It’s the Saturday before Easter and the aging but generally reliable Jen’s UFO is cruising down I-75 approaching Corbin Kentucky fuel gauge on E and I need to stop before the road gets hilly and exits fewer. My wife and I were driving one of my nieces to surprise her grandfather for Easter so she could finish an interview of him for a college course. I put on my turn signal, enter the exit lane, and decelerate normally as we approach the intersection at the bottom of the ramp. There is an 18 wheel truck waiting at the light and I ease to a stop behind it, waiting on the light to change green. The radio is on, the girls talking, and my phones GPS politely giving me instructions on how to get back on the highway I’ve just gotten off. The light at the intersection turns green and the truck begins to pull away. I lightly press the accelerator, and… nothing.
Like anyone who’s had a first car, or first new car the 2001 New Beetle was both for my wife. She was still my girlfriend back then and we lived in downtown Chicago. We had gone several years without a car and only using public transit to get around as soon after we met my first new car (a 1988 Cavalier Z24) had been totaled in a T-bone accident on Chicago’s south side.
Jen knew she wanted a New Beetle in 1997 when they debuted, but we didn’t need a car living downtown, and with rent and parking cost it was easier to go without. In the spring of 2001 our lives were changing and we began to need a car so she did what most first time car buyers do. First time buyers see a car they want and find one for sale and buy it. The only real research that went into the project was color, power plant, and transmission. The transmission was easy to choose. Jen having never learned the mysteries of the manual growing up; so her choice of automatic was made. Power plant; the diesel sounded like a truck, the turbo came with an optional 4 speed automatic but with a 5 grand premium, so 2 liter auto it was. Then the color; Black, Blue, Red or White were all to plain. Silver and Bright Blue were too boyish, and it’s hard to drive a Bright Yellow car in a city full of Yellow Cabs. In the early 2000’s the internet age was still new, and just like the Space Age before it, had its effect on names, and when VW decided to paint their already quirky car a quirky metallic green they decided not in fact to call it metallic green, but Cyber Green.
“I want that one.” She said pointing to the green car just off the truck still wearing its protective white vinyl wrap. The New Beetle was the perfect city car. Small, decent MPG, a hatchback to load up at IKEA, and that green made it easy to spot in parking lots full of drab primary colors. Sure people with legs couldn’t actually fit easily in the back seat, sure it didn’t have a lot of power, but the MK1 New Beetle and its contemporary compatriot the Plymouth Prowler started the retro car revolution that brought us all the quirky comebacks; PT Cruiser, Chevrolet HHR, and SSR. So without much contemplating; she bought it.
Suddenly the couple who had gone years without a car, had a lot of places to go; the suburbs mostly. It was on one of these suburban trips that we went to a friend’s house for a party. It was a bright sun, big blue sky day; typical July in the Midwest sort as we pulled up sunroof open and windows down that Jen’s Beetle got its name.
“What the hell is that?” We heard as we came to a stop.
“It looks like half an apple” Said one.
“No, look at that green! It looks like a UFO!” said another.
It stuck. Jen was beaming the smile only someone with “new car love” can smile, as the car had done what she hoped it would do. It got noticed. We don’t all do it consciously but our cars, like our pets, represent some part of our personality. Jen, who’s generally reserved, needed an outlet for her internal quirkiness. Some people get tattoos never seen in public, some wear outlandish neckties or socks; Jen got an alien green bubble car that everyone noticed, every time.
We drove the silly green UFO everywhere. Trips to see our suburban friends on the west side, my parents on the south side, we went to Ohio to visit her mom; and everywhere we went people noticed the crazy green Beetle and smiled, or started punching each other. It was great fun starting Punch Bug battles, and Jen enjoyed it every time. You see; growing up downtown in a city as big as Chicago can bring with it a certain jaded “stranger danger” antisocialness, and breaking the ice to make a human connection comes with difficulty. Many turn to smoking, and drinking, or worse in a way to cope. Jen turned to her Beetle.
