COAL 1968 Beetle: Climbing the Steep Hill of Used Car Ownership

The view towards our apartment, Burbank 1994. The Beetle’s fender, gas cap and hood, in all their misaligned glory.

The idea had been getting through my head, not too quickly, not too slowly. Should I take his word? Does he know what he’s talking about? Money wise it seemed like a quick fix, a way to solve my transport problems immediately while I saved for a better purchase. Just then, as I walked, I came across the subject at mind. There on the Burbank Public Parking lot, a VW beetle was parked, with its bulbous nose and unconventional shape staring at me. Was it really possible? Me? Buying a car like that? Looking at it with detail, for the first time ever, it was a goofy affair, cutesy and silly. The furthest thing from ‘coolness’.

I had been absolutely carless during my three years of college education in Valencia, California, a sorry and miserable situation. A city located in the outskirts of metropolitan LA, where few decades prior Westerns were shot, and where Target was the most exciting thing in the sedate early 90’s. After moving in from Puerto Rico, LA was the place to discover the non-joys of Southern California’s public transportation. Those were years of “take me to the store, please”, long waits for the scarce buses that constituted said public transport, and even longer walks to the shopping center. “Where did you go? You took forever to get back!” My classmates would say… You know, just the usual 1 ½ hour walk to VONS.

Valencia, CA, early 90’s traffic. And… is that a… Cimarron?

At the college’s library I would go and soak in adverts and articles on buff magazines. Being a college student, broke, with idle time at hand, wishes were easy to pile on. Purchase possibilities are endless when no real money is exchanged. An Integra (sporty, nice, reliable, not too expensive), a Golf (2nd gen was still around, looking long in the legs), or a Corrado (different, not too common, rather pricey though) were the cars that stirred my heart.

Interesting finds around the campus. Discovering the Avanti.

And there I was, 3 months after leaving school, now facing the reality of having to put down money, and thus, wishful thinking met reality. The irony, I was making enough for a good down payment, but not steadily enough to sustain new car ownership. The 4 month gig I had didn’t allow for long term planning. Enter my roommate, and his dubious history of car ownership.

A nice stocky fella from Wyoming, always broke and not too discerning (his vehicle choices crossed a wide canvas, from American iron, to any continent that came his way, 4 or 2 wheeled), his suggestion, to purchase a used vehicle. Me? A used car? I had been raised on a steady diet of Japanese thin steel thanks to mother, new reliable cars that never failed. The only malfunction in those twenty years of my existence had been a faulty thermostat. Dad was never mechanically inclined… so the question to myself, when the car broke down… will I know how to deal with it? How steep would the learning curve be? A choice had to be made, I could choose the steep hill of used car ownership, or the steep hill of… what?

Coming to grips with Southern California’s Public Transit service.

The steep hill of non-car mobility in Southern California that is! After three months of trying to handle my affairs carless, the whole thing proved unsustainable, if not right down laughable. Daily tasks such as shopping took hours and were performed solely on the weekends. Bus riding was dubious; in spite of distances, I preferred walks. Very lonely walks – Nobody Walks in LA still comes to mind when I think of those lonely sidewalks. The few times I bothered with bus riding, seedy images of Midnight Cowboy and late 70’s cop movies came to life in front of my eyes. Where do those seedy characters live in California? All passengers seemed suspect by default. Were bus stops the sole environment they thrived? Were they all heading to the DMV office? I must have crossed paths with a serial killer or two in one of those rides.

One final hill to climb, that of economics, and eventually admitted my roommate was right. The Integras and Corrados would have to wait. Here my roommate intervened again, a Beetle could do, “A Beetle?” Yes, a Beetle, cheap to own, cheap to maintain, not too complicated. He himself had been a satisfied owner, his own VW getting him through more than a few snow blizzards back in Wyoming.

The Beetle’s face, staring at me. A reminder of its goofy face, courtesy of Facebook’s marketplace in El Salvador.

Most of us, beyond a certain age, never seem to think much of Beetles, their ubiquitous shape being part of the landscape. But truth to be told, if one removes such fixed conceptions, on close inspection, it’s a most unusual vehicle. Macho feelings don’t go well with its cutesy-small-cartoon like silhouette. As I was not versed in Beetle lore, little did I know the shape was the result of stubborn-headed engineering enveloped by the “shape of the future” as conceived in… the 1930s. Its road to production, a most unlikely historical accident (of which much has been written).

