Friday, February 27, 2015

Der Käfer

Robert Couse-Baker Photo CC
Before I get too deep into this post, I need to blame credit fellow blogger Joe, his post about the Bug is what sparked this particular memory.

So with that in mind...

My first automotive conveyance was a used 1968 white Volkswagen Beetle. (The Bug in the photo is a '66 for those who must know, the '68 had a different bumper. Very similar though. The car, not the bumper.) Can't remember how much I paid for it, probably around a thousand bucks. He was in pretty good shape and ran like a top. (Not sure how a top is an apt comparison but I use the tools the English language provides. I didn't invent that metaphor, I just use it.)

Warning! Digression... You may notice that I referred to that car as "he." The car also had a name, Hans as I recall. When I drove VWs, I always referred to them using male pronouns, much like the Russians refer to ships as "he" (at least according to Captain Marko Ramius in the novel Hunt for Red October). And so it remained until about five years ago when The Nuke gave me her 2005 Honda Element. I had always referred to her car as Big Girl. So now my vehicle is a she. So to speak.

Slightly off topic... The Germans call it "der Käfer" which literally means, "the beetle." Volkswagen is pronounced "folks vagon" not "volks wagon." Yes, I am picky about that. Don't get me started on Porsche. (Who just so happens to be the guy who designed the Beetle. And helped out on the Tiger tank, among other things.)


Over time Hans started to experience various malfunctions. The first occurred one morning when I was headed out the door to go to work. At the time I lived in a marvelous little place out in the country, known (even to this very day) as Buckingham Palace. The place got the name from the property owners. (Buckingham was their family name, just so we're clear.)

The sign out front says so!
(Google Street View)

The "palace" proper is to the right. Where I lived is pretty much center stage. As it were.
(Google Street View)

Normally I parked the car nose towards the house, in the morning I would back up, executing such maneuvers as were necessary to point the nose towards the main road. On one particular morning, putting the stick into reverse did nothing. No gears were engaged. no rearward motion occurred.

Why that is most odd, I remarked calmly to myself. (Those who know me are even now scoffing at that remark.)

So rather than back up, I just drove around in a circle (on the lawn, don't tell the Buckinghams) and headed to work. At work I made sure to park in such a way as to not have to back up at quitting time.

At work I mentioned my automotive dilemma to a colleague who recommended that I take my car to Wolfgang, a guy trained in the mysteries of the VW. So I did.

Upon arrival at Wolfgang's place (out in the woods, but then again, it's Vermont, what isn't in the woods?) I note a rather large canine on a dog run (think overhead wire with a sliding leash thingee attachment). Said canine appears to be a German shepherd. A German shepherd from the Ice Age. He's freaking huge and very shaggy.

He is also attached to the overhead "wire" (it actually looks like a cable on a suspension bridge) by what appears to be a battleship's anchor chain. I mean this is a really, really big dog. He is also apparently unimpressed with my desire to get my vehicle repaired and is baying and snarling as if he wishes to rip me into my component parts and perhaps even devour said parts.

Just as Wolfgang dashes out to see what all the commotion is, I turn to the dog and in my very best "command" voice bellow, "Halt die Klappe du Hund!" (Shut your mouth dog!)

Immediately Hasso, for that is the dog's name, sits down and goes quiet.

Wolfgang: "You speak German?"

Me: "No, I speak dog, it sounds like German."

Wolfgang got all silent for a moment, then proceeded to have a look at my car. He indicated that I would probably need a new transmission. I said I'd like a second opinion.

"And you're ugly..."

So I drove off, resolved to never back-up ever again.

A different work colleague suggested I pick up a copy of this...

Which I did, this book taught me that there was a cable running from the stick clutch back to the transmission and if I was only to tighten a wing nut on that cable, I should regain my reversing capability. (H/T to Glenn for that correction! Wasn't the stick it was the clutch.)

I found the cable, I tightened the wing nut and BINGO, I could reverse once more. Without needing to purchase a new transmission.


I was still ugly.

At any rate, it was a fairly simple vehicle to maintain. And yes, I did consider buying Wolfgang a copy of that manual. Apparently he wasn't as much of an expert as he claimed to be. Apparently being an actual German isn't really sufficient to fix German cars. For that you need training. Or a really good manual.

Eventually a hole developed in the floor board, just to the left of my left foot. The foot which controlled the clutch.

Said hole in the floor board became large and noticeable during a major snowstorm. It was also a period of extremely cold weather. Not too much of a problem until I got a phone call which necessitated me driving from my domicile to the farthest reaches of northern Vermont.

The snowstorm didn't dissuade me. The Beetle is very good in snow. (As long as the tires can reach the roadway. Don't ask me how I know that little tidbit.)

It was the hole in the floorboard which had the unfortunate effect of letting cold air into the cabin. Right by my left foot.

