Gone but Never Forgotten

Mark it on your calendar: July 2019, Puebla Mexico. Sometime during that month in that town, the last VW Beetle will roll off the line. The reason cited in the Palm Beach Post by a German VW executive was simple, “The market has moved on.” Less simply, having absorbed untolled losses of money and executives after the  EPA scandal, VW is going to produce fewer lines of cars, thereby cutting expenses.

It has been quite a run for the queerly shaped little car if you’ll pardon the pun. It started as the brainchild of a monster, Adolf Hitler. It was the “people’s car” affordable to anyone. Later in life, it became a movie star (Herbie) and it’s life as part of American cultism fads exploded into sales of almost a half million.  Compare that to this year’s sales a bit north of 15,000.

And it had its oddities. The motor was in the wrong place–the back. The trunk Americans were used to having in the back was in the front. It had enough room for groceries, if carefully packed. The heater wasn’t–at least not a traditional heater. It was the exhaust pipe whose heat was drawn into the car. Its exhaust system made a noise particular to the car. It had abundant air leaks especially if your’s was the iconic convertible, and was prone to leaking. It had the power of an old, asthmatic horse or more generously a vacuum cleaner. But it was reasonably priced in part because but for minor variations for the years it never changed. No matter what year or model, one look told you what it was from its birth to its death. It did well on gas and you could hang a test tube with a flower in it on the dashboard. That itself was enough to want one, especially if you were a girl, no?

It also was my first car. I was a sophomore in college. I wanted a car desperately. My uncle lent me the money and I bought a two year old red, VW Beatle convertible. I loved the car. Having my father’s real estate acumen, or lack thereof, I eventually traded it in and found out years later that my $1,200 investment would have fetched me 25 grand, even with a quarter or more million miles to its credit!

We, the car and I, had our times together, although it was too small for anything really exciting to happen inside it. Also, it had a stick shift so unless the top was down, you and your date were standing up, and the car was parked in a really well-hidden place it wasn’t one’s first choice for a makeout session. My first date in my new car I was so nervous I forgot to do something. A few miles down the road my date said, “I smell something burning.” I had forgotten to release the emergency brake and burned it like a steak forgotten on the grill.

Of course, many a rainstorm mandated a quick pull-over, a race to the back of the car, a wrestling match with the top, which weighed half as much as the car, to bring it forward, and then sitting in the car, soaking wet while trying to snap the roof latches shut.

Because it was front wheel drive, no one put snow tires on. This faulty line of thinking, from now a senior in college, occasioned the car giving me a Disney-like ride in a snowstorm. I had an appointment with Jack Warner of Warner Brothers to help make a documentary on the District of Columbia. He was in town for only a day and could I come right over to his hotel, in Arlington, Va. Right over as in “I hope you’re dressed because I mean this minute.”

It had been snowing all day and it turned out my good fortune was that the plows had been doing their thing. As I whipped around the Lincoln Memorial that would put me on the bridge to Arlington, the car either lost traction or lost its mind. It, and I, began to spin like a top; I felt like I was in one of those amusement park tea-cup rides. At some point, it regained its traction or its mind and I came out of a spin like a sneaker spit out of a washing machine. I shot diagonally across the road and ended up squarely in a plow-provided snow bank, almost a third of the car tucked well into the snow-white freezer.

I and the car were unhurt. However, I was late for the appointment. And no, there was no documentary. Oh well.

The car and I kept company through graduate school. I did my thesis on the rise of the Democrat party in the up-to-then rock-ribbed Republican state of Maine. There were very few resources available, much of them anecdotal. My advisor found something wanting that I could only get from one person in one place in Maine. ’twas 1968, no cell phones, no internet, no email. I had but one option. Did I mention it was January? So I and my trusty car drove from Washington, DC to Portland, Me. where I found a room in a boarding house and hunted down my quarry. It was record cold, so cold that in the morning my red car had turned blue–or so it seemed. But the car had gotten me there and it got me back. And yes my thesis passed muster.

You can see now why a car can be so important to a boy, particularly this one to me. Twenty years after the Beatle had gone into relative obscurity VW brought it back with smashing results–for a while. It then slipped back into obscurity. But wait…twenty years hence the headline shouting, “VW Halts Production of Beatle” will be re-written to say, “VW Reintroduces Beatle into Production Line”–at least from my perspective.


A Bill Gralnick, determined this week, and maybe next, not to write about politics, can be found here most every Sunday. From the serious and sad to the weird and wacky, his blogs and his books, as well as snippets about his life, can be found on his website http://www.atleastfrommyperspective.net

Note: Next week’s column will be a day or two late for a wonderful reason, the wedding of our son.

And remember, Read–its good for both of us!

Bill Gralnick

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