COAL: 1997 VW Passat Wagon – The Black Turtleneck

(COAL series continues, in reverse chronological order)

It was finally time for my first new car. A fan of Volkswagens, alas, nothing at the VW dealer stirred emotion. While away on vacation, I kept seeing an image of a plain-looking, black-with-tan-interior, 5-speed Passat wagon that was languishing at the back of the VW lot. Was it the right one, and if so, would it still be there when I got home?

Dan, the polite and patient salesman, gave the good news… yes, the VR6, manual, GLX station wagon was still available. Taking the test drive that included a stop sign on an incredibly steep hill, using the hand brake, while learning how to operate a clutch on the slope in front of our childhood home in Dad’s pentagon-commuter Renault, I was relieved when we didn’t choke and stall. After finalizing the deal well after the dealership’s closing time, approaching the driveway at home meant the shiny black car’s first test: would it make the turn in one pass, without having to back up? Yup, welcome to your new home.



Not only a first new car, the handsome VW felt like my first adult car. It was a blast to drive, reminding me of many 3- and 5-series BMWs driven on business trips, including a record run on a Saturday at dawn @ 134 mph, in a 325 sedan. In the new VW, I no longer had to hide my gnarly old ride around the corner on appointments. At speed on the autobahn, whoops, highway, there were times when I hadn’t even realized that the car wasn’t yet in 5th. On hilly, twisting, back roads, it was a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Good job, Germans.

The part-time position at work had yielded to full-time departmental management, then to becoming general manager. The family company’s founding parents had retired; as their offspring grew into their new roles of president and vice-president, I got to try my hand at daily operations. Long workweek hours gave way to a mellow life at the beach on weekends. No matter where or when, the Passat fit in. VW’s sales brochure compared owning the Passat to wearing a black turtleneck… appropriate for a wide variety of situations. Another clever image-builder for VW, and applicable for that period of life.



One morning, out at the front curb at home awaiting the arrival of a taxi ride to the airport, I called the office saying that I wouldn’t be in, and didn’t know when I’d be returning. My niece had phoned the previous night, crying, about her parents’ health upheavals. The lives of my eldest brother and his wife were hanging by threads. Attempting to navigate her way through college, also having to deal with her parents’ downward trajectories had become too much.



The east coast was gray and cold, with patches of snow to remind that it was still winter. Hitting the deck running, first priority was to check in with my niece, and then to spend time with my brother at home and his wife in the hospital. Next up, meeting outside players to understand their functions, while researching other potential sources of help. But, mainly, to release the burden from my niece; no child at any age should be compelled into such a dire situation. An emotionally demanding week, there was no real progress, just the realization that only my brother and his wife could initiate action toward healthier selves. One afternoon, my niece called and said that her Dad was in bad shape, asking if I could go and check. Appraising the situation, I couldn’t leave him home alone. The choices were given of either me spending the night, or the two of us, and the dog, going back to the hotel. The hotel was chosen, so we stopped to get some food into our stomachs, parked the rental car at the hotel, and smuggled in the dog. Awakened by stress early the next morning, a Sunday, going out to the big Mercury to find a flat tire was a sad way to start the day. I’d have to walk the dog home in the cold, wind and rain, take a cab back to the hotel, get the spare mounted, find an open shop to fix the flat, and restart the rescue mission machine. All-consuming meetings, sessions, appointments, errands and visits, and the week was gone.

Back home, Mom and Dad consented to allow my brother to come and live with them. Our middle brother and I traveled to Connecticut together to gather him up. A plane kennel was purchased for the dog, suitcases packed and goodbyes given. As we were waiting for the cab to the airport, we received word of our sister-in-law’s relapse. The grim news was kept from our brother, lest he refuse to depart, sending the complex plan tailspinnig down the tube. Late that night, arriving home in the southwestern US after a long and anxious flight, it was reassuring to find the Passat waiting for us. Into it went the dog, her crate, the three brothers and luggage, ready for the trip to Mom’s & Dad’s, and journey into the future.



Shortly afterward and well enough to travel, my sister-in-law bid farewell to the east coast to go and live with her sister and husband in the west. My niece and her fiancé, an emotional powerhouse who led the brigade, emptied out and closed down the family home. Although while there we had spent vast amounts of time cleaning, discarding and organizing, the enormity of what remained was massive; an industrial-sized dumpster would be required. I imagine that it was transformative for my niece to see her former home and its awful associations being deposited into the bin and hauled off. Forever. And, a relief that her Mom and Dad had moved 3,000 miles away to sort out their own lives for themselves, with support from family members other than by her lone self.

