One thing you find out fast while driving a vintage Volkswagen Beetle is that everyone over a certain age has a Volkswagen Beetle story.
I had the nicely restored 1964 Beetle you see here—property of Volkswagen and part of its fleet of classic cars—in my possession for just a few days. (It was named Max IV, a reference to the star of a goofy VW ad campaign.) And during this too-short time in the Bug, I learned a surprising amount about the automotive history of neighbors, family and total strangers. All of this knowledge came to me unsolicited—something about these cars makes it impossible for people not to share their experiences.
My mom told me about how, back in college, she was part of a group of eight (or was it 11?) girls that somehow packed into a friend’s Beetle; she wasn’t alone in this peculiar pastime. I learned that my father-in-law drove one for a time after arriving in America from Italy. While parked at a drive-in, a woman rolled down her window to tell me about how she bought one in ’67, when she was pregnant; her then-husband had to trade in his Bonneville convertible to get it. She still seemed sad about the loss of the Pontiac, but I couldn’t help but notice how happy she was to see the Bug.
I loathe the phrase “smiles per gallon,” but damn it, this thing gets more of them than just about anything else I’ve ever driven. Including a good number from me, the driver.
With over 21.5 million produced globally between 1938 and 2003, a vintage Beetle is hardly a rarity. But they aren’t exactly daily sights, especially here in the Midwest, and especially in this sort of high-luster historically correct restored state. They were once ubiquitous, though, or something close to it—a pervasive part of the American transportation landscape, the automotive equivalent of blue jeans. If you didn’t own one, you knew somebody who did.
It’s only when you take a step back from all this, or observe it from the vantage point of someone like me, who came of age after the Bug had made its transition to collector car, that you realize how profoundly weird and unlikely the Beetle’s American success story is.