COAL: 1968 Beetle, Part II – Learning to live with the Bug.

It sat for a couple of months in a corner of the Arco station on Glenoaks Blvd, Glendale. A used light blue 1968 Beetle, in straight shape, sitting next to a couple of other vehicles at a makeshift used car lot. As my own sort-of-whitish ’68 Beetle rattled by, I would glance at it each time I passed. With my own Beetle being a basket case of failures, the blue one looked like what I would like to own (previous doubts notwithstanding). A sticker of $1,500 was on the windshield, too steep for me to take the plunge.

I had owned the whitish ’68 Beetle for a good eight months, spending quite a bit of money just to keep it running, learning mechanics the hard/quick way. A new engine had gone into the car recently, and I was stuck in the common quandary used car buyers see themselves in: Should I jump ship now, after spending all this money? Should I stay hoping it stays afloat? What if instead of staying afloat it sinks taking me down?

Stalking place… an Arco station back then.

In the end, I torpedoed it. One afternoon, as I engaged the wrong gear, hitting a wall and misaligning the front axle, sending the car into sinking mode. I arrived to my mechanic’s shop at the end of the day hoping to get a quote. How bad could it be? (Denial, such a blissful state).

Stuart had been my mechanic since early summer, and I was getting awfully acquainted with him. Not that I wanted to, the car had forced me. At the time he lived in a VW bus in the back of the shop and had the help of two Mexican mechanics. An able mechanic, Stuart, as much as I liked him, was a bit unpredictable; trying to behave and dress in surfer-relaxed mode, while acting somewhat aggravated as work orders accumulated. Also, being courteous enough, while letting glimpses of his true thoughts seep through occasionally. Last, the relationship with his mechanic assistants seemed a bit strenuous –language issues?- but still, they worked together well enough.

Stuart came with the quote, what would the diagnostic be? $600 to fix the damage. More than I wished to put in at that point… or at any point by then. I walked away, feeling like a man about to put down a dog that had bit him far too often. I didn’t feel much for the dog, mind you… I was just wondering why I didn’t put it down earlier.

As I got ready to leave, one of Stuart’s mechanics approached me: “Hey, sir, would you be interested in selling it?” I stared blankly… Turns out someone was interested in this dog’s last breaths. “Give me your number” I said.

Now an idea was planted in my head.

I drove slowly home, just a few blocks away, while the axle ground away against the body. Driving by the Arco station, I stopped on the sidewalk across the side street, staring from my window like a stalker:  “The little blue one, the one with the fine straight body… What if you and I become an item? What you say, huh?”

In typical fateful manner, my summer gig had just ended and had no idea what the future laid. I had saved some but not enough for new car ownership; the idea of giving away $1,500 seemed the easiest way to remain in the 4-wheeled transport world. Now, decision made, I would committedly walk back to VW’s well, hoping the contents would not be too poisoned.

Next morning, I showed up to the Arco station and asked for the salesman. Nope, my mechanical knowledge hadn’t improved much, and I wouldn’t be able to know the condition of the vehicle from that of rotting fruit. But my frame of mind was to get the matter out the way, quickly. Also, I had an ace in my hand, a whole car of spare parts available… as long as no front axle was necessary.

Only aviator sunglasses missing…

The salesman arrived, looking not unlike Danny DeVito’s lost Middle Eastern brother. The caricature of his profession, materialized. Short, balding, gold plated aviator sunglasses, beer belly, office clerk shirt and trousers, and the obligatory necktie. He walked energetically, selling his shtick somewhat forcefully, to this one client, mind already made up. “It’s all original, keep it as is, stock condition… and it will go up in value!” Sure buddy, resale value, that’s what I’m really thinking about; I’m Tom Cruz (I’m Latino, after all) in my own version of Rain Man, sure…

Took a quick look; body was straight, no visible rust, interior in fairly good shape, new roof liner, a couple of obnoxious surfing stickers on the hand brake. Engine was oily and suspect. Barely haggling for price, I gave him a check and drove away, the car feeling slow and weak. As soon as I got home, heeding the salesman’s advice, I removed the annoying surfer stickers, the only mechanical work done that day, to keep the car in “stock condition”. Stickers removed, I could feel the car’s value raising… an astounding 0.65 cents, probably. That task done, I went into the flat.

Work was done for the evening.