In the autumn of 2001 when living in high-rises suddenly lost some of its appeal we and the Beetle move to rural Ohio to be closer to her mom and aging grandparents. The Beetle was employed as a daily driver as Jen became a commuter student to finish college near Dayton. The 2 liter inline 4’s lack of power showed itself to a greater extent on the long open rural highways and notoriously short merge lanes. It wasn’t “Oh God, Oh God we’re all gonna die!” slow, especially if you found the sweet spot in the throttle about 7/8 to the floor, but there were times more would have been better. I eventually got a Chevy Blazer for a work truck and most of the major hauling was relegated to it, but the Beetle was still our preferred mode of transport. Grocery store, vet, doctor appointment, or the movies? The Beetle. A trip to Columbus, Dayton, or Cincinnati? The Beetle. Trips to Indianapolis, or Chicago? The Beetle. It went everywhere and handled it with trust and reliability. Trips to Georgia, South Carolina, heck we even drove it to a NASCAR race in Bristol Tennessee. When, after Jen graduated, we decided to risk it all and move to California; we packed our things on a truck stuffed the Beetle in the back and had it shipped.
So I know what you’re thinking. Two conservative kids graduate and move to California and drive a Beetle, and its 420 ever after. Well you’d be wrong… well kind of. Our research to moving to California was vague at best. We visited San Francisco on an unusually warm weekend, we checked out some local touristy things and decided for better or worse it was nicer than Dayton. Only one of us was a college grad and neither of us had jobs when we packed everything and rented an RV for the trip. The movers said it would take a week, we had pets, and driving sounded more relaxed than flying. Besides hotels that allow cats are few and far between and who wants to drive a 99 Blazer from Dayton to Berkeley with 4 cats in it? Me neither.
Jen had gone a few weeks before the trip, rented a Mustang, and driven around the Bay Area to find an apartment. She had been told by some opinionated folks not to move to Oakland, “They kill white people there.” (Authors note: After 7 years in the Bay I assure you it is not true, and totally unfounded racist crap.) San Francisco has rent that two unemployed people can afford for about twenty minutes until they need to start selling heroin to the Trustafarians. So she chose Berkeley. Not only was Berkeley cheaper, it has well connected public transit and a reputation of being relatively safe. (Authors note: It’s not as safe as the peace happy dope smokers make it out to be.)
Our “apartment” was as small as anything we had in Chicago, which is to say half as big as the one in Ohio, and once our stuff and the Beetle arrived we made good use of the fold down seat and hatch as we hauled half of our stuff directly to storage. As it turned out of the 4 apartments in that building one was always changing over, another held a couple that would become some of our closest friends, and the last? You guessed it; a dope dealer. We never spent a lot of time in that apartment. Our days were filled with looking for work and our weekend scouting and foraging trips around the Bay. By now the New Beetle had run through its warranty and its once unique lines were common place. It drew fewer smiles out west, but people still started punching each other when they saw it.
Once I found work in the south bay the Beetle became my daily driver. JENZUFO personalized plates and all. In Berkeley this wasn’t noticed but down in the south bay when your coworkers are male and mostly first or second generation Americans it got giggles. Once she was working Jen was taking BART, the local light rail, and doing most of the weekend driving. Our first spring and summer in California we started to go on tourist type travels of the surrounding areas. The Beetle still relatively reliable aside from usual maintenance; tires, brakes and the battery, it had the habit of the headlights burning out at what we took as three times the normal rate. One would burn out, and if you only changed it, the other within three weeks. No big deal, I mean headlight bulbs are nothing to change. Right? Pain in the ass lies I tell you. The over engineered light buckets needed to be removed in order to change the bulb. There are several repeating scenarios. Push the tab in, slide the slidy thing down and push the light out. Reverse to install. Yeah; never happened. More likely scenarios were; tab won’t releases slidy thing, or, slidy thing wont slide, and the more happy ‘make your day’ option, once released bucket wont slide out. You see it was all these plastic slidy things that were the problem. They got full of grit and dirt and refused to function properly. Mechanics “solved” this by adding lube… which attracted more grit. Changing both bulbs regularly took 30 minutes and blood, and many, many curse words.
After about a year of daily driving I had the Blazer shipped from my parents’ house, and Jen got her beloved Beetle back. We moved to Alameda, and our close neighbors moved to Oakland. (Authors note: Spoiler, no they weren’t killed.) We continued to take the Beetle as our primary transport. Jen usually drove I usually navigated. We went to San Francisco Giants game to tailgate with coworkers. We took drives to Oakland, Walnut Creek, and excursions across the Golden Gate Bridge. We drove the Beetle to wineries in Sonoma, Napa, and to the Muir Woods and Sausalito. We went to concerts in San Jose, and longer trips to Sacramento. Everywhere we went we took the now aging little green bubble car. A cousin has a surprise party in Phoenix? Why fly when you have a Beetle? If you’ve never driven through the dessert in the spring you don’t know the half of its wonders. On that memorable trip our route took us through the orchards of central California. We spent the next several years trying to perfectly time the blossoms for photography expeditions. The blossoms like much of nature follow a vague schedule that’s weather dependent. We would drive for 2 hours into the valley and have nothing on the trees. We’d eat lunch and go home. 2 weeks later do it again to find only buds. Again a week later and there are flowers everywhere and bees to go along with it.
