Burton on the Bay:

Bitten by Bugs

The history of an art is the history of masterwork, not of failures, or mediocrity.

-Ezra Pound, "The Spirit of Romance"

I never was much of a fan of Ezra, undoubtedly because, like many others, I really couldn't fathom much of his verse or prose. But the above I consider appropriate for the Volkswagen Bug or Beetle, whichever you prefer. It was a masterwork, certainly neither a failure nor mediocrity.

"The Spirit of Romance" works too. At the dentist's office this morning, I mentioned the revival of the Bug to Dr. Stephen Hittle of Riviera Beach. Overhearing us was his wife, who reminded him that their first date was in one of those classic VWs. It was pouring down rain, but they grilled a meal under the front hood and romance was underway.

'Tis long been said, history repeats itself, and now the Bug is coming back in a repeat performance that a generation or two of auto buffs are looking forward to.


The Next Best Thing

To me, a vehicle has always been little more than something to get me from here to there - and back again. But even I'm looking forward to the reintroduction.

I never owned a Bug, but I came mighty close 19 years ago, the last day of business for Hobbleman Motors of Glen Burnie. But the dealer couldn't take my VW diesel Rabbit in trade because their doors were to be locked for good in a couple of hours.

So I missed the true Bug experience. But I have done the next best thing. Some years earlier, I purchased a VW Thing.

Remember those boxy vehicles that looked like Jeeps and had the Bug's same under-powered air-cooled engine? It cost me about $3,000. I ran it better than 100,000 miles in three years, sold it to buy the Rabbit, and got back almost all I paid for it.

I didn't do badly on the diesel Rabbit either. It propelled me around for about 130,000 miles in four years. Repairs - other than tires and regular maintenance - totaled about $600. I hated to see it go but feared, like the One Horse Shay, it would crumble to dust one day, possibly with me in it.

So they're bringing back the Bug, in the same general unique configuration at 10 times or more the cost of the original of 1949 and with up to five times the horsepower - plus a lot of extras not found in the original, including a gas gauge. I can't wait. Probably can't afford either.


Crawling with Bugs

When I read one of the latest stories about the new VW Beetle, I headed up Fort Smallwood Road to pay a visit to George M. Treas III, whose shop specializes in VW Beetles. In particular, repairs or restorations.

He's a VW nut; they're everywhere, dozens of them, some to be restored, others just for parts, a few more for his own personal use. He apologized: Just this morning, his gold chain to which his trademark Bug replica was attached broke, so he wasn't wearing it.

The bird feeder outside his house adjacent to his shop is in the configuration of a Bug; a phone is a miniature Bug; so is the office clock. Posters, magazines - anything and everything concerning Bugs, their sister Karmann Ghias, or those big and bulky VW buses is here.

I wanted to know why the Bug was so popular, so lasting, and why the return of it in an updated version was so impatiently awaited by so many people. What was it about the original Bugs that has endeared them to a couple generations of drivers?

They were dependable, good transportation, simple in concept, and anyone could keep one running. That was the gist of Treas' comments. Praise poured from him so fast, my pen couldn't keep up with his accolades.

Earlier, at Chesapeake Car Care on Route 100, Dave, the doctor for my Subaru, was more matter of fact. "They were loved because they were different - and dependable," he said. He doesn't work on them anymore; they're all old and require special service now from facilities that cannibalize parts from ones no longer fit for the road. And for all that, a real VW specialist is needed, a guy like George at George's Auto Repairs.

Tom Sawyer specialized in Chevies before signing on with George six months ago; now he's got the bug for the Bug and its motorized relatives.

Yet I reminded George, who is in his lower 40s, that he wasn't even around when the Bug made its debut in this country. The curiously shaped vehicle arrived in 1949, priced at $1,480 including its 36-horsepower engine.


Basic Bugs and Better

Several years after its debut I drove one up Woodford Mountain east of Bennington, Vt. It climbed the grade, but not as easily as my new "sub-compact" at the time, a Nash Metropolitan convertible that was about the same size but with amenities unheard of in the Bug. Like a fuel gauge.

Gradually, engines were modified to add more horses for Bug and bus; eventually with fuel injection they reached 63 horses. By then the Bug was on its way out. But not out of the hearts of its die-hard followers.

Twenty years ago to keep a daughter occupied on a drive from New England to Riviera Beach, I suggested she count the Bugs we passed. By the time we reached the Harbor Tunnel, the tally topped 1,000.

Not bad for a car that, when first introduced on this side of the Atlantic, couldn't even inform its driver how much fuel it had. There was a heater incapable of heating the small cabin, continually malfunctioning defrosters, balky wipers and fragile fan belts. But it was cheap and dependable - unless one forgot to check mileage.

Without a gauge, one figured how far it was possible to drive at 28 to 35 miles per gallon before a fill-up. There was a tiny emergency tank to aid those who miscalculated.

The few times I drove one of the early Bugs on a long trip, I figured it took 10 seconds to get it to 30 miles an hour. I see by the specs of the new one, it will be possible to get from 0 to 60 in 12.5 seconds - and the engine accomplishing this will be in the front. Egads.

The powerplant was convenient in the rear for several Bug owner colleagues of mine at the Anchorage Times back in the mid-'50s when I lived in Alaska. They didn't have to worry about a frozen radiator because the engine was air-cooled. But they did harbor concerns about starting when temperatures dropped to more than 20 below.

The solution was a pan of charcoal nestled below the rear engine compartment. This meant rising an hour earlier to light up the coals, but it assured a fairly quick start.

Once started, the old Bugs froze their passengers via a combination of the inadequate heater and floorboards that were as porous as a fish net. Frigid air swooshed in during winter and in rainy weather, in splashed the water. But anywhere Bugs were driven, winter or summer, the faithful disregarded the deficiencies of their quirky little cars.

VW is gambling that many will purchase the new updated versions at $15,000 or more, but there will always be some who will buy down-and-out original Bugs for $100 to $1,000, then pay others like George up to $3,500 to restore them - to bring back the discomforts and adventures of long past.

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VolumeVI Number 4
January 29 - February 4, 1998
New Bay Times

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