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

Lesson number six: Windscreen wipers. Summers in Johannesburg are known for their regular afternoon thunderstorms. Whilst the mornings are blue skied and sunny, and middays are swelteringly hot, a black horizon of impending Armageddon develops in the early afternoons. And then all hell breaks loose. A dark and foreboding rumbling of thunder kicks off the show. Flashes of lightning illuminate the landscape in shaggy stroboscopic shards of light. Huge raindrops slam onto the dusty dry red turf and spray high on the tarred roads. Amidst this inferno, windscreen wipers on high setting allow for medium visibility whilst driving; unless they relieve themselves of their duties and fly off into the veld, as did Ferdi’s one afternoon whilst I was on my way to hang with my best friend. Luckily it was the left wiper, so that my vision was only half impaired.

Lesson number seven: car paint. The weekend following our purchase of Ferdi my brother and I set about to spring clean him. This involved stripping the seats and everything else that was moveable from the inside. We spent the entire day trying to restore his former glory, which we had never seen, but hoped he had once had.

Part of this was also a futile effort to remove the cellulite and cracks in his paint. And since my father took great pleasure in seeing his kids work, he gave us each a bottle of car polish, a big bag of cotton wool and told us to use elbow grease. This caused my brother and me to each develop a Tennis Arm and the cracks and dents to be shiny.

During this spring-cleaning project we also noticed that poor Ferdi had severe rust damage in the right hand driver’s door. All car restoration professionals, please forward to the following paragraph, what I am about to describe is not for your eyes. I admit, that our attempt to repair the rust damage was rather amateurish. I would however like to bring forward our complete and utter lack of sufficient funds (and tools and experience) as mitigating circumstances.

We doused the rusty bits in hydrochloric acid (which came in rather useful one day, when we presumed a burglar in our house) and then “fixed” the holes with fibreglass. We applied tons of body filler, found spray-paint similar to Ferdi’s manic peacock blue and used that on the repaired bits. We never managed to get rid of the cracks and dents though.

Lesson number eight: Bumpers. Amongst the many parts missing, Ferdi was also lacking his rear bumper. Or was it the front one? Anyway, we decided that he needed a new bumper and again resorted to our favourite scrap yard. A bit of searching and digging later, we found what we had been looking for. Only once we got home we saw, that the bumper we had chosen did not match the one bumper still attached to Ferdi. But, since beggars can’t be choosers we swallowed our pride and set about attaching the “new” one. This proved to be one of the most nerve wracking and tedious tasks ever.

A Beetle’s bumper is attached by four “horns”: U-shaped metal connectors, which are attached to each other, the body and the bumper by a gazillion bolts. It took us all afternoon and the early evening until we could finally wipe our sweaty brows with our dirty and broken fingers and proudly assess our work. And if we chose the correct angle we did not even notice that the two bumpers did not match.

One fateful morning, a few months later I must have still been half asleep whilst reversing out of our drive and into the gridded gate. The round end of the rear bumper got caught in the gate and I was stuck. We ended up freeing Ferdi by removing the gate. None of us had forgotten the tedious task of attaching the bumper. And daddy was not happy at all.

Lesson number nine: stealth mode. Curfew: every teenager’s nightmare. This is why it is important to creep into the house as quietly as possible, not to waken worried mothers (who still hear you and can’t sleep, as I was later told). One thing a VW Beetle is not: quiet. The air-cooled boxer engine rumples and gnarls to life waking an entire neighbourhood. This is not what I wanted, when I got home in the middle of the night, way past my curfew. In an effort to avoid detection I devised a seemingly ingenious plan.

Since our street had a slight downward slope, I would drive to where our street began, cut the engine and let roll until I had reached our driveway. Then I would quietly open the gate and push Ferdi inside. In theory this sounded fool-proof. In reality the first bit worked rather well, sadly though the part which involved me pushing Ferdi proved a slight miscalculation on my part: I weighed approx. 50 kg, Ferdi approx. 1 ton. It was David versus Goliath. Hopeless. And since I did not have a slingshot (to extend the above metaphor) I was forced to give up and leave him outside for the night.