We were in California with the Beetle for seven years. It started to show its age and sometimes the quirky car would show us a new quirk. Like leaking antifreeze where the coolant “tree” exited the aluminum block, or at the temperature sensor. The under engine cover and the fog lights got taken out by a piece of road debris. We had to replace the oil pan after asshats at the stealership stripped the plug. There was that one time when the micro climate of Mt. Diablo had summer at the bottom spring in the middle and winter at the top and half way back down we stopped for the view off the back of the mountain. Something in the EGR or computer brain wouldn’t get the air/fuel right and we were stuck there for more than an hour. Then there was the time Jen was driving back from Monterey late at night and the same thing happened while driving. It didn’t cut out but she was afraid to continue driving it was so bad. We got tune-ups and had all sorts of sensors replaced and it began to behave again. Not so much ole’ reliable as worn in and comfortable.
The economy crapping out in 2007 made paying off the move to California take longer than we had hoped, and as expensive as California is, the economic recovery was slower there than other places. Our jobs were stable, but the uncertain future kept any plans of replacing the Beetle in the “Hey; the Auto Show is in San Jose this week you wanna go?”, and “Sure.” category. Not only was Jen not ready to part with the Beetle; taking the taxes and payment for something new seemed too risky. So we continued our weekend excursions and I occasionally toyed with the idea of giving it a second life as a hotrod.
A few months after Jen got her Beetle I saw a modified one on the west side of Chicago. I noticed the noise first, as it didn’t sound like a 4 cylinder. Then I saw it; lowered, but not stanced, with aftermarket rims and low profile tires. When the guy got out it had a cage, and racing seats. I hadn’t heard of an R32 back then and I don’t think anyone had yet done an Audi TT drive train swap yet, but this guy had built what I now imagine was an VR6 Autocross car. That’s when Id first imagined the original New Beetle as upgradable. In the years following that moment I kept researching options for after Jens warranty ran out, but eccept for the radio, we always managed to keep it simple and keep it stock. It’s the only way our budget worked.
In 2012 our long distance from family started to takes its toll. Our surviving parents were getting to the age where being a few hours away by car sounded like a better idea than being a few hours away by plane. So again we found ourselves packing up a truck with all our things and a Beetle. We sold off the Blazer, as reliable as it had been it was getting to its high maintenance age, and I never had any emotional attachment to it. We packed the now three cats and our remaining belongings into an RV for the return trip. (Authors note: If you have a choice of routes from east to west of this great country; take the southern route. The norther route is spectacular, the southern is mind blowing. If you can do a loop, do the north first.)
We settled on Indianapolis for 4 reasons. First: It’s centrally located to our combined families. Second: One of us could transfer employment. Third/Fourth: It’s not as cold or expensive as Chicago. We quickly settled into the familiar pattern of things. Jen took public transit and I used the Beetle as a daily when I found a factory job building widgets north of the city. So again, more giggles; but here in the Midwest they come with a nuanced innuendo. Jen and I considered for a time at getting her something new and myself to keep the Beetle and maybe give that R32 swap project a go. We looked around and she test drove a few things, but she wasn’t ready to give up her beloved Beetle for something that wasn’t as quirky or personal. I knew she was serious about keeping her friend; when I concocted a crazy logical argument for myself to buy a MX-5, and she agreed. I admit I was a bit dumbfounded, but in reality it was the cheaper of the options we were dealing with, and she undoubtedly wanted her car back.
