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My History With VW Beetles!

Good morning, friends and fans!

You’ve often heard me mentioning Dolly, my 1962 Volkswagen Beetle, so I thought it was finally time to give her and my own journey with Beetles a proper referenceable introduction here!

For many years, I have loved the VW Bug. In fact you might say that I ‘caught the bug’ when I was 12 years old! In 1985, I visited an aunt in East London who had a cream/beige 1962 Beetle, and while being driven around on holiday, I fell in love with the Beetle! Having come from a carless home where we walked or took busses for transport, or relied on lifts from wealthy family members, that beetle represented freedom, independence and endless possibilities! Dolly was my ‘Bug Zero’, the Beetle that started it all for me! Many years later, some 30 years later, this family heirloom finally came to me, and today I preserve this beautiful car as best I can!

Dolly however wasn’t my first introduction to Beetles! I suppose as many people’s families do, my family also had a couple of Beetles in its history! I’ve also had a few myself – and I’ll tell you about them in this article!

My father (Theo Engela) had an old Beetle for just a few weeks in 1980 before taking it back on a misunderstanding. Although brilliant in many things, he was about as mechanically minded as a wet sock, and had no idea that the knocking sound made by a slightly loose front brake drum was not actually coming from the car’s gearbox! He took it back worried that it was going to break down on him, and never had another car after that! My dad had learned to drive on his father’s Model ‘T’ Ford and had had a variety of bikes and cars in his life – mostly typical South African types of the time – including a 1940’s Harley Davidson, a 1959 Morris, a 1970’s Valiant, and after I was born, a 1600 Ford Cortina station-wagon. The bug was his last car though, and being just 8 at the time, all I can remember about it is the army green color and that it had no seat belts! I’m still unsure what model it was, but it was likely something between a 1959 and 1964. My mother only got her driving license in 1988, and bought her first car a year later and that wasn’t a Beetle – but she did learn to drive on a 1968 bug at first, through Frank’s Driving School, and even drove me to school with it during her driving lessons!

One of my mother’s (Yvonne’s) wealthy sisters who lived in Johannesburg used to get a new car every few years, and mostly it was a brand new Beetle! Her husband was a WW2 veteran and funnily enough, a very successful life insurance salesman after the war. Typically these cars were driven by my aunt for three or four years before my uncle sold them off to relatives. My mother’s younger brother bought at least two from him over the years. In the next picture you can see one of them standing outside their home in Pretoria sometime in the late 1950’s.

My Ouma, an aunt, and a cousin with a 1950’s Oval Window Beetle.

Sometime later, my mother’s elder brother also visited that same uncle while on holiday in Johannesburg in 1965. While there, their other car (a Buick) broke down, and the cost of repair was rather high. My other uncle talked him into selling it instead and buying my aunt’s 1962 beetle (which worked out much cheaper) and so they bought Dolly instead and drove her back to East London.

Dolly became my aunt’s little runabout, her ride to work and around town, taking my cousins to school and so on, sleeping in a big garage beside a succession of my uncle’s cars, from an old green Mercedes to a 1987 Honda Ballade – until they finally retired and moved to Port Elizabeth  in 1990. My aunt actually drove little Dolly all the way from East London to Port Elizabeth, loaded with two dogs who kept fighting – and she actually managed to get a speeding fine on the way! The first time I got a chance to take pictures of Dolly was at a family gathering in 1998, and as far as I can tell, there are no other family photos containing Dolly, which is rather disappointing to be honest, from a historical point of view!

Dolly in Port Elizabeth, 1998, front and rear, still carrying East London plates.

That was Dolly’s background with the family… but as for me, naturally, when it was time for me to look for my first car at about 1992, I wanted a Beetle! As a young person who had just left high school and started to earn meager amounts of money in the army, I had to look for something in my price range – which wasn’t much. Pickings were slim, and after one or two fiascos involving a rust-bucket Renault 5 and a complete mess of a 1980 Golf that the seller TOWED to my front door (which should’ve been a clue), my first car – one that actually ran – was a bright red 1972 1500cc Beetle I bought for R2000 in 1993. I called her ‘Red’.

‘Red’, my first Beetle, 1993.

I recall I took Red to the roadworthy center 9 times personally – but it just wouldn’t pass! They seemed to nit-pick about everything from the doors sagging a couple of millimeters on opening, to the state of the seat covers! Having done everything I could (at that stage) and just shy of giving up, I took it to a nearby garage (D.C.G. Motors) and asked them to handle the roadworthy issues for me. They did – and a week later, they told me it had taken them another 8 attempts – and loads of swearing before it finally passed!

That car was in pretty rough shape – even after that. I later discovered the body had been made up of three sections of different Beetles welded together – and the motor was so shot I used R30 petrol PER DAY – a whole tank – just to get to work and back in a single trip! To put that into perspective, today in South African play money, it costs around R450 to fill a bug tank! I wasn’t wealthy and had just started working, and was getting around R1500 per month and had responsibilities and bills to pay.