So, for one day, and one day only, I actually had two 1968 Beetles in my ownership. American prosperity? My Wyoming roommate probably wondering what kind of maniac he was living with. Oh wait, never mind… He was driving a run down Quantum station wagon at the time.

In news that surprised no one, the next morning, the ‘new’ light blue Beetle refused to start. The solenoid just emitting one click, not doing any more work beyond that. One loud ‘Ha!’ later, and a shake of the head, I went into the flat and placed the call I knew was bound to come.

  • “Look, the car is yours… for nothing, I just need some work for free!”

Early that afternoon the Mexican mechanic came and started the light blue Beetle fairly easily. Each taking a vehicle, we arrived to his place not long after. Once there, I started in mix-n-match style, ordering the switch-a-rooo I had in my head since the previous night.

  • Take the engine from the white one into the blue one, the distributor too… then the seats of the white one also go into the blue… Etc.

A good running Beetle at last?

By the end of the afternoon, close to dusk, I finally owned a ‘good running’ Beetle. I stepped my foot on the accelerator and it sped away, feeling solid and screwed together in ways I didn’t think possible. “So this is what it SHOULD feel like!” As I drove away, I could sense myself feeling much different about Wolfsburg’s little bug. Wolfsburg enlightenment?

Meanwhile, whatever happened to the white Beetle I never knew, nor cared to find out. Sorry bro, you “Could’ve been a contender”, but by now, I was too committed to my Joe Pesci role.

Ironically, a job offer materialized in San Francisco not long after the blue Beetle came into my life. It was one city I COULD actually DO without a car. SF had decent public transport, while car ownership on its limits seemed burdensome for someone with post-college finances; insurance costs were onerous, parking was an ordeal, and apartment costs were in the fuggetaboudit territory. Would I simplify my life instead? Take the bus, ride a bike?

San Francisco beckoned… the Golden Gate, late 90’s.

Well, why should I relinquish my recently acquired toy? Didn’t the boy in me played with Hot Wheels since 4? Also, didn’t I have a nasty fall in my bike when 7? So yes, a car in SF, not necessary… But isn’t that what youth is about? My future wife wouldn’t allow such indulgences.

Few last days in Southern California. Went out with my Greek friend (who almost burned to a crisp on the white Beetle few months before) for an outing. As I accelerated onto the I-5 ramp, merging seamlessly with the freeway traffic, he shouted: “Yes! This one… runs GOOD!” On the spot, we christened it the “German Wonder” (Corny, I know).

Time to test the Beetle’s hauling capabilities.

January arrived, time to move to lovely SF. My finances still reeking of college endurance, I would handle the whole ‘moving’ matter in a dastardly cheap way. Yes,… the Beetle! That could haul stuff! Right? Didn’t hippies do it that way? And didn’t they even have sex in those? How did they do it? Wolfsburg-Sutra?

Once seats are down, and sorting the narrow entrance to the cargo area from the passenger door, space is surprisingly reasonable in a Beetle. Boxes, books, bedsheets, etc., went in without too much trouble. On plus of that, the front boot could haul goods as well. Car loaded, I was ready for my impression of hippies crisscrossing the country… Mind you, in 90’s clean cut yuppie attire, and no obnoxious painted flowers.

Ready for the long drive on I-5.

I agreed with my Wyoming friend to slowly pick my remaining belongings in subsequent trips. And so, one Sunday afternoon, I parted SoCal. The car sped ahead over I-5, heading to a new life… a new future. The sun was setting, beautiful dusk hues materializing over the Grapevine climb. I would embrace what was coming to me, arms open, looking ahead… Oh wait, what’s that knocking sound?

Ah, yes, overheating on the Grapevine. It couldn’t be that easy, could it? But the little lost-damsel days were fading away by now. Pulling to the shoulder, waiting for the car to cool off, a police officer stopped not long after. “You doing ok, buddy?” “Yes, just waiting for the engine to cool off”. I shrugged my shoulders. The cop left, and 40 minutes later I was back on my way.

The next morning, the semi-industrial area of Potrero Hill was my welcome to SF, where my new job was located. It was a series of not too busy streets and functional buildings, surrounded by the steel ramps of the 101. Not the most ‘postcard’ image of SF, but still, a memorable one. Arriving in rain soaked streets, I realized that the cool breezy sunlit city I met the previous summer turns into a 3 month wet sponge every year, with obligatory floods north of the Golden Gate.

