Bug life: everyday motoring in a 52-year-old car

Volkswagen Beetle front

After 12 years, 17,000 miles and 17 RAC call-outs our news editor has sold his VW Beetle

The first day of Year 13 is sweltering – unusually hot for September.

The sixth form car park is packed to the gunnels with freshly acquired Vauxhall Corsas and Renault Clios, Halfords headsets pumping drum and bass through tinny 6x9s of dubious quality and the sickly, unmistakable odour of Very Cherry air freshener hanging like a thick smog in the hazy afternoon air.

Hordes of lanky adolescents fold themselves, five at a time, into cramped, well-worn superminis with Amazon-sourced ‘sports’ wheel trims and wannabe WRC exhausts and screech off down the high street, jeering at unlucky friends who still have to wait for the bus and arguing over who gets control of the aux cable.

The car park empties quickly, and after five minutes there is only one that has yet to join the raucous, revving convoy.

It would be nearly silent, were it not for the ear-splitting, off-beat clatter of an air-cooled flat four wheezing through a perforated manifold, and the exaggerated, exasperated groaning of the three unlucky individuals who have asked for a lift home, without realising that means waiting while the engine comes up to temperature.

“I might as well have walked,” mutters one. “It’s not like you’ve got air-con in there, either.”

The car is mine: a 1972 Volkswagen 1302 S ‘Super Beetle’, the one with the more bulbous front end and MacPherson – rather than beam – suspension “shared with the Porsche 924”, I tell anyone who will listen, and a few who won’t.

It’s a peach too: solid bodywork all round, original seats and headlining, intact inner arches and a working original stereo – the novelty of which wears off when we discover it can only receive long-wave stations.

The engine, meanwhile, is the most powerful ever fitted to a Beetle in Germany, mustering up a spicy 60bhp (when new) to give a 0-50mph time of just 12.3sec and a “maximum and cruising speed of 80mph-plus”, according to contemporary promotional literature.

None of which really matters to its passengers on this particular afternoon, as the temperature builds in the cabin and the school caretaker starts jangling his keys with anticipation as he waits to lock the car park gates. It’s not long before I cave in to pressure and get under way, though the car doesn’t feel fully awake yet.

My friends don’t quite share my belief in this car’s sentience. They ridicule the way I cautiously ease it up to cruising speed and turn the music down at traffic lights to make sure it’s idling healthily – and 15 minutes after we leave school that day, they laugh uproariously at how nervous I am about tackling a long uphill stretch of dual carriageway at speed, with four occupants, on the hottest day of the year.

They laugh, and laugh, and laugh… Right up until my premonition becomes reality and the fuel pump gives out just as we crest the summit. I slip it into neutral and manage to coast half a mile to a lay-by, where we sit and sweat in silence for what seems like an eternity, while we wait for an RAC patrol van and I wonder whether I should have bought a Matiz.

To add insult to injury, we have timed this to perfection: every school bus we overtook on the way now thunders tantalisingly past us, its passengers pointing and giggling at our plight as they scramble to post photos to Facebook. My red-faced friends quickly lose patience and decide to set off across the fields to the nearest train station.

It is this moment that will come to best define my 12-year ownership of HUE 472L. 

Though it must be said that, otherwise, ‘Huey’ (by which it unfortunately came to be known by many) largely handled the rigours of first-car duties like a champ.

As the oldest of my friend group, and the one who lived furthest from anywhere we wanted to go, I was often pressed into service as designated driver – and despite its foibles and quirks, the Beetle proved itself a dependable and enjoyable steed for the most part.

Over the next few years, it would rack up more than 15,000 miles with only the most basic of maintenance (and a few emergency roadside repairs), but eventually I needed something newer and more economical, and it came time to put the Beetle into hibernation, which is a generous term for sneaking it into my grandparents’ garage and forgetting about it for six years.

During which time the condition of its electrics and fuel system would degrade just enough to render it out of commission, and I would find myself gainfully employed at a car magazine, where constant access to comparatively space-age new cars rather dulled the prospect of reviving my beloved – but undeniably outmoded – bug.

But then the folks at Volkswagen got in touch: “We’re having a gathering to celebrate 70 years since we launched in the UK. Would you fancy bringing your Beetle and putting it on display?”

Would I ever? I imagine that’s how a novice guitarist might feel if they were invited to join Slash on stage at Glastonbury: my car – the star of the show at an event hosted by the people who made it! What a privilege.

Small problem, though, I mutter jovially at the end of the phone call, trying to make it seem like an inconsequential triviality: “It hasn’t moved under its own steam since 2017.”

I’m ready for them to revoke their invitation and suggest I stop posting misleading pictures of it looking lovely on social media, but instead they suggest that if I provide the parts, their expert technicians can have this iron-age hunk of junk back in tip-top condition in no time.