Lucky for me, my long-suffering mother helped me out and loaned me some money to do a motor rebuild, again with the helpful guys from D.C.G. Motors (they’re long-gone now, so no – I’m not advertising for them!) After that, the Red bug finally became more or less reliable. This poor little car was in very sorry shape, but I kept her running as long as I could. Aside from the engine rebuild, the body was probably in the worst shape I have seen! So was the floor pan, which had holes all over the place! Most of the outside painted surface was painted body filler that covered very badly rusted metal. In fact, it was so far gone that in some places, that there was NO actual metal! Surprisingly, Red still managed to look pretty good, and I still had a lot of happy times with that little car.

In 1993 Mom built a garage as an extension to the house to keep her Golf in – which I periodically hijacked to use as a workshop! I eventually broke this body up in 1995 (after running out of metal to actually weld the door hinges to). I remember having filled up three shopping bags just of rust flakes, dust and powder that came from the inside of it! I threw away massive chunks of body filler – some almost as large as bricks! I kept the rolling chassis, engine and running gear stowed in the back of a friendly neighbor’s driveway while I looked for another body to put on top and then worked on it in the garage. I found one quite quickly, and with surprising ease, I rapidly became immersed in the waters of VW obsession and devoured as many books about VW restoration and customization as I could, wishing I had the budget for things like MIG welders and the like!

In the meantime though, in 1995 I bought a 1966 1300cc Beetle from a colleague of my mothers’ for R6000. It was a sweet, original little car.

Then one day while looking for Beetle spare parts, by complete chance I found a guy who had a 1957 bug shell lying on his smallholding just outside of town. He had been an assembly line worker at VW since the 1950’s and had just recently retired and was very knowledgeable about VW’s. The car had been parked there about 18 years previously, the owner was an old lady who died while waiting for funds to have it restored, and the car somehow just ended up never being collected. According to this chap, the bug was eventually deregistered and over the years, was stripped of most of its parts, and had been slowly decaying. The only bits left were bits he hadn’t got around to taking off yet – or which weren’t really worth the trouble in his opinion.

According to him, all the local “experts” and “bug doctors” had been around to see it before, considered buying it for a restoration project, did the sums, and then quietly walked away never to return.

‘You can take it for free if you just get it off my land’ he told me – and that’s how I got a genuine 1957 Oval Window bug body with front bonnet and right door still attached! I remember the little cardboard cubbyhole box and door was still in place – with a wasps nest inside!

That was such a coup for me! I mean, even though I really wanted a Split Window bug, I got an Oval instead – and taking into consideration that I never really expected to find anything other than rusty old 1970’s bugs, baja’s and pieces lying around, I really hit the jackpot! I towed the Oval back to PE myself – with the ’66 – and that was such an adventure in its own right! I also became known among local Beetle owners, and at one stage, people used to drop their cars off for me to adjust or service the engines for them!

Left to right: A friend’s ‘74, my ‘66 gray Beetle, a late ‘70’s bug I was servicing, the ’57 Oval project and Mom’s ’79 Golf, circa 1996.

I drove that little gray bug for about a year before losing it in August 1996 in a serious accident. One night, a wealthy dairy owner out on the town decided that stop streets didn’t apply to him, and accelerated through two of them in my neighborhood – and very nearly through the bug and me on the way!

He was in a 1 year old Mercedes sedan, I was in a 30 year old bug. He died shortly after the paramedics arrived, while I spent 3 days in hospital and a month at home with neck, back and shoulder injuries that still bother me slightly from time to time. I rebuilt the bug and sold it to a friend in 1997. The Merc never drove again.

In rebuilding the ’57 Oval over a two year period, and using the chassis and running gear of my first Beetle, I set about building my dream. The Oval took me several years to complete, starting around 1995, but by 1998, I had it back on the road!

I drove the oval around for a few years as a second car, with my primary car being a 1974 Beetle that was essentially a rust-trap. Spiders lived in the doors, and it looked shabby, but it was something that most new cars aren’t – FUN! At any rate, in 1998 I said farewell to the ’74 bug, replaced the body with a decent one and sold it to a friend. I got a 1990 Audi 400 and kept the oval for special occasions. In 2007 I traded the Audi in on a 2001 Mazda Sting.

