There were literally millions of Volkswagen Beetles made, and almost everyone has a story about a Beetle they owned, or their parents owned, or their grandparents, or uncle and so on.
And in spite of the fact that there are millions of Beetles that look more or less the same, for some reason they are different from other cars – they seem to take on their own little personality and each have their own story.
This is the story of a particular green one, born on September 9th 1970 in Wolfsburg Germany, and put on a ship headed to San Francisco, California.
This is where this story begins…
2 – Victor Chu
This is the story of a little car, but to tell the story, I need to start at the beginning.
Victor Chu was born in Shanghai, China on July 1st 1945 and moved to Hong Kong in 1949. He moved to the United States in 1965, attending the University of Hawaii, then moved to Davis California where he got his M.S. and Ph.D. in food sciences and agricultural chemistry at UC Davis.
Victor’s niece recalls him as a humble man who, as an immigrant, worked exceptionally hard to earn his education. He was the only scientist in his family and the only member of his family to earn a Ph.D.
While at UC Davis, in 1970, Victor bought a brand new car – a green 1971 Volkswagen Super Beetle. The car was built in the Volkswagen factory in Wolfsburg Germany on September 9th 1970 – a fairly early 1971 model.
1971 was the very first year for the Super Beetle, which had a McPherson strut front end to provide a more comfortable ride.
As a 25 year old student, Victor must have been very proud of his new car. That is clear from the care he took to look after it for close to 40 years.
This photo (courtesy of his niece) was taken in 1974, when the car was less than 4 years old. Victor is on the right, and his older brother Peter, on the left.
The little Beetle was the only car Victor ever owned and he never travelled too far from his home in Davis, California with it. He kept it in its original condition, not adding anything to it, nor taking anything away.
He even went so far as to keep the original 1970 validation sticker on the car, swapping out the rear original blue California plate: 091 BVQ with the front plate so that forever the car would display the original 1970 sticker.
Victor’s niece forwarded me a letter that Victor had written in 1996, in response to a parking violation given to the Beetle. Victor’s response (see below) conveys how much he cared for his car:
The last time Victor’s niece remembers him driving the car was in August 2001 when he drove to visit her and her family – a 65 mile trip one-way from his home in Davis.
She recalls – “He had not driven the car for awhile prior to this trip and I believe he fixed it up with the hope of driving it more, but the freeway driving was so stressful for him that I think he may have only driven it a few times in Davis after that and then used a bicycle as his method of transportation.”
I can relate to his stress, as when my daughter and I bought his car in May 2012, we travelled from Davis to San Francisco and were relieved to get off the highways and onto the Pacific Coast highway – but I am getting ahead of myself.
Victor passed away on Friday July 16th 2010 at the age of 65 having kept the car for his ‘Forever’.
For almost two years, his little car waited patiently in a garage. That is when I enter the story…
3 – Douglas Brown
Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Douglas Brown, and I was born in 1958 in Edinburgh, Scotland and emigrated to Toronto, Canada with my family when I was eight years old in 1967.
I grew up in Montreal, Quebec, where I learned to drive, and found out how much I loved being on the open road.
That was 1975 when I was 16. We moved back to Toronto in 1976 and in 1977 when I started college at Sheridan College in Brampton, Ontario, I got my first car.
You may have guessed it was a 1971 VW Super Beetle. Red, not Green, but otherwise much like Victor’s car.
I loved that little Beetle, not just because it was my first car, and my college car, but because it was a lot of fun to drive. I went everywhere in it, and to be honest, was not as conscientious as Victor must have been in taking care of his car.
I say that because I went through two engines in three years! Note to rookie air-cooled VW owners – be sure to check and change the oil regularly and adjust the valves!
I bought the car in 1977 – it would have been 6 years old at the time and paid $1700 for it. I did not know how to drive a manual transmission car at the time, and learning was pretty frustrating the first week or two. I recall driving to college the first day and swearing that the stupid car was not working properly.
Never mind – after a week or two, I was happily shifting like it was second nature. (Also – thanks to my Mum for shifting lessons.)
Alas, the winters of Ontario (and my young carefree attitude) took its toll on my poor Beetle, which started to rust in quite a few places.
After I graduated from Sheridan College, I decided to take a trip to California – a kind of celebration of graduating, so flew to LAX with a couple of college friends and discovered the good life of Santa Monica.
After the trip, I decided to move out to Alberta to get a job, and decided it was time to say goodbye to my little Beetle. I don’t know whether it got scrapped, used for parts or if someone decided to fix it up.
I moved on, had many cars since then, but always had a soft spot for that little car…
4 – A Road Trip?
I had always had a dream (I guess part of my bucket list) to fly out to California, buy an old VW Camper and drive back, camping all the way. I thought it would evoke the old times – kind of like a Jack Kerouac ‘On the Road’ trip where time didn’t really matter and the trip was the adventure.
From time to time I checked the classified ads on The Samba – a web site devoted to Volkswagens, particularly older air-cooled ones.
Alas, I never really saw that great deal, and the longer I looked the higher the prices went.
In May 2012, my daughter Sara was graduating from Sheridan College, and told me she really wanted to do a trip after graduation.
Recalling my own California adventure in 1980 – 32 years previously, I half-jokingly said – “Let’s fly down to California, buy an old VW camper and drive back.”
