“A straight little car” Part I

The 1967 Volkswagen Sedan represented, for many fans of the “Beetle Bug”, the meeting point of the best of the old and the best of the new. Among other things, it was the first year that the Bug had a 12-volt battery and the last year that it had a metal dashboard. Up until 1966 the car had had to get by with just 6-volts, and in 1968 the metal dash was replaced with vinyl, which faded and cracked with a few years in the sun (and didn’t hold magnets). The ’67 was the pinnacle of that car’s engineering and design.

My first car was a 1967 Bug that I christened Little Nemo after Winsor McCay‘s cartoon character. After classes during my college years, Nemo and I often went out and beat up the old highways that ran through the little Snoqualmie Valley towns of Fall City, Stillwater, Carnation, Duvall and Monroe, turning off to explore little backroads where whim dictated. I had not yet grown up, and as many young men do I thought of my car as an animate object. Since my human friends had all moved away to colleges elsewhere, Nemo became the buddy that went everywhere with me. In fact, I was like the the cartoon boy Nemo and my car was like his bed, which was the vehicle that carried him on most of his adventures.

Bound for adventure. Image used according to Wikipedia Commons.


I was 24 and living at home again, working my way through my second sprint of college years, when I announced at the dinner table that I wanted to buy a VW Bug. Both of my parents had the same reflex.

“Those things are always breaking down,” said my dad, upon hearing of my plan. “You’ll always be underneath it.”

“You don’t know anything about fixing cars,” worried my mom, her face darkened by a frown.

To my knowledge, my dad did not hold any particular loyalty to Ford over Chevrolet, or vice versa, but he was decidedly unfond of things made offshore; distrusted them and preferred to buy American, especially if we were talking about cars. (I see an irony in the fact that I now make a point of buying “local” whenever possible.) Dad’s older brothers had fought in World War II to help beat back the Hun and Emperor Hirohito, and we had been magnanimous enough as a world power to help the defeated nations get their economies started again, which was the right thing to do perhaps, but we didn’t have to buy their cars. And besides, they were bound to be inferior. Growing up, I had ridden in the back seats of a 1957 Chevy Station Wagon, a 1964 Chevy Impala, a Ford van of some species, a 1968 Ford Galaxy 500, and a 1976 Chrysler Volare station wagon, all (excepting of the last, which had been bought expressly for my mother to use) with my dad behind the wheel as the proud beneficiary of American automotive engineering superiority. All, too, were periodically pulled up close to the house with their hoods open and my dad bent over their engines.

Memories of standing in the rain holding a wrench for my dad while wishing I was over at my friend’s house were as painful for me as I imagine the disappointment at not having been able to instill in me a sense of responsibility about cars was for my dad. I didn’t understand that he got real satisfaction out of repairing and maintaining these marvelous machines, and in saving money that way; that it gave him a sense of agency that I now recognize as a hunger in my own present life, a sense of engaging the physical, tangible world and altering it, mastering it. I was a daydreaming teenager as yet unoppressed by the routine of a workaday world and saw nothing compelling about that activity. I also didn’t recognize an opportunity to bond with my father in silent (or at least non-verbal — there was plenty of grunting) side-by-side combat against the absurdities of Detroit. Standing next to the driveway twiddling the needlenose pliars while my dad slew unseen dragons under the hood felt like a chore, just like taking out the garbage and cleaning the cat box. I’m sure my feelings on the matter were patent to all (“Dad, can I go now?”). After a time, he only asked me to come out for specific momentary needs, to step on the break or the gas, or to help him lift something heavy.

There is a mystery here. I took this photo myself while standing in the road, but I am curiously absent in the reflection on the back bumper, which displays nearly a 180-degree view. Was my soul missing?

Little Nemo in the Snoqualmie Valley, the year after I fixed the engine. There is a mystery here. I took this photo myself, but even at high-res I cannot find myself in the reflection on the back bumper, which displays nearly a 180-degree view. Was my soul missing?

The double vote of no confidence felt terrible, but it was not like my folks were vowing to disown me if I bought a VW. In fact, despite their reservations they cosigned my first loan from a bank. I don’t remember exactly what the loan was, maybe two thou, but I believe the car was $1450.00. My parents thought it would be a good idea for me to establish credit. At 24, I had never bought anything more expensive than a Bell and Howell Super 8 sound movie projector, which was the matter of not more than three hundred dollars. I took out a loan, which I paid on monthly for the next three years.

