COAL: 1969 Volkswagen Beetle – First Car Blues or, How Not to buy a Volkswagen: a Manual of Step by Step Mistakes for the Compleat Idiot


(RichP’s final COAL is postponed to next Sunday, due to a death in his family, so we’ll give his replacement, SajivW a head start. He’s from Sri Lanka, and this first chapter is a terrific read)

Like your first real love, the memory of your first car tends to stick with you, and you usually remember the experience a lot more pleasantly than how things actually went. I bought my first car not THAT long ago by the standards of some COAL-ers, just about 16 years ago to-date, which might be the reason it hasn’t yet melded into a completely pleasant memory. So safe to say, I can still tell you the tale pretty objectively, warts and all.

But first, a bit of background: I live in Sri Lanka, a small island pretty close to (but emphatically NOT a part of) India. Once upon a time, we were a part of the British Empire, and though they packed up in 1948, heavily influenced the local automotive scene during the major part of the 20th century, with a smattering of other European brands. Like many countries, we ended up switching en masse to the Japanese in the 80s and nowadays Toyota is royalty; although lately, the higher cost of Japanese brands means that we have Indian and East Asian brands on our roads too.

Speaking of cost, thanks to a long history of exchange rate problems, economic mismanagement and frankly stupid taxation policies, we currently have what appears to be the craziest car market on earth. Depreciation is a concept that hasn’t applied here for over a decade and used car prices only appear to go up. For example, a 2012 Toyota Corolla has a current asking price of 7,000,000 Sri Lankan Rupees (which is about $35,000)! But that is a story for another day perhaps.

I really wish this was a joke.

In spite of all this, car enthusiasm is pretty healthy here and we make the best we can of things, so being a car-mad teenager was no different than I imagine it is to be one in the US or elsewhere. I’m not entirely sure how I became an enthusiast since no one else in my family is particularly interested in cars, but I was pretty much always this way. My parents have told me that, by the age of 6, I could name most car brands and models on the road on sight, which sounds about right. The first car I can remember taking a specific interest in was my paternal grandfather’s 1959 VW Beetle, which he bought new and kept until 2000. Even as a child, the Beetle seemed so much more interesting than other cars, with its rounded shape, rear engine and musical engine note. I always hoped that he might eventually pass it on to me, but sadly that was not to be and he ended up giving it away (for free!) to a work colleague a few years before I was old enough to drive. To this day, I wish I had actually asked him to hold onto it for me.

When I finally got my driver’s license in early 2006, I immediately set about looking for wheels of my own. I had some savings, which were increased with some donations from my parents, so altogether I had a total of 450,000 Rs to spend (which was about $4,500 at the time). The car market was a lot less mad back then, but that amount of money basically meant that all my options were at least a couple of decades old. I had pretty much decided that I wanted a Beetle, so I excluded anything else from consideration, which in hindsight was not the smartest move. My budget could have got me any number of equally interesting cars, including something like a Toyota AE86 (this was before the “tofu tax” had arrived at our end of the planet), but stupidly, I didn’t even consider anything else. A good friend of mine who had a collection of classics was also getting rid of some of them at the time and offered me a nearly perfect 70s Toyota Corolla Coupe, for 175,000 Rupees, but I passed on it and I’m STILL kicking myself for that! (mistake number one)

What might have been

Beetles weren’t too hard to find back then. The weekend papers and the classifieds of our sole car magazine gave me lots of likely leads, and I looked at almost 30 cars over a 3-month period, but none of them called out to me. I had decided I wanted a post-67 car for maximum usability, but was reluctant to spend all of my cash on getting a really good one (mistake number two). Instead, I figured I’d find one at about half my total amount, that needed a bit of work, and slowly get the car done up while using it. I wasn’t very mechanically competent, but I knew a good VW mechanic through a friend who also owned a Beetle, and labour rates over here were (and still are) relatively affordable. I also bought John Muir’s classic “How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive: A Manual of Step-by-Step Procedures for the Compleat Idiot” and read it cover to cover, to be prepared.

After 3 months of looking I was getting slightly fed up and was at the point where I needed to get a car NOW, dammit! (mistake number three). So I rolled up to see a 1969 dark blue example one Friday evening, noted that it looked fairly straight with a very nice interior and got my mechanic to take a look at it. He pronounced it sound but needing some work and pointed out that the elderly owner himself had said it hadn’t been run very much over the previous year or so. Despite my friends telling me not to rush into it, the next morning, I made the man an offer slightly lower than he was asking, which was accepted immediately, and I had bought myself a car! I decided to collect it on Sunday since the roads would be clearest then, and rolled up at the seller’s house bright and early with a friend along for backup. I had already told my mechanic I would bring the car straight to him for a detailed checkup after I collected it, but there was no way I was not going to first enjoy a Sunday drive around in MY OWN CAR!

