My dad ran a VW repair shop for a lot of years, and while he probably drove and owned literally hundreds of beetles during his 30 year career, one of his favorite and most trusted cars was a 66 VW Bug he practically built from the ground up and drove for a long time. In its early life, it was primed red, and he used it for his work car – since he ran a one-man shop, he’d have to hang a note and close the door before he went to town.
For a long time, before he obtained a replacement transaxle, the car would jump out of fourth gear, and so he drilled a small socket in the gear shift knob and used a stiff piece of welding rod propped between the knob and the dash to keep that 4th gear jumpout from happening – you see, my dad was a pragmatist and he always thought outside the box – in that case, I guess you might say he thought outside the gearbox.
As for me, pumped 40 cent a gallon gas, did brakes, built carburetors, fixed flats, and read Louis L’Amour westerns during the slow times at the only Gulf station in the very small rural community where we lived. When Ed, the mechanic who ran the gas station for Clyde, his silver-haired father, moved to the Texas coast to work in the offshore services business (oil was a whopping $13 a barrel then), he coaxed me a few months later into following him down there.
I worked that job for a few years, and after I married, and shortly after Jimmy Carter de-regulated the petroleum industry in a failed attempt to fix runaway inflation and correctly predicted that gas would go from 40 cents a gallon to a dollar, I found myself needing a gas-saving ride, and so my dad sold me that 66 bug, now painted a color something between pale yellow and pastel green.
In the meantime, governmental Imminent Domain claimed my dad’s shop property in the waning years of Carter’s presidency because that highway was being four-laned, and so Dad built his new shop with the small amount of money they paid him for his property. Rather than buying a prohibitively expensive piece of land in town, he put the new shop on an acre of land next to our house out into the country without so much as erecting a sign. His notion was that since he had so many regular customers, they could find him if they wanted to. And they did.
As this was happening, I was still wrenching on my fleet maintenance job down on the coast some six hundred miles to the west, and under the carport at my Texas residence (a house on Lakeshore Drive that I had purchased for $16,000) sat the 66 bug – it was one of our family vehicles along with a 74 Ford pickup and a 79 Chrysler Lebaron, and when I moved back to Alabama with a wife and 2 kids, the bug came with us.
Well, at the point when we moved back to Alabama, my dad’s shop was temporarily closed – he was in Tennessee learning about sawmills with plans to set up one of his own out behind the shop to supplement his income during those times when car work was slow. After he got his sawmill set up and running, I built a four bedroom house with oak lumber we sawed out of eight trailer truck loads of logs, and except for the decking, every board in that house was sawed out on the mill he set up.
During the time he was in Tennessee gathering experience and information about sawmill stuff, I was the one-man operator of his shop, and I serviced vehicles for his regular customers and more or less kept things flowing, but I gathered some new customers too, and one of those is a principal player in this story. Patty was a single mother with three kids whose soldier husband had dumped her, and she had purchased a 70 model tan-colored bug from a rather shady used car dealer in a nearby hamlet that was known for its small town politics and speed trap-happy cops.
While the car looked good inside and out, it was fraught with one problem after another. The first time I worked on it, I changed the oil, cleaned the oil screen, and adjusted the valves – something those old bugs need very frequently. Incidentally, VW bug maintenance calls for an oil change every fifteen hundred miles.
On the day I first worked on Patty’s car at that shop in the country, I noticed two things – first, it was raining, and second, she had disappeared. As I was finishing my service on her bug, I realized she was approaching from the open doors on the other end of the shop.
“What happened to you?” I asked. She was soaking wet.
“I just went for a walk in the woods,” she replied with a peace-joy-love hippie type smile. This was a strange, sad little lady.
Over the next month or two, she would call me for first one thing and then another that went wrong with her bug. Once she called from the bus station telling me there was something wrong with one of her wheels and she couldn’t drive the car. When I got there, the pinch nut that holds the wheel bearings in place had backed off and her wheel was wobbling like a cartoon when the car moved.
Another time the spring broke on the points in her distributor, and then another time the fan belt broke (who knows why, it didn’t look that bad), which led to an engine that got hot enough to take the temper out of all the piston rings. I jerked the engine out and stuffed a new set of rings and three new quarts of oil in there to get it going again, hoping the bottom end hadn’t been damaged by that debacle – that didn’t take but about two hours and the car ran like new.
This one repair after another mess led her to become so disgusted with that car that her hippie smile disappeared one day and she voiced her frustration. I just about had all the kinks worked out of her ride, but she still didn’t trust it.
“The 66 VW I drive doesn’t give any trouble, and I just put a brand new extractor exhaust system on it. Wanna trade?”
“Will that 66 bug make it to the beach?”
“I drove it all the way here from Texas and I drive it all the time around here.”
“Even trade?” She asked.
“You got it.” I told her. The car she was driving was a lot more comfortable than the 66 and was 3 years newer. Further, it had a good looking paint job. For cars of that vintage, no title was needed in Alabama, and so we simply swapped bills of sale.
The 70 model bug was, by design, quieter and more comfortable than its four year older predecessor, and I drove it for a year before I sold it. All the kinks and problems had been worked out of it while Patty still owned it, but a vehicle can quickly lose the trust of a single mother if it puts her down too often, and this car had done that.
Patty still brought the 66 bug back to me for service whenever it needed work, and she was has happy as a bug in a rug driving that one, because it never broke down.
Right before Dad came back from Tennessee, the guy I had worked for at the Gulf station asked if I would like to work for him – he had built a new shop and had more work than he could do, and so, about a week before my dad made his re-entrance, I closed his shop again and went to work for my previous employer. Dad re-opened his shop and started taking in work again. I told him the story of the 66 and 70 bugs, and he grumbled good naturedly that I had traded the good car he had built for a “piece of junk.” We laughed together about it and moved on, but we both got another laugh about the situation later on, and it happened on this wise.
One night after we were off work, Dad and I were standing in the shadows of the big pines out by his shop when he told me Patty had driven up that day on the 66 bug, and asked where I was. He told her he was my dad and that the shop was actually his shop and that I was working at another shop.
“Well, I won’t let anybody touch this car except Richard.”
My Dad isn’t often surprised by much of anything, but when that girl wouldn’t let him put a wrench on the car that he built because she didn’t trust anybody but me – well, he was surprised and disgruntled, but was kind of proud of me at the same time. And as he told me about that encounter, the laugh we shared about that car and that girl’s perspective was particularly memorable.
He got his sawmill up and running, and we sawed out 40 thousand board feet of lumber to build a house with four bedrooms, two bathrooms, a grand room with exposed beams, and a shady porch on the front and back. It’s said that three things every man should do are to plant a tree, build a house, and have a son. I’ve done all three, and my dad has too.
He doesn’t work on cars much anymore, except to tinker with the vehicles he and my mother drive. If anything major needs doing, he brings it to my shop at the school. A few weeks back he brought his Tempo to me because it wouldn’t idle down, and in addition to replacing his Idle Air Control valve, I was using swivel head ratchet to replace the spark plugs.
“Remember that Snap-On swivel head ratchet I gave you ‘way back in the eighties? I paid $27 for that ratchet and two spark plug sockets in 1977 and I always hated it because the head was so easy to strip I bet the Snap-On guy rebuilt it a dozen times.”
“I still have it,” he replied.
“Yep,” I smiled “and I reckon I’ll get it back after you’re gone.” We shared one of those special father-son moments and had another good laugh. We never know when any of us will pass from this life into the next, but both my parents are full of days and have blessed a lot of people in the years they’ve lived. And by God’s grace, I’ll bless at least as many people as they have.