Ode To A Super Beetle
The first car I ever owned was an AMC Gremlin X that I bought in 1972 from the mechanic at the car wash/used car lot (Big Barney/Tri-Level Autos) I worked for as a teenager. I had yet to turn 18, and I had yet to obtain my drivers license, but Bruce (damned if I can’t recall his last name) was selling it for a price I could afford so I impulsively handed over the cash. I don’t recall how much I paid him.
I had the car for maybe two years when it fell apart practically all at once. The driver’s side door latch broke in the open position, the rear window latch broke… I can’t recall every detail, but I had one of those industrial moving straps — you know… the kind that are designed to keep refrigerators in place on two-wheelers or in the the back of moving vans — that held the driver’s side door and, somehow, the rear window shut at the same time. (This also played a role in my Date From Hell, but that’s a story for another day.)
So, I went out car shopping. I test drove a new Datsun 280Z and a new Saab Sonett. I really liked the Saab and its rack-and-pinion steering, which had an interesting feel to it. I liked the sleek racy aspect of both cars, but I fell in love with a used 1974 Super Beetle. It was less than a year old and with fairly low mileage on it, was in my cash price range, and it was practically new, right? My mom’s brother, Skip, owned a 1950s-vintage Beetle, one with the turn-signal flaps in the door, so I think I might have developed my affinity for Bugs at an early age.
After test driving the car, I told Don Granger, one of my bosses at Tri-Level, about it and he told me that he could make a deal that would save me $800 on the purchase of the car. So that’s what happened. I traded in my Gremlin to him, he bought the Volkswagen from the other dealer, and then re-sold it to me. He then fixed up the Gremlin and put it back up for sale. I think it worked for everybody.
I owned the car for ten or eleven years, putting over a hundred thousand miles on it, although I never knew how many miles I’d actually driven because at some point, the odometer began to register only seven-tenths of each mile. I drove it to West Virginia three times… twice for whitewater rafting on the New River, and a third time just to hike along the river with my roommate Dan. I drove it a couple of times to West Lafayette, Ohio to visit my girlfriend, and a couple of years later to Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania to visit another. I drove it to Minneapolis in 1978 to take a summer job my brother Mike had lined up for me at Big A Auto Parts, and while there, drove it to the north shore of Lake Superior for a weekend camping trip with a co-worker, Sandy Harley, making side-jaunts along the way to Bob Dylan’s hometown of Hibbing and to Duluth, a beautiful little city that I decided was San Francisco-like, despite never having been to San Francisco.
One of the more comical incidents I had with the car occurred in my first year at university. I started seeing Lisa Salisbury, whom I’d met in a Popular Culture class, and we made a date (it might have been our first) to go to Toledo for dinner and a movie. At the time, I was commuting from home, but I can’t recall if I had to drive to Bowling Green to pick her up or if it was after classes on a Friday. Regardless, I showed up at her dorm, and while starting the car and giving it some gas, the accelerator cable snapped, and the engine zoomed to full RPM. I managed to somehow get it to Toledo — honestly, I don’t know how I did — and I borrowed my mom’s Chrysler for the rest of the evening.
In the fall of 1978, I got the chance to see Bob Dylan in concert for the first time. At the time, I was a major collector of his music, trading rare studio and concert recordings with people from around the world. On 21 October 1978, I went to see him in Toledo with a group of dormmates from Bowling Green, then again the following night in Dayton with Laura Bauske, a fellow Visual Communications major who was from Dayton. Because I hate being late for anything, we left Bowling Green in plenty of time to get there, but about halfway to Dayton, it occurred to me that I’d left the tickets at home. Despite averaging probably 80 MPH back to Bowling Green and again to Dayton, we arrived four songs into the show.
What prompted me to write this rather lengthy and disjointed discourse on an automobile, however, was the memory of an incident that occurred sometime in 1975 or 1976. It was a Friday, and after having received my paycheck from Commercial Aluminum Cookware (now Calphalon), I was on my way to People’s Savings & Loan on Navarre Avenue to cash it and make a deposit into my account.
At the corner of Third and Oak Streets, a couple of blocks from home, I stopped to prepare to turn right, and out of habit, I glanced up at the rear-view mirror to see if anyone was behind me. What I saw instead were flames shooting up from the engine.
I had some rags in the trunk (in the front of the car, if somehow you weren’t aware), so I pulled the release in the glove compartment to unlatch the first of two latches that kept the hood closed. When I got out and reached down to push the button that released the second latch, I accidentally pushed on the hood, locking it again. So I rushed inside again and pulled the release inside the glovebox again, ran ‘round to the trunk and DID THE EXACT SAME THING AGAIN!
The third time was a charm.
However, slapping at the flames with the rags didn’t do much to help put out the fire, so I ran inside the auto repair shop (that occupied the former Pete’s Grocery store) to see if there was a fire extinguisher I could use. YES! PERFECT! So, I ran back out with the extinguisher and as I pointed it at the engine, discovered IT WAS EMPTY!
Luckily, someone who drove by contacted the Fire Department (Station 6 was six blocks away) and soon a pumper pulled up and extinguished the fire. (Coincidentally, one of the firefighters happened to be a former next-door neighbour, Mike Childers.) I had the car towed to a Volkswagen dealer across town, and after initial wrangling over who was going to pay for the repairs, it was taken care of, and I had the car back in a week or two. Somewhere there exists a photo of the charred engine lid that my mom took, but I haven’t been able to find it.
On 15 May 1976, after attending the International Festival at the Toledo Sports Arena with a couple of friends, I hopped in the car and turned on the radio to listen to the Detroit Tigers game on WJR. Mark Fidrych was making his first career start as a Tiger against the Cleveland Indians and had pitched six innings of no-hit baseball, eventually settling for a two-hitter.
One of the best things about the car was that the rear-engine mount put most of the car’s weight on its rear-wheel drive. So… I never, ever got stuck in snow. Oh, wait…there was once.
For the most part, I loved the car. It had its drawbacks: the mufflers needed to be replaced every two years or so; the clutch cable snapped three or four times, as did, once, the accelerator cable; during extreme cold snaps, the fuel line would freeze up, which required keeping a bottle of fuel anti-freeze handy (the battery also required being brought inside in sub-zero weather); the heating system, oft-maligned in previous models, wasn’t all that bad, really, until the car’s undercarriage started to rust through, exposing the paper hoses which delivered the heat from the heat exchangers to the front, and rotting them.
I drove it all around lower Michigan the summer of 1979 as I took photographs for United Church Directories, my third of three internships required for school. It was on the first of those trips that I met and fell in love with a woman I would make numerous trips to visit (and later marry and… divorce). The rotted heater hoses meant for near-frozen toes during the two-hour-plus (back and forth) winter trips.
While living in Michigan, the odometer rolled over to 00000 somewhere on Marsh Road in Haslett, Michigan, not far from where the Barn Theatre used to be. After buying a Honda Civic Wagon in 1985, the VW was put in storage in a barn in Elsie, Michigan, and eventually sold. My then brother-in-law Mayo helped accommodate the sale, if memory serves... I might even have given it away.
I drove that Honda for another ten years or so, but it just wasn’t the same. I haven’t owned a car since about 2001, which is — by and large — a good thing. These days, living in California means seeing quite a few Volkswagen Beetle (and Super Beetles) still in very good to mint condition (and some in not-so-good condition), so there exist many prompts for me to think back on one of the few things I’ve owned in my life with nostalgia, and think, too, that if in the highly unlikely chance that I ever were to own another car, it would be a vintage Volkswagen.