My first car was a sporty little number with wide fenders and minimal protection for the driver if the weather should turn inclement. It was a great machine as long as a) the weather did not turn inclement, and b) the car was regularly serviced. In practice, the second requirement meant spending most weekends in some garage learning how much Coke and how many cigarettes the licensed mechanic could consume while leaning on my car, all the while charging me full hourly rates for “labour.”
It was a wonderful car, when running, but it had been born in England and the distances between places in North America obviously appalled it. If one wished to drive the two hundred miles to one’s destination, one was well advised to keep the speed no more than just slightly higher than the speed limit or the little engine would begin to overheat. In a road race over a short course it was a feisty terrier but point it at a long stretch of highway and I could almost see the fenders droop with depression.
I hated Beetles. At a stop light the Beetle beside me would just about have started moving, after the light turned green, while I would be halfway through the next block. I could negotiate sharp turns at speeds that would leave a Beetle waving its wheels in the air. But on the highway I would be motoring on judiciously and some blasted Beetle, aided by a strong tail wind, would whoosh past and disappear into the distance as though nothing was easier.
By the time I finished college and started on a Master’s degree, it became clear to me that my sporty car was accustomed to a life-style that was above my price range. We parted company. The car, I told myself, was going to a better home. But what was I to do for transportation?
My girl-friend’s parents (one day to be my parents-in-law) mentioned a Swiss student in the Law School who had a car for sale for $500. You’ll never guess what it was. Yup, a Beetle. But this was not any Beetle. This was a Beetle from the days before VW began improving Beetles. It had a divided rear window, little signal arms that popped out of the side of the car when signalling for a turn, no synchro-mesh transmission, and no instruments of any sort on the dash except a speedometer that read in kilometres (this was long before the metric system was in favour on this side of the Atlantic). To shift gears one was compelled to double-clutch, a manoeuver that means about as much to me now as I imagine it does to you. What amazed me then, and still amazes me today, was that my girl-friend-soon-to-be-my-wife learned to double clutch as well.
Double-clutching was, after a while, not a problem, but how were we to know when we were going to run out of gas? That also was no problem. There was a little lever down on the firewall, just to the right of the accelerator pedal. One simply drove until the engine began to cough and then flipped the little lever down to allow the engine access to enough extra gas to drive a hundred or more miles.
Just after I bought the car the clutch went (I was the third owner and the odometer had admittedly gone around to zero at least once already). I was in a cold sweat. To reach the clutch in my sporty machine meant dismantling the whole front of the car and labour charges were something you didn’t even want to think about.
I got the Beetle to the shop, had hardly tottered to the door on my way to the bank when I was called back. The clutch was repaired and the car was ready to go. It was then I learned about the four bolts holding the Beetle’s engine to the frame.
It was, as they say, downhill all the way after that (a good thing too because a Beetle on a steep up-grade was not much faster than a fully-loaded tractor-trailer). Whereas my first car did not like steady driving above 65 miles an hour, maximum wear on the Beetle’s engine was a problem only at speeds in excess of 120, and a Beetle would only do 120 in a free fall, in which case the engine would not be required anyway.
Improvements? Who needs ‘em? No car we’ve owned since has held a candle to that unimproved Beetle.
Words & Images
We moved to our farm in Sussex, New Brunswick from Toronto in 1977, only moving away in 2014.