I responded to an ad for a car for sale by a young man named Eric S–. I remember loving its curves immediately as I pulled up in my folks’ Volare and saw Little Nemo sitting against the curb in the street outside Eric’s parents’ house. The exterior had four different colors: basically tan with a blue hood, a primer-colored front apron, and one rust-colored fender. The sleek back fenders looked like the haunches of a cat. It had running boards. (Running boards!) Eric and I drove it around and he told me a little about the car. I remember nothing of what he said. He then let me drive it away to have a mechanic look at it before I made up my mind.

The mechanic I took it to ran a small garage on the Eastside called Motorworks. I forget his name. He looked the car over approvingly, poked around and under it, measured and inspected.

“Straight little car,” he said. Then I gave him the keys and we got in. He brodied around through back alleys along Bel-Red Road, putting the transmission through its paces and listening to the engine.

“Yup,” he repeated. “Straight little car.”

I was to hear this exact phrase many more times over the years. It was the kind of statement said among people who could appreciate, under the rough exterior, a reliable machine that had been designed well and well cared for. It signified that in choosing this car, I had showed good sense. I probably overpaid for a 19-year-old box of tin, but everybody who knew Bugs who ever looked at it said it was “a straight little car.” It wasn’t pretty, but the interior had been redone with plush, fur-like seats. And really, what mattered to me was that I’d be able to drive across the lake to my classes at the University of Washington instead of catching two buses with a long wait between, or walking a mile and catch one bus) and I would not have to borrow the Volare to go to work at the Mini Mart, also in the University District. The car meant independence. It was a bonus that when you stepped on the gas, the whole car lifted up and WENT. It looked like an old dog, but it acted like a young horse.

The first month I drove it that hot summer of 1986, I kept seeing the little orange oil light on the dashboard flickering on. That couldn’t be good. I added oil, but that didn’t help. Something was wrong. Initial probes by a mechanic suggested I would have to submit the car to an R&R (it stood for “remove and replace” or “remove and repair” — mechanic’s lingo for “in order to find out what’s wrong we’ll have to take the engine completely out of the car, and even if we don’t find anything wrong we’ll have to put the engine back into the car”), a round trip for the engine that would cost an estimated thousand dollars by the time all was said and done. I was stricken. School started in a week. If I ignored this problem, my engine could blow up on the Evergreen Floating Bridge, and I’d be that guy.

Would it really be this easy? Image lifted from Amazon's website and used without permission.

Would it really be this easy? Illustration from Muir's book lifted from Amazon and used without permission.

I didn’t have a thousand dollars. I had a copy of John Muir’s How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive: A Manual of Step-by-Step Procedures for the Compleat Idiot. I had fearlessness, being young, and a notion that taking apart a meticulously designed and precisely manufactured piece of mid-20th-century machinery should not present insurmountable obstacles for a person who was willing to get his hands dirty. I had parents who would let me park my disabled car in their driveway.

And I had one week…



12 Responses to ““A straight little car” Part I”

  1. 1 Ben October 16, 2009 at 20:06

    The van was a Ford Econoline, with the more modern styling. Light blue paint job, double doors on the side. Dark or sea blue interior. How do I remember this? After all I was a mere 4-5 years of age. But I liked the van a great deal, I can remember it sitting in Vancouver on a construction site when we went to visit Dad, and for some reason the smell of coffee in a thermos is associated with that. I must have been sensing the amber liquid’s role in my life later.
    I also remember the ’64 Chevy because of the rain pouring through the back seat under our feet on the way to church. Or was that the Galaxy?

  2. 2 Kip October 16, 2009 at 20:42

    Matt, I remember when you bought the VW. I was quite impressed. I also remember when you said you had removed, took apart, reassembled, and replaced the engine. WOW! I can honestly say that I have replaced the coolant in only one of my cars…once. I have done a little work on a “67 VW engine in the form of replacing the points, plugs, and wires. Also tried to set the timing, but fell short. I am still beyond impressed with Nemo, and the work you did on the little gem! And again, the Galaxy 500 was perfect for the times in which we lived! Oh, and do you still have the plate? I love the older Washington plates, I don’t have one.

