Second Time Around

Mike Johnson

I am pleased to report that your Club Secretary has taken a small step towards credibility by once more becoming the owner of a Historic Volkswagen. To my shame it is over 6 years since I owned such a vehicle and 14 years since I have driven a beetle on a regular basis. Other demands on my time and finances have meant that only now can I entertain such an enterprise once more. About 3 years ago I had a brief encounter with a certain 1949 beetle but since I later discovered that redundancy and early retirement were almost inevitable we had to quickly part company.

Since the New Year I had been pondering over what beetle to buy, anything from 1952 to about 1970 was to be considered. I already have a daily driver and also an early water-cooled Volkswagen, which I have lovingly restored over the past six years, so having yet another car to drive on a regular basis seemed rather pointless. In the end the choice came down to either a 1500 or another split rear window. It was a split that got the final vote.

There were several cars for sale at that time but most were concours vehicles and would not cure my craving to have a car to work on. I did not fancy doing a last nut and bolt restoration on another rotten wreck, which would have taken years and a fortune to complete, so my choice was becoming limited. Many of you may already know my views on originality in that safety and to some extent practicality must come first on today's roads. This meant that notions of cable brakes and a crash gearbox would not be entertained. Also to get in and out of my garage, which is at the back of my house, I have to negotiate a very narrow driveway. At one point this is less than seven feet wide and there is a badly placed drainpipe which just loves exterior mirrors. This meant left hand drive was not an option, especially since I have never driven such a vehicle and had no intention of learning in a car upon which I wanted to restore.

After all these restrictions in choice it looked as if there was only one split rear window beetle in the entire world that would suite my needs. This was of course the 1952 split 409 VAL which I first owned in 1984, took 8 years to restore and in a fit of madness sold and regretted doing so ever afterwards. I had converted this car to twelve volt electrics for better starting and lights and fitted radial tyres on 15 wheels for better road holding. The original floor pan had been so rotten it had to be scrapped, so I had sat "VAL", as she was named, on the chassis of a 1954 oval, which gave her right hand drive and hydraulic brakes.

I had sold the car in March 1996 to another club member, in fact the same individual I had bought the car off some 12 years earlier. He had kept her just over a year and then sold her to a student from Yorkshire. For the next 18 months the car had to endure a very hard life as a daily driver and apparently without even the luxury of a garage. At some time the engine overheated and pickled the paintwork on the rear panel, which was left, and the metalwork allowed to rust. When I saw the car at Stanford Hall in 1997 it looked terrible: stone chipped, patches of rust and dents on the bodywork, rusty wheels and bumpers and one of the tyres I had fitted was almost bald. I had tears in my eyes for a time and wondered "what have I done". Sadly if you restore a car, and sell it on, it seems you must be prepared to face such an eventuality. I know some would dismiss my reaction as sentimental nonsense and say it is only a car and not your problem any more, but having lavished 12 years of tender care on the car and to see it in such a sorry state was heartbreaking.

Fortunately things were to take a turn for the better as in 1998 the car was bought by club member Tanya Wray and her husband Dave who have treated the old girl far more sympathetically. I was delighted to see her make the long treck to Camberg in 1999. She took part in the "Return to the Fatherland" trip arranged by the Americans and I have seen photographs of her at Wolfsburg and other famous VW landmarks. Although the car was far from immaculate, she was admired by the Americans as, whereas their vehicles were all in better than original condition, VAL looked like a 50 year old beetle. The irony of this situation is that I would never have dared take the car all that way myself but without my efforts over all those long years the car could never have made the epic journey.

I hadn't seen the car since Camberg so I wondered what had happened to her. I knew that that she had had a change in registration number to FSL 160 and since Tanya and Dave were devoted owners, the prospect of them selling the car seemed rather remote. After much agonising I decided to ask them, not with a sudden telephone call but in a carefully worded letter to give them more time to consider the matter. The letter was only a few paragraphs but it took over a week to perfect. I knew that if I got it wrong my one and only chance might be blown. Having at last summoned up the courage to post the letter I spent a few days waiting and then one evening the expected phone call came. To my joy Tanya was prepared to sell the car. She and Dave were restoring an old farmhouse, which was proving to be a bottomless pit where money was concerned and my enquiry could not have been better timed. The only other alternative for them was to moth-ball the car for several years until they could afford to have it restored. They were happy to sell it to me knowing it would be going to the best possible home.