The streets around Potrero Hill greeted me to the city.

It was in this environment that the first weakness of the “German Wonder” appeared. Being a SoCal vehicle, water was its sworn enemy. Window seals dried, water started to seep in under the constant rain, flooding the carpets, making a nasty sludge around my shoes. Also, around the same time, the wipers ceased to work altogether.

A lot to take in for an out of towner setting in. My days were packed; attending work matters I was coming to grips with, nights spent in search of a place to live, and lunch time looking for a trusty mechanic. Temporarily staying in the Hayward area, the mornings were a hellish 45 min drive to the city; rain never seemed to end that horrid January. Windshields refusing to move, I would squint, looking for the tail lights ahead to guide me. Water on the freeway almost driving me to aqua plane from time to time (Slow down! I need to follow your tail lights!). It was a nerve wracking experience. Did the CD player soothe me some? Hard to say, difficult to hear music while employing the vocabulary of hip hop performers.

So what’s playing on the stereo? Better look at the road, buddy!

Rubber seals got to the fixing line first, thanks to a shop nearby work. Here I learned one of the tenets of blue-collar workmanship… Go into a chain shop, workers getting close to minimum, and expect shoddy work. Leaving the car in the morning, all of its window seals to be replaced, I returned at lunch to find two hefty men working around it, their movements having all the finesse of the 3 Stooges. To this day I have no idea if they were related, or what… for the leading one certainly put a lot of effort in keeping his partner under control. The ‘leader’ raised his voice constantly, running quickly around, keeping his partner from botching the job. “No… not that way… turn it around… wait! Wait!” The other oaf barely holding the window glass with his large body, trying not to lose grip. “Here… turn it! Turn it!” The ‘leader’ would insist, desperately. Good thing these 2 Stooges took to mechanics instead of medicine.

Good ol’ SF humor. Late 90’s.

Rubber seals fixed, time for more apartment hunting. How about San Mateo, further south of the city? 40 minutes after work, driving under yet more drizzle, came to an apartment complex near El Camino Real and rung the bell. The building’s manager came to greet me; he had the demeanor of Mr. Roper from Three’s Company. Tall and unkempt, with a bald head and large eyeglasses, he didn’t look like the welcome wagon, unless said wagon was really cranky.

  • It’s about the apartment for rent.- I said.

He wobbled his head, gesturing for me to go in. We walked down the hallway in the first floor, just then, remembering he hadn’t brought the keys. “Wait, I’ll go get them”. I followed him few steps behind. Reaching his flat, he entered, immediately starting a Tarantino-foul-mouthed-barrage-shouting-match with his wife.

  • You f…. this, you f….. that… why don’t you f…. off?
  • You f…. bitch… Leave me the F…! F…! F…!

Brief, intense and jarring, even from the hallway. A couple solidly from the Silent-Generation-Won’t-Ever-Divorce-Club. The man came out, now almost shaking, ready to show me the apartment. By which point, I KNEW I wasn’t going to become a tenant there. I left, wondering if a gruesome murder was imminent.

The San Mateo-Hayward bridge. What memories!

And on the way back to Hayward, over the San Mateo Bridge… the SCARIEST drive to date on the ’68 Beetle. A pitch black night, drizzle hitting, wipers not yet working and the bridge, running at water level, with the bay looking very ominous… all around me. And then… WIND! A untimely introduction to the Beetle’s weakest link, cross wind inestability!… Then again, it was a 3 lane bridge, so, not many lanes to roll over… Was that good? Each draft had me looking at the bay, my heart jumping out of my chest, me trying to quickly develop new steering skills.

Half an hour later, I arrived… feeling rattled, numb, and lucky to be alive. Yes, Wolfsburg enlightenment.

The view from the studio apartment.

Soon after, a kind coworker told me of a recently vacated apartment (originally meant for her dad, suffering Alzheimer’s). It was located in an upcoming neighborhood in southern San Francisco, were narrow streets and steep hills were the norm. The very definition of SF. The apartment was in the lower floor of a 3 story building flanked by Victorian houses, possessing a to-kill-for view. All for the then pricey sum of… $500 monthly.

