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Saturday, May 30, 2015

Classic Car Stories - Uncle Jim's Volkswagen Beetle

1960’s Beetle
Snow Machine Extraordinaire

In a previous post I wrote about my uncle taking me on my first road trip and the effect he had on some of the decisions I've made in my life.

That got me thinking about another time after I got my driver’s license when he let me drive his mid-to-late 60’s Volkswagen beetle.

Uncle Jim joined the US Marines and after he got out of the service about 1960 or '61 bought himself a Corvette convertible, driving that for a while before meeting a girl, getting married and having a kid. With a baby on the way, he had to sell the car and ended up buying a Hudson. What a letdown for me when he drove up to our house in that thing!

Uncle Jim didn't spend money foolishly after that and was always looking for ways to save a buck. They bought a house about 30 miles west of Milwaukee in Neshota to settle down and raise their family. I remember dad driving us out there for family visits and it seemed to take forever to get there. Jim had to commute to Milwaukee to work every day and started looking for ways to cut his expenses.

One day, he came driving up to our house in a Volkswagen Beetle that he bought in the 1960’s. I don’t remember if it was new or used but he raved to my dad about how inexpensive it was and how much gas he saved by driving it. We had a couple of ‘57 Chryslers with 392 cubic inch Hemi engines that got about 10 miles per gallon. He ended up buying another Beetle and had two of them at one point. Unfortunately, he had some major problems with at least one of the cars and had to have a motor rebuild or replacement.

I must have been about 17 years old, the car was in a repair shop in Milwaukee and scheduled to be ready for pickup on a Friday that Uncle Jim and his wife were going to be out of town. It was winter, December I think, and he asked me if I would pick up the car for him and keep it over the weekend and I said “sure”. He needed to have the car for work on Monday morning and the shop would be closed when they got home Sunday. He told me I could go ahead and use the car if I wanted, and I did!

Front Engine, Rear Drive
After getting my driver’s license at 16, I kind of inherited the family car, a 1957 Chrysler New Yorker that had a Hemi engine. This was after my dad bought another ‘57 Chrysler (Imperial) with the same engine. Up to that point all the cars that I had ever driven were front engine, rear wheel drive. I was used to handling these cars in snow. As my brother wrote in one of my previous posts: "The reason is that it was mom who took Dan and me to the Arlens shopping center parking lot at night so many times to practice driving, including sliding around on snow, at age 14 and 15. Front wheel drive cars were very rare at that time.

Rear Engine, Rear Drive
That Beetle was the first car I had ever driven with the engine in back of the car. Well it just so happened that on the following day, Saturday, it began to snow and it kept snowing through the afternoon and evening piling up quite a few inches on the streets. I drove the car someplace that evening and couldn't believe how that thing handled in the snow. With the weight of the engine over the back wheels, and the overall light weight of the vehicle, traction was unbelievable and I felt I could drive through anything. I had a blast driving that thing all over town, it must have been several hours! I actually had to stop and put more gas in it. It had a manual 4 speed tranny and to me, seemed as much fun as driving a go-cart around on a slippery track. The one bad thing I remember is that the windshield defroster was practically useless in that kind of weather. Those cars were notorious for having a crappy heater/defroster system. I had to take a big rag with me, constantly having to wipe the inside of the windshield so I could see. I actually went back home to get that rag so I could go out for more fun! I also remember the wipers not working very well in the snow, having to stop frequently to clean the ice buildup off of them.

I’m not sure that Uncle Jim would have approved of my antics that night, but I had so much fun with that little car! I wasn't abusing it and didn't crash it, so that was the important thing.

Thanks for the ride Uncle Jim!

Link More Classic Car stories.


  1. Our first "new" car was a '69 VW Bug. We drove it for 12 yrs in WI, MO, IA and back in Wi, only selling when we moved to CA because it couldn't meet pollution standards here. I spent 12 winters scraping the windshield (both inside and outside)! Our son fell asleep in the "wayback", warm and cozy, near the engine. Today they'd probably get me for child abuse or inadequate mothering!😃

    1. LOL, Thanks for the comment Ruth!