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Thursday, July 19, 2012

1956 VOLKSWAGEN - My Very First Car

1956 VW Convertible Cabriolet


This was my very first car -- or should I say - one that looked like this one's evil twin.

In 1966 - I bought a 1956 green VW convertible from the Pollock family who lived in the last house on the right going up Lombard Street in Tamaqua PA. At the time - I was just about ready to graduate from THS - class of 66. 

The car in these pictures is a perfectly restored version of my car - by 1969 my car was sitting in a junk yard in West Penn Twp. 

Even then I was working deals - they wanted $150 for this old sled - but I got it for $100 when I slipped a large piece of cardboard under the engine - and it had oil drip marks on it in minutes. It was the opposite of Jed Clampett's "up through the ground came bubbling crude." It was more like "singing in the rain.".


At the time a starting teacher was making about $5000 - 4 years later I started as a teacher at $6500 - that is for the year - not a month. In 1969 - I bought a brand new VW for $1649. I was the proud owner of a payment book.

My VW was rusty - not just rusty - but  RUSTY. The floorboards were gone - I used to patch the floor with pop rivets and scrap aluminum my Dad brought home from the trailer factory. You could run along like Fred Flintstone because there was so much road you could see down between your feet. Sometimes my friends thought it was the very first urinal equipped car. 

The battery of a VW was under the back seat. One time when I was trying to impress the kids at the local hangout - when the light turned green - I floored it - and  popped the clutch of that 36 horsepower monster - only to have the battery fall out through the floor. I had to stop - reinstall the battery - and start her up again - to whimper away with my tail between my legs.

In those days - there were no such things as reclining seats - except in the Nash Rambler camper version. By drilling out two hinges - I was able to make the passenger seat recline. To keep the seats up you slid two bolts thru the holes I drilled. It was funny how sometimes the seat would flop back at the least expected time - like at the submarine races at the Bungalow pool. 

The car had a 36 HP 4 cylinder air cooled engine. The pretend heater was simply a flap you opened up to let air from around the engine come into the car. In a Tamaqua winter - I used to buy cases of cans of army surplus Sterno canned heat. I would light one can and put it on the back floor. During snowy nights at dances at Lakeside - all the cars were covered with snow except my little ragtop VW. Of course probably a lot of my future ailments were from carbon monoxide poisoning. 

The little beetle only lasted a year with me. The next summer I bought a 1961 blue Ford Falcon - but the little umlaut cluttered up my sister's backyard for two more years. After a farmer in West Penn bought it - it sat along Route 895 for 10 years - where my friends could drive by and laugh. I think even Lulu got a glimpse of it there. 

The top was rotted. At first I painted a Maltese Cross "surfer's cross" in the middle of the roof. Many local WWII vets would have flashbacks and come charging out of their homes with their M-1's when "Hitler's little campaign car" drove by. With my next 10 paychecks from Heisler's Dairy for delivering milk - I bought a brand new convertible top "kit" from Sears. With a ball peen hammer - tinsnips - and carpet tacks - I installed that black top. The top's cross members were wood and you tacked the fabric to the struts. It is amazing that top did not leak. The top used to have a little back window that fitted by friction - you could pop it out from inside. To my delight - I used to put a painted ironing board through that window pretending it was a surf board. Cars in those days has no tape player - no CD player - no iPads/ipods/itouchs. $20 bought you a little handheld record player that the shotgun rider used to hold. It became a talent to be able to keep the music playing while you zigzagged around town and through Devil's Hole.

Back to the car - the anemic 36 HP air-cooled engine - 4 speed shifter that you pushed down to get into reverse. You had to come to a complete stop to shift into first gear. Sometimes when you had a load of 4 people in it - you had to shift to second gear to ge over the Blue Mountain. There was no gas gauge - when you ran out of gas you flipped a lever on the floor and had one gallon left. The gas tank was in the front trunk. It had 15 inch wheels with skinny tires - the speedometer was hooked to the front left wheel. I installed a series of  6 toggle switches to run all the lights and ignition. It did not need a key that way. The switches were not labeled. I figured anyone dumb enough to want to steal this car - was too dumb to figure out the starting sequence. It was probably the first car with "digital binary ignition" - "up/up/down/up/up/down."

One hot summer August night - 6 of us piled into the VW for a long trip to Palmerton - 20 miles away. We ended up in New York City on 42nd Street at 3 AM - the 6 of us trying to get that old top up quickly for protection. We were all relieved when it finally made the top of the Blue Mountain and could almost coast into town.

That fall I went to Kutztown State Teachers College - about 40 miles from home. Freshmen weren't allowed to have cars at the time - but there were no parking meters downtown - and I am surprised no one ever reported me. Imagine having this derelict parked  in front of your house for 5 days in a row. One day I put the top down in Tamaqua - and loaded a sofa and chair - side table - lamps - foot stool - into that VW. When someone asked where I was going - I said I was moving to the big city - onward and upward.

In those days - Pennsylvania required two car inspections a year. It must have taken some really sweet talking to get this rust bucket to pass.

Today - a perfect version of this car goes for over $25,000. But no one will have as much fun with one as I had in that one marvelous year in my $100 people's car. 

Here is what my VW looked like to me in my mind -


1956 VW with top down. My version was this color - but all green - no tan sides. My first top was white and the "new" top was black leatherette vinyl. You put the top down by hand - and it was impossible to see out the rear view mirror.


36 PH air-cooled engine.  If you bought a dual carb kit - it went up to 40 horsepower! We all dreamed of a Judsen Supercharger that gave you 50 HP. The header - muffler and the dual exhausts were all one piece and expensive. I would patch mine with hose clamps and strips of old oil cans.


My interior was all ratty - so I took off all the door and kick panels - made new ones out of cardboard - and covered them wood grained vinyl contact paper. The little under the dash shelf was an expensive option I did not have.In the middle of the steering wheel was the exclusive Karmin Ghia logo.



2 comments:

George Dawson said...

My first new car was a 1960 VW with the same 36 HP engine. I was envious of the later 40 HP model came out as that was an 11% HP increase. At that time I would go to Indianapolis from time to time and the road was flat. I could hold 74 mph but your right foot and leg got tired from pressing the gas pedal hard to the floor for mile after mile.

Take a look at the carb sitting over the distributor. A neighbor would go out of cold morning to her bug pull the dashboard choke throttle out and let it idle real fast to warm the car up. It would run very rich. One morning I looked out and her nice bug was on fire.

William Gwynn said...

I had a 1969 that I bought in Wolfsberg, Germany for $1050 with sunroof and radio. It lasted 25 years until it rusted away from Omaha winters.

Bill Gwynn