a concert I’d been given free tickets to at the Mississippi River Festival. The featured performers were the Ozark Mountain Daredevils, but the opening act was someone no one had heard of quite yet, Jimmy Buffet. Another lesson in false economies.
In the fall of 1977, in order to complete my degree in journalism I enrolled at the University of Missouri, Columbia and moved into a dorm. I was lucky to be a junior, as parking passes were hard to obtain for freshmen (the usual first-year students) but that’s where I discovered a mysterious quirk. The car had no issues operating in rain, but once parked and cooled off, would not start if it was raining. It would crank and crank, but no ignition. Once the rain stopped it could still be wet, but would fire right up. Never did figure that out. Finally, for the most part, despite the radically different rear engine power train design, the car did not handle all that differently. Well, most of the time.
There was this night when I was headed south on Providence Road to a party. In this era it was a crowned, two lane asphalt road (now four or six lanes) just past Faurot Field. A rabbit appeared and I swerved slightly then over-corrected and discovered the power of oversteer in a car with the weight of the engine behind the rear wheels and swingarm axles that with positive or negative pressure reduced rear tire contact (similar to first generation Corvairs). Before I knew it, we had slid rearward into a proverbial ditch. I can’t recall the name of my female companion, but I do remember she was fun and quite unpretentious, which was a good thing because as she did not know how to operate a manual transmission she was the one who had to get out and push. Which she did and we were back on our way.
It’s common to hear complaints about the ventilation and heating, but it worked well for me with again, one exception. You had two knobs, one on each side of the parking brake lever. One opened the valve to divert airflow from engine cooling into the cabin via two vents below the rear seat. The other further diverted the flow into vents on the lower corners of the windshield. The cables and mechanisms were below the pan and exposed to the elements, so it was not unusual to have a cable rust and eventually break. On a very late night (actually early Sunday morning) trip back to St. Louis to see the then extremely new and popular comedian Steve Martin the driver’s side cable broke, leaving me to have to lean into the passenger side to see.
As it turned out, that was my first and last semester at UMC. I was hired as a flight attendant by Ozark Air Lines in October and began training the following January. I continued to drive the Beetle until the summer of 1978 when I purchased a 1971 Karmann Ghia convertible which unfortunately didn’t last very long (a future tale).
I could not have had a better “first car” experience. It delivered reliable and inexpensive transportation, it was fun to drive, and I learned a lot. To this day at any car show I am attracted to any vintage Volkswagen. It obviously made a good impression on me, as five of my next seven subsequent cars were Volkswagens.