Zeitgeist (n.) The feeling of a certain era.
For most of us of a certain age, having exposure to a VW Type-I (aka beetle or bug) was almost a given. It was either our first car, or the first car of an acquaintance, a friend or family member. Or, the car on which we learned to operate a stick shift. Or, a 2nd family car used for commuting. Or, the car on which we learned to perform mechanical service. The Type-I was an inexpensive car, but not a cheap car. The engineering and build quality were legendary, contributing to it’s tremendous success in the automotive marketplace.
The first Type-I I remember driving belonged to a friend of the family who let me drive her VW around our neighborhood on a military base when I was around 14. Already used to driving without a license, as Dad enjoyed teaching us how to drive and regularly took us to deserted parts of the base to practice, I was also allowed to move our family car in and out of the garage, unaccompanied, when going places or coming home, and whenever it needed washing. Yes, that car was always sparkling clean.
The next Type-I I remember driving belonged to my brother. When he was preparing to transfer out of town to continue college, deciding to leave his Austin Healy at home, he purchased a previously-owned bug. After I had mastered (?) the difficult shift pattern and clutch operation on his Healy, the Type-I was a piece of cake.
A couple of years later, some family friends asked me if I wanted to try driving their new automatic bug. Although there was no clutch pedal, the car still had a stick. There were two ranges; one for lower speeds and another for higher. The driver had to move the stick lever to select the range; it had a mechanism that sensed touch, a clutch-like action, that allowed changing gearing. It was a pretty slick set up, as long as you remembered not to rest your hand on the stick, neutralizing the gears.
I acquired the featured 1969 Type-I in 1981. In 1979, after a decade of living on the east coast, finishing high school and college, serving two years for Uncle Sam in Washington DC, and being shut-in after a massive snow storm, the time had come to return home to the Pacific coast.
Arriving without my own car, not much money in the bank and no job, friends and family made sure I was getting off to a good start by offering housing and transportation. Within a few months, word came that my brother and his wife were moving into town. Then, my best friend and his wife got orders into the area. Although I had been born here, lived here during my teen years and still knew people and places, it was like a totally new beginning, which sure felt good.
Lifelong friends of the family lent me their extra car. Their triple-gold ’70 Olds 98 LS had been joined in the driveway by a new Rabbit diesel coupe, so the red Datsun station wagon was mine for as long as needed. The time and miles in the Datsun were enjoyed; it came in handy for moving my worldly possessions from place to place while getting on my feet. After being offered and accepting a good position in my field, I was able to move into my own home overlooking the bay.
Being along the bus route and able to walk to the market and around town on errands, the red wagon was returned. I was handling the advertising design and production for a college publication. The work schedule was ideal, 10-hour workdays, four days a week. Three days off: a day to catch up with work around the house, do laundry and take care of personal business, and two real weekend days.Reporting to the studio around noon, and finishing well before midnight, the favorite schedule ever.
After the newspaper contract was fulfilled, I was offered a position with the convention and performing arts center as art director of their magazine, and had a work space in the office of the promotions director. Freelancing in graphic design provided additional income. While my best friend’s wife was away for an extended period, I became caregiver for their new Rabbit diesel sedan. It was a blast to drive, with a standard transmission, and, some unusual-for-the-VW’s-time options, a terrific sound system, Hella fog lamps, air and cruise.
After being back in my home town for about two years, a new, full time permanent job offer was accepted. My brother and his wife ended up purchasing the Rabbit sedan, and offered me her ‘69 VW for a handsome price with attractive financing. She had taken delivery of it, new, in Wolfsburg, promptly breaking it in on the Autobahn. Around a dozen years old, the car already had rust issues, but it was mine, and along with a new studio home on the beach, life had stabilized.
The Type-I was inexpensive to own and operate. For those not familiar with the original beetle, the ergonomics were superbly Germanic. The standard transmission was a joy to operate. With no radiator, the only regular items to monitor were the gas, oil and tire pressure. The high-back seats were comfortable and supportive, and had several rake positions. The basic AM radio was sufficient, even working when the car was off. The simple climate control consisted of dials on the dashboard to control incoming fresh air, and levers between the front seats to control the heat and defroster. Living in a temperate climate, the heating felt fantastic, sending hot, dry air directly at your feet; used in conjunction with the wind wings, fogging on the windows was never an issue. The wind wings, when fully opened, directed a massive flow of fresh air into the cabin. Upon reaching freeway speeds, the glass pane automatically flapped to an almost closed position, just right for driving at higher speeds, which the bug always enjoyed.