Of course she said – “Let’s do it.”
I mentioned to my Mum about going to California (although pretty sure I left out the old VW camper part) and she said – are you going to drive on Route 66?
That kind of clicked everything in my mind. That ‘Jack Kerouac’ thing. Fly down to LA, buy an old VW van and travel back on those old backroads of Route 66, turning back time to those days when it was not about where you were going, so much as getting there.
You know – finding the second largest ball of twine in Kansas, or checking out the Cadillac Ranch.
I started to become more serious about perusing the classified ads of The Samba, but to my disappointment, it looked like for $8000 I might get an old rusted VW bus that would probably not make the trip.
I decided to look at something a bit more affordable. 1968 or newer Beetles looked reasonable.
I even got a guy out in LA to check a few out for me, but none seemed like ‘the one’.
I then stumbled on an ad for a 1971 green Super Beetle which seemed to be all original and in excellent shape. The only problem was it was near Sacramento, not LA.
By then, I had already booked a flight from Buffalo to LAX.
I emailed the guy selling the Bug, and asked him to send me hi-resolution photos of the worst parts of the car, knowing that usually the classified photos are the ‘best’ shots.
He did, and was pretty good pointing out that the seats needed recovered and there were a couple of small dents and paint chips.
Overall though the car looked amazing for a 42 year old car, and I knew that it was easy to recover the seats.
I arranged for him to take it to a mechanic in Sacramento that specialized in old VW’s and the report back was pretty good. Minor work was all that was needed.
Taking a leap of faith and going with my gut, I sent a deposit for the car.
This was it. We were actually going to do it. No turning back now.
5 – California here we come!
We changed our flight from Buffalo to LAX to Buffalo to Sacramento. It made more sense than driving all the way up and down the coast.
The guy selling the car (Ron) was actually selling it for a friend – both of whom were VW nuts.
I did my due diligence to make sure I was not walking into some kind of scam, and using my skills and the almost impossible to avoid internet footprint we all leave, was confident I knew who Ron was and that he was legit.
Ron offered to pick us up at the Sacramento airport, which meant I did not even have to rent a car.
So Sara and I drove my Ford Escape from our home north of Toronto to Buffalo Airport and boarded Southwest Flight #2073 to Sacramento via Phoenix, AZ
6 – Sacramento
After changing planes in Phoenix we touched down in Sacramento around 9:45pm. Ron and his girlfriend were there to meet us and luckily for us our bags came off first so we were on our way.
Ron lives in Vacaville, CA – a short drive from the Sacramento airport. By the time we were on the road it was dark, so we could not see much of the California countryside.
We arrived at Ron’s place and the Bug was sitting there – looking pretty good. Ron also had a nice older Bug in the driveway and a gorgeous split-window bus in the garage. I knew I was dealing with someone who knew his vintage VW’s.
We went in, and Ron had warned us to expect another Bug in the living room. Yup – he had taken out his sliding doors to move a Bug into the living room as it had been painted and he wanted it protected.
As I said, Ron was selling the car for a friend. As you know the car belonged to Victor Chu, and after Victor died, his nephew Lloyd ended up with the car. I asked , if both Ron and Lloyd were such VW nuts, why he did not want to keep Victor’s car, and Ron explained that both he and Lloyd were very much into older VW’s from the 50’s and 60’s and if the car had been a little older then Lloyd would have kept it or Ron might have bought it.
The other (unsaid) explanation may have been that this Bug was a ‘Super Beetle’ and a lot of vintage VW collectors don’t value the ‘Super’ as much as a ‘Standard’ Beetle.
I also found out (although at the time was sworn to secrecy) that Lloyd had just bought the ultra rare one-of-a-kind vintage coach built D&S Coupe, which he and Ron had just recently picked up, so in a way I guess I helped finance that amazing purchase!
Ron insisted I go out and check out the car and take it for a test drive.
I was a bit nervous about driving it, as it had been a long time since I drove a Beetle with standard transmission and manual (non-power) steering.
He handed me the key, which immediately brought back memories of my Bug as the key looked the same.
I opened the driver’s door and suddenly had a big smile on my face.
“What is it Dad?” my daughter Sara asked.
“The smell.” I said. “I had forgotten what old Bugs smelled like, and suddenly the fragrance of old Bug brought me back 32 years. It was the same smell my Bug had – a kind of mixture of oil, gas and old Bug smell. I loved it. I was not expecting an olfactory experience, but it was comforting.
I was right to be nervous about driving. Ron must have had a good laugh as I clumsily shifted gears and drove around the block. The steering felt like turning a tank.
Ron was more than thoughtful in preparing the car for us. In my negotiations he had agreed to do the front brakes and replace a leaky fuel line under the gas tank.At that point my thoughts (and unbeknownst to me – Sara’s thoughts also) were – “We are driving this all the way across the country? What were we thinking?”
He not only did an amazing job on the fuel line and front brakes – brand new drums, pads and wheel cylinders, but changed the starter which was sticking and connected a 12V power adapter to the battery for GPS or a radio/iPod etc.
I gave Ron the agreed upon sum, plus some extra for the additional work. I wanted to give him more, but our budget was pretty tight.
Sara and I loaded our luggage into the car (this is where ‘Super’ Beetles outperform ‘Standards’ – luggage space is 85% more!) and we drove a short distance to the Courtyard Marriott in Vacaville for a good nights rest.
