Memory is an odd companion these days. Sometimes I get up to go do something and half way there I forget what I was going to do. Other times, things from many years ago come to mind as fresh and clear as if they’d just happened. Something on Word Press the other day triggered just such a memory, that of my first car. The car was a 1957 Volkswagen, which my father bought used from a friend of his at work for $600.
This car was very much like the one pictured, color and all, except mine had no roof rack but did have a fold back canvas sunroof. It was “powered” by an air-cooled, flat four, 36hp engine, and came equipped with an AM radio, a heater operated by a knob on the floor that simply opened and closed a baffle that allowed warm air from the engine into the cabin, maybe. Since the engine was in the back, the trunk was up front but was minuscule and once the trunk lid was opened there was no guarantee you could get it closed again. While the manufacturers of Hitler’s “Peoples Car” didn’t provide a gas gauge, they were thoughtful enough to provide a reserve fuel tank of one gallon capacity, operated by a little lever under the back seat, in case you misjudged distance between fill-ups. I used that more than once. It had a non-functioning odometer, and, if memory serves, an equally non-functioning speedometer, which didn’t matter much since, in that car, the idea of surpassing any but the lowest of U.S. speed limits was nothing more than a flight of fantasy.
Oh, it also had a front passenger seat that displayed an annoying propensity to come off its tracks and land any poor schmuck who happened to be sitting on it sprawling into the back seat, sometimes landing in the lap of a friend sitting in the back. If you were driving in the winter and had the radio and headlights on and turned on the wipers the strain would push the 6 volt electrical system almost beyond endurance, dimming the lights and lowering the car’s top speed to around 45 mph, if luck was with you and there was a nice tail wind. The taillights and rear window were mere parodies of the real thing.
For all it’s quirks, the car had it strengths, the metal work was twice as thick as that found on most cars coming out of Detroit at the time, it was a little tank. If you happened to drive the car into a body of standing water in the road, it still had enough structural integrity to float just like a yacht out on Lake St. Clair, (that was okay unless you were on Lake Shore Drive, in which case there was some risk of floating out into Lake St. Clair itself).
If something went seriously wrong with the mechanics, it was a simple and inexpensive matter to just pull the old engine out and put a new one in; it was sometimes easier to replace the engine than fix it. The thing had 17″ wheels and at something like 1,500 pounds, tire replacement was a once or twice in a lifetime thing; your lifetime, not the car’s. I was so impressed with the car’s strengths, I painted a black iron cross on each front fender, low and behind the front wheel. Teenage hutzpah is a wondrous thing.
Owning that car branded me an eccentric at a very young age. While some kids in school were driving ’55 Chevys with V-8 engines and racing out on Woodward Avenue on Friday nights (it was Detroit after all), I was known in school as the kid with the old, very uncool, VW. Though I was happy to have any kind of car to drive around in, the label never left me. With all that said, you might ask, if given the chance, would I like to once again own a 1957 VW? In a Texas heartbeat.