Buggin' Out

What happens when childhood dream meets automotive reality?



cartoon vw beetle in ice cubeIllustration by Chris Reed

When I was a kid growing up in the early 1970s, I wanted to own a Volkswagen Beetle. The “bug” was so ugly that it was cute (like Herbie, the Love Bug), and clever ad campaigns at the time established it as the car of the young and hip. For a brief period Dad’s second car was a Beetle convertible; I loved riding around town with the top down, sitting in the ridiculously small back seat. Man, I had to get me one of those!

Fast-forward 10 years. I’m in college and have just purchased my first car: a used, dirt-cheap, slightly disheveled, baby-blue ’73 Beetle. Boy, did I love zipping around in that bug! It was fun learning all the tricks of manual-shift driving — so much fun that I was willing to overlook the red flags indicating that perhaps this particular car would no longer be considered the pinnacle of German engineering. Sure, the wiper-fluid pump didn’t work. (No big deal, I just kept a small bottle of glass cleaner handy to spray on the windshield as I drove.) And okay, I lost the clutch while doing 50 m.p.h. on a busy highway. (But I learned how to shift “on the fly” real fast.) And no, I didn’t realize that the fuel gauge had broken until I completely ran out of gas in the middle of a bridge, causing a mile-long traffic jam. (Hey, I thought it still read “full” because those bugs got such good gas mileage.) So the old car had a few quirks (including no heat) — but that was all part of its charm.

The final straw occurred on the way home from a day of skiing at Hunter Mountain with my girlfriend and another couple. As we traveled south on the Thruway that evening, the light drizzle we were driving through quickly became a freezing rain. Within minutes, the car’s lack of heat went from charming quirk to major liability as the bug literally became encased in ice. I couldn’t see anything through the murky windshield; we were driving blind. Panic rose within me as I heard the roar of 18-wheelers speeding past my tiny car in the dark. I was buggin’ out in my bug!

Somehow, I managed to pull over to the shoulder, and transferred girlfriend and luggage to our friends’ car, which thankfully was following right behind us. In those pre-cell phone days, we had to exit the Thruway to find a pay phone to call Grandma, who lived in nearby New Paltz. An hour later we pulled up to her house, where hot chocolate and guest rooms were at the ready.

The next morning I made a few calls and tracked down my car, which had been towed to a nearby garage. When I saw the bug sitting forlornly in the lot, I felt as though I was picking up my lost dog from the pound: relieved to see it was okay, and annoyed that it put me through so much trouble. The charm of owning the car I had craved as a child had worn off. Lacking the funds for a proper restoration, I soon sold it.

Despite these misadventures, I still think fondly of that Beetle. After all, it taught me that valuable lesson we eventually all learn: Be careful what you wish for; you just might get it.