Monday, October 17, 2011

1968 VW Beetle

The first car meme.
Courtesy of my parents. They were the original owners, then handed it down to my older sister.  1600cc displacement with a 3 speed semi-automatic manual shift.  Weird no? No clutch pedal. It was rusty and the engine and transmission were trashed when it came my turn to inherit it. I'd have much preferred ...well pretty much anything else, but beggars cannot be choosers.  Dad, being the generous man he has always been, found a VW mechanic that moonlighted out of his garage that rebuilt the engine, and at my request put a 4 speed manual transmission in it.
When it was new, it had air conditioning, but you had two choices, you could go, as in move forward, or you could have air conditioning, but not both at the same time. The AC went by the wayside during the rebuild, but I didn't care. At the age of 16, this was my escape capsule.
The upholstery inside was rotting and split in multiple places.
There were rust spots all over.
The inside of the car smelled like battery acid (although this was not unusual given the battery was under the back seat)
My high school buddy taught me how to drive a stick in the neighborhood. The first foray out into real traffic was a lot like Mr. Frog's Wild Ride, including but not limited to killing the engine and restarting it while on the roll.
I had been working a part time job since the age of 15 and had money in the bank.  Then, for better or worse, I discovered the JC Whitney catalog.  And...they had...all this cool stuff...FOR VWs!
The summer of my 17th year I set out to make the bug into a respectable vehicle for a young man of high school years. I had mom's car to commute to work since she was off during the summer, being a high school counselor.
Now comes the list (and this is not in sequential order)
I stripped out the interior and bought replacement seat covers for the buckets and the bench from ...wait for it...Sears Catalog (those were the days)
I peeled the vinyl, pardon me naugahyde, off the  door panels and rear seat side panels and replaced them with, yes you guessed it, black shag carpeting. The most beautiful swirly patterns would display in the door panels when you rolled the windows up or down. (cool or what?!)
Upon removal of the original carpet from the floor panels, I discovered my elder sister had run over something that ripped and 18" long gash into the floor pan right under the spot where the passenger's feet would reside. (she has yet to tell me that story..might not remember..tokillyou might be involved, but I digress)
Having no welding skills or equipment, but having some boat building skills, I laid in a few layers of fiberglass and solved that problem.
I replaced the rear shocks with  coil over shocks and put heavy duty shocks in the front end.
The windshield washer ran off pressure from the spare tire. This seemed non-optimal to me (duh, flat spare?) . I found a 6 volt conversion kit, in the JC Whitney Catalog, that had an actual electric pump.
To shorten the story, I tricked out everything I could on that little 1600cc engine that could be done without pulling the engine, stripped the whole vehicle, manhandled it to a 45 degree angle in my parent's two car garage and repainted it inside and out.  A nice frosty bright white. It was this period in my life where I discovered much to my dismay that I fucking hate wet sanding. (later I found my misdiagnosed glasses hanging on the rear view mirror in case I got stopped by the cops. Frosted..white)
Oh wait, I have to tell the part about the high output distributor, which I also ordered from JC Whitney, now this is the check in the mail, wait for 4 weeks, long before Algore invented the intertubes.
Distributor a box..with no instructions.   Fortunately, the VW distrubutor had a flat blade on the bottom end of the shaft and not a worm gear. Happy days! I have a 50/50 chance of getting it right the first time!
After the install I had a cousin fire it up while I was back at the engine bay.
The coin toss went against me, BUT seeing a 2 foot long blue flame shoot out of the chrome glass pack exhaust pipes on both sides was one of the cooler things I'd seen by the ripe old age of 17.   Once I was relatively sure I wasn't on fire, the brain says..K..maybe I need to rotate that 180 degrees.
Things I learned about a hopped up Bug:
Given the relatively flat and complete floor plan under the vehicle and the curvaceous upper profile, the vehicle has similar characteristics to a really pudgey wing.  At 70, the steering seems a bit light as the front end begins to attain "lift". At 80, you need a wide open freeway at 3am in the morning because steering is touch and go when the front end occasionally touches the pavement.
And, when you hit a 16 foot sunfish sail boat that the jackass in front of you neglected to tie down to the trailer at 60 miles an hour, the spare tire in the front makes a great shock absorber.  It lofted off the trailer and stood straight up right in front of me as it came down and landed on it's transom. Then if flopped down and had the unmitigated gaul to immediately slow down, at which point I rammed right into it.
Dirty water and pine needles from the cockpit covered my windshield so I quickly rolled down the driver's side window and stuck my head out like a happy dog and steered to the shoulder.  Amongst all this mayhem, I watched the sunfish explode into many pieces and hit at least 5 other cars.
I drove away. I was running late for work. A few days later, I discovered a crease up under the front end of the bug where I'd hit the transom of the boat. The spare tire had cushioned the impact and you couldn't see what little damage there was unless you got up underneath the front end.
It wasn't a muscle car, but it was quick and would take a 90 degree turn at 30 miles an hour with barely a squeal from the tires and it was all mine. (Shhh, don't tell my parents)


  1. My SIL's '68 robin's egg blue Bug ( named Tabatha... ) had a semi-automatic.

    I've painfully left handed, and have a really hard time driving stick shift because of it. But for some reason, I could drive Tabatha.

    I also remember the floorboards starting to rust out. She put a piece of plywood down under the floor mat.

    Sheesh, I haven't thought about that car in years!

    Your post made me smile remembering that car.

  2. Man, I loved the JC Whitney catalog...
    I ordered so much cool stuff out of it back in the day...



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