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Lessons I learnt from my first car: Ferdi the VW Beetle (Part I)

Back in the eighties, living in the outskirts of Johannesburg meant having to rely heavily on one’s parents for transport. Once I had turned 18 I was thus rather eager to get my long awaited driver’s license: my first step to freedom and the beginning of many battles and barters with daddy to drive his car.

Besides owning a car my father had also always had in his office an A1 poster showing all Porsche models to date. I had spent many hours in my childhood dreaming myself into a 911. But, since your average 18-year old can’t really drive a Porsche much less afford one, I needed to change plans and bought a VW Beetle instead. Or rather, I made my brother and father buy it for me. My brother was as good as saving as I was at spending and my father, well he’s lucky to have gotten off so lightly.

Ferdi, named after Ferdinand Porsche, was very special. Painted in a fantasy peacock blue with cellulite dents in some parts and cracks and rigdes in others he was a rather young Mexico Beetle with a large curved windscreen and the big circular rear lights. Other features included a chrome front bumper, a black rear bumper, and a missing heating system, which we only discovered one very cold Jo’burg morning in winter a few months later.

We picked him up in a suburb far beyond the massive mine dumps in the southern outskirts of the Golden City. My father, fearing for the safety of his only daughter, drove Ferdi whilst I was stuck behind him driving his boring old Ford Sierra. And yet my father had decided wisely. On the off-ramp towards our downtown Swiss mechanic, who later took quite a fancy to me, Ferdi’s brakes decided to refuse further services and it took all the skill of an experienced driver to avoid an accident and keep himself and everyone else safe.

Once Felix, the mechanic, had made sure that the most relevant and important safety features were working (by repairing them) I was finally allowed to drive my ticket to freedom home.

And this is when I started to learn about all the parts a car, in this case a Beetle, is made of. And more.

Lesson one: Wheels. Wheels have rims and tyres and other bits and pieces. Tyres are made of rubber and some white stuff. I was soon to find out that said rubber tends to wear down with time and mileage. A few days after aquiring Ferdi I had parked him in the lot of our local shopping centre. Upon my return I noticed a slight slant and found that one of his tyres had gone flat. A bit perturbed, but not much, I opended the front and found a spare wheel. It’s condition was only marginally better, mainly by not being flat. However the tread was rather sparse and the above mentioned white stuff was sticking out here and there. I rummaged further in search of tools, in vain. Instead I found myself stuck in a shopping centre car park with a flat tyre, a dodgy spare wheel and no means of communication we are so used to today. Then I remembered a VW dealer further down the road and ventured there in search of help.
We finally managed to get me back on the road and to this day I can’t remember what we did about the tires. I assume my dad sponsored a new set.

Lesson two: Antifreeze. Winter nights in Johannesburg can be rather cold, sometimes even below zero. This was reason enough for the pranksters amongst my friends to give me a worried look asking if I had remembered to put antifreeze in my car. Rest assured, petrol-head in the making that I was, I knew that the only antifreeze my car would ever need would be for the windscreen-wiper-washer-water.

Which brings me to lesson number three:
A Beetle’s windscreen wiper and its water tank. This rather small tank (about 1 ltr.) is situated beneath the spare wheel in the boot (i.e. front) of the car. It is powered by excess pressure of the spare wheel causing the water to trickle and spurt at the windscreen rather than spray it clean. It also caused me to constantly worry that the pressure might decrease even further or the spare wheel might go flat even though my father had assured me time and time again that this could not happen, thanks to some mysterious safety valves. However, before this concern could cause me any sleepless nights I needed to obtain said water tank first. And being a scholar with little to no income I could not walk into your next VW spares dealership and order what I needed. Instead I drove to a scrap yard and dug out an old tank from an even older Beetle rusting away quietly in its corner. Once we had successfully installed the water tank we noticed that whatever the water-jet was aiming for was not necessarily the windscreen. I then started “adjusting” the angle by inserting a pin into the nozzle and moving it in the direction of the windscreen. This only made matters worse and worse until I finally gave up in disgust and never used the windscreen-wiper-washer-water tank ever again.

Lesson number four: the choke. This is genius and one of my favourite bits in this crazy car. A small tier-edged metal gizmo controlled by a bi-metal lever adjusts the petrol flow. As the engine warms up, the bimetal moves along the steps of the metal gizmo and thus decreases petrol flow until normal flow rate is resumed. No pulling of chokes and adjustment over time. Just one motivated step on the accelerator and you are good to go.

Lesson number five: the speedometer. The speedometer came with a mind of its own. It started off shivering and shaking its way up and down the scale like the finger of an old man suffering from Parkinson’s. But, with all the other lessons I had to learn about Ferdi this was one of my lesser concerns.

When the speedometer died altogether one day, this worried me only a bit and I resorted to eyeballing my speed instead. Luckily speed traps where rather rare in those days and usually oncoming traffic would flash their high beams warning you to slow down.

One morning on my way to school I heard a loud clanging sound of a metal bit being flung into the gutter at the roadside. Being pretty hardened at dealing with Ferdi’s constant complaints I chose to ignore this noise, just like a mother ignores her whining child at the supermarket till. As it turned out, this had not been a wise decision. After school I walked towards my car in the parking lot, I saw l long bit of metal sticking out of the right (or left?) front wheel hub. My brother and I gave it a rather puzzled inspection before it dawned on us: the clanging sound that morning must have had something to do with this. So, with the bit still sticking out of the hub, we drove back to where we had presumably lost some vital part of the car. My brother then scoured through the dry leaves littering the curb and found, amongst other things, what we had lost that morning: a dome-shaped metal hood that covers the wheel hub and allows for fastening the metal bit, which turned out to be the speedometer cable. And lo and behold: the speedometer worked like a dream once we had re-fitted the dome-thingy. At least for a while.


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