The crush of VW

VWThe Volkswagen AG GTI was named the 2007 Car of the Year by Automobile Magazine today. This distinction does little for me – after all, Motor Trend’s Car of the Year award is much more prestigious, and that was given to the Toyota Camry (in fact, Volkswagen last won COY in 1985, for the GTI).

The real story here is a personal one – my love affair with the Volkswagen. It’s an unhealthy love, one that tormented me for six months in high school and drove us to purchase a car we couldn’t afford a few years ago. But it’s strong, all the same.

I grew up in the 1980s, when the Volkswagen Beetle was nothing more than a cute reminder of the 70s – a darling example of how weird that period of time could be. I was a collector of small cars, primarily Micro Machines brand vehicles, and above all I treasured my Volkswagen Beetles. After all, they were the most realistic. The closest to actual size.

So it was no surprise that my first vehicle – a car that I purchased with a loan from a family friend – was a 1969 Volkswagen Beetle. It was a dull gold color with one unpainted black front fender – a black eye, it seemed like – and a fair amount of nicks and scratches. It wasn’t the prettiest car, but it was a Volkswagen. More importantly, it was mine.

Over the next few months, I turned that car into my own. I put stickers all over the already-small back window, I cushioned my behind with a warm seat cover, and I excitedly placed my new first aid kit (complete with jumper cables!) in the backseat, right above the oddly located battery. I even equipped it with a tape player.

Yes, a tape player. I know, I know. This was the age of CD players. But something in me wanted to equip it with a more realistic, more historic option. So in went a tape deck – a new tape deck that was in no way realistic or historic. It was just a tape deck, one that played tapes at a slow crawl during the freezing winter and one that didn’t posses the benefits of song-skipping that a CD player would have.

Eventually, after six months of driving “Herkamafritz” (so named by our friend Mary), a wire came unplugged, thus negating the effectiveness of the automatic stick shift. This special shifting method was designed to give the illusion of driving a stick shift with the ease of an automatic transmission. You just let up on the gas and shifted. There was no clutch. Of course, when the wire was unplugged, it didn’t work. At all. So my car was stuck.

Two months later, we lifted up the floor mat and saw that a simple tape job could have fixed it. By this time, however, it was leaking oil – apparently from a broken head gasket or something expensive. It had broken down on me numerous times on me. The gas gauge didn’t work, so I’d have to remember to fill up every Friday. Once I didn’t, and my car sputtered to a stop at the top of a hill. It took everything I had to get it into someone’s driveway before rolling back down. Sometimes, it would die in the middle of the road. Sometimes, it would fail to start altogether.

It was not a good car. It was an out of shape VW. And it was maddening. But it was mine.

After the oil leak, however, I had no more time for it. The car was left behind as I went to college, and eventually it was completely forgotten about.

Six years later, Kerrie and I moved back to Sioux Falls. We were in need of a second car and, as any logical person would, we sought out a used Toyota or Honda. We passed on a first generation Toyota Prius. We passed on a used Honda with low miles and a great price. We passed on everything logical, actually, and went straight into improbable.

Why we decided on a new $18,000 car – especially when one of us was fighing to string together a teaching career – is simple: it was a Volkswagen Jetta, and we both fell in love. The salesman fleeced us with its German precision, its solidly closing trunk, its total Volkswagen-ness. We were slaves to the design – to everything, really. I fell in love with Graham Automotive that day, with its old-school Volkswagen Beetle advertisements and its clean garage. I fell in love not with the car we were buying, but with the image we were getting with it.

I still love our Jetta. Kerrie has since moved on and drives the object of her longtime vehicle crush – a Subaru Outback. I have great respect for everything Volkswagen has done in the way of marketing and advertising, enough that I purchased and framed a series of old VW ads for our office and computer room. I’d buy another VW, and another, and another, if it wasn’t for the fact that buying a car is a two-person decision and the other person doesn’t have a fog of nostalgia and tradition fogging her mind.

So I felt a twinge of excitement for the announcement of the Volkswagen GTI’s award. I felt like a distant relative had just won a prestigious grant, or that a co-worker just won $500 in the lottery. Nothing more than that. Just a slight ray of cheer during my shower. After all, I’m not financially tied to VW or anything.

I’m just emotionally attached. And the way things are shaping up, I don’t think I’ll ever be breaking the crush.

This was lovingly handwritten on December 27th, 2006