At work, one of the satellite companies of my publisher-employer restored and rented antique automobiles. It was interesting to see the cars come and go, in various states of repair. The eclectic collection included mostly American convertibles from the 50s and 60s, but there were other unique cars, such as an Amphicar, a German concoction that was engineered and equipped to operate on land and water. There were a few early 60’s Cadillac limousines, and most of the cars were available to rent for special functions and movie productions. For the chauffeur’s hourly rate of $5, staff had access to many of the cars. Several times, the 1961 Cadillac limousine was called into duty for treating friends to a night on the town. The best things about being chauffeured were not having to deal with traffic, parking or the overall responsibility of driving. You could relax, enjoy the ride and visit with your friends; oh, and with the glass partition up, enjoy a drink. Let’s not forget that.
Around 1989, driving the VW back from an out of town trip, one of the two dash warning lights illuminated. (One of the lights indicated an oil pressure problem, the other one an electrical charging issue). As simple as the bug was, having either light come on was serious. I had heard a noise from the engine compartment, and, coupled with the illuminated electrical warning light, was pretty sure that the fan belt had snapped. I off-ramped at the next exit, which was fortunately, a business district, complete with a service station. Yes it was the belt, yes they had a replacement, and yes they could immediately install it. Imagine driving a 2000s model car, and having one of the most critical belts or chains failing. Yes serious engine damage could have occurred, yes parts would have to be ordered, yes completing the repair would take a good amount of time, and yes the service bill might be substantial. I do not recall the amount of the fix, but can’t imagine it being much more than $20 or $30. Ahhh, the good, simple days?
As the body of the bug grew rustier, when a new neighbor, an automotive body technician, offered to sand and paint the VW, it was sent off for restoration. It looked pretty good when finished, but, eventually, being around the ocean, the rust came back.
Mechanically, the car was dependable, except for what seemed to be an impossible to resolve timing issue; when coming to a stop, the car would always want to stall. Slowing down and getting the car out of gear enabled one foot to be used for the brake and the other gas. After reaching close to 100,000 miles, the original engine needed to be replaced, so the local VW mechanic ordered and installed a crate ATK rebuild. During ownership, the bug always cruised confidently at 80 mph on the highway, and, like most VW’s, always gave the impression that it was doing everything possible to get you to where you were going.
Transitioning to a new place of employment that required out-of-town trips and going on appointments with clients, Enterprise rental cars were utilized. Driving different cars was interesting and educational, coming into play for making decisions about future automobile purchases. For one business trip, the agency offered a swanky white Jaguar sedan, which seemed pretty over-the-top compared to my humble every day driver. The Jag had been rented for a Friday appointment, and, since the agency was closed over the weekend, the car was mine for the entire weekend. A Sunday drive up into the mountains, complete with snow, was an unplanned adventure.
The ’69 Type-I was a big part of my life for many years. It took me to work, the beach, to visit friends & family, and was a dependable, faithful friend. It had limitations, such as interior capacity for carrying oversized cargo. Items that were too large to allow the passenger’s door to close, such as promotional displays, furniture, and even a Christmas tree, required bungee cords. Yet, the bug hauled art and artist’s supplies, garden tools, landscaping materials and shrubbery, always competently delivering it’s contents to their intended destinations.
During two decades of ownership, it was joined in the driveway by a couple of classic cars, but when the time came to purchase my first new car, the ’69 was relegated to the street where it sat during the week until being driven on the weekend. Disuse took a toll, and sometimes the bug couldn’t even be started by compression (letting the car roll forward down the hill, in low gear, with the clutch engaged and key in the running position, and then disengaging the clutch, which would normally start the car). It had served valiantly for almost three decades, still had a life to give, and deserved better.
One of my best friends, a dune buggy enthusiast, arrived in his International Harvester Travelall with trailer. The bug’s brakes had locked from disuse, but the car was finally coaxed up the ramp onto the trailer bed and away from it’s home on the ocean. By this time, the body was quite rusty, but the mechanicals were in good shape. Converting it into a dune buggy seemed like a winning proposal. It was readied for it’s new life in the desert… flying over sand dunes. I never again saw the ’69, but have only the fondest memories of ownership.
For those who have never had the opportunity to drive an original VW Type-I, do yourself a favor, if given the chance, and experience for yourself what one of the most successfully selling automobiles of all times was like. Zeitgeist. You won’t be disappointed, I promise.
Photos of the VW on the trailer, in primer paint and of the Cadillac limousine from the author’s collection; all others from the internet.