Edmund S. generally avoided performing work for others, instead staying busy on his own cars; a couple of 1980 beige Rabbits, and a faded black one of same vintage. Also, on his enclosed garage, a mid-70’s Beetle painstakingly being restored. In all, his hands were more than occupied. Why he took on me and my ’68 Beetle, I can’t answer for… Maybe my quiet ways got the best of him? Maybe the Beetle itself, triggering some fond memory? Then again, maybe he wasn’t as busy as I suspected and just found me a way for distraction. Whatever it was, from the end of ’95 on, the Beetle ended under his care when major work was needed.
Of German origin, Edmund was a veteran of WWII; a Wehrmacht soldier (yikes!), who had fought on the Russian front (double yikes!). After performing some ‘kind of work’ for the US Government during the postwar, and being granted US Citizenship, he moved to California in the early 60’s. There, he worked a couple of decades in the maintenance departments for both Mercedes and VW dealers. Briefly married to an American woman, who didn’t seem to understand the joys of a husband who owned a Porsche and a Mercedes Benz, he divorced and raised their sole child on his own, a little girl of blonde hair. This being in the 60’s, said ex-wife probably expected a Buick, maybe even a Mercury… Under my court, grounds for divorce more than justified.
Whatever stereotypes there are of Germans being fastidious and obsessed, I’m sorry to say, won’t be dispelled by this text. Edmund was meticulous in ways that defied most earthlings, and took to mechanical work with an attention to detail, so thorough that most US mechanics would fall into seizures. His workshop, were he spent time almost daily, was a spotless organized wonder rivaling Craftsman Tools brochure photos. To seem him work was to witness mastery at work. The Beetle tune up, for example, was a whole day affair, with him fully concentrated on the task. In such days, I would walk into his garage every so often, to wander and see work progressing. As he acknowledged my existence, he would invariably point out some piece in the Beetle’s mechanics that wasn’t up to spec.
- Why’s the pulley perforated? Also, there should be metal plates sealing the engine area. What’s wrong with this? Who put this together?
He would look with scorn at the shoddiness of previous mechanics. I shook my head “I don’t know… I bought it like that…” He would then return to work… only to fix an even more scornful eye at the Taiwanese spare parts–by then the norm–that would go onto the Beetle. The idea of these cheaply made parts going into the precise German tool the Beetle was just drove him with inner but visible anger.
The hours would pass slowly under his hand, all adjustments done accurately, with the utmost care. By day’s end, the Beetle would be in the driveway, idling with the precision of a Swiss clock. No one on earth ever left the car running as he did. It was a beauty to see him work; and the engine, after his touch, was a testament to the precise engineering that went into its creation. Somewhere on the garage’s entrance, I was sure, the soul of Ferdinand P. was watching in approval (either that or thinking of more ways to tinker with the VW platform).
Not long before I met him, Edmund had gone through a string of botched contentious jobs for other ‘clients’. He generally referred to these in utter contempt, with more than a few expletives. The memorable ones, mostly Latinos, who would suggest cheap, quick fixes. The kind we’re accustomed to down south.
- The rubber doughnuts that hold the exhaust are broken, we need to replace them…
He would explain, logically, not expecting any other alternative. Then, Latino thinking appeared.
- Really? Can we just hold the exhaust with some hanger wire instead? Se puede, verdad?
At which point, he would explode, and sent said ‘client’ back to… Honduras… or wherever they came from.
Acerbic, opinionated, strong-minded and inflexible, Edmund didn’t take fools gladly. I assume this led to a somewhat isolated life in the US, who although a welcoming lot, prefer a “live and let live” frame of mind. Not Edmund though; if he had an opinion, you were bound to know it–in ample detail. It reminded me of a Turkish acquaintance at the YMCA who acted similarly, openly giving his thoughts on everything and everyone while exercising, sending most patrons running for cover. “Now you know what’s on my mind… that way there’ll be no surprises later, you know who I am!” He explained. I had to admit, he had a point, even though I was about to run for cover myself.
Not that Edmund seemed to mind this lost in translation fate in the Americas. Who needs dumb acquaintances when there are sockets to arrange in the workshop? Or rusty Beetle screws to dip into cleaning solvent? He kept most of his days devoted to mechanical work, keeping his trim, active frame busy. The occasional stroll to the nearby park added variety to his days, from which he would invariably bring fresh cut flowers to the dining table. In general, he seemed a man to cherish simple pleasures.