7 – Davis
We got up in the morning and saw the Bug for the first time in the daylight. I was a bit afraid there would be things that we had not seen at night, but the Bug looked great!
Our plan was to drive to San Francisco, spend the day there (Saturday) and then drive down the Pacific Coast highway to Santa Monica the following day (Sunday). We had to make LA by Sunday night because as a surprise for Sara (who had just graduated from Film School) I had booked a VIP Tour of Universal Studios for Monday morning and it could not be changed.
We had a small detour to make first though.
This is where for some reason I can’t explain, the car took on a special meaning to me, beyond just buying an old car.
I did not know Victor, nor had I managed to get a lot of information about him from Ron other than that he went to UC Davis and had owned the car since it was new.
Maybe the car conveyed to me through the condition it was in that it meant a lot to Victor and that was important to me.
I told Sara we needed to head back east to Davis where Victor had lived and where UC Davis was and where the VW Dealership where the car was originally sold was.
The crazy part is that my plan to go back to Davis must have been hatched long before I even saw the Bug, because I had already researched where the dealership was before we even left Canada.
So we headed east (in the opposite direction to our intended travel route) and drove to Davis California.
Davis is a pretty unique town. It is dominated by the University – UC Davis – the University of California at Davis, and until recently was renowned for the large percentage of residents choosing bicycles as their primary mode of transportation.
We headed to 5100 Chiles Road in Davis – the site of Al Harter Volkswagen.
Victor’s 42 year old Bug had outlasted the dealership which shut down after the death of it’s principal Alvin C. Harter.
The building and parking lot still stands however, so we took the time to stop and take some photos, a special stop at the place where Victor picked up the car brand new on October 6th 1970 – one month and one day after it was built in Germany.
We shot a short video here too, then headed for our next stop – UC Davis.
We stopped of for breakfast at an amazing restaurant called Cindy’s. At night it becomes Kow Tai – a neat concept. If you are in Davis and want a nice healthy breakfast with freshly squeezed California orange juice it is at 4823 Chiles Road.
We stopped for a few photos at UC Davis. We had thought that Victor was a professor there, but it seems like he was a student and very active alumnus throughout his life.
It seemed appropriate to record the Bug back where it had been for so many years for one last time.
We sat there for a few minutes and felt like we had paid appropriate homage to Victor and felt we could move on so we headed on the highway west towards San Francisco.
8 – San Francisco
You can tell by the grin on my face that I am starting to get used to driving the Bug and am happy to be on the open road.
Our day in San Francisco was – how shall I say? Interesting.
To be fair – I’m sure San Francisco is a great city to visit and we would have had a lot more fun there had we not been faced with our time constraints (and re-learning to drive a manual transmission Bug on San Francisco hills!).
Getting back to Victor’s stress from highways – we felt that as we approached San Francisco. Remember – this was NOT a weekday either – it was Saturday. I’d hate to think what it would have been like on a weekday during rush-hour!
We managed to grab some shots from the Oakland Bay bridge which was pretty much stop and go all the way to the city.
By the time we got downtown and found a parking spot – both Sara and I needed to find a washroom. “No problem in a big city.” I thought. Wrong.
First we tried the Greyhound Bus terminal. “Do you have Bus Tickets?” the security guard asked. “Well no.” we said. “Then you can’t use the washroom – it’s for customers only.” he flatly stated.
OK. Welcome to San Fran. Pretty friendly to tourists so far.
“There must be a McDonald’s or Cafe or something near here.” I told Sara.
We walked about six or seven blocks past lots of closed office buildings until I finally spotted a Starbucks. I was even willing to buy a coffee (which of course would have made my washroom problem worse.)
“Washroom”? I asked.
“Sorry – they are out of service today.”
We plodded on, getting more eager to find a pit stop. I didn’t want to literally pee on their ‘hospitality’.
We got down to Embarcadero and I saw a sign for a Public Washroom. We followed the sign and found what can best be described as an over inflated TARDIS-like structure with instructions on the outside.
We tried to follow the instructions to press the button to open the door, but it did not want to comply. By then my patience was thin, so I grabbed the sliding door and ‘hulked’ it open – went in, pressed the ‘Close Door’ button which did nothing, so ‘hulked’ it closed and proceeded to complete my business.
I opened the door in the same crude fashion to let Sara in. She closed the door and started to use the toilet, which then decided to work and implement a self cleaning cycle, which locked the door, moved the toilet into the wall and spray down the entire interior.
I’m not sure how Sara even finished what she was doing and escaped, but we left there quickly, borrowing some hand sanitizer from a poor woman who was waiting to use the toilet.
OK – next stop – Alcatraz Tour.
We drove the entire length of Embarcadero looking for parking and finally found a spot. We parked and walked to the Alcatraz Tour dock, only to find that they were fully booked for the day.
“OK – Let’s find a Cable Car.” I suggested, trying to be cheery.
I’m not sure why it took walking back the entire length of Embarcadero and halfway back to find the Cable Car, but we finally did, experiencing a Pink Gorilla Flash Mob on the way. (Well it IS San Francisco right?)
Riding the Cable Car was fun and something I have always wanted to do. We jumped off at Chinatown. By now, a simmering sinus headache was growing. Of course my Tylenol Sinus was back in the car.