I guess you could say the Miata caused a disturbance in the Force. It was older than the Beetle. It was less practical than the Beetle. I suddenly wanted to take it everywhere and as it’s a 5 speed she didn’t know how to drive it; or more importantly didn’t want me to teach her. (Authors note: Its key to point out it’s not a lack of desire or ability but the ‘Me’. If you ever drive with me you will understand.) So the problem started coming up that which car to take was a big decision. Optional roof sacrificing space and comfort, or more space and a roof with a sunroof we hadn’t operated in forever. The distance of the drive usually was the deciding factor, or time of year. The MX-5 has the optional hard top, but then you may as well be in the Beetle for the added space the hatch or even back seat provide for accessing coolers and such.
So when we decided to visit Dad last Easter the “Which car?” question relied on if my niece, whose going to university locally, wanted to go or not. She did so the Beetle it was. She’s a skinny kid, my niece, and by herself in the back seat she was comfortable enough. As I was driving I remembered my sister was pregnant with my two nieces when Jen and I met, I realized for most of their lives I lived out of state; yet she chatted away with Jen and I as if I’d never missed a holiday or birthday. Which in fact is completely opposite of reality. I’m driving along thinking how much family time I missed in California, and about whether we should stop to eat when we get gas; or if anything in rural Kentucky would be open at…let’s see, 5pm on the Saturday before Easter.
The light at the intersection turned green and the truck began to pull away. I lightly pressed the accelerator, and… nothing. No bump, no boom, nothing. The only alarm bells going of are in my head. A quick look in the mirror to see who I might be holding up or being crashed by. Turn off the radio depress the brake put it in neutral, turn the ignition. Crank, no start. I’m ignoring all outside input. I hear it but I’m not listening. My dad is a retired mechanic and my brain is screaming through scenarios. All of them from out of gas to blown motor. An unfathomable amount of miles on the road, hours in a garage watching him work listening to car stories. Out of gas? Shouldn’t be according to the trip odometer. Torque converter lock up? Should have fought me while decelerating. Blown motor? I had no symptoms; no water vapor coming out the back. No smell of oil or coolant. It was running along at cruising speed and then once stopped was dead. Electrics were working so not alternator. Everything pointed to no gas except the trip odometer. So that’s what we decided to fix. Now I had three choices. Leave the car, leave the girls with the car or send the girls to get gas. Yes two of those options sound like the way a horror movie would start so I was thinking we’d all go. One problem. One of those outside inputs I was ignoring was Jen calling roadside assistance. I’ve personally never had or used roadside assistance. I’m a mechanics son. If it breaks down on the road and I can’t fix it; the walk of shame is how you pay for not having road side assistance. But you see Jen is smarter than me and has always had roadside. Now that she’s called them and they were on their way someone needed to stay with the car. I could see the truck stop from the car, but I wouldn’t be able to see the car from the truck stop. One likely had cameras, the other didn’t. So I decide the girls should go and I would stay and see if anything changed.
It didn’t. The ladies returned; newly purchased gas can in hand, half full because “it was heavy enough”, and I was then required to figure out a “Safety” device that hadn’t existed the last time I used a gas can. (Let’s see, was that 1989 filling my dad’s lawnmower? Sounds right.) I was fiddling with the cans funky nozzle when a State Trooper rolled up. He gave everybody that ‘Cop Eye’ thing cops do, because certain types of people run out of gas on the highway. (Authors note: Why do things that only happen to stupid people keep happening to me?) We apparently didn’t look the part and I acted adequately ashamed, and he was on his way to a more important call which I took to mean once he saw the girls were ok; the car was my problem.
By the time I got half of the gas out of the half-filled gas can Roadside assistance rolled up. “Go ahead and try to start it.” He suggested. At this point I’m frustrated, tired, hungry, and frankly ready for someone else to be in charge of this catastrophe so I crank it. No start. So we try to see if the fuel pump is making any noise. My ears are shit so I had to let others listen for it. Driver can’t hear it over the highway and passengers don’t know what they are listening for. It was time for the rollback. The driver asks me to stay in the car and steer. I’m almost absolutely sure his insurance carrier wouldn’t think this is kosher. I’m sure Jen was glaring at me, I wouldn’t look. She’s overly safety conscious, so I just watched the driver as the cable got taught and the memory of my dad attempting to use his Chevy C10 to remove a willow tree stump from the yard; the chain braking and taking out its rear glass. My eyes were fixed on the driver twirling his finger left or right to signal me; my peripheral straining to see if the cable would snap.