    And Ben, I can see why you would remember a cool van like the Econoline! And, I take it, you’re a fan of the coffee? Black, and the stronger, the better?
    More please!!!!!!

    • 3 Ben October 17, 2009 at 09:13


      Coffee is by and large my beverage of choice. I found myself attemting to drink it throughout my early days in the Marines, due to a sudden problem with Instructor induced narcolepsy (sp?). The first experiences were dashed unpleasant. I later made additional attempts when shivering in the cold of the Korean mudscape. Tent cities have few amenities and without even a proper coffee cup, I found that holding a tin field mug in my hands with hot “Joe” made from MRE packets mixed with cocoa and creamer could supply a fine method of heating the body! I still enjoy a stiff Mocha in fond memory of my time in the Korean muck. (Were you aware that creamer packets, tossed in the air can flashburn when in contact with a Bic? My buddy’s hair was singed in an experiment)

      I came to love the amber liquid in those cold days and much to my delight, after returning stateside I found that there was even better tasting stuff at the local “Dietrich’s Coffee House” just down the road from the base.

      Ironically, my father began to drink coffee in the same exact way, only he did it in Germany. I prefer to use cream when drinking the average cup, but if given the opportunity I will brew a strong cup using my perculator or little Cowboy coffee on a campfire and that is enjoyed best very black.

  3. 4 jstwndrng October 16, 2009 at 20:43

    I figured the van might be an Econoline, but I’d wager dollars to donuts it was white, not blue. I don’t recall any of the cars leaking rainwater, maybe I have selective amnesia. “the amber liquid’s role in my life”…I love that.

  4. 5 jstwndrng October 16, 2009 at 20:52

    Whoa, Kip, you slid that one under me while I was responding to Ben. Thanks for sayin’, although, there goes the suspense I was trying to build with the cliffhanger. No, I forgot to nab the plate the day my dad traded in the Galaxy. I went up to the dealer on 116th the next day and asked them about it, but they said that car had been hauled off before sundown and was probably scrap metal by now. I think they were trying to see if I would cry. Dude, when did you have a ’67 Bug? Hey, were you copying?

  5. 6 Kip October 16, 2009 at 21:10

    No, just the engine. It’s in the back of a Porsche Speedster replica Ami has. I was trying to get it running well, but finally realized that I needed professional help! Sorry to spoil the suspense, but I have a feeling you can re-engineer the story and still come away with a winner! Maybe I should remember to hold back….hey, if you like, and can, delete my comment! No one but the three of us will know, and really, it would not bother me, and would enhance to story further!!!!!

    • 7 jstwndrng October 16, 2009 at 23:09

      Cannot do. I’m committed to journalistic integrity.

      • 8 Ben October 17, 2009 at 09:20

        I too was about to blow the cliffhanger in shere readership enthusiasm, but held back and left it at the Econoline.

        Now brother. Perhaps you’re remembering in the black and white memory of previous generations. Remember I am a X gen laddie! ….. I can remember in color. I really think it was a light blue. Ask Dad and Mom.

        I only remember it as an Econoline for two reasons. I knew the grill was different from Uncle Dick’s (His T.V. Repair van had the earlier front.) Dad’s had the more modern roundness above the headlights. Also I can remember looking with curiosity at the curving “Econoline” letters on the side of the cab. Funny what sticks in your grape when you’re but a wee lad. I also remember being heartily depressed that we got rid of it. I thought the Galaxy a poor replacement. I always got sick riding in the back seat because I couldn’t see out and Dad’s cigarette smoke and stale, rotting, leftover from work apple core, sitting on the ash tray smell.

  6. 9 Kip October 17, 2009 at 13:11

    Well then Matt, please accept my most humble apologies for throwing out the spoiler. I should have known by the title…Part 1. I am still sure you will be able to spin a grand yarn around the story, and in future, I’ll refrain from telling all I know, or at the very least make sure I start all posts with the now famous “SPOILER ALERT” tag!

    Ben, when next we meet, I hope we can share a strong cup of coffee, brewed to your favorite specifications! At times, a little cream can go a long way to improving a cup, at times there is no amount of anything that can help!

  1. 1 “A straight little car” Part II « Just Wondering Trackback on October 18, 2009 at 20:59
  2. 2 Closer than a brother – Part II « Just Wondering Trackback on January 12, 2011 at 14:38

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