Old Bug's still got it -- and it's still going Beetle: Volkswagen has a brand new Bug, but some of the originals that captured the hearts of a generation are still on the road.

January 11, 1998|By Neil A. Grauer

I DON'T NEED to fork over $15,700 for one of Volkswagen's New Beetles to recapture the spirit of the 1960s. I've still got it - or at least I still have what supposedly embodies it: My 1968 VW Bug.

That's right: It's the same Beetle I've been driving for 30 years. And let me tell you, driving an icon isn't all the New Beetle marketers would have you believe it is. It wasn't then and it isn't now.

No power steering; no power brakes; it's blistering in the summer with no air conditioning and freezing in the winter because the heater hasn't worked in years.

The windshield wipers, even with new blades, are indifferent; and if you turn the knob to get them going at high speed, they interfere with the radio's reception. Not that the AM-only radio, with its popping and crackling original speaker, picks up much worth listening to now, given the abysmal state of AM radio - mostly Rush Limbaugh, his clones and sports babble.

Still, there seems to be a certain cachet to driving a 1960s Bug these days. While waiting at a traffic light on North Charles Street, I've had winsome young ladies pull alongside my Beetle in their minivans, roll down their windows and gush: "Cool car!"

I wave jauntily (or what I hope is jauntily), and when the light changes to green there or anywhere, my Bug still can scoot away from the pack at an impressive clip. But while I once could ease the Bug into a 70 mph cruise on the Beltway (when 65 was the standard limit), now it begins to protest if pushed much beyond 50 or 55.

It hasn't gained any environmental consciousness about fuel efficiency, it just has gotten old. I don't know what 30 is in dog years, but for a car, it's old.

The New Beetle certainly has a sleeker appearance, but I think that actually is a drawback. To be a real Bug, it should look clunky. And no matter how stylish it is, it still will be a tempting target for tractor-trailer drivers.

They used to like nothing better than riding right up on the Beetle's tail -- so all you could see in the rear-view mirror was a huge bumper -- then blast their horns at you.

And on a windy day, it's mighty tiring to hold the wheel steady enough to avoid being buffeted back and forth across the lanes - or blown off the highway altogether.

Much has been made of the Beetle's status as an emblem of the counterculture. The truth is that its popularity was rooted in key factors that are dear to the hearts of any capitalist: It was simple, cheap and dependable.

I mean really cheap (my Bug cost just $1,800 when new); really simple (if, after 100,000 miles, your engine gave out, you could get a rebuilt one for $300 or $400 and be back in business), and really dependable. In Woody Allen's 1973 movie "Sleeper," he is revived after being frozen for 200 years and finds himself in a cave full of centuries-old artifacts - one of which is a Beetle.

He dusts it off, gets in, flips the key and the engine turns over right away. Audiences in 1973 always gave that a big, appreciative laugh.

When gas cost 30 cents a gallon - and believe it, children, that was the going price less than 30 years ago - I could fill up the Bug for $3 and drive it all the way from Baltimore to New York on a single tank of gas.

I did it countless times (which is how I know about all those wind gusts and tractor-trailer drivers). No amount of New Beetle marketing magic can recapture the sort of economy in transportation.

The original Bug was built to last. Once, after a tune-up, a mechanic asked me the year my car was made. When I replied 1968, he nodded and said: "Yeah, they still made 'em good back then. After 1972, they started to make crap."

Even inferior old Bugs have a devoted following. A company out of Colorado, Rocky Mountain Motorworks, puts out a 170-page catalog offering every imaginable part, from accelerators to wooden Front Header Bows (discontinued after 1967) and rubber window seals.

An estimated 5 million old Beetles were made for the U.S. market between 1949 and 1979; no one knows how many still putter along our roads, but their number is dwindling.

Rust is the main culprit killing them off. Not only do the joints between the body panels and the running boards go, but the floors give out - in part because the battery is located under the rear seat.

When I had to replace my Bug's floor - "Otherwise you'll have to put your feet out to stop, like Fred Flintstone," said the body shop man - I was told that fumes from the battery's acid, rather than road salt, was what eventually ate away the floor panels.

When it became the instant pinup of the North American International Auto Show last week, the New Beetle certainly appeared to offer alluring amenities: A 115-horsepower, four-cylinder engine; air conditioning; power mirrors and locks; adjustable steering column; AM/FM stereo.

I still think I'll stick with my '68 for a number of reasons.

On a sentimental note, friends ask about the car as if it were a member of my family; "How's the Bug?" they inquire. As Holmes said of Watson, it is a fixed point on a changing universe.

And my mother gave it to me. (Well, technically, she sold it to me at a discount, after driving it for a few months.) She has been gone nearly 25 years, but the Bug's still here.

And on a non-sentimental note: It's paid for.

Neil A. Grauer is a Baltimore writer.

Pub Date: 1/11/98

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