Ruminations and recipes from a small kitchen in a big city.

19.4.16

A Shorter History of the Volkswagen Beetle.

In 1966, you were generally Holden or Falcon, hating the other with a passion equal to the Smith Street divide between Fitzroy and Collingwood. Every October, Bathurst fanned the tribal flames.

My brother and I were Holden because Dad got a new one every year for his job. He was a travelling salesman for John Dynon & Sons restaurant and hotel supplies. I used to go with him on school holidays and saw the inside of more restaurants by the age of ten than Simon Plant and John Lethlean put together.

My brother and I always looked forward to the new model and became connoisseurs of evolving automotive design, including the Volkswagen Beetle, which in the previous year had sold more cars in Australia than ever before. Volkswagens were everywhere. An uncle (not the farm uncle) bought a navy blue one and drove it like a Lotus Esprit around the Dandenong Ranges with us in it. I'd never been more frightened.

But not everyone had a Holden or a Falcon, or even a Beetle. The family next door – the Percy Crawfords – had a Chevrolet Belair the size of a tank. They achieved fame of sorts when Mrs Crawford lost control of the Chev in Bourke Street. The car rolled down the hill from Queen Street, and Mrs Crawford steered it into the window of Coles & Garrard to avoid a tram. The photograph on the front page of that night's Melbourne Herald showed the Chevrolet's nose buried in the shattered glass, its enormous chromed tail fins and bullet-shaped rear lights sticking well out into Bourke Street. It looked like a crashed alien rocket ship from Mars. Mrs Crawford was also in the picture, standing by the car forlorn but unhurt, wearing 1960s sunglasses and a sleeveless frock tightly belted at the waist. She looked like Jackie Kennedy. The astonished look on her face seemed to say, "Gosh! I wonder what Perc. will say!" Perc. would probably have said he was glad he bought a Chev, because if he had put Mrs Crawford in a Beetle she would have been dead.

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One hot afternoon in January 1966, we were driving home to Melbourne after a weekend at an uncle's farm in Tanjil South. We were in our new HD Holden, cream with red vinyl, registration JEN-215.

My older brother and I were in front with Dad. The younger ones were brawling on the rear seat. My red-lipsticked, blonde pony-tailed mother was also somewhere back there in the tangle. Once a disciplinarian, she had seen the light after the first four children. One day she had read a Dr Spock book and had thenceforth let the next three children run rampant so as not to stunt their personalities or characters or dispositions or natures or whatever it was could be inhibited in the 1960s. My father was agnostic on the matter, but calm. In the driver's seat, he just smoked, whistled Harry Belafonte songs and drove on; unperturbed by noisy children or pop psychologists.

It was a long and winding road through the Gippsland hills. No freeways then. Princes Highway was a single lane each way and cars were always overtaking, sometimes passing three or four other vehicles in a row, each tucking in neatly before an approaching fully-laden semi-trailer could wipe it off the map. Volkswagen drivers were notorious. They seemed to believe that because their car had two doors it was a sports car.

Halfway back to Melbourne, probably around Drouin, another mad Beetle went past with its familiar clattering whine. It was a brand new one. My brother pointed. "What's different about that one?" he quizzed me.

I thought. "Bigger tail lights."

No, he said, they came in on the previous model.

"Number plate lamp cover."

No.

"1300 badge." No. "Larger rear window." On it went. As an older VW tore past, I tried to compare the two rear ends in my mind, like overlaid transparencies.

I couldn't pick it, and he wouldn't tell me. Fraternal rivalry. Later, we forgot about it. But every time I saw a '66 Beetle, I remembered the conversation, and tried to think of the answer, and failed. Until last week, when I picked up a book.

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Classic Beetle, subtitled A VW Celebration, sounds and looks like a coffee table number, but it couldn't be farther from that. It has no clich├ęd Beetle or Kombi beach shots with surfboards, flower power stickers or anything vaguely resembling the kind of hackneyed nostalgia usually associated with the Beetle. Instead, the book is a forensic analysis of the design evolution of the world's biggest selling car ever. (Don't let anyone tell you that that title fell to the Toyota Corolla, because the only thing connecting the first Corolla with the 25 billionth one is its name.)

The photography is almost unbelievable. The cars - every model from the 1932 prototype to the 1990s Mexican Type 1 - are photographed in a cyc studio and reproduced with no obvious retouching aside from a drop shadow; yet there is no flare, no distracting reflection, no low points, and no distortion. The models are to scale so that the reader can compare models like for like, down to the tiniest detail.

And that's how I found that one small thing I had missed in January 1966. The engine lid twist closer on the 1965 model was changed to a push button fastener for 1966. I had missed it then because it is partially obscured by the bumper.

The book runs to 300 pages, with a design lover's feast of an appendix in which double page spreads are devoted to showing the evolution of individual components including wheels, headlamps, rear lights, rear-view mirrors, door handles, bonnet handles, number plate lights, turn signals, and dashboards.

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Classic Beetle - a VW Celebration by Keith Seume, foreword by Brian Laban. Pavilion Books, London, 2015.

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And now it's payback time. Amongst the hundreds of impeccable photographs in the book, there is one small production error. Find it, brother. I'll give you fifty years.

2 comments:

Melbourne Girl said...

I love this story KH!
My very first car was a Beetle. I'd been saving like crazy and paid $600 for it from a little caryard in Greensborough. I loved it. It was the best car until it started developing problems and I learned it needed new rings. We put in hotter spark plugs and they worked for a while, but eventually it gave up and instead of getting it fixed, I stupidly traded it in for a Ford Escort.
I regretted it almost immediately....and have regretted it ever since

paul kennedy said...

I have always loved the beetle but have never actually owned one, although several family members have owned Kombis.