A Mother’s Day story in a Volkswagen Beetle
Sometimes even a grown man needs his mom. Which is why, when I was looking for an opinion on a Volkswagen Beetle, I would always consult our resident VW expert - my mother.
Sometimes even a grown man needs his mom.
Which is why, when I was looking for an opinion on a Volkswagen Beetle, I would always consult our resident VW expert – my mother.
Actually, it was my father who started us down the Volkswagen road with our first Beetle in the late 1950s.
Like most early VW owners, his European origins made him more open to the weird size, weird styling and weird air-cooled, rear engine configuration.
In the old days, our church parking lot on Sunday mornings would look more like a VW dealership, filled with Beetles purchased by immigrants from Holland who, while not exactly harbouring postwar affection for anything German, were Dutch enough to never let a grudge get in the way of a good deal.
Our first Beetle was cheap and seemed an ideal choice for Dad’s sales calls. But Volkswagens were even more of a novelty in those days than they are now and potential clients would spend more time poking, prodding and asking about the VW than they would listening to sales pitches about insurance policies and premiums.
“I should be getting a commission from Volkswagen instead,” Dad would grumble, thereafter delegating the Beetle and its successors to my mother.
Mom loved her Beetles and went through about seven shades of them, although family accounts vary. They included a pasty olive green one, then a darker green version followed by a white one with the crank handle sunroof.
We loved sunroofs. While Ralph Nader was busy chasing Corvairs off the road during the safety revolution of the ’60s, we were blissfully “unsafe at any speed” in our Beetle, with Mom at the wheel on our fifteen mile-long cottage road, my brother and I kneeling or standing on top of the seat backs, our skinny bodies sticking out of the sunroof from the waist up.
With the wind in our faces, grit in our teeth and dust clouds billowing from the gravel road behind, every oncoming car was an imaginary enemy and we were the Rat Patrol, dashing through the desert.
A kaleidoscope of other-coloured Beetles followed, including a spectacularly bad blue-coloured lemon that produced a fatherly tirade at the dealership, resulting in an instant red replacement. That red rocket sported one of those disconcerting semi-automatic 3-speed transmissions that would pop into neutral whenever you rested your hand on the shift knob.
And, to bolster the VW’s anemic heating, it also had an auxiliary gas-powered heater that would occasionally catch fire, billow smoke and send everyone scrambling.
The final Beetle in the late ’70s was an orange Super Beetle. There might have been another green one in there somewhere but nobody is prepared to swear to it.
Of course, Volkswagen stories are common. Former Bug owners gloss over the VW love-hate relationships of the past. Myth overpowers memory. The sting of painful service charges diminishes. The cursing of cold fingers scraping ice from inside windows fades forgotten.
A New Beetle was introduced in the late ’90s and when the latest convertible versions debuted, I couldn’t wait to get my mother into a shiny orange 2004 model that I was testing.
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So I stopped by to pick Mom up on a picture perfect day for a drive.
It was also a pretty good day for Mom. My mother had been battling cancer and other ailments.
But that day was a respite between bouts of radiation and chemotherapy. She came to the door sporting a big smile, a sunny disposition and a brand new wig to cover her hair loss. Like any good son, I immediately threatened to pull the wig off her head.
Once Mom adjusted to the idea of sitting in the middle of a Golf IV platform instead of having her nose pressed to the windshield and confirmed that, yes, engine and driving wheels had indeed moved from back to front, she got the hang of the New Beetle fairly quickly, even though she hadn’t driven a manual model for years.
The big round speedo, strap handles on the “B” pillars and other hints from the past were cues to make any Beetle veteran feel instantly at home. The wimpy clutch and floppy shifter couldn’t be anything but Volkswagen.
We set out towards the Forks of the Credit, a picturesque road known for its winding dips, twists and turns that ran along the river. Eventually, she turned the wheel back over to me.
I started out conservatively enough with the roof and windows up but Mom secured a scarf around her new wig and we dropped the top.
With the roof rolled back, we set off again, feeling the breeze, flitting under flashes of sunlight that filtered through the shade trees above. The air was crisp with the leafy aroma of autumn. I looked over at Mom and she beamed back with a smile and then tilted her face up into the sun.
And I realized with a tinge of shame just how rare moments like these were – just mother and son, on our own, away from greater family gatherings.
We stopped at a general store in Belfountain, sat on the bench in the shade, ate ice cream cones and chatted with passers-by who would stop and ask about the car.
The Beetle is more than just a car. It’s a touchstone to the past, a fashion accessory and a lifestyle choice. It’s not just what you drive, it’s who you are. It is a shining piece of automotive whimsy in a car-crazy culture that takes itself far too seriously.
When we pulled over later to take a picture, Mom threw her arms up in the air and turned her face to the sun and sky again.
Within a few weeks that picture would become a comforting centrepiece, surrounded by cards and other photos posted on a bulletin board in her hospital room. Those were the final days that passed far too quickly, as have the ten years or so since.
It’s funny how places become tied to faces past. How a certain road, a certain song, even a certain car can become tied to a memory of one small, perfect day.
I’ve never booked a Beetle tester since that last ride together. I suppose I always thought the experience would be too achingly wrenching, that the passenger seat would be too poignantly empty.
But earlier this year, at the Toronto Auto Show, I found myself standing beside a new 2015 hardtop Beetle, resplendent in platinum and outfitted with particularly handsome, checker cloth and tan leather interior.
And I found myself leaning in for a closer look.
That last ride with Mom was about five hundred cars ago.
So, maybe it’s time to re-drive that road, re-drive a Beetle, and re-live a memory.
Even if it hurts.
Sometimes a grown man needs to miss his Mom.