The first Volkswagen owned by my family was a 1965 Karmann-Ghia, which we bought in 1968. I remember visiting the Jack McAfee Volkswagen dealership lot in Burbank, California, from whence it came. My parents' 1955 Ford Victoria was giving out, fast, and Dad needed basic transportation to get to and from work within Burbank. "I don't want a Bug!" Mom said with disgust to the salesman, emphasizing the loathsomeness of the word "bug." "What's wrong with a Bug?" I wondered. I liked them. But we wound up with a pretty maroon Ghia instead. It satisfied the economical requirements and was stylish to boot. I suppose Dad thought he was buying a sports car.
I immediately liked it because I had a tiny Karmann-Ghia which came with my very first Lego set, in 1965.
In fact, clambering around in it as a twelve year-old, I thought it was quite exotic. Who puts a grab handle in a car, and what's it for? Look at the speedometer... it looks so European. And the car has whisker grills in front! True - there wasn't much room in the back seats. All three of us could barely fit into it. But that, too, was exotic. A car without a serious rear seat just wasn't... American. And, best of all, if I scrunched myself up I could fit into the compartment behind the rear seat, and pull the thing closed. I once surprised Dad when he got into the car by popping out of this and announcing my presence.
Dad and I had a lot of fun in that Karmann-Ghia. We used to cram Angela, the teenaged daughter of a family friend, into the back seat and go for Sunday drives. And later on, when I learned how to drive myself, the Ghia was a hoot to drive. True, it was slow - as slow as a Beetle. It could barely get out of its own way. But it had an undeniable Euro-allure. It was different. Once, Dad got sick and I got to drive his car to school for a week - I felt like the young King of the World parking it in the students' lot. I fantasized about driving young, pretty teachers home from school.
On occasion, my high school pal Mike and I would take the Ghia into Hollywood to the Tower Records on Sunset Boulevard, firing unfolded paper clips at unwary pedestrians. Mike called the Ghia the "low profile shooting platform."
In 1977, after various experiments with paint colors (the car started out in original paint, maroon, but was also orange, silver and, finally, white), Dad traded it in for a Porsche 912. I'm sorry I do not own that Karmann-Ghia now. My son is sorry as well.
The purchase of the Ghia got me interested in Volkwagens, and, unlike Mom, I got to love and desire a Beetle. As a twelve year-old I used to bicycle to Jack McAfee's showroom and simply sit in the new '68 Bugs. I was indulged in this by a friendly salesman of German extraction named Otto, who wore white shoes. Consequently, he was known in my house as, "Otto mit dem white shoes." Otto was always friendly and supportive. I guess he knew I'd be a customer some day; when the day finally arrived for me to buy my own Beetle I wish it could have been from him - but he moved on and the McAfee dealership turned to selling Porsches.
In 1968 I put my interest in the Volkswagen Beetle to work in a run of comic books starring my version of Marvel Comics' Fantastic Four, the Foney Four. They tool around in a specially equipped battle Bug. (Comics here.)
I enlisted in the Marines in 1974, and spent the final months of 1974 and part of January 1975 in boot camp. While there, I wrote home and told my parents that I intended to buy a new VW Bug - the "Super Beetle" model - while on my ten day's leave after boot camp. They therefore mailed me some promotional literature . What color should I choose, red or green? At first I wanted red - remembering Dad's Ghia - but Mom suggested that the pretty green-blue shade then available, "tropical green," was a better choice as it might not fade as would red. And, besides, green was my favorite color. So green it was.
My parents and I drove to a dealership in Studio City and plunked down $1,500 for a tropical green 1974 Super Beetle with air conditioning and AM radio. (You can see me proudly wiping away a mite of dust from it in this video, at the 1:25 mark.)
The total cost was $3,800, and I was inexperienced enough to accept a loan with a 16.5% interest rate. (Why did my parents allow me to do this?) This didn't concern me greatly, however, as I knew I could and did pay it off early when I completed Communications-Electronics training and got my $2,500 enlistment bonus. The $85.00 monthly payments seemed high, but it was still well worth it to have a car of my own. I loved that car. To me, it meant freedom.