Once the car was sufficiently mounted the driver said I could exit down the still inclined ramp, and my concern now switched to; where are we going to take it? How do we get to dads? Or home? How are the four of us going to fit in a two seat rig? So I ask him; “Where do we take it?” He wasn’t sure. So he jumped in the driver’s seat, and my wife, niece and myself piled in the passenger seat and I was reminded of my dad’s old VW dune buggy we had for a time when my sisters and I were kids. It was like a clown car with all six of us hanging off of it. No seatbelts no roof, just luck and love keeping us alive.
As we drove up the hill to the truck stop the driver informed me that the local VW dealer is closed until Monday, and beyond the covered range of our policy. The truck stop 24-hour mechanic it turned out was actually an on-call mechanic, and he only worked on trucks. I was of out of ideas, but our driver wasn’t. I always find it simultaneously interesting, and funny to watch older guys who’ve worked with their hands their entire life, their fingers as big as sausages, attempting to use a delicate instrument like a cell phone. It’s as if Gulliver has picked up a Lilliputians toy and is trying to operate it. So the driver has his phone out and the horror movie scenarios have started again, as he’s calling friends and acquaintances of cousin’s friends. I was trying to keep Jen from panicking as her long beloved Beetle had let her down at the worst opportunity. I try to be consoling, but nope not my strong suit. I’m a glass is either half empty or its half full depending on its previous state; type of realist. The Beetle was at best, half empty. We were 4 ½ hours from home, and about 2 hours from dads. It’s a 14 year old car with almost 190,000 miles on it. The roof had started to leak and the hatch release stopped working. It’s worth maybe three grand if it’s running. If it is a fantastically simple fix it might take 3 days to get repaired. If it’s a big problem we’re just F’ed. I translated this to nicer language, but now she was the one blocking out external input. Trying to focus. Trying to not panic. I was just talking to calm myself. My niece? Calm. I was unaware until much later this wasn’t her first family trip that ended with catastrophic automotive dysfunction.
The driver found someone. Someone local. He relayed the symptoms over the phone and the guy at the other end of the phone was looking it up on the internet. The good news? He’s open, he’s local, he has the internet. The bad news? If he needs the internet to diagnose a no start problem I can guarantee he won’t have easy fix VW Beetle parts on sight. So it’s gonna be a long night.
I’m glad he was driving a truck and not a metered cab because in the south no roads seem to go straight where you are going. The internet savvy mechanic, talked to a friend who had an idea it might be a fuel pump and that we should run to AutoZone and buy one before they closed in hoping we could save some time. As the never optimist I was thinking, ‘BS we’re screwed’ but not Jen. Ever the optimist, Jen was hopeful we could still get the Beetle fixed and get to dads that night. So we drove to the Zone and got some parts and headed circuitously through… town? When, as if by happenstance, we approached a lone gravel drive that looked more like an alley between two properties. A barn on the left side and a couple of single wide mobile homes on the right that haven’t been mobile since they were placed there. In the back there were at least a dozen wrecked cars that looked like they may be used to scare school kids. DUI head on type wrecks with twisted steel or body panels ripped to shreds. There were a few other derelicts that looked like they had driven their last, and like many yards in the south just parked and left until they once again became part of the earth. There were maybe six guys standing in front of the shop. I listened and didn’t hear any banjos so we piled out of the truck and headed over to the guys we hoped could save the Beetle. The tow driver lowered the car down, and as he was done with his duty to us, drove off to see if there was anyone else he could ‘rescue’ that night.
As it turned out this wasn’t your normal garage which explained a few things. Why it was in the middle of nowhere, why it was open late on a Saturday before Easter, and why so many dudes were hanging around. One answer. It was a race shop. Sometimes coincidence and irony can become confused; whichever the car I had sometimes fantasized as a hotrod had come to a not so grinding halt at a race shop; in the middle of nowhere in Kentucky. Our hopeful savior was called Tommy. Locally famous; Tommy the “Late Model” driver/mechanic was our Obi-Wan Kenobi; our only hope. Tommy and his crowd of friends opened the hood rubbed their chins. In short order the news was bad. “Timing belts broke. You ever change the timing belt?” Personally I hadn’t. Had it been changed? Once? More than once? I couldn’t remember. I know one of the fairly early years we had the water pump changed under recall warranty, but that’s why you bring it to a dealer. Right? So they can keep all that knowledge on computer for you? What about all those service appointments and there high labor rates. Every bit, part, and doohickey that cost hundreds of dollars didn’t raise any concerns because it was scheduled maintenance and recorded halfway across the country somewhere. “I don’t know?” Is all I could say; A mechanics son speaking to the more knowledgeable man. “Is this an interference engine?” Tommy’s friend mumbled, “Don’t know.” Tommy replied and headed off in the direction I assume he kept his internet, because I assure you there was none in the yard.