Also lost in translation; the VW Golf, aka Rabbit, in its Westmoreland edition. Edmund’s own Rabbits being testament to that, having aesthetic and engineering deviations to please the American public, at least in the minds of the GM sourced executives at VW’s US Operations. The two beige Rabbits, as if following a Buick textbook, with color-coordinated interiors and cheap plastic-wood accents. Formica must have been a happy client. Meanwhile, the faded black Rabbit, in full Oldsmobile mode, with a sea of red plastics and fabrics in the interior (maroon, in US VW speak). The car’s cockpit was a full assault on the senses. Was said color interior even legal? Hadn’t safety regulations recently gone into effect?
The 70’s, a decade from hell, were inflation, gas shortages, unemployment, strikes, and a myriad of military conflicts that took place across the world. That should have been a cosmic warning to VW that as General Westmoreland was losing Vietnam, they opted to set their new plant in a similarly named site, Westmoreland, Pennsylvania. A project that had been ongoing at VW, at least since 1973, as the Deutsch Mark increased in value, and rhetoric against imports was gaining steam with both politicians and unions.
The usual stream of state government incentives seduced VW into the site, a halfway finished Chrysler assembly plant abandoned since the late 60’s. The state had been in the lookout for investors, hoping to gain votes alleviate the plight of the locally displaced work force. Incentives in place, VW took to it, hook line and sinker, taking a 30 year lease, and acquiring tooling from AMC. “We did it!” corporate videos proclaimed, as the plant was opened in 1978 to much ballyhooed expectations. VW proudly touted that they were the first foreign car manufacturer opening operations in the US since the 1930’s.
Truth to be told, Edmund didn’t really enjoy working on Beetles, or any other rear engine vehicle. Instead, as his driveway showed, Rabbits were–by far–his darlings. He vowed by their easy to access innards, the effortlessness of their maintenance, the logical passenger layout, and-–how could it not?– their driving dynamics. This being California, all of his Rabbits were of Westmoreland provenance. Under his diligent care, the vehicles ran in ways few from the same line did.
One caveat; the black Rabbit, not driven as often, wasn’t as well cared for. Still, it came with an intriguing background… Paint buffeted one too many times and faded, afflicted by the eye-searing maroon interior, the vehicle had been in possession of a VW salesman who revamped it to European GTI spec. A 1980 Westmoreland GTI? Yes, indeed. And much closer to what Europe had than what the US ever got, even in ’83, when the US GTI was launched. The black GTI had been on sale for a few weeks by then, and was right within ballpark of my “… below 2K” requisite purchase price.
For once, good fortune appeared to blow my way, as I got a well-paying 9 month gig in Los Angeles. Spending the next few months between SF and LA, I embarked on a too ambitious plan to keep the Beetle as a weekend car and acquire the Rabbit for daily use. After exchanging hard cash, shaking hands, and enjoying a beer at his place (Could it be otherwise?) the car was in my possession, in all its faded-buffeted-marooned-velveted glory.
So… was Edmund’s Rabbit really up to European spec GTI? There’s no way I can attest to that scientifically… but, behind the wheel, putting the foot on the accelerator, gunning the engine, and hearing it rev like no other US Rabbit… the vehicle just felt… GREAT! Ok, the Beetle was no great introduction to driving dynamics. But still… Feeling the Rabbit’s engine, as it revved up, sounding absolutely fantastic, and pulling the car with a force that made the cockpit feel in a different time zone, is an experience I still cherish. The sound of that engine, still lingering in my head after all these years.
It took me a couple of weeks to finesse my pressing of the accelerator, my foot still in Beetle mode, as I kept exceeding the speed limit ceaselessly. In spite of the faded paint, and the eye searing maroon interior, the car’s mechanicals were spotless. The chassis and suspension well sorted, moving in unison with the body. Can’t recall any issues with the stick shift, which felt direct and intuitive, so I assume it was also modified to Euro spec. (I know what the vague-shifting Golf feels like, as I endure it daily on my current A3).
If we’re to trust Edmund’s word, what did I exactly get? The European Golf/Rabbit had a 1.6 engine, with Bosch fuel injection, a high performance camshaft, and enlarged inlet valves. It was a 110hp pocket rocket that revved to a then lofty 6100 rpm. Suspension was set up for sportiness, with an additional rear sway bar, different springs and damper rates. Top speed, 110 MPH, reaching 0-60 in 9.5 secs. Can I attest to any of this? By seat of the pants, yes, absolutely… The vehicle just felt awesome behind the wheel.
By today’s standards, the cars numbers don’t seem that outstanding. On its day, though, it was quite a revelation. Launched in Europe in 1976, the GTI brought joy to a world immersed in full malaise mode. Even by the mid 90’s, the car kept up easily with traffic, and could pull ahead of most, as long as it wasn’t a real sports car. Still, it was a great fun car. Funny what can be accomplished with tuning and engine mods on a plebeian model. The GTO legacy.
