Between the Lines: Do not ask for whom the valve burns

When a young colleague told me she and her husband bought a Volkswagen Vanagon I was dumbfounded. I thought The Curse, the dreaded VW van, was confined safely to the past with the Cold War, polio and witchcraft frenzies.

"You bought one?" I said incredulously.

"For camping," she said brightly.

I could see winning one as a booby prize, inheriting one from a relative who disliked you or finding one abandoned by crooks that switched to a getaway vehicle of superior reliability and performance, like a donkey cart.

Deciding to buy a Volkswagen — I don't mean a Jetta or Passat but the classic Bug and its Karmann Ghia and Microbus cousins — is not like buying a normal car. To invite a classic VW into your life is to take an existential leap. Like race horses, the Chicago Cubs or country music with beer, that cute little car will break your heart.

As part of the generation that came of age in the 1960s and '70s, I owned Volkswagens. It was required. There was a law or something.

My first Bug was red and had a canvas sunroof with a hand crank. It was underpowered and squirrely to drive and had a heater that put out the same number of Btus found in a sleeping baby's breath. It got 30 mpg and made a statement.

The statement was fiendishly complex, yet everybody got it. It said you were a person of keen discernment and sound values (like thrift) who rejected your lumbering Detroit monstrosities as dinosaurs while embracing a hip esthetic of practicality tinged with an ironic cuteness. The smugness factor almost made it worth schlepping around the box of tools you carried to juryrig whatever broke. I always carried the tools after a Bug accelerator cable failed and I rode home hunkered on the rear bumper operating the carburetor by hand as a friend drove.

The weird part was you got used to it. Like a dope fiend whose life had gone all dysfunctional, you knew that setting out to go somewhere wasn't the same as counting on getting there. You had feeler gauges and set the valves yourself, especially the number three exhaust, which was prone to burning. It was six thousandths, or six millimeters, six something, and you did it in the morning after the overworked little engine had cooled all night.

We weren't oblivious to all this. We called VWs Hitler's revenge (the monster himself sketched the first prototype for Dr. Porsche in 1934) and said you knew you were in California when the shoulders of the roads were littered with Coors cans and broken VW buses.

I went on to have relationships with two more Bugs, two microbuses and a Karmann Ghia. Both vans blew engines, as did one Bug. The other Bug hit a slick patch and rolled and was totalled. This was normal. In a major National Highway Traffic Safety Administration study, the Beetle had a rollover propensity index so high that in the 1960s and '70s, it by itself pulled the rollover index for all cars to heights not seen before or since.

But the Microbus was the cruellest VW. The fantasy of a big, cheap, slab-sided box that would efficiently carry lots of people and whatnot was the stuff of myth.

The fact that it was driven by a tiny, air-cooled engine suitable for a sewing machine in a cold climate was blithely overlooked by owners, a de facto Coalition of the Deluded.

My work pal and her hubby took their Vanagon camping and got as far as Sunny Valley before a tire disintegrated. Sure, a tire is just a tire. But it's a start. I didn't tell her about The Curse because I don't want to jinx them. I'm looking for a gift for good luck. Somewhere in the garage there's a box of old tools. I think they're metric.

Reach reporter Bill Varble at 776-4478 or e-mail

Share This Story