The Beetle, I must say, felt very at home in this new setting, moving swiftly on the steep hills thanks to its low geared transmission. I could drive it leisurely and speedily thanks to the car’s narrow track, taking bumps and street grade changes, not necessarily with eagerness, but definitely with ease. The car felt really on its turf.

Go for it little blue one!

Apartment in hand, time for more moving. Every month or so, a trip to LA and cramming more stuff in the VW, which was taking it all in without hesitance. On one of those trips, once again… the SCARIEST drive to date on the VW, crossing the Grapevine, close to the summit, near midnight, when a storm hammered the mountains. Wipers fixed (luckily) and yet, struggling to see the road ahead, tail lights guiding me instead, as the poor things could barely keep up with the deluge. Gusts of wind, and now, with many lanes to drive into… More angst-ridden rock on the radio? No, not tonight. Death was too near to keep invoking it.

Yes, tt had been quite a welcome to the city; but the year was not done yet. Sometime in April, as the rains subsided, Dulces Labios girl appeared.

The Barrio of Dulces Labios (Sweet Lips), Mayaguez, Puerto Rico.

Quick recap to Puerto Rico, where I had met a gal from the Barrio of Dulces Labios (Sweet Lips, in Spanish). We had remained in touch through my college years, in spite of her not having a phone (due to lack of payments, or so I recall). Instead, I would dial the phone booth on her street. Most times a drunkard would pick up. Luckily, they all knew her.

  • Hola Mi’jo. Who you calling for?
  • I’m calling for Mrs. Julia’s daughter.
  • Oh, yes! I’ll fetch her!

And so they would fetch her. Few years later, she now in California, we started dating.

Being both newcomers and neither coming from ‘cosmopolitan’ cities, we took the next few months to explore the city and the Bay Area, generally in awe of everything. And what a rather charming place it was. By the mid 90’s, the Summer of Love days associated with the place were eroding away. Further even, whatever blue-collar past there ever was. By then, the city was turning clean-cut, with an upcoming yuppie clientele thanks to new technologies, the Dot Com Boom. An upscale trend of cafes, bistros, and boutique shops, that keeps unabated to this day.

One more drive around the block.

So, the city beckoned, and the Beetle was more than up to the task. One memorable night, we took off around 10pm midweek to do a ‘panoramic’ drive. Going over the Bay Bridge at a cool 55mph, viewing the city skyline from the distance, as the fog hung over the buildings. The skyscraper’s dim window lights almost eerily glowing into the night through the haze. Reaching downtown, exiting on almost lonely streets, we drove swiftly by the renowned neighborhoods; Chinatown, North Beach, Castro. The car moving briskly through the streets, and the city appearing placid and lovely under the late cool evening conditions and sedate traffic. She fell in love with the city and always referred to it as ‘romantic’.

Parking was generally a pain. Who told the parking inspector I had been erasing his chalk marks? Oh well, time to move the vehicle…

Back to the VW, were trouble was brewing. After a few months of fairly good service, sore spots started showing up, a failing starter, the first sign that further woes laid ahead.

One last trip to the LA area in early summer to bring a few remaining items. On the way back, we took a detour to the Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park. Never having a previous chance to see the famous trees, it was a visit we looked forward with much anticipation. However, doubts lingered in my head as to the soundness of the decision. It was a long drive to unknown terrain, under summer heat, on a 27 year old car with questionable records.

We made it to the park without incident, the trees were -predictably- monumental and impressive. That said, there’s a point when such a large object is more than human scale can take in. As one gets closer, perspective loses its reason of being, and one ends up looking pointlessly upwards, incapable to discern the scale of the object. No regrets though, a trip worth the effort. I paid General Sherman my respects, and we took towards home.

Oh yes! I DO remember that winding road! – Kings Canyon Sequoia National Park.

The VW headed down the exit, a sloping narrow serpentine way that went on for miles. It took only a couple of miles for the brakes to start feeling very soft, each pressing of my foot bringing it closer to the firewall. Better stop and wait… the resource of the not-mechanically inclined.

We parked on a curve overlooking a ridge with some large boulders where we could sit. Sun was high in the clear California sky, the full dry summer heat baking us slowly. We talked a bit, me trying to calm my nerves, while Ms. Dulce Labios sat on a boulder. Suddenly, she jumped, completely freaked out, stepping back desperately, letting out a high pitched little scream. Few steps more and she would have fallen down the crevice. What had happened?