We tried to enjoy Chinatown, but my headache kept getting worse so we looked for a Pharmacy. Of course we could not find one. We ended up walking all the way from Chinatown back to Embarcadero and then the whole length to the parking lot where the car was.
In all the ‘excitement’, we had forgotten to pay for parking. Our first luck of the day was that we did not have a parking ticket.
I downed a couple of Tylenol Sinus and then said “Let’s go find Haight-Ashbury”.
We headed out of the parking lot and into the Streets of San Francisco. My headache might have disappeared sooner, but it became worse due to the fun of driving the manual Bug up and down the streets, where invariably there would be either a Stop sign or Red light at the very top of a steep hill.
We did find Ashbury Street, but somehow missed Haight and by the time we realized we were several blocks in the wrong direction, the traffic, the hills and my headache meant I had had enough of San Francisco for this visit.
“Let’s get out of here.” I said to Sara, heading the car for the highway out of the city.
We were supposed to hook up with the Pacific Coast Highway just out of San Francisco, but in my haste to escape, we ended up on Highway 101 South.
At least we were out of the city.
9 – San Carlos
I had to pull off the highway to get something to eat, as I think that was part of the reason my headache was not going away.
We pulled off at Belmont, CA and stopped at Wendy’s for a late lunch. When we came back to the car, we tried to open the glove box and it would not open.
“Great” I thought. Sara said she knew our luck would not last forever after everything going so well the day before.
I tried everything to get the glove box door open but it was not going to budge. At this point we decided it might be Victor – not happy that someone else was driving his car. Silly as it might seem, we understood, and promised him that we would take good care of the car.
It did not work to release the glove box door, but nevertheless we felt he had made his point.
I grabbed the door and pulled it as hard as I could. I knew I would break the latch, but figured we would need a new one anyway. A few more pulls – about as hard as I could – who knew how secure Bug glove boxes were? – and the latch snapped and the door flew open.
OK – first issue – we can deal with this. Make a note to buy a glove box latch.
The meal helped my headache a bit, but I decided we should find a place to stop for the night.
We google-mapped local hotels and headed south on El Camino Real to the Holiday Inn.
It felt good to get off the road after a long tiring day. We rested for a while then headed out for dinner.
It was purely be accident that we discovered the adorable town of San Carlos. It was a perfect night – warm but not too hot, no humidity and San Carlos had a lot of really nice restaurants with patio/sidewalk dining.
We chose Piacere – an Italian place.
The meal was great, the service excellent and the atmosphere relaxing. It was a pleasant contrast to our busy stressful city day in San Francisco.
The sun was setting and the air was perfect. It was a nice way to end a stressful day.
Tomorrow we would head South on the Pacific Coast Highway to Santa Monica.
10 – Pacific Coast Highway
From our hotel, we only had to drive a block north to get to one of the very few roads that headed west to the Pacific Coast Highway. It was this road or some pretty serious wilderness if we had ventured any further South.
The road cut across the San Andreas fault which I thought was pretty cool. (My wife would not have agreed!)
It did not take too long to reach the coast at Half Moon Bay. It was a cool, cloudy day but it was great to be out of the busy city environment and finally on the famous Pacific Coast Highway – and what better way to travel it in a vintage VW Beetle!
Our first stop was San Gregorio State Beach. Sara was dying to get out and jump around.
We actually had to turn on the heater in the Bug to take the chill out of the air. I wasn’t sure it would work, but it did perfectly. Once again I had memories of that unique Bug heater smell.
We stopped at Pigeon Point where they have a Lighthouse and Hostel. I had to change from shorts into jeans in the parking lot – I had not realized how cool it can be at the coast in Northern California.
While we wanted to take the time to stop at interesting places, I was also concerned that we had a lot of road to travel to get to Santa Monica before nightfall. We spent some time taking pictures at Pigeon Point, then headed to our next stop – Santa Cruz. Sara and I are huge ‘Lost Boys’ fans, so we HAD to visit the Santa Cruz boardwalk where a lot of the movie was filmed back in 1987.
The Santa Cruz boardwalk opened in 1907 and is the oldest amusement park in California and is home to an historic Looff Carousel that was in the film.
We spent some time exploring the boardwalk and bought a couple of Santa Cruz t-shirts.
After Santa Cruz, our next stop was the 17-Mile drive around the Monterey peninsula and the world famous Pebble Beach, then a must-do pub lunch at Clint Eastwood’s Hog’s Breath Inn in Carmel.
We really enjoyed the atmosphere and the food (and Beer!) We sat in an outside courtyard patio that had an amazing mural painted on one wall. It was a great stop, and to our delight, after lunch the sun came out and the chill was gone.
Without a doubt the most scenic part of the Pacific Coast drive is Big Sur.
By now, I was getting used to driving the Bug, and it performed admirably on this challenging terrain.
Pushing on, we rounded a bend and saw a beach with lots of something on it. “Are they seals?” I asked.
They were. We had reached the Piedras Blancas Seal Rookery. We stopped there and got a pretty neat treat. It’s not everyday you get to see that many seals in the wild all in one place.
We had been on the road for over 12 hours (including stops) and were still a long way from Santa Monica.
We stopped for a stretch at an old abandoned bridge that once carried the Pacific Coast Highway north of Santa Barbara.
We were in the home stretch, but the sun was going down and we were getting tired.
