In the summer between my freshman and sophomore years of college, I got my first car. My parents bought it for me, and so I must confess that as a doctor’s son, I was financially privileged. Privileged yes, but spoiled no. I didn’t ask for much, only something “with a reliable engine and brakes that work.” Dad looked at me with some disbelief, apparently wondering if I were as naive (or stupid) about automobiles as I appeared to be. Nevertheless, after a short speech that named several other important components of automobiles, among them tires, he acquiesced.
Within a few days I had located a used 1961 Volkswagen Beetle, cherry red in color, which we purchased for $600 from Johann Leipi, a German immigrant whose VW repair shop lay midway along the twelve-mile stretch between our town, Bluefield, and the next, Princeton.
I had operated a manual transmission on but one or two previous occasions, and my first few days of ownership were marred by frustrating moments stuck in the middle of major intersections searching franticly for second gear. By the end of the week, however, I had mastered both the clutch and the shift pattern and was as proud of my new wheels as if they belonged to a Ferrari.
I’d convinced my parents of the need for a car by promising to return on weekends from the rustic camp where I worked for the summer as a counselor. On the weekend following the second week of camp, while passing through Danville, Virginia, an ungodly racket exploded from the VW’s rear engine compartment, and the car abruptly lost all power. The symptoms suggested catastrophic failure, which the tow-truck mechanic confirmed. The crankshaft had broken. Dejected, I abandoned the car at a dealership in Danville, bummed a ride to South Boston where the camp staff had gathered for a weekend cookout at the director’s home, and with tail between legs, called home to inform Dad that the two-week-old car would now need a rebuilt engine to the tune of several hundred dollars.
Out of this disaster, came the name for my born loser of an automobile: “Charlie Brown.” Like Native Americans, who bestow appellations to acknowledge the spiritual essence of an individual, I had tapped unwittingly into the personality of this unique VW bug.
In truth, Charlie Brown possessed considerable innate personality. For starters, he had no gas gauge; early models were equipped only with a spare tank that contained precisely one gallon of fuel (or equivalently thirty-two miles of distance), which one accessed by flipping a lever in the firewall beneath the dash. The trick was to flip it quickly enough after the engine sputtered to avoid complete evacuation of the gas line, in which case a long trek on foot with a gas can was in order. Although I never once ran out of gas, I had several perilous close calls. The closest occurred in five o’clock traffic inside the nearly mile-long Liberty Tubes near Pittsburgh. Had I not been quick on the flip, I’d probably still be paying the fine.
Electrical systems have never been particularly reliable in Volkswagens. In the four years I owned Charlie Brown, his horn functioned for a cumulative total of perhaps two weeks, despite my repeated efforts to remove dirt and grime from the contacts. Curiously though, every time I pulled into the garage for a state inspection, the horn beeped faithfully. For other occasions when honking was necessary, I, the driver, developed a respectably loud “meep-meep,” mimicking the Roadrunner of the animated cartoon.
Another electrical problem that grew progressively worse over time involved the ignition system. Eventually, no jiggling of the ignition key would cause the starter to even budge. As a student, I could ill afford a replacement starter. So I learned to push-start Charlie Brown; that is, provided I had remembered to park on the level or a slight downhill grade. Upon releasing the hand brake, with the door open, I’d run alongside the car shoving heroically on the door post until the blazing pace of two to three miles per hour (mph) was attained, at which point I’d leap into the driver’s seat, plunge the shifter into second, and pop the clutch. Following a lurch and a cough, the engine sprang to life.
The problem turned out to be not the starter but the ignition switch, a relatively inexpensive fix. Unaware of this fact, for an entire month, I performed the Fred Flintstone impersonation each time I needed to drive. Most probably I’d never have replaced the ignition switch had I not stalled Charlie Brown at the bottom of a hill while on a date. None too thrilled, my date was pressed into service to push while I executed the clutch-popping routine.