Unfortunately, I couldn't proudly drive my Bug home that day, however, as the AM radio couldn't be installed right away. (The drive to and from the Twentynine Palms base was nearly three hours - I had to have some source of music to listen to while on the road ). The dealership lent me a beige bug to tool around town in while I waited. My first stop was to my high school pal Mike's house. "Ah, you got a Deutschesmobile!" he said approvingly. Mike collected World War II German memorabilia, and so my Bug was a known quantity.
I drove my bug to my first duty post at Twentynine Palms, California in January 1975 for a basic electronics class. You can see me depart in that video I linked to, above. I discovered that I could put all my worldly possession as a Marine into that car: The duffle bag went into the front trunk, the footlocker went onto the back seat, my uniform coats hung from the clothing hook in back, and my small stereo and records fit into the storage area behind the back seat.
I was inordinately proud of that Bug, and washed and waxed it nearly every week. I drove it to and from a cable splicing school in Texas, and I had it nearly the entire time I was stationed at Camp Pendleton. Needless to say, a mere AM radio wasn't sufficient for my music needs.
So, I installed a Craig cassette deck in the Bug. Later on, as I wore that unit out, I would install better decks as well as better speakers and extra amplifiers, to make the stereo system sing, and sing loudly.
Some of my exploits in that 1974 Super Beetle:
- On weekends it was occasionally an underpowered participant in the Cruise, wherein we made the Mormon church parking lot safe from people making out in cars. My ability to lose angry pursuers in that Bug was more based on knowledge of the terrain and traffic light cycles than horsepower.
- One weekend a friend and I took the Bug up a mountain trail into the Verdugo Hills above Burbank. The road was steep, rugged and bumpy, but I proved a point: The VW Beetle, with the engine weight over the drive wheels, could do some off-road style travel. After a while common sense prevailed and I turned around to go home, but not before my speedometer ceased to function. Tearing it apart when back at base I discovered a cracked nylon gear. The application of some superglue fixed the speedometer for the remainder of the time I had the car!
- I was once quarantined with the measles when I was stationed at Twentynine Palms, CA. Growing impatient with cabin fever, I took the Bug out and drove to the PX to buy some goodies, when I cut off a jogger who was running by. He sort of stumbled into my car. A few hours after I got back the MPs showed up at the door of the measles barracks to cite me for a hit and run violation - BIG trouble. On my court date the jogger - a Staff Sergeant - showed up and dropped the charges; I guess he just wanted to frighten me. (It worked - he did.)
- Early on I discovered that if I rotated the VW's windshield squirters 90 degrees I could strafe pedestrians with water as I drove by. This was all well and good until I got onto an Air Force base and did this to a guy who started running after my car. For weeks I was fearful of the MPs showing up at my door, but this time they never did.
- At one point I found an unused 40-watt public address system once used on one of the Military Police trucks; I installed it in an inconspicuous place along with a big bullhorn safely hidden in a wheel well. I enjoyed scaring people with high volume noises, which included a loud and totally illegal police siren that I used on occasion.
- Auxiliary airplane landing lights lit up the streets ahead of me. And the houses to the sides. And the night sky.
- I also kept a 100,000 candlepower searchlight handy in the door pocket to spotlight deer, pedestrians and sometimes other drivers.
- The stereo, for its time, was pretty good. By the time 1977 ended I had a separate amplifier driving 6" x 9" speakers on the back deck that handled bass. The mids and highs were routed through speakers in the doors. I credit this system in part for creating my current hearing loss.
1978 arrived and with it discontent for my Beetle. I wanted something better. Dad had replaced his Karmann-Ghia with a Porsche 912 (four-cylinder engine, not a six) and I became interested in Porsches as well. So in January 1978 I traded in my Bug to the Jack McAfee dealership and bought a mid-engined 914 - the "poor man's Porsche" equipped with a four-cylinder Volkswagen engine. (Here it is.)
What a mistake. I didn't know it at the time - I would grow to realize it later - but the Beetle was more my kind of ride than the mechanically complex and unreliable 914, which I unloaded in late 1978.