For the uninitiated the simple difference between what are called interference and noninterference engines is; if in the sudden removal of the timing belt an interference engine will smash the pistons into the valves, an noninterference engine won’t. Tommy was in his shop and I was wondering around the lot hoping to find at least one g of data so I could search forums for the answer. Meanwhile I assume Tommy was on whatever bandwidth that supplied rural Kentucky where the information superhighway, it seemed was a gravel road between two farms.
Board with the derelict cars, and frustrated at being in a cell dead zone I decided to wait in the shop. The entrance to Tommy’s garage isn’t as much littered with racing memorabilia, as much as stacked with trophies. The walls of the ‘lobby’ are covered in plaques, big cardboard checks, and photos from dirt tracks I’d never heard of. Lake Cumberland Speedway; Corbin Motor Speedway,201 Speedway, A quick scan of dates and it appears Tommy has been wining feature races the better part of a decade. There were dozens of Chilton manuals stacked on the desk and the side tables as well; the exact sort of thing you’d expect to find in a rural mechanics shop. If you have tools, and the skills to use them people will bring you things to fix so it behooves you to know how to fix them.
“This sight says noninterference.” Great so this means another parts run. Tommy’s brother offers to drive, and a quick decision is made to replace the water pump and tensioner pulley to eliminate possible culprits, and at this point if you are taking it off you may as well replace it so you don’t have to do it later. This has the feel of “We’re guessing here” but what other options are there?
I stayed at the shop, and Jen went with the brother and his wife back for the parts while Tommy and the one friend who stuck around started wrenching on the Beetle. Tommy and his friend went to work as the radio played Kentucky vs Wisconsin basketball. My niece lost herself in an e-book, and I effectively had a race shop to myself. It was a small shop with two skinless late model cars on stands and the lift where the guys were working. Familiar logos like Wilwood brakes, Bilstein shocks, Weld Wheels, Holly carburetor adorned the parts. It was like x-ray vision looking at the cars without their body panels attached. I’d seen one of these up close at the PRI show (Performance Racing Industry) last winter, but it had its body attached. You could see all the engineering implemented in these left turn only machines. The drive train adjusted left of the centerline, the suspension off set rather than at all four corners. I was aware that I was allowing myself to be lost in the details of these cars so I didn’t have to think about the Beetle. Tommy had gotten the Beetle apart by the time Jen had gotten back with the new parts. He gave me the old timing belt so I could see all the missing teeth.
Reassembly and refilling the coolant took some time, but everything went smoothly. Then they cranked it…nothing. They tried it again. Nothing. They didn’t like that so the pulled a plug and did a compression test. That was worse. Tommy went to his tool box and pulled out a scope. I didn’t notice the brand but it was a newfangled flexible camera that he could stick in the spark plug port and inspect the cylinder.
“You want to look at this?” Tommy said, as much as asked, as he handed the monitor to me and went off to re check his internet.
“Know what you’re looking at?” Tommy’s friend asks.
“Yeah.” I say.” Looks like the valves have hit it at least twice. Tommy’s friend grunts acknowledgement.
Tommy returned and the look on his face was one of a guy who had just had his dog kicked. He was very apologetic in his explanation that if the web had said it was an interference engine he would have run this test first…But it hadn’t. It seems that if you scroll down the web page there is a bit of debate over whether they are or aren’t. It seems conditional on how you are driving…. He had tried to explain on, but then I was trying to translate to my wife. She wasn’t completely unknowledgeable on these things. She knows the parts from watching motorsports for decades, but how those parts work or interact can get confusing. She wanted a bottom line on how that got fixed, how much that cost. It was very much like having a sick pet, or child even and you’re willing to do whatever it takes to make them better. The costs be dammed. Tommy didn’t look like he wanted to take on the project, or the explanation. So I tried to.