Charlie Brown sabotaged other dates by playing hide and seek. When I was an undergraduate at Virginia Tech, the student parking lot was known derisively as the “Dust Bowl.” After a week in that god-forsaken lot, all 5,000 cars were the same damned shade of “Bleaksburg” gray. Worse, every tenth car or so was a Volkswagen Beetle, the preferred choice of students, and most of those in their natural states were red. Finding any given red Bug in a featureless lot required either exceptional memory or a game of chance. On one occasion, I arrived at the lot around 6:30 p.m. in sufficient time to make my 7:00 o’clock date in Radford. Unfortunately, it was after 7:00 before I located my particular accursed red Beetle.
A particularly bizarre personality trait of Charlie’s was his squealing speedometer cable. At first there seemed neither rhyme, reason, nor predictability to this phenomenon. Driving along normally, I’d suddenly be jolted to high alert by a violent twitching of the speedometer hand. Shortly following this visual aura emanated an unbearable, ear-piercing squeal, which could last for any duration from a few seconds to several minutes, or more. Eventually, the twitching and squealing vanished as unpredictably as they started. Once, the noise and vibration reached such intensity that the red and green colored lenses on the dashboard indicator lights dislodged and fell away, leaving only glaring white bulbs.
In time I learned that there was indeed some predictability to this odd behavior. It usually occurred when I was driving alone, late at night, on the verge of drowsiness.
Like its owner, Charlie Brown loved to wander. At the end of that first summer, my best friend Jon and I planned a week-long trip in the brief interval between the end of my summer camp and the beginning of his fall semester at West Virginia University. With not much more than $50 each, and my dad’s admonition not to drive when we were tired, Jon and I set out in Charlie Brown early on a Sunday morning, knowing only that we were headed west.
Five hours later we chugged through Knoxville, where Jon took the wheel and turned west on I-40. Late that evening, passing through Memphis, Jon glanced over at me and volunteered casually, “I don’t feel too bad,” to which I responded, “I don’t feel too bad either.” And so we drove on.
At around dinner time the following day, I called home. When my father answered the phone, I offered enthusiastically: “Dad, guess where we are.” Memphis, he conjectured. “No, we’re in Tucumcari, New Mexico.” “You’re where?” he gasped.
Thirty-eight hours from the outset, we pulled surreptitiously into a picnic ground on the flank of Sandia Peak outside Albuquerque and camped illegally during the remaining hours of the night. For the next four glorious days we explored Sante Fe, Albuquerque, and the mountain roads between.
On Saturday, our return date, we awoke before dawn, with the intention of crowning our New Mexico adventure with a sunrise picnic and early morning Tram ride to Sandia Peak—10,678 feet in elevation—accompanied by Barbara Gwen Starr (not her real name, who, my friends, is another story). That morning, while preparing to start the car, I placed my foot on the brake pedal. It collapsed to the floorboard without resistance. The braking system had mysteriously experienced total failure overnight.
Undeterred, we drove in third gear to our appointed 6:00 a.m. rendezvous at the Tramway, my hand never leaving the emergency brake handle. At about 1:00 p.m., one-half hour beyond the VW Service Department’s Saturday closing time, we pointed nose to the east on I-40 and headed out of town with a new master cylinder and very little money.
Midday on Sunday, giddy with exhilaration and exhaustion, while cruising along the oilfields on both sides of the interstate near Oklahoma City, Jon and I burst into uncontrolled, hysterical laughter when, at the split second he glanced into the driver’s outside rearview mirror, the entire mirror and stem fell from the car and bounced along the roadway behind us.
At 5:00 a.m. on the Monday morning when at 8:00 a.m. Jon’s father was to return him to WVU, we pulled into his parents’ driveway. The next weekend I called Jon to see how he’d fared. Unfortunately, for the three precious hours between the two trips, sleep had eluded him, denied by the high-pitched engine whine that persisted in his ears after thirty-nine continuous and relentless hours in Charlie Brown.
