My First Car

What could you buy for $100 in 1974?

A slightly used, but not abused, 1959 VW Beetle, that’s what!
After graduation from Frankfurt American High School in 1974, I landed a job with the U.S. Recreation Services, and needed a car.

We lived in Bad Nauheim but I needed to travel to Butzbach, a few kilometers away for some training at the craft shop there, and I would need transportation to Kirch Gons, a small, remote base where my craft shop was located and where I would be working.

While I could have probably used public transportation, at least for the transportation while training at Butzbach, I already had my Kentucky driver’s license from when we were stationed at Ft. Knox, and I had been driving for about a year in Germany, so I didn’t have to wait until I was 18 to get a license, which was typical for military dependents and Germans living in Germany.

Beetle “bugs” everywhere
In the 1960s, VW marketing had helped to turn the inexpensive, oddly styled cars into a pop culture icon, especially as the anti establishment, hippy movement wanted something different to drive that said, “anti-establishment.”

In the 1970s there were plenty of very cheap cars for military personnel and families. In fact, there were cars that were passed from soldier to soldier and family to family. Since the cars were needed up until a day or so before leaving, the VWs were often sold very cheaply—selling for just enough to get a buyer in line to take it off their hands, so there was one less thing to worry about after leaving for the U.S.

The most popular and available cars were VW Beetles of course, and depending on year and mileage, you could pick up a reliable set of wheels for as $100 to $300, which would be about $300 to $900 in today’s dollars.

Freedom for $100
A neighbor family in the Bad Nauheim housing area was rotating back to the U.S. and they had a 1959 VW Beetle for sale. I must admit, it was love at first sight. It cost me all of $100 and I would have gladly paid more I am sure, but my Dad helped with the negotiations and after a minute of dickering, a deal was made.

The “Bug” as we referred to VW Beetles in those days, was a light putty color, with a cloth sunroof. It was typical for VWs to be “frill-less”, the only luxury feature on the car, besides the sunroof, was a vacuum tube radio which would run down your battery in a few minutes, unless the engine was running.

Luckily for me, my driver’s education class at Fort Knox High School had covered driving with a manual transmission, though I will admit I did get “stuck” on a steep hill one day at a stop light, until I figured out how to really rev the engine just the right amount then ease in the clutch, without rolling backwards. The German immediately behind me was riding on my bumper waving wildly at me, and made obscene gestures at me while shouting out his car window.

Finally, I got the car up the hill and averted World War III.

The broken backup
One interesting feature of my 1959 Bug was a “reserve” gas tank—well, sort of. There was a lever you turned under the dash on the transmission “hump”. If you were running low on gas and the car started to sputter, you could reach down and move the lever, unless you were shifting gears, of course, which gave you a couple more gallons of gas when turned.

Unfortunately for me, when I ran low on gas for the first time, I found that the lever actually rotated freely instead of turning a small valve that would let the reserve gas flow.

This was the first time I ran out of gas, but fortunately, it wasn’t very far to the nearest gas station. Soon after this incident, I bought a repair book for the VW and so began my “shade tree” career as an automobile mechanic.

My $100 VW Bug would never be the same again.

Most of the “hand me down” cars that circulated around in housing areas were used for basic transportation to and from a housing area to a nearby place of work. So even though the car might be old, they still had a good life left in them.

On the other hand, in those days the odometer only went to 99,999 kilometers, before rolling over to 00,001 to start on the next 100,000 kilometers of travel.

Sometimes you just did not know how many times a car’s odometer had, unless there were careful records kept of oil changes and servicing of the car. When you bought a car that had been in the “family” so to speak, you automatically added 100,000 or 200,000 to whatever the odometer showed.

Between my work in Kirch Gons, living in Bad Nauheim and a girlfriend in Hanau, in a matter of a few weeks the 15 year old car had nearly 10,000 more kilometers added to the odometer.

Transmission woes
One evening, ad I downshifted going through an intersection in a small town near Bad Nauheim, I heard a muffled crunching sound and my stick shift would no longer easily work, and I had no gears working. I did manage to get the transmission into neutral and off the main road.

The Bug ended up at the base auto craft shop in Butzbach. Some of the off-duty personnal who were working on their cars came to my resuce and felt sorry for my plight.

Several had experience workin on Beetle Bugs and they helped me in removing the engine from the Bug so I could get to the transmission. After loosening the main engine bolts and a few cables and wires going to the engine, four people lifted the rear end of the VW while I grabbed hold of the exhaust pipes and wiggled the engine free.

The engine fell a few inches onto a old tire which took the impact and prevented the engine from getting damaged, and I dragged the engine out from under the car, and my “helpers” lowered the car back down onto the jack stands.

I could see now why so many people loved the Bug. It was simple to use and simple to repair—or so I thought.

Free for the taking . . .
Given my lack of funds and the ample supply of abandoned cars that would end up in property disposal yards on most of the U.S. bases, I went transmission hunting with a friend of mine, Tom McGomery, who also lived in the Bad Nauheim housing area.

Cars that were not sold when someone shipped out, and were abandoned, were siezed, tagged and set aside. After several months of going through military channels to find the previous owner of the car, and getting a release signature, abandoned cars were then towed to the property disposal yard and typically rolled over a few times so they were not road worthy.