It did offer something that was rare at the time though, before the Japanese came in; reliability. Made to run efficiently in rough, undeveloped roads, and screwed together tightly, the VW proved the prowess of German engineering; overthought and overdeveloped engineering applied to a simple concept and narrow goals. While most European cars kept breaking down and failing abroad, and while American cars kept toying with failure prone futuristic gimmicks, the VW just kept (slowly) going and going. On 3rd world nations, the car rode with ease on rural roads, consuming little gas and delivering people what a car was supposed to do, take you places.

And mother had owned one, too. Just about everybody did. Tired of prone to break vehicles, the VW was her first reliable purchase. “People get bored of them quickly though” was a warning of hers, as she switched to a more comfortable and spacious Galaxy… that never ran right and sent her to the arms of Japanese products.

So after a few calls to adverts on the LA Weekly, a drive to Van Nuys, and exchanging $700, I was suddenly the owner of a beat up 1968 VW beetle. ‘Owner’ not yet ‘Driver’, for my roommate was the one taking us home, driving on street roads (the Northridge earthquake had collapsed many freeway ramps few weeks before). Having learned to drive on automatics, I was yet not fit to drive the antiquated machine.

While he and his girlfriend were riding up front, I was in the back, looking at the vintage detailing of late 60’s technology. Immersed in the spherical cocoon of the back seat, looking through the small windows, soaking the odd assortment of smells 20+ years old. Through the window, as the sun set, a street sign I’ll never forget: “Happening Harry’s Sex Farm”. The polarized front windows of the seedy building keeping from view who knows what kind of perversions. A business that fitted completely with Van Nuys and the myriad of late 70’s beat up vehicles that comprised a good chunk of the traffic. Now that I think of it, I might have seen a Jodie Foster like nymphet walking into said ‘Farm’.

The Northridge earthquake didn’t do wonders for LA’s infrastructure.

What did seven hundred bucks got me? Not surprisingly, a sort of faded whitish car, with yellowing bits, a more or less straight body, suspect mechanics, and blacked out trim. Still, in fairness to Wolfsburg’s legendary quality, the car didn’t rattle much, in spite of its sorry state. Now, car in hand, I was ready to drive… Wasn’t I?

Leftover business to attend, the stick shift. Couple of years before, back in the island, I had learned to drive in a Nissan Sentra while listening to my instructor’s favorite evangelical radio station. An automatic, the car moved appliance like as I steered calmly, never worrying about shifting. The day we went for my test drive appointment, my instructor waited by my side, while the radio played, and she telling me about how “one day” I would hear the call of the Lord and would thus join him. To this day, I’m still waiting (and if my next car purchases didn’t do the trick, breaking my will slowly but steadily, I don’t know what will).

Closest thing to a remaining photo of the car, at Glendale’s Brand Library.

My roommate offered a few lessons, only to be –seriously- discouraged one afternoon where I almost turned the car on its side, while going downhill, after suddenly braking and locking the wheels in spectacular fashion. His voice cracked a bit while he politely declined any further teaching,  his face and body showed a man that had been scared to death more times than he cared for.

Still I persevered. During the next few weeks I kept the quiet residential streets of Burbank awake between 10-11pm, the hour when I would put on my cape and start “driving” my “new” car, grinding gears, slipping the clutch, and in general, causing major commotion through my ineptitude. After much upheaval I managed to learn –not master- the dark art of shifting. Time to explore the town… See sights, engage in social life, and run to the supermarket within reasonable time frames.

Bel Aire drive, many missed gear changes later, some mastery of stick shift would eventually occur.

Driving an old, underpowered, mechanically shot car, is not the best way to develop confidence while getting used to the pleasures of driving. Pleasures LA offered little of by the early 90’s, overcrowded roads and ‘road rage’ being the norm instead. Trying to speed up, as the VW gobbled copious amounts of oil, trying to merge on I-5, as huge Lorries hurried by in full force… the memories give me shudders up to this day. Close calls with death were so common they became uneventful after a few weeks.

And as driving distances increased bit by bit, mechanic breakdowns started to show up in inevitable fashion. Most, at the start, were –unsurprisingly- of electrical nature. Like a defective Goldberg Machine, each piece went down, one by one, almost in order. From the solenoid, to the starter, to the ignition coil, bringing forth a tenet of keeping a 20+ year poorly maintained car alive; as a piece is fixed in the pipeline bringing optimum service after ages, the next weak link fails invariably. But I had a car, didn’t I? Isn’t reliability overrated? Let’s not be all that negative, after all, I was learning mechanics – the hard way!

The view from the cabin, mid 90’s LA traffic.

The hard way… and the hot way. When I took a bunch of my ex classmates out for an evening in Burbank. Picking them up, stuffing the car, our 4 bodies ready for a night’s excursion, when the car failed to start twice. “What’s wrong man?” “No idea!” On the third try the car got going. About half a block later, my Greek friend sitting in the back uttered words to not be forgotten “Hey fellas… isn’t it hot here?” Everyone went quiet. He continued “I… think your car is on fire!” Panic! Fear! Horror! We frantically got out of the car as the back seat started to flame up.

