It was love at first sight; an orangey-red, sloping chassis with a cream-colored cloth top, sporting its engine in the rear, rather than the front. When I turned on the ignition, the motor sang to me in loud, syncopated beats. That was my introduction to the Volkswagen Beetle.
I’ve been disappointed ever since last month, when I read about the last of the Volkswagen Beetles being manufactured in a factory in Puebla, Mexico. Having been around since the late 1930s, it was one of those cars I thought would be able to hold its own among the SUVs and pick-up trucks that seem to surround me on the road. After all, it had always been good on mileage, was easy to get into small spaces and was affordable — the very same reasons why I purchased a used one in 1962.
Knowing I was looking for a car, a friend had found a newspaper ad from a car dealership. I knew it was the car for me when I spotted the red Beetle convertible complete with a tachometer (that I had no use for) and a personally inscribed silver plaque on the dashboard that read, “Especially made for Alice.” (I suspected some lucky girl was given the car as a present.)
That “Beetle” became my present to myself — with the help of my widowed mother who loaned me the down payment — and even today, every time I see one, I can’t help but smile.
Who wouldn’t smile at memories that include getting 50 cents worth of gas at times when I was low on cash; or having the ability to actually park in a parking space; and squeezing an extra person or two into the back seat?
As a matter of fact, I learned to drive a stick shift on that car and I continue to drive a manual gear shift (forgive me if I brag) though I suspect the days are numbered for such vehicles.
My Beetle took me and my girlfriends to Ocean City on several occasions while we experienced the carefree feeling of wild abandon — possessed by the young — as the wind blew our hair every which way and we giggled during the entire drive to the beach. At that time, I didn’t worry about things like a dashboard that was inches from my chest or traveling over the Bay Bridge in a car the size of a riding lawn mower.
Even driving the daily commute to Johns Hopkins Hospital where I worked was fun since I was able to negotiate tight spaces in heavy traffic. One day as I was driving home on Mulberry Street in Baltimore during the rush hour, a confused elderly gentleman got off a bus and walked into the right front fender of my car. I was horrified but relieved to discover he wasn’t injured. Nonetheless, I had to appear in court because he said I was negligent. The apple-sized dent in my fender, apparently recorded by the police officer at the scene, proved to the judge that the pedestrian had walked into my car. Case dismissed.
After that, I wondered about the vulnerability of the metal exterior of my car.
The heating system in my Volkswagen left something to be desired. I’ll never forget driving home after work on an extremely frigid day while I endured pushing the clutch, gas pedal and brake with numb feet that felt like two blocks of ice. When I got home, my feet stung as they began to thaw, but I was relieved I hadn’t suffered frost bite.
Alas, my joyous adventures with my car were short-lived. When Paul and I became engaged, he had a 1957 Pontiac, and since we couldn’t afford two cars, convinced me to sell my prized Beetle-Bug which was put to good use by an intern who worked at the hospital. (Of course, I’ve never let Paul forget that decision since the Pontiac, also used, proved to be a clunker shortly thereafter.)
As the years went by, a Volkswagen was never considered since we ultimately had two children and went the way of Chevrolets, Fords — including a 1968 Ford Convertible — Dodge, Plymouth, Volvo and other cars, leading up to our present Nissan and BMW (the one I drive). Incidentally, Paul remembers every one of them with nostalgia.
I have, however, had the chance to live vicariously through our daughter, who purchased her used blue convertible Volkswagen a few years ago. She also enjoyed riding with the top down during especially temperate days as she traveled to work across the Solomons Island bridge. Having recently purchased another car, she is considering selling her Beetle, since our grandson gently refused the car as a gift, preferring instead to drive a pickup truck.
I’ve toyed with the idea of buying the Bug from her but there are a few things to consider. As a passenger in her car, I’m surprised that there’s so little room. And I never realized how big the other cars around us are. Nor do I like the feeling of not being noticed by drivers of tractor trailers. Gosh, I can even feel the wind nudging the Beetle ever so slightly when we cross the Solomons bridge.
So with regret, I’ve decided not to buy it. Apparently, that feeling of wild abandon has gone the way of the Volkswagen Beetle. Both shall be missed.
Dolly Merritt writes a monthly Prime column for Life & Times.