My first car: Volkswagen Beetle from 1958

My first car: Volkswagen Beetle from 1958

Paul Gover recalls the valuable lessons he learned driving his 1958 Volkswagen Beetle, the first car he ever owned.

This isn’t my first car – it’s never been so good. Or left-hand drive.

Nevertheless, the 1:18 scale Volkswagen Beetle on my desk in my office reminds me every day of how I got from there to here – and how happy I am to have made the journey.

The 1:1 Beetle cost me $400 in 1972 and taught me everything I needed to know about driving and survival.

The windshield wipers were terrible, the headlights were abysmal, the handling was spotty, first gear wasn’t synchronized and the brakes required a lot of preplanning.

So I had to drive.

Compared to other cars I’d driven when qualifying for P plates, and even my Suzuki TS185 dirt bike, the battleship gray Beetle was surprisingly good.

My parents’ Austin 1800 – the model was nicknamed the “Land Crab” – was a real brisk one and took me to an advanced driving course taught by Peter Wherrett – a pioneering motoring journalist and racer for whom he is best known – on a B-minus called an uncompromising ABC television show torque.

Still, the 1800 was sleeker than its predecessor, a station wagon on the Austin Freeway – I should mention I won a demolition derby on one at the Canberra Speedway – and far better than my father’s commuter cars: a Ford Prefect and a Toyota Tiara.

By the time I passed my driving test in 1800 I had been driving for over five years thanks to an FE Holden ‘Paddock Basher’ and over 50 acres of suitable landscape on my best friend’s property (then and now). Mark Walton. Ah, the joys of the three-in-the-tree shift.

Exactly these paddocks also became a training ground in the Beetle when I learned something about lateral slipping and handbrakes during the preparation for the rally use. As silly as it sounds (right now), on a good lap around our private dirt track oval, the oil warning light was always on.

But I’m anticipating.

The $400 purchase price for the Beetle came thanks to an investment by my father, one of two things I have to thank him for in my car life. The other thing is that he was such a terrible driver – really terrible in every way – that I had to promise to always do better than him.

For me, the Beetle was a huge financial drain at the time, and many weeks I’d get my trip done on just $5 in fuel—think for a second compared to 2022 prices—thanks to a part-time job at the Checkout at Woolworths. I knew things were tough when I had to kick the floor-mounted reserve lever — sort of like a fuel gauge or radio I remember now — to dump the dregs before going to charge.

It was liberating to take my car on trips to high school, or on the winding roads of the NSW South Highlands, or to Sydney on weekends, or to a novice rally in the woods.

Back when I was growing up in a government building in Campbelltown in far west Sydney, my Beetle was Freedom.

To give you some background, my car was the Mini’s archrival, driven by another mate. His car was square and had the engine and driving wheels in the front, mine was rounded and had the engine and driving wheels in the back.

His car was a lot quicker, especially fleeing the drive-in on Friday night when he tried to embarrass Holden Torana XU1s owners, but mine was fine with me.

I remember some good things about the Beetle, from its excellent reliability – whoops, there was that tendency to burn oil – and the large rectangular rear window that set it apart from previous models with double windows or a small oval. Thanks to this window, I had the right to brag. . .

But the bad stuff included six-volt electrics and turn signals, which were semaphore arms that popped out of the B-pillars and often didn’t respond to commands from the driver’s seat. As for the crispy first course – I quickly learned to live with it.

Over time, the battleship’s gray body was contrasted with a bright yellow boot – I stopped, he didn’t – and my youthful enthusiasm saw it repainted in matte black. what was i thinking Or was I just (far) ahead of today’s introduction of matte finish?

We (Mark and I) also learned how to change the engine – I had two, the spare of a “parts” car in the front yard – in less than 30 minutes, as well as the other mechanical routines from adjusting the brakes to changing the oil. Luckily a friend owned a tire shop and lent us a jack for big jobs as soon as they closed for lunch on Saturday.

In terms of driving, I remember a whirlwind drive down Kangaroo Valley where I had to put Mark on the handbrake to slow down around tight corners; The brakes were so hot underneath that we melted ice from a picnic lunch against the (4WD) drums in a pointless attempt at cooling.

Then there was the time I hit an ugly spot of spilled diesel on a corner and spun backwards into a gas station. Nothing hit, nobody hurt. . .

I tried upgrading the six volt headlights but nothing worked, not even a giant driving lamp from an old truck.

I learned how to jump start the car if the clutch cable snaps; and how to drive clutchless until we could swap the transmission from the parts car, complete with the luxury of synchro in first gear.

I also installed four-point racing harnesses and a padded driver’s seat cover that offered some cornering support, but could never afford to upgrade to the Momo steering wheel I craved.

Rally? I loved it, but the Beetle didn’t.

We had a few tries, slipped at the back of the field, but eventually I saw the need and got into a Datsun for my first win and a love affair with hotrod 1600s that continues to this day.

I am also a Beetle enthusiast and next to the 1/18 scale model in my office there is a 1967 Beetle in the garage. It has been upgraded to 12 volt electrics with Hella LED headlights and starts the first time every time. No oil leaks either. . .

At some point it will be the Beetle I dreamed of in 1972, maybe even with a big engine and four-wheel disc brakes.

This reminds me of the day I traded in my Volkswagen for a Honda S800 sports car. Not one of my better choices, as it turns out. They gave me $50 for the bug and I cried when it was driven away.

The post My First Car: 1958 Volkswagen Beetle appeared first on Drive.

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