It all started when Mom had baby number six. We needed to upgrade our car, so Dad went looking. Mom’s only request was “something practical.”
Dad being Dad, he pulled into our driveway beeping the toy horn of a bright-green Volkswagen Beetle.
Mom being Mom, she frowned but climbed right in. “I thought at least you’d get something with four doors,” she said.
From then on, we were a Bug kind of family. The doors closed with an air-compressing, ear-popping thwump, and off we floated in a cocoon-tight bubble to school, church, appointments, and the beach. Six kids would empty out curbside, like so many clowns from a circus car.
To us kids, our Bug symbolized happiness. So when my older sister Terry turned 16, she bought a used Bug the same age as herself. Two years after that, holding my freshly minted driver’s license, I eyed her car, by then bashed up and idle.
“How much?” I asked.
“Whatever you got,” she said.
After handing over the cash, I washed the car, polished its oxidized paint, push-started it, and took it for a spin. It didn’t take long to realize that almost nothing on it worked, other than (barely) the engine. Still, with one off-center headlight, brakes that had to be pumped, no brake lights, no blinkers, no sideview mirrors, and no horn, I drove it everywhere, from the Armstrong Redwoods in Northern California, east to the Sierra Nevada, up and down the coast, and all around San Francisco. I had many close calls, I admit. I still wonder how I didn’t get crushed while hydroplaning between two 18-wheelers going 70 mph, or how I survived iffy brakes in the mountains and avoided nighttime collisions with only one headlight.
Then one night a police officer pulled me over. I sank lower in my seat as he walked around the car, scrutinizing the bald tires, the absent mirrors, and the stubby gray wire where the horn had been. He heaved a paternal sigh as he looked in at me.
“I’d be doing you a favor by having this bucket of bolts towed to the dump,” he said. “But I’m going to give you a break, because I think you need it.”
He wrote me four “fix it” tickets and told me if he caught me driving my car again without all the needed repairs, he’d put me in jail for life.
I thanked him, realizing I wasn’t sorry to be ticketed. In a way, they were a substitute for the parental guidance I was sorely missing. I think he knew it, too.
Next morning, I went to the library and checked out a car manual. I learned that my vehicle had an air-cooled, four-cylinder, 40 horsepower, 1.2-liter engine. It had hydraulic brakes, worm-and-roller steering, and rear swing axle suspension. I studied the exploded diagrams, amazed by the obvious fact that literally everything could be replaced.
I (illegally) drove to a salvage yard. The guy behind the counter told me it was a “pick your own parts” kind of place and told me what to do.
Over the next few weeks, using borrowed tools, I put in a new master brake cylinder, replaced the bad headlight, and hammered the fender straightish. I rewired the brake lights, got the blinkers working, fixed the horn, and bolted on side mirrors.
Then, just because I could, I cleaned the carburetor, replaced the fuel filter, put in new plugs, changed the oil, and reset the timing. The car still looked undrivable, but the clerk at the police station signed off on it.
A while later, my car went missing. Some kids had slipped it out of gear, rolled it several blocks away, and dumped it into a creek. City workers towed it out, dropped it at my house, and handed me a bill.
I stood looking at the Bug’s crumpled hood, smashed windshield, and the mud dripping from the hydrolocked engine. Strangely, I didn’t feel sad. Nor was I even mad at those kids for wrecking my car. They were right: It was an ugly, oil-leaking, high-maintenance dinosaur. I had it towed to the same scrap yard I’d used for parts.
Now, decades later, my husband and I drive an electric car. But I’ve never forgotten that nameless officer who changed my life (and maybe saved it) by turning me into a responsible driver – and a mechanic.