After my relatively good experience with the Kadett, it might have been obvious that I should get another German car, but the truth is that it was my older brother who suggested that I consider a VW Beetle.
The Beetle has been extensively covered here at Curbside Classics including this COAL entry from JJPowers in 2019, so I won’t spend too much time on the technical aspects.
My brother made all of the usual arguments in trying to get me to look at a Beetle – they were economical, reliable, easy to work on, fun to drive, etc., but they just weren’t on my radar. I hadn’t really given the brand much thought at all. When we lived in town, an elderly neighbor had a son who stopped by at least once a week. For a couple of years, he drove an early 60s Ford Anglia.
But in 1969 he showed up in a brand new red Beetle. I vaguely remember being disappointed with the new car after seeing that Anglia show up all the time. Fast forward to spring of 1975, my brother and I were heading out for a test drive. I had spotted a 1969 Beetle listed in the local want ads, asking price $750. A bit more than I could afford but there weren’t any other listings and I was ready for a change. When we arrived, I was surprised to find that it was my old neighbor’s son selling that red Beetle. Always a good sign when you know the seller, at least that’s been my mantra.
Again, I have no photos from back then, but this picture lifted from the web is pretty close. According to TheSamba.com, the color is Royal Red. It had a black interior, 4 speed manual, fixed rear side windows. It was in pretty good shape for the miles, almost 80,000 as I recall. I still remember the smell. Is there any other car in the world that smells like a Beetle? Well yes, I suppose the Type 3 and the Karmann Ghia do.
It took me just a moment to get the hang of the down and back shift to reverse but this transmission was a definite improvement over the Kadett. I fell in love with the car, the complete German-ness of it. I paid the asking price and drove it home that evening and spent the next day or so studying the owner’s manual. I removed the chrome trim rings immediately, leaving just the hubcaps for what I felt was a much sportier appearance. Back then seat belt usage was considered optional by many and mine were grimy from laying on the floor. I scrubbed them up as best I could and made a commitment to use them. I had just gotten a job at the local full service car wash where employees could wash their cars for free. In those days the blower had a wheel that was supposed to roll up and over the car, but there was a manual lift on the air dryer just in case. If you saw a car or truck coming through that looked a bit iffy, you would hit a button that would lift the blower up over the front end or windshield. When you washed your own car it was on you to hit the lift button. I was standing there admiring my new red Beetle when the wheel on the blower smacked that flat windshield, cracking it right down the middle. The good news was that my brother was right, these Beetles were cheap to own. A new windshield only set me back $35. I changed the oil religiously, every 3,000 miles. I even bought genuine VW OEM gasket sets. Unfortunately that and keeping the spare tire inflated for the windshield washer was the limit of my car maintenance. I really am surprised at how much abuse these cars would take from me.
I do remember one time attempting to replace the fan belt and not succeeding. There was a local shop specializing in VWs about 10 miles away. I decided to drive there without the belt and have them replace it. How hot could that engine get without a fan? Apparently very hot. I pulled into their lot and 2 or 3 mechanics came running out, yelling at me in German. Fortunately, I didn’t damage the engine or did I?
Getting to know the car that first summer, I got the sense that the power was a bit off. The ‘69 came with the 1500 (1493) cc boxer engine, first available in 1967, making all of 53 HP. How I knew it wasn’t making full power is beyond me now as I think about it, but my brother convinced me all it needed was a ring job. He had been in the Navy and talked about dropping the engine on a friend’s Beetle over a weekend to replace the rings. I was set to head back to SUNY Delhi for my sophomore year in September 1975. We decided to replace the rings over Labor Day weekend, just before school started. This may have been the weekend when I stopped idolizing my big brother and came to know him as a mere mortal. We got the engine removed that Friday night, “it’s easy, there are only 4 bolts holding it in place” he says. Reading Rob and Dave’s Aircooled Volkswagen 13 step instructions on how to remove the engine, I don’t know how we survived without the internet. I know we didn’t follow half of these steps listed here.
Who starts a job like this on Labor Day weekend? Without a ring compressor? After breaking a couple of the ring assemblies, we jumped in my brother’s car and started looking for an open auto parts store. We found exactly one store in 100 miles that had the rings in stock. But we still had no tool. I think it was my idea to “trim” the springs that hold the rings in place so that we could compress them enough to slide the cylinders back in. You know this isn’t going to end well right? We got the engine back in by Monday afternoon. I hit the road Tuesday for the 150 mile trip back to SUNY Delhi. Surprisingly, at least to me, there were no issues, the car ran fine. Shortly after returning to campus, I met a freshman girl in my mandatory phys ed class. I had signed up for something I can’t remember now, but there weren’t enough others signed up to justify holding the class. I asked what else was available and was directed to Canoeing 101, which was meeting RIGHT NOW. I rushed to the class room and took a seat near the door, next to a very cute young woman. I managed to convince her that I knew something about canoeing and would make a good partner in class. We hit it off and soon were dating. It turned out that her mother drove a 1969 yellow Beetle, another point in my favor. She was on the field hockey team and I was soon driving my bug all over the Catskills to watch her play. The car ran great and I stopped worrying about our weekend ring job.
It was my practice then to recruit riders when driving home for the weekend to help pay for gas. One weekend on a cold Friday night in early December, my girlfriend, two others and I were heading back to the Corning area. We were just west of Binghamton, around 7:00 PM, making good progress on Route 17 when there was a very loud bang followed by no power. I coasted to a stop on the side of the highway and got everyone out of the car and to the safe side of the guard rail. I knew the engine was toast. We could see some farmhouse lights about a quarter mile away. We grabbed our luggage and headed across frozen pastures to what we hoped was a telephone and maybe a warm place to stay until help arrived. The couple who owned the house welcomed us in from the cold, offered us food and use of their phone. I called my mother to explain our situation and ask for a ride. My two paying customers got in touch with their families and made arrangements for getting the rest of the way home. Needless to say, I didn’t charge them for the trip. I spent the weekend making arrangements to retrieve the VW and shopping for a replacement car to get us back to school.