Charlie loved people, and they loved him. All except Ralph, that is. The second summer I owned him, I painted his Peanuts’ namesake on the driver’s door, which thereafter never failed to capture the attention and excitement of the children in the back seats of the station wagons that passed by in the fast lanes of the interstates, lanes Charlie and I seldom occupied.
After graduating from college, I spent a summer in New Jersey on a work camp with fifteen students from around the country. As one of the few with wheels, I did a lot of chauffeuring. For one particular evening outing, most likely just down the road to the Dairy Queen, ten of us piled into Charlie Brown. In the back seat were six, three abreast by two deep. Three of us squeezed into the front, where the one in the middle between the bucket seats provided a semi-automatic transmission by shifting on the driver’s command. Number ten, Jim, the scrawniest of our group, occupied the well behind the rear seat.
The following Fall, I entered the Air Force. Packing all my worldly belongings in Charlie Brown—except my bicycle, which went on the roof rack—this mountain boy struck out for the flattest place on earth, Rantoul, Illinois, for training in aircraft maintenance. I received many letters from friends during those first lonely months in the military. Most began: “Dear Charlie Brown” …
Oh, about Ralph. Ralph, also a part of the summer work-camp team, drove with me to the work site in coastal New Jersey. As I loaded the rear seat, Ralph began loading the trunk, which is in the front of a rear-engined Beetle. On that model, an elbow-like joint supported the trunk lid, which Ralph accidentally struck while moving suit cases around, collapsing the trunk on his left arm. “Dave, Charlie Brown bit me,” he proclaimed with some surprise, one arm deep in the jaws of a VW. Fortunately for Ralph, Charlie’s bite was as innocuous as his beep.
In the years since Charlie Brown, I have owned another seven automobiles, each of which I have tried to name. In all, only two names have stuck: “Charlie Brown” and “Farfy,” short for Fahrvehrnuegen, a faux-German term for “the joy of driving,” created expressly as an advertising gimick. “Farfy” was also a Volkswagen, a top of the line Passat, for which I paid twenty-five times what my Dad shelled out for Charlie. On the surface of it, the resemblance between the two automobiles stopped at the manufacturer’s name plate. “Farfy” was teal green and sleek, with a water-cooled engine, front-wheel drive, and air-conditioning. He was also sure footed, accelerated like a bat out of hell, and would top 127 mph according to the specs.
In contrast, the words “acceleration” and “VW Bug” in the same sentence coined an oxymoron. People used to ask me how fast Charlie would go. My well-rehearsed reply was that it all depended “on how high the cliff is.” But to be specific, with petal to the floorboard, Charlie’s forty-horsepower engine would propel us at exactly seventy mph on a level road with no headwind—and nothing in the rooftop carrier. A footlocker up top reduced the top speed to a law-abiding fifty-five mph. Passing a truck was life-threatening, because the VW Bug hesitated, as if lacking confidence, just as it encountered the high pressure wave off the bow of a truck.
Still, one can trace the bloodlines from Beetle to Passat. Both growled at low-torque, their engines lugging at low rpm. Both had radios that operated with the ignition switch off, both had firm high seats, both got thirty-two miles per gallon. Both windshields etched with every grain of sand, and the doors on both fit so snuggly they had to be slammed. It has always puzzled me how the Germans, a people notorious as zueruckhalten (reserved), can produce automobiles with such endearing character, especially when you consider that the People’s Car, the original Volkswagen, was commissioned originally by none other than der Fuerher himself.
After nearly four years of owning Charlie, with 98,000 miles on the odometer, 50,000 of which I had contributed (and a few more which were never recorded because I had once disconnected the speedometer cable to silence the unbearable squealing), I reached the sad conclusion that time had come to purchase a newer, more reliable, and safer automobile. Selling Charlie Brown was not unlike putting an old family dog to sleep. After all those years of faithful service, how can one turn his back?
In the end I put up a sign that said simply: “Home wanted for cute, lovable VW named Charlie Brown.” I like to think I found him a good home; I sold him to a mechanic for $50.
You were a good car, Charlie Brown.
© Dave Pruett, permission story and photo granted to Like the Dew.