So, in order to make the trip I had to dress something like this...

NASA Photo

Well, something like that. Without the helmet and without the massive backpack. Though Vermont was somewhat rural in those days, and it was shortly after the Earth had cooled, the atmosphere was breathable.

I suppose I was dressed more like this...

Public Domain Photo

But without the big furry gloves. I think I had better boots too.

Okay, so neither of those photos is a totally accurate picture of how I was dressed. But I was bundled up pretty good. It was really cold in my car, what with the draft and all coming up from the floor.

Oh yeah, the heat didn't work either.

An odd "feature" about the old Beetle was the two levers between the front seats. One for the left side of the car, one for the right. These levers controlled the heat. Pulling the lever up would pull on a cable running back to the engine compartment which would allow engine heat into the cabin. (No, not the exhaust silly, that would be dangerous!)

If you didn't exercise those cables periodically, they would rust and stick in the channels running back to the engine compartment. The end result being no heat in the cabin.

I had forgotten to exercise those cables for a couple of months.

Hence, no heat, hole in the floor board, long trip during a snow storm.

The drive was epic.

Cold but epic.

Soon after that adventure I bought a new Beetle, a brand new 1974 Super Beetle. (No, it didn't have a cape.) Rest assured, I made sure that I exercised those heat levers often. I actually did it whenever I got in the car.

I miss the Beetle. Good in snow, great gas mileage.

Of course back then gasoline was only about 33 cents a gallon.

Yes, it was a long, long time ago.


  1. I've had many type 1's and a couple type 2's. Race off road in class 5 SCORE. The Idiot book was worth its weight in gold. You are mistaken as to what the cable/wing nut adjustment accomplished. The shifter is connect to the transaxle by way if a rather robust steel rod running through the tunnel. The cable/ wingnut was clutch adjustment.

    1. Ah, thanks for correcting me on that point Glenn. It was a LONG time ago. (Fixed it!)

      But yeah, it was the clutch that needed tweaking. Now I remember. As I was writing that, it seemed too simple. Thanks for catching that.

      That book saved me a LOT of money over the time I owned Beetles.

  2. Ah, yes... Excellent book. I had a '59 VW bus with safari windows back in the day. With the old 6v electrical system the starter was useless below about 70 degrees, but you could ease it up to a leisurely walking pace, climb in and pop the clutch in 3rd and it would start right up. I had major street cred for having a car old enough to go drinking with me.

  3. That heat thing was a great design, except for that little issue you mentioned. Mine was stuck on all heat, all the time...not so good in the summer. Interesting how someone noted on my post, everyone of a certain age either owned a Bug, or has a story involving one.

    1. Heh, mine froze in the off position. True about folks of a certain age and the Bug.

    2. Guess, I'm not of that age. Never owned one. Nor, to the best of my knowledge, have I ridden in any VW product until my Daughter bought her Tiguan.

    3. Odd that.

      Are you claiming to be too young or perhaps you are a statistical anomaly?

    4. Heck, for all I know, I could be too OLD! I mean I came of age in the Pleistocene era. My first pet was a Tyrannosaurus Rex. (At least according to my Kids, but what do they know?)

    5. Well, I wasn't going to go there. Primarily because I do believe I am actually older than you. Heck, the T-Rex hadn't even evolved yet when I was a kid. My first pet may have been a one-celled organism...

      And so it goes. (My oldest daughter actually asked me if we had TV when I was a kid. "Yup, one channel. Black and white.")

  4. Gave me a chuckle. When a JO on a DD out of Newport, R.I., I had a '65 Beetle as my commuting car. The battery had died some time ago, but if I was careful to always park so as to be pointing downhill, I could reliably start the engine by coasting a bit and then popping the clutch. Did that for 2.5 years. I solved the (apparently ubiquitous) hole in the floor issue with a piece of marine plywood. Ditto snow driving experiences--engine over drive wheels was always my explanation.

    1. The military version of the Beetle (the Kübelwagen) was noted for having good off-road mobility due to its light weight and that engine over drive wheel thing. No four-wheel drive and it got around just fine.

      Marine plywood? Why didn't I think of that?

    2. Because the USAF doesn't use it? ;-)

    3. Right you are Cap'n. What was I thinking?

  5. I've owned two Beatles, three if you count the one I bought for the engine after mine got tired of driving on 3 cylinders (which it apparently did for 2 years in college). Maybe that's why the thing accelerated like a pig and could barely get to 65mph. I distinctly remember when I blew a valve- on the crest of the Siskiyou Summit just south of Ashland Oregon. But not being very mechanical, and the fact that it kept running (like I said- for 2 years!), I didn't realize anything was wrong. Turns out a guy without that manual, who claimed to have all sorts of VW experience, screwed up when I took it into his garage for a valve adjustment ("Bugs are great, just make sure you get the valves adjusted" cautioned the previous owner). The latest Bug we have was bought for the teenangster, who just had her first driving lesson yesterday. Mine was a '71, hers- '01. We're 30 years apart in age, and so are/were our Bugs. Nice post- brought back tons of memories that I might save for a future post.

