Sunday, September 9, 2007

My VW Past

*( Note: That's not my VW, it's just one I saw I Oregon a while back.)

These days I'm very much a bicycle person. Actually, as I've said before, I've pretty much always been one, since learning to ride. I love riding bikes, and fixing bikes, and building up bikes from parts and a bare frame. And I'm starting to get into bicycle framebuilding.

There was a time however, when I was into cars... VWs to be precise... air-cooled VWs to narrow it down further. It all started when I was a little kid, and my dad took a job in DC, while we were still living on Long Island. He couldn't leave my mom with 5 kids and no car until we could all move down to join him, so he bought a small, simple, economical car... a 1966 VW Beetle. I don't know why exactly, but I just really liked that car. I guess it was just so different from every other car. We had it for about 6 years, and when my dad sold it, it broke my heart.

A little earlier, my older brother bought a used '67 VW Bus... and I fell in love with that van. I remember my brother taking me for a ride in it shortly after he first got it, and it was just so cool. Heck, part of it was probably just the thrill of my brother, nine years older, wanting to spend any time with his punk brother. Either way, I really liked that van, and knew I wanted to own one some day.

Two of my three sisters had Beetles as their first cars as well, so VWs ran in the family. My first one wasn't wildly successful... a friend and I went in on a semi-abandoned Bus together, putting the engine back in and playing around with it a little... driving it (illegally!) locally...until one day my buddy crawled under it, and saw a little rust. A gentle tap, tap with a screwdriver... and lo and behold, a hole in the frame! Needless to say, we gave up on it

Shortly after that, I bought a used '70 Beetle of my own. It too proved to have a variety of issues, but I learned a lot, and got a lot of use out of that car. Several good road trips, and basic getting around. And I first learned how to tune a VW on that one.

Then along came Hildegaarde. That was my '71 VW Bus. Not the classic old "split windshield" type my brother had, but a better engine and vastly better brakes. And more room. I had that bus from fall of '85 until late summer of '87, when a missing fuel hose clamp spelled her doom... it takes about seven minutes for a VW bus with a full tank of gas to be totally consumed by fire. That was a sad day... some friends and I had an "Irish wake" for Hildy... lots of beer and stories.

Before that all happened though, I had such a good time with that van. Multiple road trips, including a 2 week tour of the Rockies (where I learned about advancing the timing at altitude). And I tore the engine down to the "short block" as part of a total overhaul, which included a few minor performance improvements. Not that I was going for speed mind you... it was, after all, a giant box on wheels. No, it was just an attempt to make it a little less grueling to climb hills and keep up on the highway. Pretty successful, actually.

I went on to own two more Buses, and a Bug... my sister's old Bug when she decided to sell it. None of them ever lived up to Hildy... in fact, the very next Bus after Hildy lead my then-wife to threaten to walk to the local airport if I didn't get rid of it after the cargo door fell off in my hand. I didn't blame her then, or now... that van had been a pain in the butt since the beginning, and the door was the final straw.

Anyway, my last Beetle went away back in '96, and I haven't owned a VW since. I miss them, the simplicity of them, and the "personality" they had. But these days, with traffic being what it is, and highway speeds so high, and SUVs prowling, I don't know that I'd like driving them so much any more. Sad.

But I learned a lot from those cars. Thanks in part to the John Muir "How to Keep Your VW Alive" book (aka "The Idiot Book"), I gained a lot of knowledge and confidence about mechanical things. On top of my bike experience, this was a wonderful thing, even if I never work on a car again, which seems likely.


doc said...

I had a 67 bug and a Karman Ghia, that was the family "college car." It was amazing the punishment they could take, and the fact that you could do a complete tune up with a screwdriver, a sparkplug wrench, and a piece of sandpaper, all in 15 minutes!

Chris said...

Great post! I had a 72 Beetle in HS through graduation from grad school. I too have the "idiot book". I kept it even after I sold my Bug. It is held together with duct tape and is quite dirty, but it has a place in my book collection.