collectors who caught the bug
Bugs aren’t cute for most of us, but Volkswagen’s bugs can make you smile. Informally nicknamed both the Beetle and the Bug, the original Volkswagen Type 1 is the happy little car that won the hearts of American motorists with its quirky personality, its unique appearance, and a spectacular advertising campaign.
Although beloved today, the car that made Volkswagen a major automaker was born as a pet project of Adolf Hitler, who wanted an affordable vehicle for average Germans. But during Hitler’s time, this car never landed on the ground. Ferdinand Porsche and his team completed their design by 1938, but wartime production took precedence, and the Beetle was not mass-produced until the late 1940s.
Porsche has traditionally been credited as the manufacturer of the Beetle, but in 1953 his position was challenged by a Hungarian engineer, Béla Barény, who argued in court that he had built his first Beetle before Porsche built his first Beetle. A very similar machine was designed for -Benz. Thus Bug was born to two quarreling fathers.
Today, when 600 horsepower isn’t uncommon in a high-performance automobile, it can be hard to imagine how one could fall in love with a car that only had 25 horsepower on its first trip and had a range of 62 miles. It took almost forever to reach top speed. Hour. But an increasing number of classic car collectors and VW enthusiasts are obsessed with older Beatles, models from 1949 to 1965 that got 40 horsepower or less and a top speed of 60 to 72 mph. In order to achieve acceptable acceleration, pokey beetles are highly favored.
how dear Matthew Smith, a Ph.D. candidate from the University of Manchester in England, is basing his thesis on the special place the small car holds in many people’s lives and how this relationship can promote positive mental health. Mr. Smith practices what he preaches: he has several Beetles, the oldest of which is a 1954 model.
The fan base is large, and the barriers to entry in this corner of the collector market are relatively low—think about $20,000 to $30,000 for a good sample, and significantly less for a project car.
“I love Swoon,” said Lourdes Orive of Beaux Arts Village in Washington state. The Swoon is his 1960 Beetle, manufactured in Wolfsburg, Germany, and sold by Hans Moosmaier, a Bamberg dealer.
A German market car, it retained the semaphore turn signal emanating from the B-pillar to indicate a change of direction. With only 36 horsepower, Swoon is in no hurry to get anywhere, taking more than half a minute to reach its top speed of 68 mph (yes, according to Ms. Oriw, Swoon is a woman, a mature and perfect class woman.)
“The lady is just a feeling I get when I drive her,” said Ms. Oriv, who no matter the pokey acceleration. “The beauty of it is that I don’t have to go anywhere quickly,” she said. “It reminds me to take life at a more reasonable pace.”
Many people name their cars, but Beetle owners tend to be the most inclined. Taking cues from Herbie, the love bug? Women’s names are common in posts on Facebook Beetle groups.
Ohio-based Doug and Nancy Barber bought a 1964 Beetle from another owner’s grandson. The car, now known as the Bella, was driven 85,150 carefully documented miles before being taken off the road for the most part in 1983 and retired to a life of pampering. Every autumn the fiddle was considered for an extensive maintenance and beautification process until the owner’s death in 2018. Those 35 years only added 2,630 miles to the odometer.
The car now resides in a climate-controlled garage and every autumn gets a maintenance and refreshed appearance. Ever since the barbers bought the car, they’ve driven it in the right lane at a speed of about 3,000 mph: 65 mph.
“When we get to Bella it’s 1964 again,” said Mr. Barber, a retired educator and automotive historian who has owned six Volkswagens. This connection may have been due to his mother circling him around in the ’60s Beetle when he was younger. It’s no coincidence that Moms Beetle wore the same “sea blue” paint as Bella.
“All sensations are the same. It’s like I remember it. It’s like I remember it,” said Mr. Barber.
That scent is the classic VW scent emanating from the coconut-hued seat padding, which Beetle lovers seem to embrace. Perhaps it is proof of the simplicity of the car that the smell of the upholstery is a key feature. But other practical qualities stand out.
“They were what they were: economical, reliable, repairable and relatable,” said Mr. Barber.
Other bugs are given the names of males. Mike Betz of George, Iowa bought his ’64 Beetle from a man named Roy, so he named the car Roy. Why not? The car is an original, having only been considered for a paint and 12-volt conversion. (Early VWs relied on some unreliable six-volt electrical systems.)
Mr Betz drives his Beetle regularly and reports that the 40-horsepower machine’s first gear is slow but the four-speed manual transmission’s upper gears provide a bit more punch.
But collectors are not into the Beetle for speed. For most, the allure lies in the very simple nature of the car, a quality celebrated by the advertising campaign that Doyle den Bernbach produced for Volkswagen in 1959. The first ad featured a small picture of the Beetle and the title “Think Small”.
Sherry Hendershot of Spencerport, NY has been driving a Beetle for 40 years. One of his current cars is a practical late model, the other a 36-horsepower 1960 model. He named it Flo.
“The older beetles are more useful,” said Ms Hendershot. “They’re for the purists. I love the old-style look, with a metal dashboard and not many bells and whistles. No vinyl padded dash.”
Ms. Hendershot fell in love with small cars at an early age. Her science teacher, Mr. Warren, gave her a ride home in her Beetle when she was a 15-year-old high school student. “I’ve been in love with them ever since,” she said.
As if to underscore her devotion, Ms. Hendershot recently purchased another Beetle, a largely original ’59. And Love.
While the indecisive nature of beetles is often a plus, there are also dissenting ones. Jeff Spear of Cersei, Ark., has a ’56 Beetle that he has modified to be as fast as most muscle cars. With a VW engine displacing 2.3 liters and outfitted with an array of speed tools, the 200-horsepower little bug can hit a quarter mile at 100 mph in 13 seconds and, yes, his Hot Rod, Joe Rod On the regular and custom car show circuit, it has a name: Dark Horse.
But Mr. Spear also has a fully stocked, coral red 36-horsepower ’56 Beetle. A third of the ’56 Beetles are disassembled in preparation for regeneration. When Mr. Spearn was 15, he used $45 of his paper route to buy a beat-up Beetle. After rebuilding the carburetor and installing a new wiring harness, he was able to drive it around the block, and it provided transportation during his high school years.
The beetles provide “comfortable fun”, Mr. Spear said. “You can’t get away from having a good time when you’re driving a Volkswagen.”
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