Came out of the Paxton in Bainbridge last Sunday and across the street was a man and his wife exiting a VW Beetle. Back in the 60s and 70s I had owned a 1959 Beetle with a folding cloth sunroof. I loved that car even though it didn’t have a gas gauge or a decent heater. In place of a gas gauge there was a foot lever that flipped the engine over to a 1 gallon reserve tank. When the engine began to sputter you flipped the lever with your right toe and you had a gallons worth to find a service station (service stations, remember those?). Other than an AM radio there were zero creature comforts but in exchange you got one hell of an inexpensive and reliable vehicle to get you back and forth to the job and/or college.
In the mid-1960s the singer, Frankie Laine, owned a VW dealership in Downey, California and you could buy a brand new Beetle for less than $2000. There was also a dealership in town that sold “grey market” bugs for closer to $1500 but the instruments measured in metrics and nothing was written in English. Also, they didn’t come with a factory warranty. You had to rely on the honesty of the dealer. Imagine the comfort that gave the potential buyer!
Later I bought a 1965 Beetle and drove it cross-country on three occasions. Before crossing the Colorado Rockies at Loveland Pass I had to stop and have a mechanic adjust the timing and carburetor so it would have enough power to make it to the 13,000 altitude of the pass. It took every one of the 35, or so, horsepower Dr. Porsche had allotted me.
The 65 came back to Ohio with me when I returned home in 1970 and I drove it for several years before mistakenly trading if in for a 1970 Plymouth Fury 2-door hardtop with a massive gas sucking V8 engine.
Seeing an original Beetle in Bainbridge I was compelled to go talk to the guy about it and ask if I could sit in it. I was curious if my arse was small enough to still squeeze in. I asked the fellow what year it was and if I could have a seat and he said “certainly,” offered me the keys and said, “While we’re having lunch take it out for a spin.” This man didn’t know me from Adam and I was stunned at his offer. I would have liked to have driven it but just didn’t think this was the appropriate thing to do.
I did get in and damned if it didn’t fit like a glove. This 1967 VW was very clean and had been well maintained. The two things that got me were how big the steering wheel was and how much head room there was. Lacking power steering older cars had to have large steering wheels so the driver would have enough leverage to turn the wheels. There were several inches of free space above my head, much more than my 2011 Hyundai Elantra.
After sitting there for a few minutes and reflecting back I don’t think I’d want to return to that era. Neat for nostalgia but my car of today gets far better fuel economy and will run circles around those 35 horses. I never did agree with those who say, “They just don’t build them like they use to.”
As I turned to walk away I took a quick look at that rear seat and said to myself, “Can’t believe we really did that!”