We pushed on, the old Bug just faithfully rolling along. We missed the angled cut-off for the Pacific Coast highway in Oxnard and ended up driving through what seemed like endless Auto Parts stores, Used Car lots and red lights that did not cooperate. We were not very impressed with Oxnard.
We got back on track and pushed into the last leg of our Pacific Coast day.
I had hoped to be able to stop in Malibu, but it was dark and we were running late. We called the Motel to make sure they knew we would be there around 10:30pm or 11.
We had a quick gas / washroom stop in Malibu and then it was a ‘follow the taillights’ kind of drive along the twisty coast to Santa Monica. We eventually pulled up to the Seashore Motel after 15 hours on the road.
Victor would have been both amazed and proud of his old Bug.
The Seashore Motel in Santa Monica is a well kept motel, two blocks from the beach that we felt was in keeping with our whole retro theme. With a neat little courtyard and just two floors of authentic motel rooms, this family run business was perfect.
In true retro fashion they even still have the old key and motel tag!
We settled in for the night, pleased that our long coast drive had been a success.
11 – Universal Studios
In the morning we set off early for our Universal Studios VIP Tour. We had been told that L.A. traffic was really bad, but compared to Toronto, it seemed much the same to us – actually the drivers seemed a little better at merging on and off highway ramps.
At Universal Studios, the valet parking attendant seemed to really like the Bug. He was from Mexico where Bugs are like – well everywhere. He looked right at home as he parked it for us.
The Universal Studios VIP Tour is a lot more than the standard tour, but if you are interested in the actual making of movies and TV, it’s well worth it.
I had planned it as a surprise for my daughter who had just graduated from College, having taken film-making, so she loved it.
Instead if just driving through the back lot, we actually got the chance to get off the bus and wander around.
At the end of the tour a long escalator led back toward the main entrance. You can even get the weird illusion in the photo that the escalator is going straight up at a 90 degree angle. It was the weirdest feeling!
After the tour, we were treated to an amazing VIP lunch!
After a long but fun day, we headed back to Santa Monica and relaxed. We had decided to spend a few days here, mostly to relax, but also to make sure the Bug was ready for a long trip home.
12 – Around L.A.
We had decided to try to limit our driving around L.A. to one day if possible, so in my usual planning fashion, I plotted a circular route that would accomplish our goals without ever going near downtown L.A.
We headed east, but in a southeast circle route, heading down to near Long Beach then pretty much due east to Corona, CA. I probably don’t have to tell any Air Cooled VW fans where we were headed!
The ultimate ACVW heaven – Wolfsburg West.
Wolfsburg West sells pretty much anything and everything you would ever need for your vintage VW. As we pulled up in the parking lot, I admired three vintage Bugs in awesome condition.
The folks at Wolfsburg West are extremely friendly, helpful and efficient. My daughter was in awe of all the parts and memorabilia that adorned the walls. We ended up getting a new windshield and gasket, a steering dampener, front and rear seat pads and covers, a new glove box lock to replace the one I broke, and a spare fan belt. Total cost was less than $400.
We headed back towards L.A. but this time circled round the north of the city, stopping off to see a couple of movie sites – the ‘Martini’ home from “It’s a Wonderful Life” and the ‘Doc Brown’ house from “Back to the Future”.
We then attempted to find the Hollywood Sign.
I know it sounds funny, but it’s not as easy as you think to get to where you get a good view of the sign.
I knew where it was, but around the hills in Hollywood, the streets have a strange way of circling around to nowhere.
I stupidly relied on our GPS, which took us up a road that was clearly not going the right way.
I tried again and this time the GPS took us halfway up a steep hill and promptly said “Turn right”.
I looked to the right and saw what looked like it might have been a road in 1947.
OK, one more try. The GPS lead us up another hill. And up. And up. Twisting and turning we reached the top.
There on a hill across a valley was the sign. Except from our angle it didn’t say HOLLYWOOD – it said HOOOD.
Now, I had seen the sign before, so I didn’t care, but it was my daughter’s first trip to L.A. so I wanted her to have a better view.
“It’s ok Dad, we have seen the sign.” she said.
“Nope” I said, stubborn to the end.
I ditched the GPS (not literally) and said – “Now I follow my nose.”
I maneuvered the Bug around and down the hill, took a quick left then a bridge over the highway. I’m not sure how I seem to have the innate ability to find my way anywhere, but even though it had been 32 years since I had last been in L.A. things seemed a bit familiar to me.
I twisted and turned up a hill on the other side of the highway and with my daughter still protesting, pulled up at a turnout near the top, looked back and there was the sign.
It was a bit far away, but it said HOLLYWOOD, not HOOOD. Good enough for me, I thought.
We snapped some photos and then headed towards Hollywood Boulevard.
We passed by the Chinese Theater and headed back to Santa Monica. It had been a long day, and L.A.’s smog had given me a bit of a sinus headache. A little fresh ocean breeze was just the ticket.
Tomorrow was seat recovering day.
13 – Upholstery 101
Today I decided to recover the passenger seat of the Bug. I had considered replacing the cracked windshield, but was a bit hesitant to do it here, for fear that it might break and then I’d be stuck with no windshield. I figured that could wait until we were home and the car was in a garage. The current windshield was fine – just had a crack which needed to be replaced before I could legally license the car in Ontario Canada.
