By Thane Peterson I got a real twinge when I heard that Volkswagen just produced its last VW Bug. Like a lot of baby boomers, my first car -- at least the first I paid more than $10 for -- was an original Beetle. The Bug was to baby boomers what the Ford Model T was to my father's World War II generation. I remember my dad telling me that if he had trouble getting his Model T (his first car) up a steep hill, he would just turn around and back up. The VW Bug was like that, too -- rudimentary but very practical in its own down-market sort of way.
I'm not talking about New Beetle, the version that Volkswagen came out with a few years ago. I mean the classic Bug, which hasn't been sold in America since 1977 because it didn't meet U.S. safety and emissions standards. The classic VW Bug was appropriately named because you would have been squashed like a bug if you ever got into a serious accident in one. The model was phased out in most countries, but it lived on in Mexico, where about half-million are still in use. The last classic Bug -- No. 21,529,464 -- was just produced at a VW plant in Puebla, Mexico.
It's almost impossible for Americans to legally import a classic Bug. But many of the last 3,000 produced in a special commemorative edition are being snapped up by collectors in other countries. They're going for $13,000 to $16,000 in places like Brazil, Britain, and Germany. I'm not surprised that people will pay as much as double the $8,000 list price in Mexico. I would.
CAR OF MANY PARTS. My Bug was an early '60s model -- 1962, I think or maybe a '61 -- so it was more than a decade old when I bought it after graduating from college in 1973. The '62s had the flimsy, old-style tubular bumpers that you could use as handles to pick up the car (a strong person could pick up the front end, but it took two or three to lift the rear -- where the air-cooled engine was). I bought mine for $350 out of the classified ads in the local paper in my hometown of Urbana, Ill. I used to see the fellow who sold it to me every once in a while, and he always seemed astonished that the car was still running.
The reason, I suspect, is that he gypped me. Shortly after buying the car, I began to find it almost impossible to shift gears (it had a stick shift, of course). I took it to the only mechanic in town specializing in foreign cars, and he informed me that the transmission was shot.
Luckily, he said, he had just seen a used transaxle for a VW bus at a garage sale. Would I like him to buy it and install it in my car? I was skeptical that the rear axle from a bus would fit into the much smaller Bug. Not to worry, he assured me. It was just a matter of milling down a housing or two. So, my Bug soon had a new transmission, at a total cost of $110 -- $10 for the new transaxle and $100 for labor.
MIX AND MATCH. One of the great advantages of the Bug was that the design never really changed much after the first ones were produced in Germany in the 1940s. (The original design was commissioned by Adolf Hitler). Because parts from just about any model could be used in just about any other model, you could always find plenty of cheap used transmissions, bumpers, knobs, seats, and whatever around.
The only other modification I made to mine was to replace the left front fender. There was really nothing wrong with the original except that it flapped around in the breeze (it had been crushed in an accident and was coming loose from the car's body). So, I bought a blue fender at a junkyard and bolted it on myself. My Bug was forest green, but I didn't bother to paint the replacement fender -- most older Bugs in those days were multicolored. (The interior of mine was mud brown, which was practical considering how infrequently it got cleaned.) I think I paid $5 for the fender.
See, that's another thing that made the Bug economical -- even mechanically challenged owners like me could do most of the repair work themselves. Volkswagen means "people's car" in German, and it really did live up to its name. Everyone I knew who bought an older VW also picked up a copy of How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive, which had been self-published in 1969 by self-described hippy John Muir. (Muir has since passed on, but his book lives on -- the 19th edition, published in 1999, is still in print.)
The book's main selling point was that it argued persuasively that just about anyone could do about any repair on a VW with only a few basic tools. After having spent $100 on the transmission job, I was more than eager to embrace his belief.
MANIFOLD DESTINY. Unfortunately, Muir had a tendency to gloss over crucial details. I learned this the hard way when I spent eight hours replacing the muffler and exhaust system on my Bug. You'd never know it from Muir's book, but the Bug's exhaust system is ingeniously fitted around the engine -- which itself was crammed into a tiny space -- and attached to the engine and body in several improbable places.
Fitting in the new system, once you got the old one out, was virtually impossible. At one point during my painful efforts to follow Muir's instructions, one of my wrench sockets disappeared into my new exhaust system, never to be seen again. When the job was finally done, a little pile of nuts and bolts and other parts was left over. The exhaust system appeared to be on and serving its purpose, so I declared the parts surplus and threw them away. By doing the job myself I think I saved $20 or so, a tidy sum back then.
I can recall taking my Bug on a long highway trip only once. My friend Paul and I drove it from Urbana to Lacrosse, Wis., and back, a distance of some 400 miles each way. This was daring because it was winter, and the Bug didn't really have much in the way of heating. Two little metal vents down near the floor, one on the passenger side and the other on the driver's side allowed hot air to run directly from the engine into the passenger compartment.
BAD DEAL. This system wasn't very effective driving around town because the engine rarely got hot enough to provide heat. But once you had been on the highway for a while, the little vents got red-hot. I learned this not far outside Lacrosse, when my left boot nearly caught fire.
I finally sold my Bug in 1976 when I went off to graduate school in Minneapolis. I wasn't sure I would survive the Minnesota winters without a car with better heating, so I upgraded to a Chevy Nova. I got $50 for the Bug. I've been regretting that sale ever since. Peterson is a contributing editor at BusinessWeek Online. Follow his weekly Moveable Feast column, only on BusinessWeek Online