Lesson number ten: cat food: We had a cat. Sometimes he wanted to be fed. Actually he wanted to be fed quite a lot, when I think of it. And since I often went grocery shopping I also bought his cat food. He especially loved the fish flavoured kind. Anyway, one day Ferdi started to develop a weird smell. Ever so slightly. Growing more intense as time went by. The smell reminded me very much of the cat’s fish flavoured cat food. Wondering where it came from I searched every nook and cranny inside Ferdi for a forgotten portion of fish flavoured cat food. He was as clean as can be. And yet, the fishy smell was there. Permanently. Puzzlingly permanently.

One morning, just outside the Johannesburg Zoo the engine cut out and would not restart. Luckily I was driving down a slight hill, which gave me enough momentum to roll my lifeless car into an adjacent parking lot before coming to a standstill. Here I was, stuck in the middle of one of Johannesburg’s poshest areas where properties are the size of small farms and houses have pillars and double doors and hide behind old and dark trees.

Since in those days mobile phones where a dream of the future and public phones were rare and vandalized I needed to find a kind Samaritan who would let me use their phone. Timidly I approached one of the massive mansions and rang the bell. A Zulu maid dressed in a light blue uniform dress with a starched white apron opened the huge old door, led me into the vestibule and went off in search of “the master”. My eyes wandered around this impressive entrée and I manage to sneak a peek into the rooms next door. Judging by the number of empty bottles lying around “the master” must have had quite a party the night before.

He appeared at the top of the old wooden staircase leading to the ground floor. Rather skinny, hung-over and wrapped in a blue towelling bathrobe he heard my cry for help and allowed me use his phone. He even sat with me, miserably slurping a cup of coffee the maid hat brought him while I waited for the AA who discovered that some fuses had been melting (that was what had been causing the smell) and “repaired” them with some foil from the inside of a Peter Stuyvesant box.

Lesson number eleven: crumple(d) zones: by the end of the year we had repaired what needed to be repaired, bought, borrowed, or stolen all parts missing. Our Beetle had taken us to school every morning and made me the object of all car related jokes and subject to constant ridicule at a private school where it was more common to drive a Merc or a Beemer. I had grown thanks to the constant teasing and bickering and was ready to spread my wings and explore the world. Europe. Germany to be more exact. I would enrol at university and study there. I had only a few months to bridge between completing my A-Levels and moving to a foreign country.

Somehow Ferdi seemed to notice this and seemingly did not agree with my impending departure. He decided to get sick. Very sick. Expensively sick. Once again we needed to rely on Felix to help cure his ailments, this time it was a broken gasket, a very expensive broken gasket (now I know why Felix liked me so much).

My father paid Felix, I reversed Ferdi out of the workshop (oily fingers, blue overalls and titty calendars included) onto the road and we drove off. A few intersections down I had to cross a street with impaired visibility, inched forward slowly, but still did not see the motorcyclist whose path I then violently crossed. He crashed into Ferdi’s passenger side and lay still on the road. I was shocked, young, inexperienced. Luckily the motorcyclist was not badly harmed. And even more luckily my dad, who was right behind me was there to help.

At home I still had to face my brother with a slightly crashed car. Thankfully he was more worried about me and the motorcyclist than the damage. And this is how I left Ferdi: a peacock blue Beetle with a brand new gasket and a dented passenger door.

My brother later spent many hours repairing the damage but I was no longer there to help.

1 additional image. Click to enlarge.

3 responses to Lessons I learnt from my first car: Ferdi the VW Beetle (Part II)

  1. I enjoyed reading that…thanks. Reminded me of many ‘Old Mini stories’ from the 70’s..

  2. And reminds me on my roadtrip in 1989 – the garden route – the plan was to borrow the beetle from my friend who worked for „mondi“ (a fashion company).
    But she ruined the beetle brakes on thr capetown hills. Instead of using the engine to slow the bug down, she used the brakes all the way downhill. All brakes were down, probably overheated an no money for repair.
    So instead of repair she bought a second car. A daihatsu charade with 3 zylinders.
    This car I could borrow for my roadtrip from her. Also the daihatsu was in bad shape. The engine was tired and the rear body was crushed because of an earlier accident. Still…I bought some bondo, tools and sandpaper and did repair the dented car on evenings at camping sites. To reform the crushed metal I used stones different sizes as hammer.
    After my garden route roadtrip my friend got her car back in decent formal

    Still – 30 years later – we are solid friends. Last year I bought a car for her because
    the smell of her own ratty car was unbearable. Now she is happy again – her „new“ car has aircon, station wagon style and a trailer hook. We christianzied her car „Tante Bora“ because its a volkswagen product from 2001.


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