Once upon a time in Germany, my grandfather bought a brand-new 1967 Volkswagen Beetle straight off the lot. After using the car to tour its country of origin, he packed it on a cargo ship, then flew home to America. The details are lost to history, but at some point the ship sailed into a U.S. port, the Beetle debarked, and Grandpa drove it home to Eau Claire, Wisconsin.
I retain vague memories of riding in the bug with Grandma. I remember our fascination with the motor being in the rear and the trunk in the front. The sewing-machine sound of it compared the big Chevies and roaring Fords we were used to. The rounded eave overhanging the license plate. Its chromed and twinned miniature tailpipes. The unfamiliar seat belt clips. The slot behind the seat where Grandma stored her knitting bag.
Over time, the Beetle was sidelined for more modern vehicles. For cars that zoomed faster and had more room and didn’t subject the driver to frostbitten toes during the Wisconsin winters. It’d get driven now and then, and Grandpa lent it out to family. My brother John remembers taking it musky fishing. He must have had to break the rod down to get it in there. I don’t know the whole story (that’d take a family reunion), but eventually it wound up parked alongside my sister’s garage up north. “I’m gonna get it goin’ again,” said my brother-in-law Mark 15 years ago, when he was helping me resurrect my 1951 International Harvester pickup in that same garage.
Last weekend we were gathered at a party up the road from the home farm to celebrate a neighbor’s 80th birthday when Mark and my sister Kathleen came rolling up the gravel road in what’s left of that Volkswagen.
It turns out the Beetle was rusted beyond rescue. Road salt and moldering time are to blame, but when he started deconstructing it, Mark also discovered rust deposits in odd spots, including the interior of the window posts. A former Navy man, he theorizes the oxidation was hastened by the time the car spent in the salt air. And so, in a process that cannot be done justice in the space of this column but says a lot about why you will want them on your side for the apocalypse, Mark, Kathleen and their son took a torch to the VW, remounted it atop a junked-out and jacked-up four-wheel-drive Suzuki Samurai, painted it flat green with black trim, fitted it with an exteriorized wrap-around roll cage, and, well, if you are directing the next “Mad Max” sequel, you need to get them on the horn right now.
A bunch of us took rides in the thing, including my daughter who loves cats and bamboo straws and musicals but also — based on the width of her grin — four-wheel-drive monster bugs. Apart from the hood ornament, steering wheel button, instrument panel and recognizable silhouette, there’s not much of the old VW left. The dashboard remains its original red, and Mark wants to repaint it but Kathleen says let it be.
I took my turn at the wheel, navigating a dirt two-track through the pines. As we rumbled along on four big fat rubber luggers, it was nice to glance at the gleaming red dash and imagine Grandpa tooling around Europe five decades ago, putting the first kilometers on a story still rolling up the miles.