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On the Other Hand: The Volkswagen Bug - oh the memories
Idiosyncratic vehicle once dominated RFV roads

Here’s something hardly anyone knows about the Ford Model T, which was manufactured from  1908-1927. The Model T did not have a keyed ignition to start the vehicle because that device was not yet invented. On a Model T, one had to quickly jerk an “L” shaped crank (which connected to the engine) in an upward motion. As most folks knew back then, the way to prudently crank the car was to take the handle in your palm, wrapping your four fingers around it. The thumb, however, did not overlap the index finger like a baseball player grips a bat. The thumb remained in what you might call “the hitchhiking” position.

Why not firmly grip the crank with all five digits like a fist? “If the car backfired, it could break your arm” my dad once told me. “With an open palm, the crank would just fly out of your hand if it backfired.”

Computer-based modern cars aren’t quirky like the mechanically oriented Model T. Come to think about it, one of the last of the real quirky cars was the Volkswagen Beetle. Statistics aren’t readily available, but I’m guessing that from the mid-’60s to early-’70s, there were probably more VWs per capita in the Roaring Fork Valley than in most places, for several reasons. For one thing, with the air-cooled engine mounted over the rear tires, its traction was great in ice and snow. Also, the valley (particularly Aspen) was infested with hippies back then and the Bug seemed to attracted longhairs for its affordability, gas mileage and funk factor. 

I went through at least four VWs, vintages 1966-1973. My older brother, Gary, gave my parents his 1966 VW in 1968 when he was flunking out of college and joined the Air Force rather than face the dreaded draft. I ended up rolling that car on Hefner Road in Oklahoma City while I was trying to duplicate the lane-changing maneuvers of a friend named Randy, who was driving a his Z28 Camaro in front of me. I was surprised at how loud it is when you roll a car — like having your head in a loosely filled can of gravel on a downhill run.

Next up was a 1969 blue VW with white interior. The back seat folded down, so if you were short and scrawny enough, you could curl up like a dog and sleep back there. I was, and did so several times during a meandering road trip from Oklahoma to New Jersey, then up as far as Bar Harbor, Maine, west through Canada, and back to the U.S. via Michigan, where customs agents caught me red-handed with a handful of marijuana seeds in my shampoo-slimy shaving kit. Thankfully, they decided to let me go.

The weirdest event from the ’69 VW occurred one winter when my friend Pete and I were motoring from Denver to Oklahoma City on Highway 287, in the southeast corner of Colorado. It was dark and, all of a sudden, “BAM!” My first thought was a roadside lunatic had blasted us with a shotgun as we sped by. I slammed on the brakes and we both jumped out of the car. We determined there were no armed lunatics nearby and started to inspect the inside of the Bug. I started laughing when after about 30 seconds I discovered the explosion’s source: The back heater, which consisted of two vents at floor level below the seat, blew up an aerosol can of deodorant that was lying in front of one of the vents. Never heard of that one happening before, or since. Took quite a while for the aroma to dissipate, but at least it masked the other smells that then dominated the interior of the vehicle.

The last major VW episode came thanks to a mid-’60s unit I bought in Glenwood Springs in the mid-’80s. I was a reporter/photog for the old Free Weekly newspaper, which was located in a two-story Victorian house a block west of Main Street that an adjacent bank later bought, tore down and put up a parking lot. Anyway, I was parked in front of the newspaper one day and went out to my car. I had to get something out of the trunk, which was located in the front, but when I pulled up on the handle, it broke off in my hand. If you’ll remember, until the late 1960s, the gas cap on a VW was located under the hood. I was about out of gas and running late for an interview, so I chose the only option I thought available: I got a claw hammer and ripped my way through the hood to the gas cap, creating a jagged flap in the process. My friends looked at me funny when I explained why my VW sported a gash in the hood, but none of them offered a better solution to the dilemma the car had put me in.

Looking back on my VW years, I think about something dad said about his time in the Army. “I wouldn’t trade it for anything, but wouldn’t want to do it again.”

Lynn Burton is a semi-retired newspaper reporter who lives in Carbondale.