Living with our parents, Dad didn’t understand… why couldn’t his son just get up, go out, and get a job? Mom began to attend program meetings, but something drastic had to change. One day while I was visiting a new medical facility near work for a regular check-up, a new housing development was discovered. If a home there could be acquired, might it provide an environment in which my brother and his wife could practice making healthier decisions? A purchasing partnership was formed between my parents and myself. However, in a blazing hot real estate market, one didn’t just go out and buy a new home. Financially qualified, prospective buyers’ names were then entered onto an interest list. When a release of completed homes occurred, you met at the sales office with others whose names had come up, waited your turn to be called, and staked your claim. No price negotiations, the builder held all the cards: take it or leave it now, there’s a long line of others who want in. Visiting the sales people daily for months on construction progress checks and to maintain a presence, it was well-known which model we liked. Receiving an unexpected call, it was encouraging to hear that a transaction with another buyer of the same floor plan had fallen through and exhilarating to be offered the first right to purchase it. Asking on which side of the street the house was on, it was a let-down to learn that it was not on a lot overlooking the sparkling Pacific with beautiful sunsets, and which would also benefit from better ocean breezes. Only halfway built on the next street up, waiting for that same plan on the preferred side of the street to be finished would have meant extended turmoil for our parents. Got it; no more ocean view sunsets after leaving my long-time studio on the coast to move onward. Ok by me, thanks for moving us to the front of the line… now let’s get this show on the road.



The Passat blended pretty well into the family neighborhood, and was invaluable for fulfilling duties at work and responsibilities at home. At move-in, it easily accommodated a carton containing a brand new, full-sized clothes dryer, with the tailgate closed. Since only the front yard had been sodded by the builder, the first job would be to purchase, and transport in the Passat, woody shrubs, bamboo and trees to plant around the property, followed by pouring concrete to construct hardscape. And finally, laying the rest of the sod and planting ground covering, all delivered by the wagon. The Passat made numerous trips for loads of rocks and gravel, and to Home Depot for a new power lawn mower & trimmer, patio furniture, pathway pavers, and other essentials for taming the suburban parcel of Mother Earth. Work on the inside came next, the car handily hauling any and all amounts of paint, lumber, furniture, fixtures, shelving, a workbench, tools and whatever else that was needed to fix-up and fill-up the comparatively large home, after having lived in a small, one room apartment for two decades. Stuff.


During the first year, my brother was away for weeks at a time to live with his peers in a supportive atmosphere. Having him return, and when his wife moved in, at last, the picture felt complete. Soon, their new son-in-law and daughter arrived to visit. Seeing for herself that her parents were enjoying vastly improved health in a civilized, harmonious environment, she could finally, just, be. After another year, they came again, with their baby. All three generations were under one roof, celebrating life, making great memories. A fourth generation, my brother’s mother-in-law, came to visit regularly and for holidays, and was with us when she fell ill, ended up in the hospital to then pass peacefully in a nearby care facility, daughter at her side. And, while growing up, my sister-in-law had never really known her sister, twice-yearly visits to the new home by she and her husband afforded the siblings time to finally get to know one another.


(Left to right) Passat wagons: my ’97 and new ’01, brother’s ’98.


Our new residence served its intended purpose, as did the Passat. Things at work were running smoothly, profits being generated. Coming home Fridays as daylight gave way to dusk, shedding the tie and shirt to work in the yard, mowing, edging, fertilizing and sweeping, became a hallowed and gratifying ritual… living the American dream and sharing the new-home ownership experience with the neighbors, who had become good friends. Now the hub for family gatherings, Mom and Dad beamed when visiting, seeing first hand that their family was alright, and return home to enjoy hard-earned retirement, savoring their final years in peace. We were all so grateful for our new lives. After many terrific years, my brother returned to Connecticut to reside with his daughter, my niece, after his wife, ultimately and tragically, succumbed to diabetes-related complications. There, a decade and a half later, he continues to lead an exemplary life in recovery.


Ownership years of the 1997 Volkswagen Passat GLX station wagon was an era of healing and growth that created golden memories of quality times. The car was an integral part of overcoming grave family conditions by displacing suffering and uncertainty with contentment and stability. But material objects, our vehicles are tools that help us carry out our missions in life. Thanks for your interest in how the black-turtleneck Passat helped improve the lives of many members of my family, including my own.

Specifications: Front-wheel drive with traction control, 5-speed manual 2.8 liter 6-cylinder (15 degree V), with dual overhead cams, chain driven, hydraulic lifters, sequential multi-port fuel injection, digital electronic with dual knock sensors, 172 hp @ 5800 rpm, 173 ft-lbs. torque @ 4200 rpm; front suspension: independent MacPherson struts with coil springs, telescopic shock absorbers, 24mm stabilizer bar; rear suspension independent track-correcting torsion beam axle with coil springs, telescopic gas pressurized shock absorbers and 18mm stabilizer bar; steering: power-assisted rack & pinion; brakes: power-assisted dual-diagonal circuits, vented front discs, solid rear discs, self adjusting with anti-lock.