As the New Beetle Appears, Fond Memories of the Old

A wave of nostalgia almost knocked me over when I saw pictures of the new, updated Beetle that Volkswagen is rolling out. The video clips on TV featured two bright yellow models zipping along the road like frisky puppies. Their canary hue was almost exactly the color of my very first car, a 1971 bug with four-speed stick.

The Beetle had achieved national popularity by the time I reached high school. Pre-owned models were popular because their funky appearance projected an image of anticonsumerism. But I didn't object when my parents bought mine as a graduation present, new, for $2,200. They even splurged for a radio (AM only - FM radio was for listening at home, while wearing headphones).

It was an ideal first car. Parallel parking was a snap. It couldn't boil over in traffic because there was no radiator. And the economy of operation was legendary. During the first couple of years, I could fill the gas tank for under $5.

The Beetle often is linked with a carefree, live-for-today lifestyle. The car was indeed fun, but it was not for the timid. The hood of the standard model sloped forward at a steep angle, providing a dramatic, up-close view of the roadway that was not unlike riding on the front bumper. It also was as light as a tumbleweed and had the structural integrity of a cookie tin.

In response, I developed a driving style that blended common sense with a double scoop of caution and a sprinkling of paranoia. My strategy was to stay in the far right lane, always scanning for a spot to veer off the pavement, just in case. This poky approach seemed to prolong the life of the car. I got a valve job at 90,000 miles, and as I paid the bill the mechanic asked, "Do you drive really slow? That engine didn't look like it had much wear and tear." I took it as a compliment.

Once I got a flat tire on a busy southern California freeway. My passenger was a fellow VW owner who recently had experienced the same problem. "Don't worry," he said, "I'll show you how to put on the spare. Then you'll know what to do next time." But it never happened again. I sold my Beetle after 15 years and 230,000 miles.

People say I should have kept it, yet I try not to form emotional attachments to mechanical devices. But who knows? In a few more years I may get one of the new Beetles when my daughter is ready for her first car. If I'm lucky, she'll want one that's funky, used, and priced to sell. And yellow.

* Jeffrey Shaffer is the author of 'I'm Right Here, Fish Cake,' and 'It Came With the House,' collections of humorous essays. He lives in Portland, Ore.

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