So, in 1993, I was a the wee slip of a girl you see above, clambering joyously aboard a car-hauler to inspect her Very Own Car. Most teenagers dream of their first set of wheels, and have quite specific ideas about what their dream car is. Most never do get their hands on their dream car. I, however, was a very, very lucky girl. Lucky in that I dreamed on an accessible scale, and that my Dad was running a VW repair shop at the time and tended to have his ear to the ground as regarded any vintage German steel on the market. I’d hoped someday to own a vintage VW (pre-’67, in those days). We got the glorious beast you see above (and below) for $500 from a neighbor who’d originally bought it thinking it would be a father-and-son project for his boy. His kid, however, was not even slightly inclined, and so the car languished in a barn for a few years before our neighbor gave up and sold it in disgust. He knew that it was going to an appreciative party. This car, a 1959 Type I, was everything I’d ever hoped for and more…it was even green(ish). My favorite color!
Please forgive me: I was trying to imitate some of the pinup girl poses in Hot VWs. I was 18, and obvs. v. v. proud of my car and my horrible hand-made halter-top thingy.
The first year that I owned it, it was largely un-driveable. The original 36-horsepower engine was using oil and had a LOT of endplay in the flywheel, and rather than risking spinning the main bearings we left the car parked while a fresh, new 1600cc single-port went up on the engine stand. Part of the whole deal of my having this car was that I had to have sweat-equity in on it. I considered it a privilege, an honor, and a treat to get my hands dirty. I’d been earning my pocket money for some years by helping out in the garage. When I was just a little rat, Dad would have me sorting bolts, wire-brushing crud off the halves of engine cases, or doing other low-stress chores. When I was big and strong enough to manage the bulky air impact wrench, I got to un-bolt connecting rods from crankshafts. I LOVED doing that chore. There’s something innately pleasing to me in the sound of the airgun. That ba-ba-ba-ba-brrrrrrrrrr. Loves it! I moved on from knocking off connecting rods to actually stripping old engines for core.
That was always an adventure. Sometimes you’d be able to postmortem the engine failure, where a head stud had backed out of the engine case or a valve had floated and shattered on the piston. Most of the time, though, it was just boring old quotidian wear. Worn out rings, scored cylinders, slow, miserable engine decline. Bleh.
Once, though, I was tearing down an old Type III engine from the junkyard, and in its time out to pasture, a mouse had crawled down the carburetor, through an intake manifold, found an open valve, made a nest in one of the cylinders, and then died. When I started on that engine, I thought, “man, something smells kind of weird.” The smells just kept getting worse and worse as I worked my way down the engine. When I finally pulled the offending cylinder head off and found a wad of fluff and a decomposing mouse carcass, I seriously almost barfed. The smell cannot be underemphasized. It was unspeakable.
So, after tearing down plenty of old engines, I got to put one together. Under supervision, of course, but I personally got to assemble an entire Volkswagen engine at age 17. It was kind of a big deal to me.
Another consideration with this car was that it started out with 6-volt electrical system. As a teenager, I figured I would want a stereo at some point. As a parent, my Dad wanted my car to have decent headlights and indicators. So, a large part of the summer of ’94 was spent in the junkyard scavenging up the appropriate wiper motor, turn signal switch, horn, and starter motor. I plunked down for a pricey pair of halogen headlights, which were the big deal in technology at the time, and which met with considerable parental approval. I dorkily spent a blissful summer evening with the headlights on, pointed at the side of the house, aligning the beams with a screwdriver.
Between my Dad and I, we had the thing up and running before the start of my Senior year of highschool. In 1995, the car looked like this:
It had kind of a bald patch on its roof via its former owner, who had tree branches overhanging her garage. Every time she pulled in or out of the garage, the car got a pine-needle sweeping, which eventually played merry hell with the finish.
Most people looked at it and saw nothing but a shabby old Volkswagen in a dodgy shade of green, but to me, it was about as close to perfection as I could ever hope to get. More importantly, it was mine.
Most of the time I drove my car with the respect that it deserved, but like most teenagers, I did show off occasionally. I learned that highschool boys are uniformly unimpressed by girls who do burnouts. Nor do they rise to the bait of a third-gear scratch. Boo to that. I found that effecting a third-gear scratch took a considerable great effort. You really have to hop off of the clutch pedal with a quickness and be quite aggressive with the accelerator. It became, like the successful application of a good cat’s-eye eyeliner, a private triumph.