As the months accrued in Los Angeles, heated arguments with my Puerto Rican girlfriend (still in SF, distance taking its toil) started to become commonplace. Pissed, I would take the car for solitary drives on winding roads, either late at night, or early mornings (Not the most common marriage counseling tip. Handle with caution). Without surprising anyone on this site, the car was just a joy in such excursions. I would steer and toss the vehicle with ease, the chassis responding immediately, taking on curves, speeding away effortlessly. After a couple of hours of driving, and aggressively working the shifter, I would come out feeling… almost elated. What girlfriend trouble?
That said, my Puerto Rican girlfriend did take a shine to the vehicle. Its red maroon interior and eager engine earning it the nickname… Satanás. Yes, Satan. Bestowed by her, who had a rather contentious relationship with the church.
Also, without surprising anyone on this site, the Rabbit was not quite a paragon of reliability. Regardless of Edmund’s previous maintenance, issues started to appear; a failing alternator first, and then, never ending troubles with the exhaust system (Original sin, or poorly sourced US metal?). Some were just 70’s legacy, an era of new technologies and materials that left no automaker unscathed. The rear view mirror, whose glue had given out long ago, had a tendency to fall out every three months or so, no matter what I attempted to keep it in place. Also, the driver’s side vent window, were the lock -also glued- wouldn’t hold in place, falling and leaving the car exposed to any passerby.
I took to correcting some of these as much as possible. Thanks to my recently acquired mechanical skills, I took to self-service junkyards, common in SoCal, in search of elusive parts. My favorite one, located in Sun Valley, where I tanned myself under the relentless heat quite a few times.
After months of search, the Rabbit’s driver’s vent window just refused to appear. Should I shut it with glue for eternity like many had done? Not likely. If Edmund ever found out, he would certainly send me back to Honduras. Then, on one visit, a GTI Rabbit with the striking GTI blue-red-stripped seats in pristine condition. Should I take on the mission to ‘reduce’ my Rabbit’s cockpit redness? (Brougham lovers, I feel your blood boiling… take a deep breath…) The new seats found their way onto my car, and to my eye, the looks improved greatly. Even Edmund approved. Now… if I could only replace… the roof liner, the dashboard, the door panels…
Said interior, in the sedate 90’s, was always a point of contention, as passengers boarded. “Your car… is red…” Came invariably out of their mouths. Yeah… Really? Never noticed! Your succinct eye could certainly have been of use at purchase time! Then again, it was a conversation piece, so… success?
Autumn arrived. I returned to SF, and more car woes appeared. One memorable night, after Thai food, driving past the dreaded Tenderloin, with my Puerto Rican girlfriend having made some jokingly exchange with an ex-hippie friend of ours. Him, well in his 50’s, always irreverent, doing some role playing about some religious matter. She, annoyed, finally loudly blustering:
- Oh, F*** GOD!!!
The fuse box in the light switch melted, immediately, smoke coming out and filling the cabin. The headlights went dark on the spot. Was the GTI possessed?
- Oh, no! Now you’ve done it! We’re all gonna die now!– our friend said.
We erupted in laughter, as the car rode down the street lightless; other drivers indicating we were riding in the dark. No kidding! Didn’t notice! Still, I sped up, hoping to reach home before the wrath of the heavens ended our lives any instant.
Visits to Edmund had become more or less regular, as he occasionally serviced both Beetle and Rabbit. One early morning I joined him for breakfast, while we waited for the Beetle to cool off before he could start working. After coffee and pastries, he pulled out a photo album. The images within were the product of his travels in Iraq and Iran back in the 50’s, when he performed some kind of unspecified ‘work’ for the US Government.
There were countless photos on the album, endless shots of the desert and distant outposts. A few locals would appear here and there, mostly caravan travelers. Finally, on a series of shots, a caravan nomad showing proudly a handcrafted book, each page a colorful manuscript. Edmund went on as to how this one nomad brought out the volume at the sight of his camera, and by gestures, excitedly indicated to shoot away. Each image on the series, exhibiting one more page of the mysterious and gorgeously handcrafted book.
- What was that all about? – I asked.
- No idea… I didn’t understand a word the guy told me. Quite a mystery, huh?
Indeed it was. Should anyone know or wish to speculate in the commentariat, go ahead. Darker secrets have been revealed here at CC.
Finally on one visit was the only time he allowed some glance into the hell of WWII. News of the Yugoslavian conflict was playing on TV, with additional dreadful news from Sarajevo. While tending to his daily chores, as the report went on, Edmund making brief mention of his brother’s fate, who had lost his life in the Russian front. I could tell, Sarajevo had upset him. After that, silence. No further translations were necessary.
