Test Drive--1970 Volkswagen Beetle
I was driving down the hill from Griffith Park, when I caught sight of something round and brilliantly red. Even in the depths of my peripheral vision it burned its image like a laser into my synapses. My brain registered: Red - VW - Beetle - original - clean.
A few hours later I got a call from a friend: “I’m in your neighborhood and I found the most amazing car. It’s perfect.”
My Car Lust neural net fired: “You mean the red Beetle at the corner of Franklin? I’ve seen it. Check it out, that thing looks sweet.”
Then three fateful words:
“It’s - for - sale.”
My neural net glowed bright red:
“If it’s good and the price is right I’ll buy half of it with you.”
The car was clean and recently painted the most eye-catching red I’ve seen this side of a Ferrari. The bumpers were gorgeous, new looking, and perfectly chromed. I went into hyperdrive looking for flaws, but there did not appear to be any surface dings or damage whatsoever. The skin on this Bug was perfect. The running boards were solid--no undercarriage damage. I crawled around the car like a monkey looking for nits. No rust anywhere. I walked the surface of the Bug with the magnet checking for bondo--none.
We contacted the owner, who was across town and not available to show the car until the next day. It was Saturday, and we would have to wait until Sunday morning to drive it. The car was sitting at the side of the road with an array of clubs attached the steering wheel and locks on the pedals. But the doors were unlocked. So I opened one. No alarm. Interior good. Headliner clean and tight.
Emboldened by the positive results of opening the driver’s door I decided to take a few more chances and scope out the engine compartment...
Do you remember the scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark, when they open the gilt sarcophagus and this intense power-of-god light bursts forth from the Ark of the Covenant knocking everyone off their feet?Yeah. It was just like that. The engine compartment was lined in vented stainless steel polished to a mirror-like finish. The engine was like an altar to some god king. The beauty of this engine and its shining compartment was so intense that space-time was bent asynchronously around me like some kind of Einsteinian experiment in relativity. As you can see even the photos we took with a cell phone are washed out by those god beams. (Err yeah, that explains the photo “quality.”)
And so ended Day 1 of the Sacred Beetle Inspection. Everything looked good with one small exception, the tires and wheels. The tread was good, and the car had some nice shiny chromed mags. But I noticed that the passenger side rear tire had a few odd markings on the outside edge of the tread. I started checking a little more and comparing tire/fender clearance on all corners. The right-rear corner of the car was sitting about an inch low. The marks on the tire were from the fender rubbing and cutting a groove in the tire. I’ve seen this kind of thing on a surprising number of used cars. In this case it was probably due to an incorrectly adjusted torsion bar spring in that corner of the car and a set of fat tires with a lot of offset in the hubs.
Day 2: 10 a.m.
I walked down the hill to meet Dagoberto, the owner. He spoke slightly more English than I spoke Spanish, but we were able to communicate pretty well. He had owned the car for about a year and wanted to sell it. His asking price was $4,500. He didn’t live in the neighborhood, but he had a great plan--leave the car where it would get noticed by people who liked vintage cars and could afford a few extra pennies for one in good shape. He picked a neighborhood filled with restored Vespas and nice older cars and stationed the car in plain view. The red homing beacon worked, at least on me.
There was a little more inspection. The holy engine was now running. It now emitted the sacred aroma unique to VW air coolers. As it idled one could hear the faint and distant hum of an angelic choir.
I pointed out the problem of the sagging rear suspension. Dagoberto acknowledged it with a look of concern. We discussed the status of the title. I called another friend on his cell phone to act as a translator for the finer points of legalese. With ownership issues resolved, the keys were handed over, and three adults climbed into the Beetle.
The experience of driving a 39-year-old car is interesting. I had always assumed that the Beetle had voluminous interior space. That’s what I remember from my days as a child passenger, but it’s just not so. The headroom is great, but there’s not much space for the legs of a 6’3” driver. Oh, and rear leg room? It’s almost non-existent. With three adults it was very cozy inside that car.
The car had been driven, so the engine was fully warm. That wasn't what I wanted. I prefer a stone cold engine to see how it starts. You really want to see a car at its “morning breath” worst--cranky, sleepy, and a little obnoxious. But one takes what one can get. I turned the key, and the car started almost immediately.
When I’m testing a car I start slowly, so I can get used to the car and avoid alarming nervous owners. This was an extremely slow start. The Beetle was never built for speed. First gear is set low for stump pulling. The shifting was typical VW, which means that you have no certainty of which gear, if any, you are in.
I’d forgotten that double clutching and downshifting into first always requires a lot of revs. I was reminded of the old days in my Squareback. It was the same deal with this Bug, you really need to get those revs way up to shift down to first. Just pushing harder on the shifter does not help. We drove up the hill to visit James Dean’s statue at the Griffith Park Observatory. This would test the car on winding and hilly roads and then test the brakes on the way down.
It was a steady and methodical ascent of the hill. Traversing speed bumps showed how rough the ride could be, and how worn the old KYB shocks were. The brakes worked well in that completely unassisted manual hydraulic brake way ... you build up strength in your arms and your right leg driving this car.
Overall, the car ran as a good Bug should. But there were some odd smells. Mostly exhaust. Lots of exhaust. I thought about this as I drove and mused on how the fumes were getting into the car. The exhaust system looked fine and was relatively quiet for a Beetle, but the cabin was filling with fumes and the windows were wide open.
Then I hit on the answer ... THE STAINLESS STEEL GOD-KING SHRINE! When rebuilding the engine compartment, the rear firewall must have been compromised. It now allowed exhaust fumes to fill the car at idle or during-low speed acceleration. The fumes were probably coming through those vents in the polished stainless engine compartment liner.
The next unexpected challenge was a u-turn that rapidly became a 3-point turn. I don’t think the car had really great steering lock to begin with. With wider tires there was almost none. It took a long time to get the car going in the opposite direction. Small cars are supposed to have small turning radii, but this was worthy of a land yacht.
Then while sitting waiting for a traffic light to change, I detected another smell--a new and familiar odor. What could it be? Something like rubber burning. Oh yes. That would be the rear passenger side tire. It was now giving off blue smoke from a little too much contact with the fender.
We drove back to our starting point and piled out of the car seeking fresh air. I showed Dagoberto the smoldering tire, and the accumulation of molten rubber that was now attached the fender. He was genuinely shocked. Never having driven the car with a full load, he had not encountered this problem. His spirits visibly sank. He knew he had to fix this before he could sell the car. I explained the relatively simple adjustment procedure, and he seemed to cheer up.
This is a car perfect for someone who loves Beetles and loves them no matter what. Owning a Beetle requires that you drive it without reference to modern conveyances. You step back in time. Making this your single mode of transportation would require that you become an anachronism, living in the past and happily accepting the ancient and wonderful qualities of driving as it was 40 or 50 years ago.
I’m really happy I got a chance to drive this car. It cleared my head. I no longer wonder or fantasize about owning a Beetle. If I collected cars I’d think about buying this one and fixing the few glaring issues it has. But I’m not freaking Jay Leno. I don’t have room for that kind of collection in my life. I drive cars in particular ways and there are things that I require from my cars (performance and handling) in order to enjoy the driving experience. The Beetle was beautiful and lovely in a gentle and quirky way, but it’s the wrong car for me. I am content to love it from afar, appreciate it for the car that it is, and enjoy the memory of test driving an icon of automotive history.