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Three years ago I came home in near tears and told Jock I did not want to ever own another car with a  computer in it. He took this in stride and said the usual non-committable but agreeing sort of things that men say when the women they love are ranting. He knew I had a frustrating month as my father’s chauffer: Both my car and his had suffered major computer problems and been towed to mechanics who knew they had me at their mercy.

vw bug

Gwenyfar Rohler purchases a 1965 VW Bug from local Marine. Photo by Gwenyfar Rohler

“I want a car that I can work on myself,” I emphasized. “I don’t want to ever be in this position again.”

“Well, darlin’, that’s not likely unless you get something older than you,” he said in his half paying-attention voice. “Like an old Jaguar…” 

Jock’s first car was two Mark 5 Jags that he put together to make one Mark 5 Jag, so it is sort of the default position in his brain for these conversations. “But, then you have the problem of parts—unless you get a second or a third car for parts.”

“No, I want a VW Bug,” I grumbled. “Do you know that they get 40 miles to the gallon when tuned up?”

His head snapped around so fast I thought it was going to get airborne. “You mean an old bug, like an air cooled? Not a new one like Fergie’s diesel?”

I confirmed I was talking about a real Volks, not things with computers in them, running around pretending to be bugs. He was grinning the biggest grin I had seen on his face in years.

“I think that’s a great idea!” he enthused. “And you can still get parts for them between the VW aftermarket stuff and the factories still making the old-style cars for Latin America!”

Now, I have come home with a lot of ideas and schemes over the years. To his credit, there is no man on this planet who could be more supportive of them than Jock. But this was the first time he had responded with anything approaching that level of enthusiasm

“You know I’ve been to the VW factory in Mexico,” he said.

“Of course you have, dear.”

He began reminiscing about the old mimeographed comic book repair guide. 

“It’s still in print,” the bookstore owner in me commented.

“No! This thing was purple and a comic book…”

“Yes, well now it’s a soft cover and is in its 19th edition. I’ll order one for us.”

Jock agreed that even though we didn’t have a car, or the means to buy one—or, frankly, a lifestyle that would allow for one—that the book would be a good starting point for preparing on the realities of VW ownership and restoration. In spite of much excited discussion, we both agreed that as long as I was driving Daddy around, this wasn’t a realistic plan. No way could my father have gotten in or out of a the bug or bus. And the lack of heat or A/C would not be a possibility he could have lived with either.

Nonetheless as an ongoing pre-occupation, we began shopping for Volkswagens. Jock was shocked at how much they were appreciating in value; he bought his last VW bus for less than $500 and gave it to someone when his interest wandered to another project. Now, keep in mind this is also the man who traded a case of Ramen noodles  for a car, which he drove the first two years of our courtship. I’m just saying that Jock’s luck with cars is better than the average person.

In the meantime Jock developed a classic teenage infatuation with the marketing campaign for the Nisaan Leaf’s all-electric car. While he might have sticker-shock at several grand for a VW, the idea of getting a car “as low as $21,510 (*net value after federal tax savings)” is almost impossible for either of us to fathom. (Nisaan’s website does, however, list the transmission as included in the price, which seemed nice of them to confirm.) Considering Jock could build more than 30 street-legal, solar-powered electric golf carts for that amount of money, the conversation never went beyond a discussion about how all polar bear lovers, or really anyone with an ounce of human feeling or conscience, would be moved by the advertising for the Leaf.

Multiple well-meaning friends have acquired, or lusted after, and therefore pointed out the possibility of a Prius for miles per gallon—which means being at the mercy of a computer that controls the car, which in this case is mostly plastic. This isn’t like a VW which is actual metal. The bottom of the line, no options. A Prius starts at $24,200 with no add-ons and an estimated 51 miles per gallon in a city and 48 on the highway.  Now, an old school VW Bug was designed for—if properly maintained—40 in a city, and VW lovers routinely report over 50 on the highway. (Not all engines are the same; not all cars have received the same love. I am discussing a well-maintained 1600cc engine.)

Gas is averaging $3.20 right now in Wilmington. If I paid cash for the Prius (instead of financing it), the $21,200 price difference between the Prius and our bug could, in theory, buy 6,625 gallons of gasoline (or fill the tank of the bug over 720 times). Right now I buy an average of one tank of gas a month—so that’s 60 years worth. I’ll be 94 by that time—and I will not have been stranded somewhere a plastic axle snapped or the damn computer wasn’t talking to the rest of the car.

So, yes, we finally bought a 1965 VW Bug last week. Along the way, his engine was swapped out for a 1600, and he definitely went through a major restoration somewhere around 1998 or ‘99. I have been shopping for VWs pretty intently for several years now, and we have been out to test-drive many. Non-VW fans don’t realize the major enemy of a Volkswagen is rust. Almost every other problem can be fought except rust. Body work is just part of the fun.

We had been planning to buy something in the $1,500 or less range—something that might run but may not actually have a floor (pre-1970, of course). We reasoned that half the fun of this project would be the restoration. If we found a car we liked and accepted that the floor rusted, then we still could enjoy driving it while we saved up to re-do the floors and get it painted.

When we went out to look at our bug, Jock checked the underside for rust and almost swallowed his tongue he was so shocked by what he saw. It was virtually rust-free. The seller pointed out a couple of things that would need to be fixed and we went out for a spin.

“This is the car you want,” Jock commented when we were alone cruising the neighborhood. “This is the one we have been looking for.”

He rolled down the window and adjusted the mirror. “What was the asking price again?” I reminded him it was $3,000, a number we had been planning to bargain lower until we saw the car.

“Oh, yeah, it’s worth that: ’65, no rust, appreciating in value. The only problems are minor, and we can fix them in one afternoon.”

He started mumbling to himself about the wing nut on the clutch and the steering damper. “Ask if the hula girl is included,” he nodded at the dashboard.

I just bounced up and down with excitement. We were actually buying a car from a person—not sending money overseas via the dealership, not spending money on interest on the payments that go to the big banks. It’s a new project we will work on together and the expense of car maintence and gas is about to plummet.

Though this hasn’t been on any of the ongoing Live Local resolution lists I have published in the last few years, it is certainly a big step forward in getting control of my financial life.  Maybe, best of all, instead of financing a car and struggling to make payment to a big bank, we spent $3,000 with the nicest Marine imaginable. He’s sold the car because he’s getting out of the service and moving home (across country) with his wife and a dog he adopted form the Marine K-9 Corps to start the next part of their lives. It’s money well spent every way we look at it.

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