The Marine View Driver: Cruising With the Volkswagen Beetle

In which the author becomes acquainted with German ingenuity in a buttocks-shaped package.

by Mike Smith

I sold my 1968 Mustang toward the end of high school and purchased a foreign car, a people’s car, a “Type I” VW, a Beetle or “Bug.”

Nope, none of it sounds exotic.

For some reason I believed I needed a car at college. Growing up in the suburbs has its effects, I guess!

This was a very surprising move for my friends, parents and siblings. I had never owned a small car before, nor had I ever thought the Beetle was “cute,” as some of my girl-friends in school did. My take was that cute doesn’t go fast and doesn’t look cool. Why would I willingly submit myself to potential ridicule? But as luck would have it, I had better friends than that. I never heard a peep about my new image.

beetleThe Beetle was actually quite a hoot to drive. It started almost every time. The steering worked. The brakes worked when the weather was dry and since speed was never a consideration–admittedly a bit of a shock to my NOV (normal operating velocity; see last week’s column!)–the car was more or less controllable.

Plus, the radio got both of my favorite stations. Isn’t that just the very definition of hoot?

I was one of two in my circle who actually had a car, so I drove us around a lot. See? I did need a car in college!

This little curved membrane of a car brought me many a memorable incident. One happened while I was still in college.

First a bit of VW anatomy: The Beetle was a compact little roundish shaped car. The engine and transmission were in the rear and represented most of the weight in the vehicle. Through some miracle of German engineering, everything kind of balanced and worked.

In other words, I never successfully performed a wheelie.

The trunk was in the front along with the gas tank. Scary, when you think of it. The spare tire was also in the front… I assumed as additional bumper support in case of an accident. In an IKEAish sort of multi-use way, the spare tire also doubled as the air supply to the windshield washer. I used to always wonder what would happen if I had a need for a spare tire after repeated use of my windshield washer in Seattle weather. But the problem never came up, so kudos to the Germans.

The car was practical, reliable, rump-shaped and even allowed a novice like me to do minor repairs.

There is one thing about the Beetle that always kept me wondering: Some may not realize that the battery for the VW bug is under the back seat. Further, some may not be aware that that is a terrible place for a battery. Since this was my first foreign car, I too was unaware just how terrible this placement is. The battery compartment in my car had been contaminated by… wait for it… battery acid.

You will recall from your high school science classes that acid has an adverse effect on most substances: i.e., it dissolves them. Apparently, the easiest substance for a battery to dissolve just happens to be automobile undercarriage; specifically the undercarriage directly under the seat of a Volkswagen Beetle. You’d think the Germans would know this.

Or maybe they do…

Several of us were in the car driving to church on a sort of rainy day in Seattle when I hit a slight bump. I instantly heard a “yuck” from the back seat. This was uttered by my friend and future best man Bert. He was sitting in the back seat on the “hot seat” directly above the battery. As I looked in the rear view mirror I saw Bert sitting there with mud on his face.

Bert was my most fastidious friend. He always dressed great and with style. He was a bit of a clean freak. Bert never wore mud. This was completely out of character for him. I’m sure that is why he said, “yuck.”

Even though we were safely out of the weather in our little melon-rind of a car, the battery had been doing its acid thing secretively and had eaten a hole in the floor boards. This hole had progressed enough to allow mud to splatter up into the rear passenger area, when you hit slight bumps. Unfortunately for Bert, the line of fire was perfectly aimed at his face. Because road mud is not clean that must have been quite a shock to his system.

This incident illustrates Bert’s great character and commitment as a friend because this happened prior to our wedding and he was still our best man.

He rode to the wedding in a different car.


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