Victor had taken care of his Bug over the years, and almost everything on and in the Bug was in outstanding condition. The only real exception was the front seats. For some reason the passenger front seat had a gaping tear in it and the fabric (which had started life as VW off-white) had an awful brown stain on it. It looked to me to be much more than average wear and tear, so I started speculating that Victor transported boxes of chemicals on the seat, which ate away and stained it. The driver’s seat was stained a bit and torn a little, but not as bad as the passenger one.
Later on, I found out that after Victor passed away, his nephew Lloyd had the car for almost two years, so I’m not sure if the seat wear and tear was when the car was in Victor’s care, or Lloyd’s. Either way, the seats needed to be recovered.
The good news was that due to the way it looked, I’m sure it accounted for a good sized discount on price compared to if the seats had been in good shape, and I knew that the covers from Wolfsburg West were made to original factory specs and ‘seemed’ like they would be easy to install.
The hole in the passenger seat was so bad that the springs were poking through and the seller had kindly provided an old towel to sit on. My daughter was pleased that we were going to fix it. The long trip from San Francisco on that seat had taken its toll!
The beauty of staying at a motel rather than a hotel was that we were able to take the seat out of the Bug and bring it up to our second floor room, prop the room door open, put on some tunes and work right there. I’m not sure the Holiday Inn would have approved!
The seat came out easily, in contrast to the difficulty some people have experienced with seats that have not been removed in 40 years.
We viewed the video that Wolfsburg West provided, and then started to work.
There is nothing like taking your time to work in the warm California sunshine. We methodically split the back of the seat from the base, removed the old covers, and managed to save the original cotton fabric that was on the sides of the seat cushion.
We cleaned up the frame and springs as best as we could and removed the old ‘horsehair’ seat cushion, which proceeded to drop little pieces all over the floor.
Once again, being in a small motel helped. The floor was tiled – not carpeted and the office was more than happy to lend us a broom and dustpan.
As I wanted to keep the car as stock as possible in the same way that Victor had done, the covers we bought from Wolfsburg West were the original pattern and color and the seat cushions the original spec ‘horsehair’.
We put the bottom seat cushion on, and re-used the original cotton on the sides. The seat back did not need a new cushion – it was in excellent shape, so we were able to just put the new cover on after removing the old one.
We took the time to work the covers on to make sure they were straight and as tight as possible, then re-attached the seat-back to the base. We forgot to put on the metal cover plate on the bottom part, so had to take it apart and install it.
It looked pretty good, only a little loose in parts. We used the tip to heat the cover with a hair dryer to shrink it so it was tighter.
When we were happy with it, we took the seat down and put it back in the Bug. It looked so much better, especially compared to the grungy old driver’s seat.
It still was not as tight as we wanted, but I figured a few days in the California sun would change that.
The only thing we did not do, was re-install the ‘buttons’ that are attached with wire through the seat-back.
We had carefully removed and kept the original buttons and wire and did not have the tools to re-install here, so decided to keep them and install them at home. The video had said that string could be used to tie the buttons on, but we felt that the original wire was the best way to get the right tension as well as keeping more true to stock and keeping as much original as we could.
We swept up our mess and stuffed the old covers and seat cushions into the motel garbage can, returning the broom and dustpan.
Pleased with our work, we retired to the motel sun deck right across from our room with a cold Rum & Coke – both found at the amazing Surf Liquor store a block away.
The next day we duplicated our work on the driver’s seat – working a little faster and doing a slightly better job as our experience had taught us a few tricks.
The Bug was really looking good. We decided not to recover the rear seat here, as it was not in bad shape. That would wait for home, so the rear seat covers and new windshield took up residence in the back seat for now.
14 – Santa Monica
Los Angeles itself is not really a great place to visit other than the obligatory places to see, but Santa Monica is like paradise to me.
The pace of life there is different than I am used to, and the weather, sun and sand are amazing!
Californians are pretty health conscious and Santa Monica is no exception. If I were to describe Santa Monica in a few words it would be: Warm, Healthy, Dog-Friendly and Safe – at least that’s how I felt.
My daughter and I took a couple of days to just relax and enjoy Santa Monica.
We tried out a few restaurants, but by far my favorite for breakfast was the Omelette Parlor and for dinner we found the amazing Stella Barra Pizza Bar that used locally grown vegetables for salad, and made the most amazing homemade thin-crust pizza.
Topped off with a local California Cabernet and it was like heaven.
We were amused and amazed at how many friendly and relaxed dogs sat outside without being tied up. Everywhere you went there were dogs, but they were as chilled as their owners.
Of course our sun-deck at the Seashore Motel was great for relaxing after walking around. A quick trip to the infamous Surf Liquor store (just behind the always busy Village Car Wash – which reminded my of the Sheryl Crow song ‘All I want to Do) was the ticket to get anything from glue to shoelaces to Rum, Coke or virtually anything you needed.
On our way back to the motel one night, we heard music and saw lights across the road from the motel. A quick glance at each other and a “Do you want to…” followed by a “hell yeah!” and we discovered a cool Santa Monica tradition where every couple of weeks a group of catering trucks parked in a parking lot next to a park and served up all kinds of food, to be eaten under the stars, sitting on the grass with fellow residents and travelers.