The parts list turns out to be considerably longer than I had imagined. There are the obvious things – fuel hoses, HT leads, oil and whatnot – but then come the big-ticket items. It turns out I need a new steering box, the driver’s side front shock is knackered, the pushrod seals are leaking and the anti-roll bar bushes might as well be made of chalk.

Then there’s a new battery (pricier than I remember) and the small matter of new tyres to consider – and because this is Volkswagen, these are proper period-spec Michelin Classics, which turn out to be the second-biggest automotive expense I’ve ever made, after the car itself.

When collecting it from the workshop, I confess to being slightly nervous about the drive back to west London, given the longest single journey I’d undertaken previously had been to Camber Sands in 2014 – and I shudder to remember a couple of marshals clearing a decent stretch of car park for us to bump-start it back into life before the return journey that day.

“I wouldn’t worry at all,” says the mechanic, beaming. “I’ve been driving it around for weeks with no problem.” Fair enough. A few years ago I would have fainted at the thought of someone else tearing around Milton Keynes in my pride and joy, but I take no small solace in the verification that it can still handle the toils of commuting.

The engine fires into life on the first twist of the key and settles into a hearty, healthy rhythm that’s concerningly unfamiliar to me: what state was this thing in when I was looking after it?

Since this car last moved under its own steam, the oldest car I’ve driven is – unbelievably – an Audi Sport Quattro, and I’m worried I won’t know how to manage the Beetle’s unassisted steering and graunchy gearbox. But all of 200 metres later, I’ve got the knack of this again.

There’s about 30deg of dead space around the straight-ahead, which makes steering more of a predictive than reactive exercise, though the new tyres prove no less than transformative in the way it holds the road. And it takes a second to get used to it again, but the lack of weight over the front axle means you don’t really miss having power steering.

So, too, do I quickly remember that the brakes – while also refurbished – are nigh-on useless by modern standards, and the body roll when cornering at any more than 20mph is laughable.

I remember the horn only works if you punch one specific square centimetre of the steering wheel, that the heating only warms the driver because I once cut the passenger’s side heater cable thinking it was a broken handbrake cable, and that the bonnet doesn’t latch completely shut so it rattles noisily – and constantly.

But after I’ve sat for a few minutes at a traffic light, it occurs that I haven’t had to repeatedly rev the engine to stop it from dying. Then I take a fairly long, steep incline at 45mph without having to shift down, I coast over an especially craggy pothole with none of the usual cacophonic feedback you’d expect from knackered rubbers, and it’s not long before I feel emboldened enough to overtake a slow-moving coach. Surely this can’t be the same car? It feels brand new.

We merge onto the M1 (a previously unthinkable exploit) and head south, comfortably keeping pace with rush-hour traffic all the way to the M25, where the Beetle gamely contends with an hour of stop-start traffic without showing any hint of exhaustion.

An approaching shower makes me a bit nervous, but the wipers and lights work fine, and I’m silently delighted to find that neither the window seals nor floorpan have deteriorated enough to let water into the cabin.

My mood only improves further when I get home and calculate that we have achieved roughly 27mpg on this run – hardly Toyota Prius-bothering but a damned sight better than many of the V8 super-SUVs I see roaring around the city.

I quickly decide to use the Beetle as a car again, rather than a collector’s item. The next day it breaks its own long-distance record with a faultless lap of the M25, and over the next few weeks I use it for the weekly shop, bin runs and even a dog walk.

Not that I necessarily agree with the rationale behind the rules, but at 52 years old it is well clear of the 40-year ULEZ fee exemption, so costs me barely any more to pootle around in than anything with a 73 plate – and seems to make passers-by much happier in the process.

It’s free to tax, too, and the insurance costs about the same as my Netflix subscription. Could the original Beetle once again emerge as the ultimate no-frills people’s car?

Anyway, these quirks and attributes are all particularly fresh in my mind, because I recounted them all to a lovely chap who came to test drive the car yesterday. As I write, he’s crunching the numbers and hunting for a garage before making me an offer that I almost definitely won’t be able to refuse.

So that, as they say – after 12 years, 17,000 miles, 17 RAC call-outs and innumerable financially crippling repair bills – is that. I owned a car, and now I don’t. It’s a piece of metal that makes a lot of noise and smells like petrol, I tell myself. Only an object. Better to have loved and lost. Can’t keep them all.

Doesn’t sound particularly convincing, does it? You’d have to be made of stone not to feel some hint of emotion at parting ways with such a close companion, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t gutted, but hey: I think it’s going to a good home, and my partner says we can buy a new toaster with some of the proceeds, so that’s nice. I wonder how long it will take to warm up.

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