Frozen in time, space and a VW Bug

By 1960s American standards, I was an old man before I got my first car at 25. But as much a greybeard as I was, my car was more of one.

It was a ’64 VW Beetle with nine years and over 150,000 miles on it. The mileage was unknown and never could be known because the speedometer-odometer cable broke in subzero weather. And because back in them days, Bunkie, subzero weather was the ADK norm, the cable was kaput by mid-December. It was replaced in the spring, which could safely be declared sometime in May.

Today’s cars, while infinitely more reliable than my old VW (and all old cars) are stylistic zeros. To me they’re all just boxes of one ilk or another. As a result, I can’t tell one make or model from another … nor do I care to.

A relevant example: A couple weeks ago I was walking in town with Long John Carhartt when he stopped next to a car.

“Wow!” he said. “Check this out, a new Cadillac. Ain’t it a beaut?”

I looked at it.

“Cadillac?” I said. “This is a Cadillac?”

“Sure,” he said. “Why?”

“Cuz it doesn’t look like one,” I said.

“Oh?” he said, his posture suddenly defensive. “Then what does it look like.”

“A box,” I said. “Maybe for Saltines. Or spaghetti. Or graham crackers. I dunno what kinda box, but, yeah, a box.”

“Well, I think it’s really sharp.”

“It’s a free country,” I said, retreating behind that ancient cliche/dismissal. “So you can still give your opinion in public … I think.”

Discussion ended as he went into his pout-fest and I went into my nostalgia-fest.

The rule of law (Murphy’s)

LJC is 20 years younger than me, so the poor sod was an infant the last time cars looked like cars. He never saw a Cadillac what was a Cadillac, like, say, a ’56 Coupe de Ville. Now, that was a car! Weighed about three tons, was only a few feet shorter than the Hindenberg, had serious fins and le piece de resistance — a huge chrome front bumper-cum-fertility symbol.

While Cadillacs were top of the line, all the other cars, even the lowest-end models, still looked like cars. They had curves; they had chrome; they had class. Even my old Bug did. But for all that, they couldn’t compete with today’s boxes on several major levels.

They weren’t safe; they weren’t fuel efficient; they were a lot more trouble all around. My ’64 Beetle illustrates that perfectly.

I already mentioned the endlessly broken speedometer cable, but that was only one of many inconveniences.

The windshield wiper was attached by a set screw that never stayed set. So when it rained, inevitably it loosened and you couldn’t have enough sense to come out of the rain because you had to tighten it. At least for as long as it held, which often was measured in minutes rather than hours.

And even when the wipers worked, they did it listlessly, at best. Rather than actually removing the water from the windshield, they just moved it around. In a downpour, the world looked like an Impressionist painting — a Monet, perhaps.

It had a 36 horsepower engine, so I had to drive uphill in third gear, at 40 mph at best — and that’s provided I didn’t have an adult passenger — even a thin one. The rearview mirrors were cute, but their angle of view was A-cute, which wasn’t at all cute. The horn worked sometimes, and didn’t at other times, and I never knew which it’d be. Heat in winter was a forlorn dream, and the radio couldn’t get WNBZ, when you were in town.

But all those hassles paled compared to starting it in the ADK winter.

The big chill

The battery was six volts, compared to later models, which were 12 volts. If you consider the 12-volt battery Charles Atlas, the six-volt was the famous 98-pound weakling. But for all that, that Bug, bless its little power plant, never failed to start. However, starting it was a labor somewhat akin to cleaning the Augean Stables — except in more hostile weather.

Starting took place in several distinct phases.

First, at night I took out the battery and put it on the radiator so it wouldn’t lose any of its power. And to do that, due to brilliant Teutonic space-saving design, I had to remove the rear seat, since the battery was underneath it.

Then I was free till 0500, when I had to take the battery — and myself — away from the toasty indoors and head out into Robert W. Service Land and reattach the battery. Then the “fun” began.

Today, we have fuel injection, so in order to start a car, even in 40 below, you turn the key, keep your foot off the accelerator, and the car does the rest, all by its little new self. But the old cars had carburettors, which meant you had to pump the accelerator pedal to get just the right mixture of gas and air in the engine to fire it up. And what was the right mixture? Dipped if I knew. I only knew if I didn’t pump it enough, it wouldn’t fire. So I had to keep pumping it till it turned over. But if I pumped it too much, it flooded, which meant, to put it politely, I was screwed, since it’d take bloody near forever for it to start again.

Luckily, I never flooded it, but it took quite a bit of pumping before the engine finally fired. And when it did, I had more work to do.

Here’s the thing: Before I ever turned the ignition key, I had to make sure the stick shift was in neutral and the clutch was pushed down to the floor. Why is that? Well, when it was that cold, the transmission fluid congealed or solidified or froze or some blighted thing, so even with the shift in neutral, if the engine started to run, the transmission started to engage. And then it’d stall. And then the whole bloody process had to be repeated.

But if the engine started and the clutch was down, then everything was just fine till the car warmed up. But there were two problems with that. One was it took at least a half-hour to warm up. The other was the clutch was mechanical, not hydraulic. This meant as I kept holding the clutch pedal to the floor, some big kahuna of a spring was pushing back. It was like a major workout on some gym machine — provided the machine and I were in an ice house.

But since my car got me to work, that’s what I had to do … and that’s what I did. The car always started, and I was never late for a class.

Plus, every morning of that winter gave me another new adventure.

But at the end of that winter, I decided I’d had enough adventures to last at least the rest of my life.