    1. Sorry- Beetle, vice Beatle.

    2. My youngest kid brother (The Musician) had one of the newer Beetles, at first I was "Meh" but the little sucker grew on me. Brought back memories it did.

    3. One more thing, I was wondering which two Beatles you owned. John, Paul, George or Ringo.

      And there's another idea for a post. I grew up in that time frame.

  6. Wonder if the bug phenomenon is a coastal (or near-coastal) thing. In the flyover neck of the woods VW's appear to be rationed to one unit per town. And I believe the owners are required to be "colorful."

    My first auto was a 69 Torino. It was a very nice, very pretty car when I bought it, a semi-luxurious two-door with white vinyl over metalic green paint, white walls with hubcaps, and a bit of grunt in the 351 Windsor. I changed all that. Tore out the nice bench seat and installed buckets from a wrecked 'Cuda, went to mags and fat tires, added air shocks to the aft end, and shoehorned a 429 in up front. Unsurprisingly, that car simply would not go in the snow. And I collected enough tickets during the snow-free season to nearly disqualify myself for naval service. In my defense I can only say that I had a severe hormone imbalance.

    1. When I was young all the maps showed the East Coast and the West Coast. In the middle it was blank and had the label "Here be dragons..."

      It may indeed have been a coastal thing.

    2. My second car was a '64 bug that I literally drove into the ground, roof first.
      Had that not happened I might still be driving it. . . liked it that much.
      It was replaced by a brand new '69 Torino GT Fastback that passed everything on the road, except a gas station.

    3. ...passed everything on the road, except a gas station...

      Well played Skip, well played.

    4. Skip, my first car was a Nightmist Blue 1967 Mustang Fastback, with a 289 HiPo. It had the same relationship with gas stations. Being an American muscle car, it would go faster than greased fast in a straight line, but don't ask it to turn, because it wouldn't.

  7. Bug stories are so great! Everyone has one. I posted my favorite one here. But I also had a friend in high school that had an old VW. It did not have reverse. Most of the time he parked it where he could pull out, but now and then we all had to push it or pick it up and turn it around.

    1. Great stories Lou.

      That's right, given the right people, you could lift a Bug up and turn it around.

  8. I have several VW memories. But they all center around being a passenger, and passing. One day will attending a school in the Bay Area (Menlo Park) a friend who always seemed to be an instigator convinced me that we should try hitchhiking.

    Well, I never much cared for it - seems to me you want some control over who picks you up and being a passenger in a car with a driver of unknown driving abilities...But this was the late 60s and the Bay Area and all...

    So anyway we go and are sticking our thumbs out around Palo Alto.

    Well, soon a guy in a VW stops to pick us up.

    I am in the back seat and just a minute or 2 later he "lights up"and I''m not talking cigarettes. We're talkin' hash. Pretty soon the car is full of smoke to the point Cheech & Chong references are in order.

    Then, on a 2 laned road, the guy decides he wants to pass.

    We are in a car so full of smoke you can hardly see and we are out in the opposing lane and I swear, no detectable acceleration in the seat of the pants.

    Just a change in engine pitch.

    The opposinkg car is loominkg ever bigger, we are still in the wrong lane, and I had a "we're all going to die" moment.

  9. That "Idiot" book helped keep a Type 4 going until the ex used it to remove an innocent hedge.

  10. Those How to Keep your Vee Dub Alive books did wonderful things for us po' folks. They had a companion volume How to Keep Your Honda Accord Alive which helped me out through a succession of 12 - 13 yr old Accords. Drive 'em til the wheels fall off and then take any good parts (if any) and put em on the next one!

    1. Yup. Now-a-days you need special tools and computers and, and...

      Yes, I miss the "old days."

  11. When we were stationed in Newport back in the 70s my father bought a beetle. We kids used to chant, 2 pennies a mile because that's what the VW ad said. My mother would always take my little sister with her when she drove it because the car had a starter problem that we never did get around to fixing, guys all over Rhode Island rushed to help push start car when they say my 48 pound 10 year old sister pushing it in the parking lots. I bought a vw bus for about a thousand bucks. I could bump start it on a flat surface just by dabbing my foot on the ground and pushing off. It had knobs and levers I never knew what they did but I too, had that book. It was mandatory. I kicked myself because I could have bought the 77 model with hydraulic lifters and not have to tune the engine every 3000 miles. That got old quick when I commuted from San Diego to San Francisco.

    Still, great transporter, no seats in the back, Laser on the roof, sailing gear always onboard, sun roof....

    1. One regret in life, never having owned a VW bus. Those were awesome.


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