The following Sunday found me engaging warp drive and making the 150 miles trip up the A1 to Yorkshire to see the car. Tanya and Dave's directions were impeccable and after just 2 and a half hours I was at my destination. Their farmhouse is fantastic and the facilities they have in the yard were those some VW enthusiasts would kill for. They have two double garages and what looked like an old milking parlour or stable block which gave covered accommodation for a further 4 vehicles. VAL shared a garage with their immaculate Porsche Speedster replica and there was an early split screen van in the milking parlour under restoration. Having not seen the car for several years I held my breath as the garage door was opened. Thankfully I was pleasantly surprised.

When VAL left me in 1996 there wasn't a single stone chip or rust spot on her but I already knew this was no longer the case. The years had taken the toll of her paintwork but the interior, despite being a bit grubby was fine. Since I last owned her, the car had done over 50,000 km, so how about that for an extended road test! Underneath, the chassis was almost as good as the day I finished it. After it had been painted, a whole five-litre can of Waxoyl had been sprayed on the underside of the floor pan and had kept the stones, grit and damp at bay. Similarly the underside of the wings had received a thin coating of bitumen underseal and a deluge of Waxoyl and were also rust free. In contrast the painted and therefore vulnerable edges and top sides of the wings were stone chipped and with the inevitable rust spots. During the original restoration process the car had undergone a tremendous amount of welding which can stimulate more rust. If great care is not taken a so-called restoration will need to be repeated in a few years as the rust returns, but not apparently in this case.

After a short discussion a price was agreed. I asked Tanya if she really wanted to sell the car and she was adament the answer was "no" but under current circumstances she had no alternative. She didn't want the poor car to spend any more years entombed in a garage so the deal was struck.

I must admit on my way home I had a smile on my face, and tear in my eye again, but reality was beginning to dawn on me. How was I going to get the vehicle home! It was a non-runner due to leaking rear hub oil seals and the MOT had expired well over a year earlier. I didn't know anyone who had a car with a suitable trailer so it looked like I would have to enlist some professional help. There were only really two options, either I would have to hire a transporter and move the car myself, or pay someone to do it for me.

Many years ago I had gone down the first route and knew that it is not as simple as it seems. Some of the vehicles for hire have a hand operated winch so you really need help from a second person. Also the conditions of hire and the distance involved would have meant that I might have to pay for two days hire. I wasn't prepared to pay someone the proverbial back hander to move the car using the "works vehicle" or some similar scenario as that can cause complications with insurance.

In Practical Classics Magazine there are several adverts for organisations who move classic cars as a business. I found a chap called John Blythe who is based in Boston, Lincolnshire, which was roughly about half way between my home in Cambridge and the car in Yorkshire, so I gave him a call. Having explained the situation to him, he said he could do the job within the next 3 to 4 days and needed to work out the mileage to give me a quote. As it turned out, the journey was 330 miles which translated into 165, which I thought was very reasonable. It would cost him at least 40 in fuel alone plus about 6 to 7 hour of his time so the offer was accepted. He had a nice Mercedes transporter complete with an electric winch and the all-important 500,000 all risks insurance policy as back up. I just had to pay the money and not put up with any hassle.

A few days later and within 2 minutes of the anticipated time of arrival, VAL was sitting safe and sound outside my house on the transporter. Mr Blythe is a retired garage owner who moves classic cars as a hobby, hence the excellent value for money and friendly service. The following day he was driving to Manchester to pick up a Jaguar XK150 and was to follow the owner who was driving an Aston Martin down to Oxford to have the car serviced. They would then take the Jaguar on to its destination and he was to then to take the owner back home. From his base in Lincolnshire he has travelled to destinations as far as Elgin in Scotland and Lands End. With the longer journeys he sleeps overnight in the cab of the transporter so that the car is effectively never out of his sight. If anyone needs to use his services I can thoroughly recommend him.

So after 6 years VAL is once more back in my garage awaiting more tender loving care. Tanya had hoped I could get her back on the road for her 50th birthday in August but I think that is a bit unrealistic. I soon got the car running again with bit of timely help from John Maxwell. After struggling for over a day, during which I stripped and cleaned the carburettor and fuel pump, he just sat in the driver's seat and pressed the starter button and the old girl promptly burst into song. I suppose I was fortunate to witness a kind of miracle. The upholstery has been cleaned and now only needs a little more attention. Some of the carpeting will have to be replaced as it is badly stained and the headlining has come loose in one corner but can easily be rectified. Over the coming months I shall systematically fix her ailments and eradicate any rust that I may find. The task ahead will be a "picnic" compared to the original restoration. I hope to report on my progress as time goes by. It is great to be back!

The passage of time, together with the damp and grime, has meant that the interior of VAL once more smells like an old car. This is not an unpleasant smell and was lost during the original restoration process. Alas, like the proverbial "new car smell", it is not yet something you can buy in an aerosol can!