Another year, and a new temporary gig in SoCal. This time, I was staying in sunny Tujunga, a somewhat lost-in-the-boondocks area in the surrounds of Greater LA. The GTI wasn’t helping matters either. The 40 miles back and forth from work, on clogged freeways, were hard on the vehicle, and my left foot tired of shifting in stuck traffic. No wonder all my coworkers wanted Camrys. Halfway into the three-month gig, the car just gave out. Some steering/suspension matter, if I so recall. Time to take the car to… Stuart, my old SoCal mechanic.
Stuart remembered me alright. And as soon as he saw me in the Rabbit, he started rolling with laughter… “Another Volkswagen?” Did I arrive after his daily partaking of narcotics? Under different circumstances, I could’ve soured on the relationship… but it was a purely transactional affair; he was after all, a good VW mechanic, narcotics aside. Also, I, as owner of used VWs, had NO pride by then.
Under Stuart’s care, the car was ready for pick up three days later. By then, what I had soured on were the daily $45 dollars Taxi trips from home to work. “Gosh… another $45 dollars ride to Burbank… to pick up the Rabbit… ” Then, an idea: I went to the patio, where an abandoned faded pink girl bike laid on its side. Who knows when it had last ridden? Rust in the spokes, tires barely holding air, and little faded pink tassels on the handlebars. I went into the house, and looked at the Rand McNally map… 12 miles or so downhill to reach Stuart’s shop. Should I?
I took off mid-afternoon, the bike barely holding itself together under my weight. The brakes, not in the best of shape, had me planning each stop way beforehand. There better not be some emergency stop on this ride. Also, I didn’t really know the neighborhoods I would be crossing on those surface streets. Was I to come across some dodgy areas? Not that I cared much. Riding a girl’s bike, I probably looked too loony to invite uncalled-for exchanges. Ever see anyone messing with the baby-pacifier-sucking gangsta? Nope? Me neither.
I descended the long trajectory, barely pedaling, just gliding down. Luckily, the brakes kept up more or less doing their job. As I advanced, I tried to remain as Zen as possible, invoking good karma, hoping I wouldn’t suffer the embarrassment of needing a tow truck for my little girl bike… Then again, one more breakdown would have been fitting. Still, the bike managed, wiggling down the way… through Tujunga, then Sun Valley. Then, it was pedaling time. Pretty flat terrain though, the bike, giving what little it had left on that final stretch.
I finally arrived to Stuart’s shop by afternoon’s end. I tossed the bike in the Rabbit’s back (not without some baffled glances from Stuart’s assistants), paid my bills and took off. In a funny way, I felt kind of proud of sticking to plan, and not giving a rat’s ass by that point.
Eight months later, back in SF and back to translation issues. Or in this case, non-translation issues, as in those last fiery exchanges we understood each other TOO well, the relationship with my Puerto Rican girlfriend finally coming to an end. Life, deciding to give me the full Frank Capra treatment, left me without work few weeks later. The company that had brought me to SF was closing its doors for good after 20 years of existence. Finally, the Rabbit added to the climax, its gear shift going out of whack a couple of days later. Pissed beyond belief, I went on a printing spree, posting ‘For Sale’ ads for both the Rabbit and the Beetle around the neighborhood. It was time for cleansing, and get Satanás out of my life.
No Clarence Odbody came to the GTI’s rescue in this story. Being a non-running vehicle, price set accordingly, the Rabbit went away first. Bought by a couple of young blokes who drove a late 80’s Camaro and kept trying to emulate Smoky and the Bandit burnouts on each stop. I hung on to dear life as I rode along the way to the bank. So wrong… I should have told them… burnouts in SF must be done on a ’68 Mustang, or a Charger. A couple of days after the sale, my now ex-girlfriend, pleaded me not to sell the Beetle. Not that she had to plea that hard, my heart feeling nothing but relief as I tossed away the sale signs.
Regardless of whatever ills early Golfs/Rabbits suffered from, one must admit there’s still a fair amount of them running around in various states of disrepair. So there must be some soundness to the design, in spite of the car’s iffy quality. In El Salvador, European built and Westmoreland samples appear fairly often, and even in larger numbers than the A2 Golf. Then again, maybe it falls to that elusive factor: Luck. Were some, depending on the position of the stars, better assembled than others?
If one wished for isolated road manners, the Golf/Rabbit was not the car to have. A bit noisy, and darty on long freeway drives… but in GTI guise, a blast to own. Somewhat coarse, fun to toss around, and slightly unpredictable, the car added quite a bit of color to my life, much in the same way as Edmund did. I won’t deny it, I miss both greatly, even to this day; pains, headaches and anxieties included.
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