The modest, and wonderful, Volkswagen |

The modest, and wonderful, Volkswagen

Patty Hughes was only 20 when she bought her first, and most beloved, car – a 1965 Volkswagen 2-door sedan. A bug, in other words. When she drove it home, her dad, a dedicated Ford man, was upset – until he got in and drove it himself. “Then,” Hughes said, “I couldn’t get him out of it.”

Since then, the old car has seen Hughes get married, have children, and move from the San Francisco Bay Area to Nevada City 22 years ago.

When she first saw the 2-year-old car, she was a credit checker at a bank earning all of $3.50 an hour. She liked it so much, she signed up for monthly payments of $42.50 for the next three years. “It was a real stretch for me,” she said of the $1,500 she ended up paying for the car.

But in the end, the car was definitely worth it. For most of its long life, it’s been used for commuting to the office and to school, first in the Bay Area, then in Nevada County. This car has been nothing short of a workhorse for the family.

One of the reasons it is still going is because Hughes puts it under wraps in the winter. “I always put it into hibernation then,” she said. That’s probably because living in the area of the Five Mile House requires it; there, four-wheel drives are the norm.

Another reason the car looks as good as it does is that it has been restored twice, first in the 1970s, then in 1995 after the kids (a daughter and a son) got done with it (“abused it is more like it,” said their dad with a chuckle). Cleverly, Hughes married a man who did those restorations himself: John of John Hughes Nevada City Classic. He replaced the 1300 cc motor with a 1600 cc motor out of a later model bug, replaced weather stripping and chrome, and stripped the car to bare metal, repairing body damage.

“It’s mostly accurate,” he says of the 2-year very part-time restoration.

“The color is not original (it’s lighter and off a Mazda), and it’s got a newer model motor, but everything else is stock.”

While earlier bugs didn’t have a gas gauge, this one does, as well as a 4-speed transmission, an am radio, and electric windshield wipers

The labor, parts, materials, and upholstery totaled $13,000, says John, which is peanuts compared to the other cars he restores. Take, for example, the 1961 Corvette he did that had a $42,000 price tag. Of all the cars he’s worked on, from Austin Healys to Rolls Royces, it’s the Mercedes, Porsches, and Volkswagens that are his favorites.

“Older German cars,” he said, “were designed for the repairman, not like English cars that you have to take totally apart to do something simple.”

John, who has done some research on the Volkswagen, said, “The bug and the beetle are the same car. The super beetle that came out in the 1970s is what’s different.”

What makes a Volkswagen a Volkswagen? The formula, he said, is a “steel platform chassis with all independent torsion bar suspension and understressed, air cooled flat four mounted at the rear.”

The car was tinkered with so much through the two decades of the 1950s through the 1970s that virtually nothing is interchangeable between early and later models.

Some constants remain, though, such as 1) It isn’t a speed demon, 2) Its crosswind stability leaves a lot to be desired, and 3) Creature comforts are notable in their absence. Of course, to balance that out, you can also say the traction is great, the steering light, and the engine reliable.

Many feel all this design and styling (or lack thereof) are what assures the car’s future as a collectible, possibly on the same level as the Tin Lizzy is today.

For all that, with Patty Hughes it all boils down to the fact that she simply loves her car.

She loves driving it (“It’s real economical.”). She loves the reactions she gets. “When I get gas, everyone compliments me on it. Everyone, it seems, has had a Volkswagen. Kids put their thumbs up.” And she loves the memories of it, like the time 10 young men picked it up at a party.

Even though she’s teased about it; even though her old high school friends are driving big modern cars in Marin County; and even though she’s looked at the new Volkswagens, she remains true-blue loyal: “I just can’t part with it.”

So she proudly continues driving her old friend, knowing that she’ll be prepared to pass it on to her older grandson when, and if, he’s ready to accept it (he’s only 8 now). Lucky guy.

Pam Jung writes about classic cars for The Union. She can be reached at 265-8064. She welcomes suggestions for stories.

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