Why they were not just sold to the public is beyond me, but I was grateful to have a ready supply of spare parts at no cost to me, except for my time.

After an hour or so, we located a VW Bug that was a 1962 model year, and someone had already removed the engine, so we had an easy job of getting the transmission out. It was a lot heavier than I thought but we managed to haul it out of the yard and over to the trunk of my dad’s pride and joy, a 1967 Plymouth Coronet 440.

Hauling a transmission
My father’s pristine trunk would never be the same after hauling the transmission. Even though we didn’t damage the trunk in any way, it was the thought of having a greasy transmission in the trunk of his beloved car (without permission) that he had trouble dealing with. I did suffer the consequences of this inexcusable action, but that’s another story.

We unloaded the newly acquired transmission at the auto craft shop, struggled with it and tried to ease it into position where the old transmission had been from the day before. After struggling for several minutes I realized we had a big problem.

The replacement transmission was about an inch longer than the original transmission and it simply would not fit in the space under the car and properly align with the engine.

It turned out that VW went to a different transmission design starting in 1960, and all our work was for nothing, unless we wanted to get out a welding torch and modify the car. Which I considered, but since all cars underwent rigorous yearly inspections, I decided that would not be worthwhile.

I was dead tired, and had already spent a couple of days away from my new job without pay, crawling around under junked cars and working hard to fix my car. As much as I loved my 1959 VW Bug, I had to cut my losses and move on.

I was a bit sad as I signed away the title and knew the car would now become spare parts for someone else’s VW, but I looked forward to getting “new” wheels.

A “newer” VW Bug is located
Someone referred me to a used car salesman who had a small inventory of VW Beetles in a town near Bad Nauheim. In addition to some VW Bugs, he had a couple of Fords and a few Mercedes. But it was a dark blue 1965 VW Bug caught my eye, and the price was right—$175.

I was too naive to even try and negotiate the price down, and I needed a reliable car, and it was love at first sight all over again.

This 1965 Bug had less miles on it than the 1959 Bug and it actually lasted until I returned to the U.S. in 1975. My Dad kept the car until his tour was over a couple of years later.

I do regret not getting Dad to ship my VW back to the U.S., as he sold his Coronet 440 to someone in his unit and was entitled to ship a car back courtesy of Uncle Sam.

It would have been nice to have a little piece of Germany with some history with me, but it was not meant to be.

After I returning to the U.S., to Columbus, Georgia, I had some saved some money to buy my next used car, and a few days after my jet lag wore off, I was car hunting.

I was introduced to a Ford, specifically a 1965 Ford Falcon station wagaon, with 289 V8 engine, and a three speed transmission (three on tree as they say). It was medium brown color, with vinyl seats, no air conditioning but the window in the tailgate was electric, and it actually worked. All this could be mine for $400.

It was love at first sight—again.

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4 Comments
  1. What a universal story. Our first attempt at fixing a car seems to come with a hidden “gocha.” Mine was an engine that kept throwing rods. Dad pitched in and right away saw the the GI that sold it to me had put oil for B-52 engines in it. Something like 10 wt. Could never understand why replacing bearings did not good after several attempts. Years later came acroos an article on Chevy bearings. There are two for each rod. My car’s year had one with a hole in it. We did not know that so, invariably, a couple of bearings with holes were put in the place a bearing without a hole should be. This cut off oil circulation and that rod would go out next.

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  2. Great story! I can totally relate. I spray-painted mine green with a yellow racing stripe and a decal from a local strip club (yes, at 17, I had no shame – picture of said vehicle on my web page).

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  3. Michael, in our housing area in Bad Nauheim, there was a young Sergeant who had what I call the “love bug”. I guess it was a tribute to Woodstock in that it had big blowers and a giant peace symbol on the front; this was in 1973, so the Peter Max “look” was everywhere, and found it’s way onto a VW Beetle.

    I thought it might be fun to do the same with my old 1959 bug, but, at the time things were very positive at home and I didn’t want to rock the boat.

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  4. After my stint in the Navy, with 9 months at sea plus 4 months on land 13 kilos NE of DaNang at Monkey Mountain, a S. Vietnamese Air Force radar base, I went to college at BU, thanks to my Navy GED. My parents gave me a few grand to take my girlfriend to Europe for the summer after graduation, in 1970 (Kent State massacer year). I, too, bought a ’59 bug, slime green, with the same gas tank arrangement from a dealer in Bonn for $300. Packed all our camping gear on the roof racks and travelled throught Europe. I think we put 13,000 kilos on the car, and it ran so well that I ended up shipping her back to the US for $180, to Port Elizabeth, NJ. Car was loaded with crap, but despite the warnings, nothing in the car was touched. Took my green slime bug to Boston for college, then to VT for a few more years. Got really good at removing and repairing the engine and tranny. So beautifullly simple, stamping the German name “The Peoples’ Car” on this Hitler sponsered car. My love lasted several years, I think a bit longer than my 1st marriage. Can’t blame the VW for the divorce, though, as that was all on me! With studded snow tires, this baby would go almost anywhere on the back roads of Vermont. Never go stuck in snow until I bought a 4 wd truck (a ’59 Dodge that was the same design as the WWII ones).

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