Electronic Design

What's All This VW Stuff, Anyhow?

As you read this column, Bob Pease is off trekking in Nepal. But he figured you might like to read some old stories—with some new TWISTS added.—ED

When I was a kid, my first car was a black 1941 Chevy, and it was a piece of junk. I think I paid Johnny Vinscunas about $25 to take it out of his back yard, from the weed patch behind his chicken coop. That was in the summer of 1957, when I was 17 years old. I bought this old clunker just to drive it around on farm roads. It was NOT a good car. It was a piece of junk. I doubt that it ever went more than 35 mph. The brakes were kind of dubious and if I had tried to rebuild them, they could have easily gotten worse. So, I gave it away that fall when I went off to MIT.

Next I bought a Studebaker. In 1961, I purchased an aqua 1950 Studebaker. Although it was only 11 years old, it was tired. It would go 55 mph. But because it only had three gears and no overdrive, it wouldn't get out of its own way. One day when I was minding my own business, driving up Route 1 in Saugus, I heard a thump-thump-scrape. The right rear wheel had fallen off. It didn't go rolling past me, but was trapped in the wheel well. The rear axle nut had stripped its threads.

I jacked up the car, positioned the rear wheel on the axle, in about the right place, and thought about this problem. If the rear axle was that soft—would that help provide a solution to my problem? I went to a nearby junkyard and found an axle nut from another car. It was slightly smaller in diameter than the Studebaker's axle. I turned that nut on and off the rear axle of the Studebaker until it cut its own threads. Then, I torqued it on, good and tight, and wired it up tight, and I drove home VERY carefully, avoiding big bridges and high-speed roads.

The next day, I took it in for repairs. That was the day I placed the order for my first VW, a 1962 Beetle. A couple months later, my 1962 Gulf-Blue Beetle arrived. I left the Studebaker in the morning and took a trolley to work. That night I rode out on the trolley and picked up my $1680 beetle, and I never looked back. Ever since then, over 1,400,000 miles, I've been a VW man.

So what am I driving these days? A 1970 VW Beetle with about 157,000 miles on it. It runs very nicely at 69 mph. I get adequate gas mileage. It's very reliable. But it sure is amusing....

What's so funny? In 1957, I had a 16-year-old car—and it was a piece of junk. In 1961, I bought an 11-year-old car—and IT was a piece of junk. NOW I have a 30-year-old car that's NOT a piece of junk. It's a pretty good car! It's hardly rusty at all. It gets 27+ mpg at 69 mph. It goes, and it stops, and I can out-corner most of the cars on the road. That's because they don't care what they do, and I care.

Why do I like VWs? Well, I have gotten a lot of reliable miles, and a lot of enjoyable miles, in the last 40 years in VWs. I don't want to bore you, but I have some good feelings about them. They are fun and interesting and challenging to drive. I mean, if you like to just climb into a car, and step on the gas and go, well, that's a different car. I like to shift. I like to think. I like to feel the road under me. I like to feel the torque rise up. Even old VW Beetles had some of this "Fahrvergnugen." All that word means is, Enjoyment (vergnugen) of driving (fahren).

Not Boring? I have driven a bunch of cars recently, and when you step on the gas, they are BORING. (I have listed them in an Appendix on Rentals.) Yes, they will eventually go fast. But when you get in a VW Rabbit or Golf, or an interesting car, as you start out in first, and shift into second, and nail it—really floor it—in just a couple of seconds, the acceleration really turns on, and the torque is coming up, and you have to get ready to shift really soon. Then in third, you have to think and plan. Where is the first curve? When do I have to ease my foot off the gas? I really like that. Even a VW Beetle accelerates crisply enough to make you think.

The Shape of the Acceleration Curve: Ya know—I built myself an accelerometer. I set it up to take some data. I should take some curves on the acceleration of different cars. Yeah, I should have done that—but I didn't have time to do that right.

If you like to drive a big Chrysler or a Chevy Caprice or a Ford Taurus, they may have more acceleration. But if a VW Rabbit has a better torque curve, you may have more fun driving it. You may be more alert and interested in driving. I happen to think that's good. I think it's safer too. Whatever you prefer, well, you drive it.

Meanwhile, here is a list of the VWs I have owned (see the table). (Refer to RAP's BOOK, page 396—this is an UPDATED version.)

