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.
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.
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.
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…