Sunday, April 22, 2007

Pete Banholzer’s 1949 V.W. Convertible and other folksy Volkswagen ruminations

In the spring of 1965 when my father was towards the beginning of a long career selling Volkswagens with the Horst B. Lantzsch dealership in Fairfax, Virginia, he came across a unique chance to buy a 1949 Beetle. This model was the first year that Germany’s small affordable car for the masses was permitted for import to the United States, as WW2 had just ended a few years before.

“An egg with wheels and flying saucer appeal”, is how some have described this small wonder. The early versions looked like a Beetle and Carmen-Ghia hybrid. During the Bug’s heyday dad once sold 200 vehicles in a single month. Great photos of 1932-1979 Volkswagens are online at:

The air-cooled engine afforded easier parking in the elements for those without garages. But the defrosting system left something to be desired. In winters Dave Banks, a VW mechanic would attach a rubber tube to the one tiny heater outlet behind the driver’s seat of his VW to blow warm air up the back of his uniform for the duration of his Berryville to Fairfax commute.

H.B. Lantzsch had owned an Eastern Germany Chevrolet dealership in the 1930’s until the Nazi’s confiscated it. Working a series of hardscrabble woodworking jobs alongside his wife after immigrating to the United States, Horst eventually parlayed his earnings and connections into his own Volkswagen dealership by 1959. Hiring mostly German mechanics, English was a second language in his shop for many years. I polished up my German while shining cars alongside some of these same mechanics on the improved pollution controlled Volkswagen’s of the early 80’s.

In our shop we took out the trash with a 1960’s era VW bus that appeared as though the top half had been cut off to convert it into a pickup truck. It had multiple toolboxes built into the sides. I wondered why I hadn’t seen more of these, as they would have been the perfect light trucks for carpenters, electricians and other handymen. The shop foreman, Werner Kulbe told me that these trucks were extremely popular when they first came to America in the early 60’s, but around the same time the European Economic Community had raised tariffs on imported chicken, effectively cutting off the United States from this lucrative market. In what became known as “The Chicken War”, our Country soon responded with a 25 percent tariff on various items including light trucks. This tariff continues over 40 years later even though Volkswagen no longer produces trucks.

Dave Dando used to help me take out the trash in the chicken wagon here, as we started on the “shine and glow” crew around the same time. As one of the most knowledgeable mechanics in the world today he’s had a career encompassing medical research on prions and installed Thermonuclear resistant shields over electrical systems in now unified Germany.

Dads 49er’ originally had a 25 horsepower engine in the rear. The fuel level used to be checked with a wooden dipstick since it had no fuel gauge. There was however a reserve tank, with one gallon of gas that could be accessed by pulling a special lever while you drove along sputtering out of gas. The engine was soon replaced with a zippy ‘62 VW Bus’s, and soon we were floating fast like a yellow hovercraft clipping an hour off from our frequent trips over the Potomac River and through the woods of Pennsylvania to visit Grandma. Like some things today, the paper trail of a speeding ticket could be easily intercepted with the right connections.

Automobile safety wasn’t thought to be much of an issue back then. Speed limits were higher and seat belts were just coming out. (The 1949 Nash had the first ones) It was interesting when my Ecology teacher asked for my opinion of Ralph Nader –an early car safety advocate and author of “Unsafe at Any Speed”- with my father being well known as a Volkswagen salesman in what was then a small community -about the size of Boise today.

Dad took a lot of pride in his 49er and brought it dozens of car rallies, dune buggy races and other shows, which enabled him to meet a wide variety of interesting car buffs with similar interests. Copious car show awards and plaques filled the walls of our basement between the pinball machine and the pool table.

My brother David and I had similarly narrow escapes while taking Dad’s prized VW out for joy rides while he was away. Mine involved almost ramming into the basketball pole while getting used to clutch driving, backing out of our Whitefield Street driveway. David’s entailed finding our parents coming home a day early from vacation while he showcased the convertible on a wild ride for a gang of neighborhood kids.

April’s fool’s pranks have often been played with lightweight VW’s. One of our teachers told us about his college days when his buddies pushed a 50’s era Bug onto an elevator. Bribing the elevator operator with some whisky they rose up to their professor’s unlucky 13th floor and blocked the apartment door with his own car.

Cramming people into a VW is another fad that occasionally gets broken. The current confirmed Guinness record is 25. This may be difficult to beat anytime soon in our super-sized fast food nation!

A less tasteful caper is one that National Lampoon ran in the 1973. Spoofing a Volkswagen ad they featured a picture of a VW floating in water with the caption reading, “If Ted Kennedy drove a Volkswagen, He’d be President today”. Ted Kennedy didn’t sue, but Volkswagen almost did. A shocking aspect of this ad was the powerfully different future this country might have had if the Chappaquiddick incident had a less unfortunate outcome.

My friend Tiss and I used to ride his 60’s era VW back home from basketball practice. His car even wore “Famous Idaho Potatoes” plates just like the ones online at:

His father; a Colonel in the Air Force had recently transferred from Mountain Home, Idaho’s base. If the weather was cold this Bug would catch a virus, because the horn would start honking on it’s own like a sick Trumpeter Swan. “HRMMMUPHH! HRMMMUPHHH!” It squeaked. Always while turning the steering wheel slightly to the right. This gave us an excuse to travel home in a roundabout fashion taking only left turns to avoid the unnecessary horn blowing. We discovered escapades on our new path more attractive than our awaiting homework. Tiss later bought a VW Scirocco from my dad and sometimes drove through town with his head sticking out of the sunroof, since he was over Zwei meters tall. Today Dr. Tissaw still occasionally enjoys a VW ride –as long as his fly rod fits aboard.

In 1974 Dad displayed a VW with good old number 53 emblazoned on the sides in a movie theatre lobby for the Washington area premiere of “Herbie Rides Again”. It’s a famous story where a living Volkswagen helps a lady protect her home from a corrupt developer. In the snack area my brother, sister and I were stunned when we dropped a dime into the Tab soda machine and a robotic voice said “Thank You!” Turned out it was the theatre manager. Whenever he would hear the change drop into the back part of the machine built into his room, he would play jokes on those of us recently indoctrinated to Herbie type personifications of machines!

The first Herbie the Love Bug movie from 1969 contains a scene with the actors talking on a cell phone as they carefully drove along. These guys were ahead of their time! Disney this summer is bringing out a hot new film: “Herbie Fully Loaded”

There is a nice young girl in town that drives a decorative Doodlebug of the 21st century. I’ve nicknamed her VW “Herbaceous”. The other day I saw her buzzing down Highway 75 with what appeared to be one headlight flickering. Was her light really going out or was this just another VW with a sparkling personality winking at me again?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

When I was a young guy, I dated a girl named Cindy (an avid Tarot Card reader, as I remember) who drove one of those VW "Squareback" wagons... and there was something hypnotic about the way that VW flat 4 resonated in the closed wagon-back body. I also remember a little part of the engine poking up into the back cargo area of the car.... (those more familiar might confirm this). That was my first connection to the VW line of the sixties, but I know that women took to the bugs and adored the car. My Dad would curse when he got stuck behind these slower moving highway sharers, but Dad was a road warrior back then. My last original bug memory was mowing the lawn of a lady who panicked when she heard the last VW Beetle year would be a 1979. She quickly purchased a smart looking white convertible with contrasted black top. Fast forwarding today, I know a bunch of people purchased the new Beetle when it first came out, but on hindsight, the car just will never be loved in the way that the original car was through the 60s and 70s.