Hey, I won't say I haven't ever had any troubles with my VWs. I can't say I never had to spend any money on any repairs. But I have had a lot of fun, a lot of good miles, and pretty good luck. I have no gripes. VWs have run pretty well for me. I don't baby them too much, but I do try to treat them fairly as I work them hard. Note, if you divide 1,392,000 miles by 15 engines, that's better than 90,000 miles per engine—and still rolling, on at least four of them. And a lot of miles to go. That's not bad, considering I bought some used cars with a good bit of miles on them, and still received good service.

Old Joke: Question: Why is it that VWs don't slow down for corners? Answer: Because if they did, they would never be able to get up to speed again.

That may be some kind of old joke, but VW drivers have always found it fun, and challenging, to get through corners as fast as they can. Slowing down for corners is for other drivers to do. A VW Beetle isn't exactly a "sports car," but it can be driven as a sporty car. The steering is light, so you can tell if you are getting into trouble by going too fast. Of course, if you try to be the fastest car on the road, then you can spin out and get in real trouble. On the other hand, on a snowy day, it's easy to be faster than 99% of the cars on the road, and quite safely. That's a lot of the fun of a VW.

Obsolete? Are VW Beetles obsolete? You might say that. Many cars are obsolete the day that they are made. But there are still a lot of old VWs running strong, out here in the West. So there are still a lot of people who enjoy their VWs, and we don't care if some people think they are "obsolete." Hey, there are MILLIONS of Fords and Chevys and "you-name-its" that were built after my '69 or '70 Beetle, and a lot of them have been junked. Out of all those other old cars that were NOT junked—how many of those cars are better than mine? How many of them have a lower operating cost? How many are fun to drive? I rest my case.

When is a VW not a VW? You might say, "Pease—you only know how to drive old junky cars." That isn't exactly true. One time Porsche of America invited me to test drive some of their cars. The instructor showed us a test of driving in a loop around some cones. He got a Porsche 911 around these cones in 5.4 seconds. When it was my turn, I got the 911 around those cones in 5.4 seconds, also. That 240-hp car, on good pavement, had the same feel as a VW on snow—except it was faster and quicker. I figured that out as soon as I floored the gas on a machine that I had never driven before. I have driven Corvettes and hot Mustangs, and a Chevy Corsica that really liked to MOVE. And I even managed to keep them all on the road.

Buying a Used Car? If you want to buy an old VW Beetle or Bus, I would caution you where to look to see if there is rust—such as, under the spare tire. Plus, you would need an experienced guy to drive it and see if it feels right. The late John Muir wrote the book, How to Keep Your VW Alive, John Muir Press, 1992, about $25. That's a classic book. If you want to buy and drive an old VW, that's the book that you need, as it has a chapter on How to Buy a Used Car. I don't know how many Beetles and Busses are still running, but there's a LOT.

Nonpolluting Cars? Pease, you drive all these miles—but these old cars are all a lot of polluters. You must be responsible for smogging up the whole San Francisco Bay area—eh? Not really. I keep my car tuned up, and it rarely falls below 27 mpg. My car usually passes its smog test with no problems. Even though there are no required tests for CO and NOx on old cars, my car continues to pass those tests, even though it is not required to. So, it's not so bad.

My Next Car? OK, Pease, you drive this old 1970 clunker. When it gives out, you can't buy another one. So what are you going to buy?

Well, it's NOT true that I can't buy another one. Every week I see three or four advertisements for a 1968, 1969, or 1970 Beetle in very good shape, with prices in the range $900 to $2000. So if an elephant comes along and sits on my good old 1970 car—I'll just buy another one. Really!

New Beetle? Pease—what do you think about the New Beetle? I haven't yet driven one, but obviously it's a pretty good car, and a fun car, and I smile and giggle every time I see one. But I'm certainly not going to invest THAT kind of $$,$$$ just to have people giggle at ME! I prefer to pay just $$$. You can still laugh at me. It's permitted.

The Sound of WHAT? Recently I figured out perhaps another reason why I like VWs. The sound of the flat-four engine, with the pistons reciprocating like crazy, shuttling back and forth, is NOT like the sound of any other car. But it does sound like my mother's old White sewing machine. That's another very comforting sound that I have heard over many thousands of hours.

All for now. / Comments invited!
RAP / Robert A. Pease / Engineer
[email protected]–or:

Mail Stop D2597A
National Semiconductor
P.O. Box 58090
Santa Clara, CA 95052-8090

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