A Volkswagen inevitably becomes a fetish.
I learned this when inheriting my first car just months before my 16th birthday, a 1987 GTI MK2 16-valve five-speed. Ten years in the Texas sun had faded it from cherry red to more of a carrot orange. The teardrop alloy wheels had long been tarnished with what I guess was too much Texas acid rain. The manual sunroof whined like a gerbil wheel when cranked. The floorboards leaked, adding a sweet musk to the plastic fumes coming off the sun-baked black-vinyl dash. The heater was nonexistent. A Moogish midi chimed “Volks-wa-gen” when the ignition was turned, an alien-green glow lit the gauge cluster and a red racing stripe ran down the seats.
It was strange love at first sight.
The donor was my aunt, a stripper-turned-flight-attendant who, since childhood, I’d found to be the definition of tragic glamour in the most glamorously tragic way.
“All the Italian guys I know love this car,” she’d say.
I’d never met any of said Italian guys, but for the little emerging homo in me, it made the car all the sexier.
Getting it from her driveway to mine involved an odyssey along the interstate that would take us from Houston to Cincinnati. We slept in Krystal parking lots and bathed our essentials in Sonic restrooms. And even though I was 15 and without a permit, I was allowed to drive after dark, when state troopers would be least likely to notice my peach fuzz. We arrived unscathed, and I made a point of napping in the parked car at least once a day, an act of bonding that allowed me to bide my time until the GTI and I would legally return to the road.
Then, while heading to school two weeks after I passed my driver’s test, a bus pulled out in front of me and totaled the car. The collision happened in front of my English room, making my classmates witnesses to the whole ordeal, and so I figured that turning the day’s writing assignment into a eulogy to the car was in order.
“Everyone thought you were a Geo as you smoldered in the early October dawn,” I wrote. “But I loved you for what you really were. My Volkswagen.”
“It was a toilet,” says my father, a retired mechanic whom my brothers and I refer to as “the Colonel” for his white hair, beard and Kentucky twang, still obviously upset about the time the car left him stuck in a Hardee’s drive-thru. A Ford man who constantly cranked about the vertical design of European engines, he’d taught me, before the accident, basic, DIY auto upkeep, like how to change the oil. I’m assuming he did so he wouldn’t have to. His crappy metaphor was actually pretty appropriate, as my parents potty-trained me using a Hot Wheels reward system. Every successful arrival to the bathroom equaled a gold star, and 10 gold stars equaled a Hot Wheel. Loving and caring for the GTI had been my destiny since age 2.
Despite the Colonel’s wishes, the GTI was succeeded by a lineage of VWs: a 1991 Jetta GL, a 1988 Jetta GLI 16-valve, a 1992 Cabriolet and, most recently, a 2002 Jetta GLI. All have been the bearers of minor but annoying flaws—faulty cooling sensors, never-ending fuel-pump problems, shoddy glove-box latches, crayon body odor, saggy ceiling upholstery, the occasional black exhaust storm. And they’re not the cheapest to repair, at least not anymore. But I keep coming back for more. Why? Unconditional love, I suppose.
Volkswagens. People tend to either loathe them (the Colonel) or love them (me). Especially anyone who’s ever fallen for a pre-1990 model, after which the company moved to upscale the brand and reinvent itself (at least to Americans) as less of the simple but stylish and uberfunktional people’s car and more of a yuppie-mobile. Up through the ’90s, before they became the BMW of the spoiled undergrad, VW drivers often flashed their headlights at each other when passing an identical model, a sort of geeky, cultish hello. Those were the days when most owners probably changed their headlights themselves, before the manual instructed them to take the car to their local Volkswagen dealer whenever any bulb burnt out.
Those are the people who belong at Volkswagen The People’s Car at the San Diego Automotive Museum.
Everyone else who happens to show up, yes, chances are you’ll feel like you got your $5 worth grazing the collection of 17 VWs, which includes a three-time Baja 1000 champion that its current owners rescued from a barn in Tucson and a 1958 Rat Rod convertible that intentionally looks as though it was pieced together using items found in the garbage, like a fire-damaged hood and Virgen de Guadalupe upholstery. You’ll make the kids squeeze together for a photo in front of the 1977 hippie van, painted top-to-tire with the likes of Jim Hendrix, The Beatles, Janis Joplin and one-liners like “The ’60s: If you don’t remember them, you did it right!” And you’ll probably do it again in front the 1970 replica of Herbie the Love Bug.
But the rest of you, my fellow Fahrvergnugen fetish flaunters, will notice how the 1965 Westfalia Euro-Camper, forest green and white with goldenrod-and-gray striped awning and privacy tent, all but reeks of wanderlust Bavarians putzing along the Mediterranean coast, sun-burnt and, if not nearly, then completely nude.
You’ll nerd out over the trio of mint specimens highlighting all that VW was up to during the 1960s aside from churning out millions of Beetles: a 1964 Notchback (a coupe that was never sold in the U.S.), a 1966 Squareback wagon (the Notchback’s predecessor that did make it stateside) and a 1968 Karmann Ghia with a platinum-blue Benz paint job (James Bond’s would-be grocery-getter).
You’ll probably not only appreciate the mousy “Zwitter” (German for “hermaphrodite”)—a nickname the car earned for having the split rear window of a pre-1952 Beetle and the dashboard of a ’53—you’ll love that tranny Volkswagen.
The 2003 Mexican Última Edición, one of the last 3,000 with the original body style to be manufactured at the Puebla plant—alongside New Beetles bound for Gringolandia, ironically—26 years after the sedans disappeared from the U.S.? Well, that’ll just make you mad that you live so close to Mexico but can’t have a post-1977 Beetle for yourself, even if slightly used.
You’ll most likely sit through the exhibit’s 10-minute video montage of Volkswagen advertisements from around the world through the years. Then you’ll go over to the far wall and scribble down your own VW love story on a Post-It and slap it up alongside the hundreds of others, all of which are basically abridged versions of what you’ve just read. Mine just wouldn’t fit on one Post-It.
Meanwhile, I’ll be over between the two GTIs, talking dirty Italian.