As a huge LOST fan, I had cyber-investigated and found out that Bad Robot Productions (owned by J.J. Abrams) was in Santa Monica. Actually that is pretty common knowledge. I took it a step further and found out exactly where.
I was tempted to go in, but respected the obvious desire for privacy (no signs on the building) and just snapped a photo.
We enjoyed the few days we had in Santa Monica as well as visiting Venice Beach where the surfers mode of transportation is a classic VW Bus!
It had been 32 years to the day that I had first come to Santa Monica after graduating from college, and hopefully I’ll be back sooner than that next time!
Alas, we had a deadline to get back to Canada and really our adventure had not yet even started. Tomorrow we would embark on the much anticipated Route 66 across the country in our classic VW Beetle!
15 – Route 66 – Day 1
Our Route 66 trip was the reverse of the ‘normal’ direction, as Route 66 became famous as the “Mother Road” that took travelers west to the Pacific Coast originating from Chicago.
That’s why the sign on the Santa Monica Pier says “End of the Trail”.
For us it was the beginning. Technically Route 66 ended a little further inland at Lincoln Boulevard & Olympic Boulevard (at least in 1936 – many changes were made to Route 66 over time).
There is also a plaque at the top of the bluffs overlooking Santa Monica Beach – another unofficial end point.
For our driving adventure we started from the 1936 end point at Lincoln & Olympic.
From there we started our trip – me as the driver and my daughter as the navigator, with her collection of maps and guide books.
To keep the theme of the trip along the way, we rigged an iPod up to a couple of computer speakers which had a playlist of tunes especially selected to be appropriate for places along the way.
We started off on Santa Monica Boulevard with the appropriate Sheryl Crow singing “as the sun comes up over Santa Monica Boulevard…”
We headed through Hollywood and Beverly Hills through Pasadena (where we got off-track for a few minutes, but as luck would have it allowed a Starbucks stop), then through Arcadia and Rancho Cucamonga (I’ve always loved that name).
From there the city would be left behind as we started to climb into the mountains heading for Victorville and then the Mohave desert where our music was the obligatory ‘Killers’.
The Bug plodded along happily, and I was getting more used to driving it.
It DID take a little getting used to a car that had no cup holders or places to put things.
Fortunately my daughter used her McGyver skills to create a place for everything using the glove box door and grab handle!
Here we find one of the first real parts of Route 66 that we can differentiate from the current highways.
Up until now Route 66 has just followed existing roads with no real ‘feel’ for the old road from the 30’s 40’s and 50’s.
From now, we can see old parts of Route 66 that are no longer used, as well as parts that you can drive on that are obviously pretty classic.
Our first stop is at the Route 66 museum in Victorville, CA – a good stop to rest the Bug after a long uphill climb in pretty warm temperatures.
I was surprised there were not more classic Bugs on the road in California. There were certainly more than back east, but I found out a lot of old cars were taken off the road in California due to an anti-pollution initiative that gave pretty good cash incentives for people to junk their old cars.
Because of that, we got a fair amount of attention whenever we stopped. That was true at the Route 66 Museum in Victorville where a couple of guys that worked there came out to check out the car!
From Victorville, it was pure Mohave Desert through Barstow, and into Needles, just near the Arizona border.
Needles was our first stop, and the Bug had performed well. I had checked the oil at every stop and was surprised that it had not used one drop, which was very unusual for an old Bug. Well to be truthful they don’t USE oil so much as drip it out!
The only issue with the car was that once it was running hot, if we stopped, when we started it again it wouldn’t idle without stalling until we had driven for a while again.
I managed to make do by keeping a foot (or half a foot) on the gas pedal if needed when coming to a stop until it got in a better mood.
As it turned out when I got home, the main reason was that the original vacuum advance and retard distributor had been replaced by a mechanical advance distributor when Victor removed the EGR / pollution controls on the Bug years before. To his credit though, he had kept all the original parts – hoses and original distributor all wrapped up nicely in a box in the trunk. When I got home, I swapped back the original distributor and the Bug ran 100% better – ie: no more idle when warm problem and it got rid of a hesitation on acceleration. Thanks Victor!
We were pleased with our first day, and happy to relax in an air-conditioned hotel room in Needles where the temperature was well over 100 degrees.
16 – Route 66 – Day 2
We left Needles timing it so we would get to Oatman, AZ around 10am. Oatman is an old gold mining town that if not for the ingenuity of its residents would be nothing but dust today.
If you have not heard, Oatman is known for their Wild Burros. The story goes that after the gold mining stopped there, the prospectors let their burros go free and their descendants are the wild burros of Oatman.
Now I’m not one to spoil a great tale, but let me just say, those burros are not as wild as the residents would have you believe.
This part of Route 66 is the most difficult from a driving perspective with rough roads twisting and turning as they climbed the rugged hills into Oatman.
We arrived in Oatman and walking down the main (well really the only) street, we noticed a distinct lack of burros.
Asking in one of the many stores selling souvenirs, we were told: “Well the burros are wild. They pretty much come into town when they feel like it.”
“Well, when do they usually get here?” I asked, knowing we were on a bit of a schedule.
“Right after the gunfight at noon.” the elderly shopkeeper announced.
Hmm. How convenient, I thought. So now we have to keep shopping. Nice marketing ploy.
