Ask anyone who was responsible for creating the Volkswagen Beetle — the ‘People’s Car’ — and two names will usually be mentioned: Adolf Hitler, who wanted it as an affordable car for the masses, and engineer Ferdinand Porsche, who created it for him. The idea of the Beetle had been conceived in 1931, when Porsche and Zundapp developed the Porsche Type 12, or ‘Auto fur Jedermann’ (translated as ‘Car for Everyone’).
The last Beetles rolled off the lot in 2003, after more than 21.5 million had been built around the world. Volkswagons were the first rear-end motor cars, with the engine in the boot.
My first car was a Ford Prefect. It was ancient when I got it and I only had it for about three months. The Ford was a dreadful thing to drive and the gearbox (three forward on the floor) went out with a bang and I had to drive up hill and down from Richmond to St. Kilda in Melbourne in first gear as it was the only gear (and reverse) that worked. It was a few weeks before my brother-in-law turned up and said he’d found a car for me.
My first VW Beetle. I fell in love!
I remember it being a lovely powder blue, 1956 model. I drove it everywhere.
On weekends we would often drive to Gippsland and stay on the Ninety Mile Beach. As I worked on Saturdays, everyone left before me, so I made the trip alone or with a friend. One time coming back we went the ‘scenic route’ along the coast. I got to Port Franklin and headed towards Bennison and realised there were some very steep hills to climb.
This little old VW tried, and we got about a third of the way up a steep incline, but she simply refused to go any further. Not even in first gear. We turned around and as it was getting late in the day – and was too far to return to a point where we could drive inland – we backed the VW all the way up to the top of the hill. Went like a charm — backwards.
A few years later and I was in possession of a 1964 model VW Beetle. I drove to Canberra, not thinking how long and dangerous it could be. Aged 23 and with only $20 in my purse, I headed off on this new adventure only to find myself in the middle of a game of ‘chicken’ (not intentionally) with three huge trucks trying to outdo each other. They lost speed going up the hills, but were still faster than my little Beetle as we struggled to the top of the hill, they used controlled gears to go down, towards Canberra they would let me pass on the downlill slopes only to overtake my poor little Beetle at top speed on the flat stretches.
My sturdy little VW chugged its way up the hills usually down to second gear by the top, pop out of gear and coast down a lot faster than driving. I am sure VW never meant for its little ‘for the worker’ cars to go on long distance trips on the Australian highways.
When I hit the flat, I sped along with the trucks in hot pursuit overtaking each other and my VW, then when they slowed they signalled me to pass only to overtake me on the next hill. Finally, my poor little VW overheated and refused to go any further. Trucks way ahead and out of sight, I had to fiddle with the engine myself, pushing and poking with a screw driver until it finally started again. Just as well the engines were simple machines.
Later, in Sydney, with a baby in tow, I bought another VW — a 1970 model. I put my baby in the bassinet in the back seat, baby stuff in the front boot, strapped the pram to the roof and we headed off to Melbourne. It was a fairly uneventful trip. We made a few trips to Victoria and back over the next months, but the final trip back to Sydney was a nightmare. It was the height of summer and my nine-month-old was in the back seat on a booster. After a prolonged drought we drove through a locust plague and that is when I found out my windscreen washers did not work. With squashed locusts plastered thickly over the windscreen, I had to get out and scrape some off so I could see where I was on the road. Grasshoppers filled the interior of the car and with a screaming baby and a labouring motor, we finally made it to Yass exhausted. We booked into a motel for the night.
Come morning, the VW did not want to start. The ignition was grinding so the manager called a mechanic who found that the wire connected to the solinoid had only been wedged into place instead of welded. He fixed the problem and off we went on the last leg of the journey, however, this wonderful mechanic had done the same thing and the wire came out and the motor died just as we reached home.
The final trip was when we moved from Sydney to Melbourne. My brother-in-law put all my belongings on the back of his huge low loader and escorted us on the highway. ‘Us’ being my almost two-year-old, a beautiful Siamese cat and me. My stepfather came along for the ride.
My little VW started to overheat and the motor stopped. My brother-in-law had a look and said something had come off, so he put it back together. Whatever he did, it created a vacuum and the engine was starved for fuel so of course it kept stalling on a very busy highway just out of Sydney. Every time it stalled we slid to the verge so as not to slow the traffic. He could not work it out, but we did work out the overflow fuel pipe was blocked and when he connected it, it created the vacuum that caused it to stall. Once that was fixed we set off again, VW in the lead so we did not get left behind.
An occasional whine from the cat and a crying baby was too much, so my brother-in-law took my daughter in the truck to give me a break, but then the cat took over, and howled and howled. I am sure the cat thought I was giving them away one by one because as soon as my brother-in-law put my daughter back in the VW she settled down and was quiet for the rest of the trip.
Once in Melbourne, we settled into a routine and the sturdy little VW made its way between Shepparton and Melbourne two or three times a week for the next year until my mother was airlifted to Melbourne St Vincent’s hospital.
The VW Beetle played an important role in my life. We travelled all over Victoria and New South Wales and into Queensland until responsibilities, like school, made us settle down. Each VW was different to drive, some a little sluggish, some very light and zippy – and we would find ourselves (not intentionally) speeding in a 30mph zone. Every VW I owned had things go wrong, but were always easily fixed. When I think about some of the situations I was in with the VW — funny, stressful, sad — I don’t think any other car would have done.