My favorite trick, though, wasn’t a trick at all. I just liked seeing how smoothly and cleanly I could run up through the gears. There was a stop sign on the way in to town, with the speed-limit (60 mph) posted a ways off, and my daily ritual was to try to hit the speed limit by the time we passed the sign. I could only do that if I hit all of the gear changes just right and didn’t waste a scrap of the lordly 53 horsepower at my disposal. Same thing held for downshifting when slowing for a stop. It gave me a certain satisfaction to downshift at just the right speed for each gear so that you could feel a gentle pull of deceleration, but the engine didn’t get yoinked up to uncomfortably high revs.
I enjoyed driving that car pretty much daily my Senior year of highschool. Then, I went to college, and what with living in town (a town of less than 6,000 at that) I hardly drove at all for the next four years – just once in a while to get out of town to visit my folks. Then, I wa gone for a year abroad studying. When I got back to the US and moved to Kansas City, the ’59 was put back in action for a couple of years, until the humidity and salty winter streets really started to take their toll on the poor old beast.
Finally, in 2003, I decided to spare the sheetmetal, and drove it back up to my folks’ place in northwestern Nebraska, and took posession of a wonderful/horrible 1981 Scirocco. That car was the fount of a lot of fun and a lot of trauma, depending on the day. It had…gremlins. They lived in the fuel injection system, principally and rendered the car deeply unreliable and expensive to care for. Eventually, I sold that car, fecked around with other stopgap measures, and finally, in ’06, said “fuck it” and quit driving altogether. Had I not had a baby, I’d probably still be living in “fuck it” territory. I don’t like to waste fuel, and I don’t like to drive cars that aren’t fun. Joel’s Toyota Tacoma isn’t that much fun. His mom’s Honda Civic is, but I tend to scare her when I drive it, so I’m sort of banned from the Civ.
But, as I say, I need to schlep Mr. Kiddo around town from time to time, and what with my car all disassembled in northwestern Nebraska, awaiting rust repair and a paint job, I was in a quandary. What worked out was the longterm loan of my Mom’s old Superbeetle that she’d quit driving:
The loaner-era end is sort of in sight, however. The last time I talked to my folks on the phone, my Dad was happy to report that the fellow we’d lined up to do the rust repair on the ’59 had finally hauled the old hulk off to get started on it. I’m not sure how long it’ll take him to patch the car back together and lay down a few beautiful and protective layers of paint on it, but I’m guessing that sometime this coming summer I’ll be heading back up to the Panhandle to start re-assembling. It’s going to be one hell of an undertaking.
Back when I parked the car at my folks’ place in ’03, Dad and I started stripping the car down. Pulled all of the interior, removed the bumpers, running boards, and fenders, started un-wiring it. We put in several solid days work and got it to looking like this:
I knew these things existed, but it was doubly depressing to view daylight through the body of my car:
Still, could be worse. Most of the car doesn’t have holes through it. The floorpan is solid. The heater channels, largely so. The aprons are in good shape. The worst of it is the rear quarter panels, where the fender meets the body at the floorpan. There’s a little damage in the right front quarter, too, though left side is clean. There was a lot of sand built up in the right front heater channel and that had retained moisture, hastening the demise of the body panels there. Anyway, that’s all Kevin’s problem now. I’ve saved up the money to pay him to deal with all of that horror.
Someday, in the reasonably-foreseeable-future, this car will look better than it has since sometime in the 1960s, I’d guess. I’m so excited about the prospect of having my car back, and done up the way it ought to be, that I just about can’t think straight. This is the culmination of a dream I’ve had since I was about 14.
There’s still going to be a lot of work to put it all back together. I mean, it’s basically re-building the car in entirety. Wiring harness, interior installation, all of the little chrome strips in the window rubber…just everything. Plus, the ball joints were going to cock when I parked it, the transaxle boots were getting leaky, it was showing general wear and tear in a dozen places. It’ll be a while before it’s actually on the road again. All the same, I’m excited to get my hand back in the game.
The imaginary deadline I have for the car is summer 2015. That’ll be my 20th highschool reunion. It would be pretty sweet to rock up to the old shithole in my freshly-restored first car.