The Volkswagen folks announced the last run of the Beetle is rolling off the line, to be placed in museums around the world. Can it be? Viewed as the ‘peoples car’ of the 30s, it was re-instated after the war, in Germany, under the Marshall Plan. By the 60s, there were over 300,000 in the U.S. and Canada.
Ours was Blue.
Blue was a 1964 Volks which was our first car. A hand-me-down from the family garage, Blue transported us from school to summer jobs, from carefree excursions across Ontario on brilliant summer afternoons, to riveting, ice-rutted winter traverses along highway 401 through the snowbelt to Delhi. It trundled over two-wheel dirt paths along the tobacco fields, and parked in the breezes of Lake Erie at Long Point. Blue was our getaway car when we waved goodbye to all the good folks on our wedding day. He delivered me to a thousand businesses in my first job, a reporter at Dun & Bradstreet.
The first car for everyone is really the first adult responsibility that involves the threatening combination of technology, heavy machinery, rules of the road, and expense. Blue was my teacher, a frustrating, whimsical, joyous, moody partner in this journey into adulthood.
Thanks to the creative genius of the New York ad agency Doyle, Dane Bernbach, I was smitten with the Volkswagen ethic. Homeliness, parsimony, modesty and minimalist statements conceal the rugged individualism of a Volkswagen owner. “Four on the floor, dual exhaust, slowest fastback in America” was one headline that has stuck with me ever since I saw that first ad in a New Yorker magazine back in the 60s. Branding at its finest.
Another ad pictured the VW floating in a swimming pool, demonstrating its air tight body. I took this message quite literally. True, when you slammed the door shut with the windows closed, your ears popped.
What I did not know was that the exterior was not immune to water. Once, facing a flooded intersection in Kitchener, I chose to drive through the knee deep waters under the illusion that the car would be dry. As I drove in, the car slowed, and gearing down with the stick, I stalled the car. No water entered. However, the engine was deep in a muddy wash, and cracked the cylinder heads. Ouch.
Blue had an occasional leak. Not oil, but water. Every time we drove in the rain, water shot up through the pedals. When we braked to a stop, a small wave would rush forward soaking our heels. I solved that problem by punching a couple holes in the floor to let the water drain out.
Blue was the training tool for automotive repair 101. Way back then, there was the universal belief that one could fix their automobile just as easily, and more economically, than the local mechanic. To that end, I stripped off its rusty running boards–a vestige from the 30s–and repainted its doors and hood with Canadian Tire spray cans. Back then paint colors were limited and easily matched. Don’t try it today.
Canadian Tire aided my descent into the mysteries of automotive technology, selling a book entitled: ‘Fix Your Volkswagen’. For $4.95, I had a manual to delve into the intricacies of oil changes, plug changes, setting points and timing.
I did all of these mechanic specialties, once. I changed the oil, emptying Blue’s lifeblood into a bed pan. But what to do with the oil? I put in new spark plugs, once. The plugs at the back of the rear-mounted engine are almost impossible to reach. Once I installed new ignition points in the distributor. Following instructions, I set the fan belt wheel to 7 degrees off ‘top dead center’. Little did I know I had re-installed the distributor cap wrong, and the pistons fired out of sequence. That little escapade took about 3 hours to correct under dim light in our parking garage. My knees still hurt from crawling around the cold concrete.
The book did help on one recurring problem however. Being nearly 8 years old, its ignition system sometimes did not work, which was a disturbing phenomenon. Our brains and muscles develop patterns for repetitive actions. One is sitting in the driver’s seat, inserting the key, turning, and listening to the engine start up. But after several thousand repeats, it comes as a surprise, a speechless awakening, when the car does not respond. Nothing. No sound. No whine. No lights. Similar to stepping onto an escalator that’s not moving. You are off balance.
Turns out, according to the book, that underneath the rear left wheel well, there is a little cylindrical electrical device called a solenoid. About the size of a can of beans, it has wires stuck to it and to the 6-volt battery that hides under the rear seat, just above. The solenoid jumps when you turn the ignition key, and engages the starting motor. But after 60,000 miles of water-laden travel, the device corrodes, and sometimes is not up for the challenge of jumping.
I could have replaced the solenoid. But the book advised, that I could start the engine by rolling the car, with stick in third gear and dis-engaging the clutch. It worked! Thereafter I always looked for a hill to park the car on, in case the solenoid was on the lam.
This however was one bridge too far for my better half, Jane, who was designated car pusher. So the book also instructed that connecting a jumper cable to the hidden battery, and then zotting the solenoid could also free it up. I bought some cables, and thereafter lay on my back, regardless of weather and local environments and poked the jumper up into the nether regions of the car to give it a little jolt. Reportedly this is also a known torture treatment used in some dastardly countries to extract information. I still have the cables.
Blue’s odometer eventually stopped counting. It fell asleep finally. That forced me to falsely report my daily mileage at work. This was a concern because the good folks at D&B occasionally scanned our odometers to seek out miscreants like me. So, concerned, I went to a mechanic and asked if they could spin the odometer forward a few thousand miles. I did not fully understand his alarm and puzzlement. Usually people asked to have miles taken off, not added.
As you can expect, Blue was entering the final stage of his time with us. For me, the affair was over, like the weight of a fading romance that was wearing down. More cost: valve jobs, gas heater repairs, cold weather complaints–do cars get chilblains?– I eventually was guided by my brother to purchase a new car.
The salesman was Kassam Barwanni. That was 1974, and I remember his name to this day because in his kindest, most sympathetic voice, he offered me $50 trade-in on Blue. I needed $100. After some writhing body moves that would have impressed Houdini, he winced his approval, and took Blue away. And that ended our early education on cars, points, plugs, oil and water. Our travails were over.
In exchange, we took home a nice Datsun 510. It was red and white, so we called her Valentine.