We left the seller’s place without incident, although I did notice that the brakes were a bit weak. I put that down to the car’s age and rolled on (mistake number four). My first stop was at a fuel station, as the car’s fuel gauge was broken, so I asked the pump attendant to give me a full tank to be on the safe side as I was looking forward to a day of driving. He started the pump and I stood next to him looking at my new pride and joy, feeling generally over the moon, when another attendant started yelling and running towards us, because lots of fuel was flowing to the ground, from my car! Opening the frunk showed the problem pretty clearly: the seal on the fuel level sender at the top of the tank and the hose leading from the filler neck had both perished with age, so when the tank was full, it leaked. Brilliant. So we waited for it to finish dripping, I made a mental note about how much to fill the tank and we rolled on homeward (a distance of about 10km). Unfortunately, my luck wasn’t about to get any better. About halfway home, we were approaching a junction when an SUV in front of me braked abruptly, causing me to jump on my brakes and watch with horror as the pedal sank to the floor! Frantic pumping did nothing and so we sailed into the back of the stopped SUV at around 20km/h with a massive thud. After checking that my friend was in one piece (he was), I hopped out to assess the damage. The SUV had a tow bar that stuck out about a foot behind its bumper and that piece of solid metal had taken the entire impact, with no damage to the vehicle. Sadly, the same could not be said for my poor Beetle, which had a massive dent in front and a misaligned hood/bonnet. Thankfully, it was still in drivable condition, and since the other guy had no issues because he was undamaged, we headed directly to my mechanic’s place, all other plans abandoned.

Doesn’t look too bad, does it?

Because of the accident, the “drive it while fixing it” plan was no longer viable. So the mechanic and I decided to fix the accident damage, give it a once-over and see what else needed doing. I left it with him and spent a few days dealing with buyer’s remorse, but still thinking it would be a fairly straightforward job that would be done in a week or two – then, the phone rang. It was my mechanic, who had a gift for understatement and said something like “there seems to be a bit more work than we thought, perhaps you should come and have a look”. So off I went mentally prepared for the bad news, which was lucky because “a bit more work” was, shall we say, not entirely accurate.

First up, the impact had pushed the spare wheel back in such a way that it bent the structure behind it, and even moved the fuel tank slightly! Then, there was a LOT more rust than we had initially thought: the floorboards were crumbling at the edges, the sills were only half there, the door bottoms were made of filler, and some other things that I’m sure I’ve now forgotten. All in all, it appeared that my “honest runner that needed some tidying” would end up being a full-on restoration.

Just some of the old metal that was cut out of the car

Having no other choice, we went ahead as planned, and the car got a complete newly fabricated floorpan, along with new sills, new door bottoms and a lot more besides. Combined with a mechanical and electrical refresh, this rapidly ate up the remainder of my cash, so when it was time to paint it, I didn’t have enough money to do the job properly with a bare metal stripdown. We compromised and decided on a re-spray over the existing paint (mistake number… I’ve lost count).

Yes, it ended up being quite a lot of work!

Finally, after 5 months in the shop, it came out looking quite good and driving well, but I couldn’t ignore the fact that I could have spent the same or slightly less money in the first place and bought a properly sorted one.

It did end up looking fairly pretty, I’ll admit.

Still, no use crying over spilled milk, so I proceeded to daily drive it for the next 2 years, mostly around my home city, but occasionally taking road trips and just generally driving the hell out of it. Unlike US market Beetles, the 1500 engine wasn’t that common in other markets , so my car had the 40 Bhp 1300 engine and drum brakes all round. Thanks to the VW engine’s famed ability to run flat out all day, it more than kept up with traffic. A few times I even managed to get it up to 140 Km/h, with the typical idiocy of youth. Thankfully the car managed to get there and slow down without too much drama. I used it for pretty much everything a 19-year-old would, including ridiculous shenanigans like getting it stuck on a beach because a few friends and I decided to test out VW’s famed traction capabilities. That took an hour of digging (by hand) and shoving to get out of. The Beetle was generally reliable during that time, although I did have a few issues with the ignition coil, which left me stranded once or twice, and a few electrical issues that were to be expected in a nearly 40 year old car.

Yeah, this took some getting out of!

After about two years of use, my penny-wise approach to paint was coming back to bite me in the rear, and bubbles were noticeable in various areas. Besides this, my girlfriend at the time was not thrilled about riding around in our tropical climate in a car with no air con (average temperatures are around 30-35 C year-round in my city), and she regularly asked me why I was bothering with an old heap (needless to say, that relationship didn’t work out). In early 2009 I got a different daily driver (COAL soon) and the Beetle was relegated to “weekend car”. But with one thing and another it didn’t get much use due to other projects, so eventually I started thinking about selling. The paint was looking pretty bad by this point, so I didn’t exactly have buyers lining up. After a couple of months of advertising with no results, someone looking for a project car came up with an amount I thought was not too bad (300,000 Rupees or $2,700 at that time), and so we shook hands and he drove it away. I totaled up my bills (reluctantly) and found that I had spent nearly double that over the years, so overall it wasn’t exactly a financially sound choice.

Nostalgia can be a powerful drug though because last year, I decided I sort of wanted a Beetle again and started looking semi seriously for my old car, hoping it survived. I was thrilled to find it come up in an online ad, but my enthusiasm waned when I saw the shape it was in; someone had turned it into a “convertible”, done a remarkably crap job of it, and was using it as a wedding car.

Goodbye structural rigidity. No windows anymore either, obviously.

So bang went the idea of buying it back sadly. But somehow, I still haven’t entirely shaken off the hankering for a Beetle and keep browsing the classifieds every now and then looking for a decent one. They’ve gotten a lot more expensive and everything that has come up so far has not been in great shape. Hopefully, all the lessons learned last time around will stick and if I do get one, it will be a happier tale. Watch this space.