A small snake had just grazed her foot, and there it was, calmly slithering away. We laughed nervously, now sweating profusely, and got back in the car ASAP. The joys of the Southwest.

California visitors.

Brake pedal feeling now Ok, I kept the car locked in first gear the remaining miles of downhill travel. It was a work of patience, holding the vehicle in gear, going at a steady 15mph, and sensing the distance stretching by the minute. More enlightenment? Few hours later, we were home safely.

About two days later, while managing my daily affairs in the city, as I pulled the VW from the sidewalk, I pressed the brake pedal… only to feel it sink all the way to the firewall. The master cylinder finally giving in. Then, on hindsight… the drive down Sequoia Park had really been the SCARIEST to date on the Beetle. The brake master cylinder, failing so close in time to that downhill drive, has me to this day enduring the occasional brake-failing nightmare.

One more view of our hilly neighborhood. Tipical grey SF sky.

Fatefully enough, some time later, my Puerto Rican girlfriend started attending the SF City College. One night, picking her up, a campus brochure reached my hands. Some courses called my attention: Printmaking, Photography, Entry Level Automotive Technology…

Wait… Automotive Technology?

Time to leave behind the whole ‘not knowing what to do with my used car boo-hoo’ business, and get my hands dirty. Classes took place a couple of evenings a week under the relaxed guidance of Frank G., a gentle, knowledgeable, mechanic of Italian ancestry. There were now tools to learn, diagrams to study, and grease to accumulate on old trousers and sneakers. Also, facility conditions were enviable… American prosperity?

Not that I was planning to become a mechanic or anything, but the chance to learn basics, and to discern what ailed a particular machine, was an opportunity I truly relished. Also, there’s that pleasure to getting a job done, especially when one’s hands are involved.

Frank G. letting me know that a CV joint boot needs replacing. SF City College, Bayside.

So now, mechanical knowledge at my disposal, the car seemed destined to remain on my possession. Or did it?

I had to admit the romantic in me wanted to keep it. Few months into ownership, I had learned to enjoy the car and it was proving fairly reliable. On the city, the car felt sprightly enough, going from 0-40 in fairly agile manner. Very mechanically direct, the car’s controls were responsive and undemanding. The VW was an enjoyable ride in SF traffic, with its small footprint allowing good maneuverability on the narrow overcrowded streets. Also, in long freeway stretches, on windy days, I had mastered the ‘slow down, get ready to correct’ steering technique required.

Taking to those hills!

It didn’t take long for Ms. Dulces Labios to fall in love with the car. Few months being together and the vehicle had acquired a new nickname, ‘Totoro’ (A blue, fluffy, Japanese Anime character- Yes, cornier, still.) To think I never desired a vehicle of these… And yet, it was becoming inextricably linked to our lives.

What a fateful year it had been; I had a job I actually enjoyed, in a city I was learning to cherish, was in a relationship with a High School sweetheart, and thanks to late night classes, I could keep the German Wonder running. All was well with the world. Thanks for joining in. It’s been a fun COAL series, glad you tuned in.

Close curtains, role the credits.

Wait a minute, what do you mean transmission work?

Actually, not a bad ending. I could see myself in an alternate universe enjoying such a fate.

Instead, enter here mechanic extraordinaire, Edmund S., of German origin, veteran of WWII, who had moved to California in the early 60’s. My Beetle, needing a major tune up by then, and me being too novice for such a job, ended up under his service. On that tune up, a cloud appeared on the horizon, as Edmund made note that some transmission trouble was brewing. He recommended a local shop, specialists in the trade.

Enter next tenet of blue collar workmanship; find a really specialized shop with dedicated workers, bent on doing their work just right… and it will cost arm, leg and pinky finger; nail included. Were the Beetle days over?

Coincidentally, Edmund S. had a 1980 Rabbit for sale on his driveway. Not in the best shape, paint buffeted too many times and faded. Still, the vehicle had been in possession of a VW salesman who revamped the vehicle’s mechanics to European GTI spec. An American 1980 Westmoreland GTI? The well of Wolfsburg, via Westmoreland, beckoned again.

Once more, on the driveability of the Beetle:

1967 Beetle R&T Review – Americanizing the Beetle

1969 VW Beetle, Still a Viable Daily Driver?