Fast forward to 1989! I regretted getting rid of my original Beetle and so, as a working man and father of two, when I needed a basic commuter car for work I had to decide between a 1989 Mazda 323 or restoring a 1973 Beetle via a restoration shop in Manassas Park, VA. No contest! The VW I bought was originally orange - I specified the same tropical green paint that was on my 1974 model for the restoration. It was almost like having my first car back again!
I ferried the kids around a lot in that Bug, and attended lots of yard sales on Saturday mornings. They loved the car and so did I. I also drove it to Civil War events as my "light infantry vehicle/flying camp." Many is the time I was able to get myself out of a muddy farmer's field parking lot thanks to the engine weight over the drive wheels.
Once, taking off from my house and driving up the street with my little daughter in the passenger seat, I could smell the strong smell of gasoline. Uh-oh... something isn't right! Quickly pulling over, I checked the engine compartment and could see a classic VW problem: the rubber fuel line grommet cracked and fell apart, leaving the edge of the hole in the firewall to abrade the fuel line, causing a leak. Gasoline was spraying onto the exhaust manifold! It's a good thing I had only driven 50 yards or so up the street and hadn't gotten the exhaust to full operating temperature - I might have had a fire. But a new fuel line section was an easy fix.
Another time, in that same car, I snapped an accelerator cable. I pulled over, popped the engine lid and noted the problem, scratched my head a bit, and realized that I could make a temporary fix to get me home using an unfolded paper clip. Try doing that with a modern car!
This same car once caused me stalling problems due to a new aftermarket fuel pump which intermittantly failed; this took me some time to finally identify. (Who looks for a fault in a brand new part?)
And, for awhile, I had to get the car rolling to pop the clutch in order to get it started while I was awaiting a new starter motor. That was interesting, looking for parking places on inclines no matter how slight.
I could never seem to get the brakes to work well on that car, no matter how hard I tried or no matter what components I replaced. It became standard operating procedure for a time to pump the brakes up a bit before using them! It was more than a bit dangerous.
In 1998 Virginia changed the vehicle emissions laws so that my Beetle wouldn't pass inspections. And, truth to tell, the car was getting a bit decrepit. So, with the realization that my son would be soon driving a family car and needed a safe one (reminding him to pump the brakes wasn't a scenario I wanted to play out), I sold the Bug after nine years of use and bought a newer, water-cooled vehicle, a used 1995 Pontiac Grand Am which I kept for eight years. It was reliable - and the defroster worked well - but it just wasn't the same. No real sense of style and VW Beetle quirkiness.
Fast forward to 2007! I have always wanted a red VW convertible... and in 2007 we bought ourselves one - a New Beetle, this time. Much more practical. True - it doesn't have the air-cooled soul that the traditional Bugs have. But it has a working defroster and heater, air conditioner, better acceleration, a great stereo, more power, a better ride is much safer and gets almost the same good gas mileage. I have a blast nowadays taking it places - and yard sales.
I am happy to report that The Volkswagen is likely to be a continuing family thing, too... my son badly wants a Thing or a Karmann-Ghia, and my son-in-law likes to turbo charge old water-cooled VWs. For a time he had what was probably the fastest Passat in Utah.
And I've converted my friend Mike, too - he switched from Lincoln Continentals to bugs. He has owned three.
Dad's 1965 Karmann-Ghia in its original (and best) maroon paint.
Dad's Ghia in silver. Not so good.
Dad's Ghia in white. Better. (Its final paint job.)
Me and my 1974 Super Beetle in 1975.
While a Marine I kept my Bug really shiny. (I had little else to do.)
The 1973 Super Beetle restoration project - before.
The 1973 Super Beetle restoration project - after, with kids.
My son Ethan and his VW Bug display in the local library, 1989.
My daughter Meredith atop my '73 Super Beetle. Note the cool Berlin Germany sticker on window.
In 1995 I had to pull the engine out to replace a head. I stuck it on a wheelbarrow, wheeled it around to the back of my townhouse and set it up on a table in the unfinished portion of the basement and replaced it there for $100. An arduous but cheap fix.
My current 2007 New Beetle Convertible - a happy ending.
You may also want to read my page on The Clark Family Cars.