We stood around the car, motionless, not knowing what to do, when a good neighbor came out, extinguisher in hand, and put out the fire with steady hand, quickly. His calm demeanor showing a serenity that eluded me. Must have been a car guy… or a fireman, or an ex Pinto owner. He took care of the situation before damage went beyond the rear seat. Smelly and smoky, I took the car back home (starting right away) while my friends –unsurprisingly – called the night off.

Still, somewhere in the back of my mind, a romantic notion existed. Being an old soul since young, the idea of old stuff languishing and vanishing never sat well with me. I looked at the vehicle, now in my ownership, feeling different about it than few months before. In spite of its broken down mechanics, the logic of its 1930’s engineering gained on me: the passenger focused layout, the traction oriented location of the engine, its low boxer layout, the slippery and futuristic shape. The simplicity of it all, conditioned by the limits of 30’s technology, and the way it achieved its original goals, created a sense of admiration.

The logical layout of the VW, gaining on me.

And this is where Stuart, comes in. His garage on Victory Blvd. keeping the vehicle somewhat alive, as much as he could, with the little money I could put in. The garage, not far from the local Pep Boys, took only German machinery and had a couple of Mexican mechanics to assist him. So, should I consider fixing the car? Restoring? The romantic notion would hit from time to time, as Stuart seemed a more than capable mechanic. Still, the car was way too gone for such an undertaking, or was it? Then in one of the visits, a cause of concern (I mean, more than usual), oil was burning at incredibly rapid rates.

What I truly wished at that point, a non-trouble VW Beetle. From the Cohort, by William Rubano.

After news like that, there was only one logical course of action; keep on as if the diagnostic was never uttered! 4th of July was quickly approaching and for reasons that escape my memory, I decided to visit a close friend who had recently moved to San Francisco (Why flying didn’t cross my mind is something I can’t answer for). And keeping up with the not-smart line of reasoning of those days, why not take 101? The scenic drive! Probably better for my more-or-less 60MPH limit Beetle, instead of the daunting 75MPH+ of I-5.

Seven hours onto the drive, the non-soundness of my decision was heavily felt by my sweating sore body, the California summer heat attacking in full force. San Francisco seemed like a continent away, as I stopped every couple of hours to add oil to the thirsty machine. Too late to turn back now. Was the distance stretching? Or was it my imagination? Heat and fumes don’t go well with long drives.

The memories of the last couple of hours escape my mind –the fumes, the fumes!- but the car somehow managed, getting me into the city early at night. After parking, with the car away from my mind, the weekend was just blissful. We took the next few days for sightseeing, enjoying precious vistas and the cozy neighborhoods of the city.

The monotonous view of I-5. Not a good photo, but a good reflection of my state of mind.

Miracles do happen, as I took to I-5 early in the week and crawled back to LA, making it without incident. Maybe the Lord heeded me, I’ll never know, the engine’s clattering must have drowned his words. But then again, even miracles have a limit, and the engine finally gave up the ghost, and its oil, a few days later. More non-sound thinking. The LA Weekly was littered, at the time, with heaps of Beetle oriented adverts: Turn your Beetle into semi-automatic! We put on disc brakes on your vintage Beetle! New engines for $700!

New engines?

Finding its way into my derelict Beetle, an engine in search of a better chassis.

Seven hundred buckaroos later, I was the proud owner of a shiny, great sounding, factory original (via Mexican manufacture) engine. With body and interior still in the same forsaken state, I could now impress any doubters opening the hood and showing off the sparkly new innards. Even Stuart approved –of the engine, not my thinking process.

This was the end of summer, autumn coming in as my first gig came to a close. And the car? What did I intend to do with the car? In spite of romantic ideals, I had no intention of keeping it, nor restore it. That was a hill too steep even for the amoeba like reactions –stimulus/response- of my ownership process. Did the car run better? It was hard to notice, it sounded… better. The engine now needed a better chassis, a body that deserved it.

And so, one last hill came up. My not mastering the art of shifting showing itself as I engaged first gear, instead of reverse, hitting a wall, and thus, misaligning the front axle. A dull sound making itself into the cabin as the car rolled towards Stuart’s garage. 600 clams to fix it. My amoeba like reaction was to recoil, and avoid further danger in that inhospitable environment. Thus the decision was made to get rid of my first car, but it would not be the last time Beetles made it into my life.

A bit more on the Beetle

1969 Beetle – Still a Viable Driver?