Whenever I saw or spoke to my aunt on the phone, the subject of Dolly came up, and I would ask her teasingly, “how’s my beetle?” and she would laugh naughtily. Then in October 2013 my mother died. She’d sold her Golf just days before going into hospital for the last time, which left the garage at home vacant. While she was in hospital, my Mazda which had only just inherited the garage, had to make way for the Oval because I’d discovered that the remote garage I’d been renting around the corner, had been burgled and all the Ovals’ chrome and headlights broken and stripped off for scrap! I was furious! I managed to scrounge replacement parts, but a lot of damage had also been done to the paint around the chrome! What a way to treat a fifty-six year old car! For what? To sell for scrap metal? What could they have got for it – fifty bucks maybe? Honestly, the scum that did that didn’t deserve to live!

By that time the Oval needed four new tires and so much engine and body work that it just wasn’t something I could deal with – I’d become disillusioned and tired. My mother’s death had taken a huge toll on me and I lost interest in pretty much everything. I’d got it running again for a short while, but it didn’t last. What use was a car that didn’t run, took up valuable garage space (while my actual daily transport stood outside decaying in the weather), cost me annual license fees – and needed a shit-load of body work to boot – and despite my having had it for nearly 20 years, still didn’t have an interior? I only had my own salary to count on now, and had to float the whole household on that. I’d had enough. Besides, I was still hoping my aunt would leave Dolly to me in her will, and that time was fast approaching since my aunt was already quite elderly. I also only had enough budget to run one bug, and not really enough garage to keep more than one. I finally sold the red oval in 2014 to a friend who’d been pestering me to sell her for about ten years, so I relented. The Oval deserved a restoration – and I couldn’t afford one.

The friend I sold the Oval to had a lot of money to burn, so he had a complete pan-off restoration done on the car to the tune of around R80,000… then he sold it to a friend of his who didn’t like what he’d done with it, had it completely rebuilt and refurbished a second time, and then sold it to another person who redid the car a third time… The last I heard of it, it’s now a shiny display piece – fully restored – and has pride of place in a VW dealership somewhere in the Free State.

In the meantime, Dolly was still driving, and my aunt being too elderly to drive anymore, her son (who is about ten years older than me) drove the hell out of it like she had another three spare bugs in storage! Ramping over speed humps, cutting corners, grinding the gears carelessly… I was horrified. How was that any way to treat such a venerable old lady?

At the end of August 2015, I lost the Mazda in another accident – some wanker with a small truck (we call them bakkies in SA, Aussies would call it a ‘ute’) jumped an intersection ahead of me thinking they still had time to turn in front of me… and didn’t. The collision was fairly spectacular and pretty much ruined my car, the trailer I had attached – and all my stock it contained that I’d been conveying to market that morning. The loss killed my sideline business as well as my interest in weekend marketing and boot-sales. For the next few months I was a pedestrian, reduced to begging for lifts or riding a motorized bicycle the 8km to work each day.

In November the same year, I was forced off the road on the way to work in early morning rush hour by an arsehole in one of those massive fake 4×4 things and almost killed – with a hole in my helmet to remind me just how fragile the human skull is – and wisely decided that my bike commuting days were over. A couple of days later, on a Sunday as I was wondering how on earth I was going to afford another car with the state my finances were in, my aunt called me out of the blue to ask me “Do you still want the little car?”

What a question! Of course I did!

Later that afternoon, I walked over to her apartment four blocks away  to take delivery of Dolly, and drove her home and parked her in her garage! She’s been living there ever since… and even though I’ve had some mechanical problems with her over the years and my blood pressure climbs – I remind myself that that’s what one would expect from a 60 year old car that’s been a daily driver for most of her lifespan!

This lovely old car is still part of the family! I have a lot of good memories invested there, and she’s still worth fixing up and enjoying – which is the most important part really, and every time she drives me around, she reminds me of that!

Of course, my journey with beetles wasn’t always smooth sailing! There were tough times too, and there were also a lot of things about the Beetle that I found frustrating, and you can read about those in another article I wrote: “Things That Really Burn Me Up About Beetles!“.

In the end though, by December 2021 I’d had enough. Time marches on, and I honestly didn’t have the time or energy to spend so much time over weekends – or taking leave to spend working on a car in my garage just to have transport to go to work the following Monday! In 2021 I’d been forced to do serious engine repairs myself twice during the same year! I got Dolly 100% functional and in tip-top condition again, and put her up for sale – it was time to end my history with this adorable yet expensive hobby! Beetles now are for rich fuckers to spend money on – which is why I didn’t feel the least bit guilty about asking R50,000 – or receiving R62,000 for this sixty year old car! A collector from Durban sent a truck to collect her in late December 2021, and in January 2022 I put it down as a deposit on my first ever (and probably last) brand new car – a Mahindra KUV 100! Since then, I’ve been enjoying driving too much to look back – except maybe in the rearview mirrors!

I hope I haven’t bored you too much with my reminiscences! To see more of my VW escapades and ideas, visit my DIY site Innovation DIY and my book on VW’s, “Bugspray“.

In the meantime, have a great week!
Until next time, keep reading!


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All material copyright © Christina Engela, 2021.

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