I tried to explain that firstly this wasn’t the shop to do it; it’s a race shop not a repair shop. We haven’t fully diagnosed all that was broken. Is it just the timing belt broke and caused the top end damage? Or was there some other root cause or residual damage we didn’t know yet. So we’d need a tow to a regular garage and have it disassembled further, then we could have a hard number. I could tell this wasn’t processing very well and I understood how she felt. When my Z24 got wrecked I had to soul search the fix or replace scenario and had chosen neither. This was going to be an expensive repair that would easily outweigh the bluebook value; she just wasn’t ready for that information.
We had been “on the road” for more than ten hours. Anybody would be edgy just spending this much time in a functional car. We needed sleep, and some food.
As it turns out Holiday Inn Express is a good place to clear your head and get some rest but not make this type of decision, but conveniently it had a McDonald’s in the parking lot. I Googled while we ate and I wasn’t coming up with great numbers. Blue Book had a suggested retail of less than $4k, and that’s for a nice one. We had an ok one the day before, that was maybe worth $2,500; 3 grand if we traded for the right car. A used engine would cost over $1k, and still need to be installed. Repairing the one we had would cost at least that much and we didn’t know what it would cost to transport it wherever we decided to get it done. In the end we’d have an operational 14 year old car that leaked, had a wonky hatch release, and all the other assorted complaints that had come up over the years. I knew it was time to replace it, but it wasn’t my decision. This was a decision Jen would have to make in her own time.
It didn’t happen the next day or really the day after that. Dad picked us up in the morning and drove us to Knoxville. (The closest place we could find a rental car agency that was open on Easter Sunday.) We picked up the worst new car I’d ever driven, 2015 Chrysler 200. I thought it was the size of the car in comparison to the Beetle or Jens lack of sleep that, frankly, made her drive like an old man. Too much accelerator, cruising with a pulsing throttle, and compounded over braking. It wasn’t her; it was the Chrysler and its electric throttle, and over powered brakes. There was zero feedback from the car besides g-forces. While the 200 was awful and so very different than her beetle it did start the thought process of; if we gave up on the Beetle, what did she want in a car?
It took less than a week to decide to move on. Jen had enough time removed from the imidiate trama to start thinking about what it would cost, how long it would take. It was more about timing and wasting money than overall cost. If the car had broken down here in Indy? No question it would have been fixed, and maybe upgraded along the way. If we had a house with a garage instead of an apartment? Again; no question it would have come home to be a weekend project car and replaced as a daily driver. Jen had become emotionally attached as we all do to our first car and ultimately she had wanted to preserve that relationship. Alas like many first loves it wasn’t meant to be. So even though it would be a difficult loss she chose to donate it to charity. The physical distance made any other options too time consuming or unwieldly cost wise.
One week after the Beetle’s demise Jen and I headed back to Corbin, Kentucky. We hadn’t really gotten to see dad that much so Jen took the Chrysler and I took the MX-5 down the long quiet highway on Saturday morning. We need to drop the title off, so when the wrecker came on Monday, all the forms would be ready. I’ll admit I think Jen and I were happy for the alone time in our cars. I wouldn’t be trying to make her feel better and she would have something else, like driving, to think about. Getting off the exit where it all happened was saddening, but not as sad as pulling down that long gravel drive and seeing our old friend there; abandoned with the derelicts and the wrecks. The funky green Beetle’s hood not fully latched, the fog lights and front lip still cracked, it looked like it belonged there somehow. It very much felt like a funeral. The yard was quiet, and the sky a sunny blue as Jen walked to her beloved Beetle alone; her shoulders tense her footsteps slow and deliberate. I wanted to help; to comfort so I did the only thing I could I helplessly waited and gave her space and let her take one last trip around her friend. While I stood there I imagined we were thinking the opposite thoughts. She was likely thinking of her first days with the car, it getting its name. Remembering being able to get her desired custom license plates in 4 different states, and all the journeys we took with her UFO. Ends are always sad and sometimes tragic, but I was remembering all the things we’d have to do to get this particular UFO off the ground again, and unfortunately they just didn’t match the sacrifice.
I walked over and filled a grocery bag with the few items that remained. The license plates, and its movie quote bracket, and random crap that accumulates in a car over 14 years. I stuffed the bag into the MX-5’s trunk, climbed in and watched my wife in the rearview mirror. She was just looking at her Beetle, her friend,for a moment and then she reached out patted it on its little bubble top and walked slowly across the crunching gravel to the waiting Chrysler.
I looked one last time in the rearview, winked at our old friends receding image.
“Good bye Beetle.” I said. “It’s been a good journey.”