Recently, Consumer Reports and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety teamed up to advise parents on the best cars to buy for a new teen driver. It got me thinking about my first car, the Volkswagen Beetle. Though it makes no “best of” lists, it was the perfect car for a sixteen-year-old me tooling around suburbia.
The history of the Volkswagen Beetle is weird. It went into production because Adolf Hitler wanted a cheap, simple car, mass-produced in Germany. Thus, the people’s car (literally Volkswagen in German) rolled off lines in 1938. Over 21 million cars, and eight decades later, the Volkswagen Beetle is the longest-running car of a single platform ever made.
1973 Volkswagen Beetle. Photo courtesy of Richard P Long
After WWII, the production of the Beetle helped revive Germany’s economy. When the comic-looking car got the starring role in Disney’s “Herbie the Love Bug,” it turned the Beetle into a groovy way to get around in the late sixties and early seventies. Everyone fell in love with this puppy of a car.
Flash forward to the Big Eighties. I turned sixteen in 1985. My dad didn’t have the benefit of Internet lists back then, but he is “a car guy.” As luck would have it, my uncle’s hobby was restoring vintage Volkswagen Beetles, and he had one, ready to roll. That’s how a 1973 Powder Blue Volkswagen Super Beetle entered my “Big Eighties” high school life.
In 1985, not much from 1973 was considered cool. While I wouldn’t have been caught dead in bell-bottoms or a center part, I was happy to drive to the mall in my groovy car. It matched my eyeshadow. I will never forget the feeling of driving that Bug, by myself, for the first time. Freedom! I could go to Taco Bell By. My. Self!
Germany, 1964, Travelers take time to have a cup of tea and a snack under a tree before continuing their ride. Photo courtesy of Atlantic Kid
I learned a lot from that car. It had a terrible radio, so my dad installed a cassette player. Cassettes never skipped, you could make them yourself, and you did not need to be MacGyver to fix one—just hand me a pencil. I learned futzing with your radio instead of keeping your eyes on the road is a good way to get pulled over by the police. “I was trying to find my station, officer.”
I also learned how to drive a stick shift. The benefits of a manual transmission are underrated. A stick shift ensured I couldn’t do something else while driving. Believe me, I tried to apply fifty layers of Cover Girl Marathon Mascara while behind the wheel, but there just wasn’t time between shifting gears. Texting back then involved elaborately folded notebook paper and a basic knowledge of origami, but even if there were cell phones, you thankfully couldn’t text, shift, and drive.
Vintage 1303 Volkswagen Beetle. Photo courtesy of Ioanna Alexa
You could not speed in that thing. Anytime I attempted to accelerate over fifty miles an hour, the car shook like it was re-entering Earth’s atmosphere from outer space (She’s breaking up, she’s breaking up!). It meant I learned to leave early enough that 45-miles-an-hour would get me there on time.
The vents pumped heat in the summer and cold air in the winter. I kept a wool blanket in the car. This was another lesson for a young driver. To this day, I still keep supplies in my car for winter weather emergencies, thanks to that Bug.
I can push start a Volkswagen Bug from a dead stall. If I hadn’t learned that, I’d still be clogging up traffic, late to first-hour sophomore English class. This knowledge hasn’t come in handy since the eighties, but I have it, ready to roll, in case.
The funky little Bug didn’t have airbags, it barely had a seat belt, but it made up for that by having a cigarette lighter! In a rainstorm, water gushed in through the floor. The life lesson here, be wary of flooded roads. That puddle could be a lake.
Whenever I see a classic Bug, I am transported back to that time, when my biggest problems were waterproof mascara and getting to first-hour English on time.
The 1973 VW Bug wouldn’t make any lists for a great first car, but it was. And now, if you ever need a push start, you know who to call.