It was hurting when I got it, but I didn't know it. I was in the process of moving back to Astoria, Queens from my tiny apartment in Manhattan when I decided my next car should be an aircooled VW, preferably a beetle. When I had moved into the Village, I had no need for a car, but living in Astoria and working on Long Island meant it was time to regain my automotive freedom.
I answered an advertisement in the paper for a beetle out further into Queens, at the end of the F train. The guy who answered the phone was going to pick me up at the subway station. When I first saw the little yellow beetle, I knew I wanted it. The guy was asking $1200, but I figured he'd take $1000. The engine looked cool, had a sporty air cleaner on it, EMPI wheels, a velour interior... Very cool, I thought. I asked the guy if anyone else had come to look at it. He said a few other people, but they didn't want it because some repairs had been done to the front end. When I asked what repairs, he showed me a patch under the pedal assembly. He also said he needed to show me one more thing, and promptly jacked up the front end of the car. He pulled the front left wheel up and down, to show it had some wiggle to it. Looking back, it had a LOT of wiggle to it. But I couldn't wait to give him my offer of $1000 and take off in the car. He took the offer, but cautioned me that the car needed work, and it was sold as-is. I said fine, and off I went.
Since I didn't really know a whole lot about VW's, I figured I'd have the local foreign auto shop go through it and fix anything that needed to be fixed. I had just gotten a new credit card, so I figured I could just put whatever it cost on there. Seeing any warning signs yet? You should see at least three by now. So I called the place to make an appointment, and the guy on the phone suggested I bring the car in before I bought it. "I already bought it," I said. The appointment was made for the next week.
The first sign of trouble was when I got a phone call at work. "Um, this car is pretty hurtin'. There's a lot of rust that will need to be fixed to make it safe." Uh oh. How much is this going to cost me? "Well, we can weld it all up and get it road worthy until it rusts some more, but it's going to be about $1000." Oh well. I had the credit card. "Yeah, go ahead. Do what you need to do." About a week later, I got the car back. It ran great, and I was already having loads of fun. I got looks everywhere I went, perhaps because it was such a beat up old piece, but I got looks! And the sound of that aircooled engine was killer. I went everywhere with the car, and for the most part it was reliable. Never left me stranded. Just minor stuff like throttle sticking on a cold night returning from NH, or throwing an improperly tightened spark plug out of the head. Needless to say, at that time I figured simply changing the spark plugs was a tune-up. I talked with my high-school friend Andy who had just done his first valve job on his super beetle. I was pretty impressed as I was too scared to do something like that to my own car.
About a year later my girlfriend at the time and I were riding on some back roads in New Hampshire when suddenly we felt the CLUNK of a rock scraping the underneath of the car, and suddenly the oil light went on. We were literally in the middle of nowhere. I shut off the engine immediately, and we coasted down this big hill which ended up basically in someone's yard. We got out of the car to survey the damage. The oil plate had been bent and all the oil had drained out. One of the oil plate studs had been mashed as well. A guy in the yard had evidently watched this little yellow VW come bounding out of the woods, down the hill and come to a stop. It turns out he worked at a factory that made metric bolts, so he quickly located a fastener for the oil plate and gave me some tools to use to get the plate itself back into shape. It was getting dark and we had a long way to go back to New York. I had no oil in the car, so the guy offered all he had, which was some used oil. I gratefully took it, filled up the car, thanked him, and we were on our way. I stopped in Charlestown to pick up some more oil to top it off, and the trip continued uneventfully to New York.
So the next day I'm heading to work out in Great Neck. The trip is about 30 minutes, all expressway driving. I hit the Whitestone Expressway and suddenly hear a metallic THUNG and suddenly there's no power. I look in back of me and there's white smoke everywhere. I quickly coast to the side of the road and open the engine lid to see what's happened. I couldn't tell, but there was a lot of smoke coming out of the right-hand side of the engine. I walked to the nearest phone and called a tow truck. Those of you who live in NY know that the expressway tow trucks are contract-only, which means I had to make several calls to get who I needed to pick up my car. Eventually the guy showed up and when he asked me where I wanted to take the car, the only thing I could think of was to take it to this little garage in Astoria where I had seen a bunch of aircooled VW's. When we dropped the car off, I asked the garage owner if I could just leave the car with him and he could get to it whenever he had time. He said sure, and eventually called me a few days later to tell me that my engine had eaten a valve or thrown a rod or something major. I forget which. It must've been a rod as there was a hole in the top of the crankcase. $1200 later I had a new engine, "totally stock," said the garage owner, who was big on the reliability factor. So that's what I got...totally stock except for the Kadron exhaust. The engine had a lot of power, and each time I thought the timing was off, or the engine was running rough, I brought the car back to him and he'd adjust it, refusing any money.
Eventually, the front started shaking and shuddering again and I brought the car upstate to a beetle restorer in Monsey. He took a few measurements and then showed me that the wheelbase on the car was three inches shorter on one side than the other. It would take a lot of time and money to fix it right. I drove the car back to Queens, incredibly depressed, realizing what a failure this had all been, and also realizing that I'd probably have to get rid of the car because it wasn't save to drive on the expressway back and forth to work. My parents helped me out in getting a Chevy Cavalier to replace the beetle, and while I was trying to sell the little yellow bug I would drive it back and forth to work occasionally instead of the Chevy. People offered me as high as $1500 for it, but I saw that glimmer in their eyes, that innocence that goes with buying a poor little beat up bug to take care of. I eventually sold it for something like $700 to a car dealer who needed the engine for his wife's beetle. I watched it drive up Middle Neck Road and never saw it again. Oh, the things I have learned.