COAL: 1969 Beetle – Redux

I was having a serious case of buyer’s remorse with regards to my spur of the moment purchase of the 1968 Spitfire. Beautiful car, but I knew enough to know I didn’t know anything about taking care of a car like that. Around that time, I got a call from the VW service department in Horseheads. They had finally taken a look at my seized engine and told me there was no fix, the best thing would be a new short block. As often happens in these situations, I had just enough money to cover the repairs and told them to proceed.  

When I got the bug back, it was like a new car, performance wise anyway. As you may have already figured out, I was not particularly attentive about mechanical aspects of car ownership. I tended to devote my efforts to cosmetic issues, and even then my fixes were often of dubious quality. Rather than make proper repairs which were beyond my ability and budget, I would just hack away at the car. Case in point, the first thing to go when I got the car back was the rear bumper. The bumper was drooping and rather than find the cause, I just pulled it off.  

On the front end of the car, rust was starting to work its magic around the left headlight and hood. So I ordered up a JC Whitney primed fender, how bad could it be for $17.95? From that same JC Whitney catalog, I sourced a pair of Porsche stripes, installed just above the running boards to distract the eye from their drooping condition. I sanded down the rusty hood and sprayed some flat black on the recessed areas for that Opel Rallye look. And of course fog lights for the still intact front bumper. 

In the fall of 1976, having graduated with a AAS degree in Construction Technology, but not really ready to start working, I transferred to Clarkson College in far northern NY, almost on the Canadian border. It’s important to note that with a short block engine install, you get most of your old parts back. In my case, that included the original heater boxes with rust holes and non-working flaps to control the amount of heat. In those cold northern winters, I had the classic ice scraper defroster for the inside of the windshield. Actually not hard to manage given the flat glass of the non-Super Beetles. And the frozen bottom hinged gas pedal that you would have to reach down and unstick in order to slow down. One very cold winter night, minus 40 Fahrenheit, I learned that while you might not have to worry about a frozen radiator, you will not be able to move the shift linkage through the very stiff transmission fluid.

As many have noted, including this famous ad from 1964, the Beetle can perform fairly well in snow, what with the weight of the engine over the drive wheels. My experience was similar, especially when equipped with snow tires. Unless the snow depth exceeded the height of the undercarriage, in which case it would perform about as well as any car floating on a cushion of packed snow.

I soon restarted my ride sharing service with service to the north fork of Long Island and points in between. The Beetle delivered a very consistent 27 MPG, allowing me to gauge fuel stops with some precision. During this period, prior to pay at the pump, finding open gas stations was a challenge unless you were driving during daylight hours, especially driving through the Adirondacks, where you were lucky to find gas anytime of the day. The trip from Potsdam to Cutchogue took about 9 hours. In order to maximize our time on Long Island, we would leave very early Friday so that we were arriving for our first gas stop around 7:00 AM just as stations were opening for the day. I tended to cut things a little close because the gas gauge was pretty accurate and consumption was so predictable. I only ran out of gas once in 4 years of ownership, about 5 miles west of Riverhead on the Long Island Expressway.  

The Long Island run was also memorable for the exciting Tappan Zee bridge crossing, where on windy days, the Beetle would be tossed across multiple lanes. That got old pretty quick and we started to reroute to the George Washington bridge, a bit safer for cars like mine. Once across the Hudson, you had your choice of the Throgs Neck or Whitestone bridge onto Long Island. If I were transporting electrical engineering students, their preference was to take the Wheatstone Bridge. 

Another regular rideshare route took me through Syracuse on the way home to the Corning area. I had a regular rider who had a girlfriend back home in the Syracuse area. Frank owned a non-functioning VW convertible of about the same vintage and he would pay me in VW parts. I retrieved a couple of fenders and replacement front seat backs from his car over the course of that first year. At one point, before a repaint, my car was sporting two yellow fenders, a primer gray and an original red.  

The Beetle continued to give reliable service over my 3 years at Clarkson, despite my lack of maintenance. The only other major mechanical issue I had was a failed clutch, coincidentally just a block from the Horsehead VW dealer. I was able to keep it moving right into their parking lot. I eventually put almost 80,000 additional miles on the car over the 4 years I owned it. In 1979 I accepted a job working as a project manager for an electrical contractor in Syracuse and decided that I was going to need a more respectable set of wheels, so I sold the Beetle for $300. By that time the floor pan was showing signs of serious rot. I doubt the new owners were going to invest in a new pan, so I suspect that was about the end of the line for my Beetle.