Cars, Culture

Gone But Never Forgotten, Ever

Blue opened the door to travel across Norfolk county, and across Ontario.

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.

A labor of love, I scrubbed and polished, even in the rain.

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.

I thought they could float, thanks to DD&B’s ads.

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.

Traveling companion and occasional VW pusher.

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.

Minimalist, modest and self-effacing DD&B ads built a solid brand.

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.

After the wedding reception, our getaway car.

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.

This book: the road to perdition.

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.

Sentimentality and wishful thinking.

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 VW shield, a friendly reminder of Blue.

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.

Valentine: our new ride.

In exchange, we took home a nice Datsun 510.  It was red and white, so we called her Valentine.




direct mail, Marketing

Are You For Real?

SantaLetterText-776x1024“You have to write letters to get them,” said my 5th grade teacher as she drilled us on formatting.    What a drag.    At the uncomfortable age of 10 we had no one to write, let alone anything to say.

So it’s ironic that over half a century later I exit from a successful business which is all about writing good letters.

In direct mail, the letter is the backbone of building a personal relationship.  Avid consumers are enchanted by letters from their favorite gardener, doctor, hunter, dress maker, shopper, financier, teacher, traveller and coin buff  frothing over the latest gadget, find, or technique.

It’s no wonder direct mail grew astronomically through the back half of last century and into this one.    We were guaranteed to receive a letter at least once or twice a week with important news from somebody we knew, and who knew us, from far away, like Terre Haute, Fort Wayne, Franklin Center, Troy, West Babylon or Battle Creek.

But the bloom pales, if it doesn’t fall right off the rose if we discover that the writer doesn’t exist.    I was stunned when I learned that Readers Digest’s Carolyn Davis was just a beautification project — a makeover from “CD” for the Credit Department.

Betty Crocker in the Witness Protection Program

Betty Crocker in the Witness Protection Program

Carolyn was just my first commercial heartbreak.    I only recently learned that Betty Crocker, the lady who guided my mother through countless birthday cakes and blueberry muffins is a complete phony.   Never existed.    Isn’t even an anagram for an NSA operative named Cory Berckett… clandestinely stealing philo recipes while posing as a dishwasher.

Martha Logan modeled on Beth Bailey McLean

Martha Logan modeled on Beth Bailey McLean

The charade continues.   Martha Logan, who managed the Swift meat kitchen for a generation never existed, though at least she was a pen name for the real Beth Bailey McLean.

Ms. McLean was born in Superior Wisconsin in 1892 and knew her bacon.   But Swift’s ad agency apparently wasn’t satisfied with her creds.  They invented their own version of Martha Logan to broadcast from the Swift radio studios on Chicago’s WLS.

The Radio Martha Logan

The Radio Martha Logan

This new Martha had a photo portrait, and was reared and educated in Illinois, homeland of a long tradition of phonies.

Still, there’s one more fictional character, Beatrice Cooke.

Beatrice Cooke, queen of cream.

Beatrice Cooke, queen of cream.

She was the majordomo for Beatrice Foods, formerly the Beatrice Creamery Company, founded in 1894 in no, don’t say it, Beatrice, Nebraska.  That’s right, there never was a whiff of a Beatrice in that company unless she was lactating in a stable outside.   Adding the final insult, Beatrice moved to Iowa in 1905.

Which brings me to a quandary today.   On impulse, I made a donation to Wikipedia.   Totally guilt-ridden, I felt better after giving them a measly $10.    In response, I received a Thank You letter from Sue Gardner, executive director of Wikimedia Foundation.

Well, this wasn’t a Thank You letter.   It was a THANK YOU letter.  555 words, 14 paragraphs, 49 lines and 3337 keystrokes.   I winced in embarrassment.   Imagine dropping a few pennies into the Salvation Army bucket, and the bell ringer chases you down the crowded street crying thanks, before tackling you around the knees and blubbering all over your $900 cashmere wool coat.

scroogeMs. Gardner saw my paltry $10 funding the sum total of all world knowledge sought by countless individuals, and she began to describe the dire circumstances of each of them.

She concluded: “On behalf of the Wikimedia Foundation and the half-a-billion other Wikipedia readers around the world: thank you.”   

This was a “loaves and fishes” moment.   I did not guess my $10 would go that far.

Truly though, her letter did its job.   I have to return to Wikipedia, and I will no doubt double down on my charity.

But now I wonder– is she really there?