We really could not afford to spend two hours in Oatman, so I bought a Route 66 sign and a nice leather backpack purse for my wife, and we headed out of town, disappointed that we had come here and not seen the wild burros of Oatman.
As we were leaving town, I looked to the right and saw a suspicious barn and corral. I was tempted to stop and open the door and free the wild burros, but we had so much respect for people who had managed to keep a town alive in the middle of nowhere that we just kept driving.
Lesson: If you WANT to see the wild burros of Oatman, show up around noon.We DID see a cool dune buggy with a revolver for a gearshift handle.Leaving Oatman, the road continues to wind its way through the hills, now descending as we continue to travel through the desert.
As we were getting used to, Route 66 at times seemed to go on for miles and miles with little to no traffic. It was a pleasant change from driving on busy interstates.
A pleasant oasis in the middle of the desert is the Hackberry General Store, which has so much memorabilia.
It is worth a stop, and I could not resist buying a Coke in a small glass bottle!
At this point we took a detour off Route 66 to visit the Grand Canyon. My daughter had never been there, and although it was an over 2 hour detour, it was well worth it! We ended the day in Flagstaff, AZ on schedule and pleased that the Bug crossed the infamous Mohave Desert!
17 – Route 66 – Day 3
Day 3 of our Route 66 trip was intended to be from Flagstaff, AZ to Tucamcari, NM, where we had reserved a room at the restored Blue Swallow Motel.
Things started off fine, leaving Flagstaff with the obligatory stop in Winslow Arizona, where we ended up ‘Standing on the corner’ as the Eagles so aptly sung.
Winslow, like most of the Route 66 towns was (other than the tourist stops like the ‘corner’) was pretty much dead. If you have ever seen the movie ‘Cars’ which is essentially the true story of the I-40 bypassing towns on Route 66, it’s really pretty true to life. Route 66 is a shadow of it’s former self, with a very few businesses hanging on for the tourists like us who seek the slower pace and opportunity to see more of the country than you could racing along an Interstate highway at 65 mph.
Of course we drove up to the corner of Kinsley & 2nd St with the Eagles playing on our iPod.
There was a young couple there taking photos and an older couple. The man suggested he could take our photo.
“Are you the resident photographer?” I asked.
“Not a resident.” he replied. “We are from Ottawa.”
Pleased to meet a fellow Canadian, we greeted each other and took each others photos. They were snowbirds driving their RV back to Ottawa from Arizona where they had spent the winter.
We parted ways in Winslow and we continued on.
Near Holbrook, AZ we started to see billboards for the Painted Desert Indian Center, which seemed to be one of the more authentic stores selling native goods.
Sara had a shopping list of things and I thought that native crafts would make good gifts, so we stopped there.
We were there for quite a while, and when we were done, all our gift spending money and a bit more was gone. We were however pleased with our purchases.
As we were getting in the car, we noticed a big RV in the parking lot, and then saw the guy from Ottawa. He came over to see the Bug and was pretty impressed that it was in such good shape and that I had got such a good deal on it.
We waved goodbye for a second time and headed east. At this point we were on I-40 which is also designated Historic Route 66, even though it has been literally paved over by interstate.
As we were humming along, pretty much in the middle of nowhere, north of the Petrified Forest, we both heard a noise.
“Was that…” Sara asked.
“…a flat tire.” I responded.
With that, I gently pulled over on the gravel shoulder in time for both of us to get out and watch the right rear tire slowly deflate to flat.
With confidence, I pulled everything out of the back seat of the car – the new windshield, the seat covers, our suitcases, etc., since the jack is under the rear seat.
I had of course made sure the jack was there and that we had a good spare.
What I had NOT checked though was that there was a jack handle/lug nut wrench.
“Really?” I said.
Oh, well our Classic Car insurance had roadside service ‘anywhere in North America’ (or so they promoted.)
I called them and told them our location. They promised to send out a service truck and said they would call back when it was arranged.
We relaxed in the dry but 90-100F desert heat. Luckily Sara had bought a case of bottled water to keep with us.
A few minutes later, a big RV pulled up and stopped. Our Ottawa friends stopped to see if we needed help, a cold drink or a washroom break.
We told them our insurance company was getting help, and thanked them. We said goodbye for a third and last time, and they headed off.
A few minutes later two ambulances whizzed by at high speed heading east with sirens and lights blazing.
We waited a while longer, and a Service Truck pulled up. A native guy got out and asked if we needed help. He was not dispatched by the insurance company, so I thanked him and told him they were sending someone.
He said ok, and started to walk back to his truck, then stopped, turned around and pulled out his business card and held it out to me.
“Just in case.” he said.
He took off, and we were left with the desert, a few cars and trucks whizzing by on the highway and in the distance one of the almost constant BNSF freight trains that seemed to go back and forth across the desert all day long.
The insurance company finally called back and said they could not get a service truck and that they would call the police.
I suggested that the police were not the best people to call for a flat tire, and asked if we could call back our native friend and bill them back.
They agreed and I called the number on the business card. It took a while but he finally arrived and happily changed the tire.
We were finally on our way again, but had lost a lot of time.
As we headed down the highway, the traffic started to slow and there was a sign indicating ‘Left lane closed – accident ahead’.
As we finally approached the accident scene, I saw a Honda SUV overturned in the center median, and a body covered in a white sheet on the road.
“Don’t look”, I told Sara, but of course she did.
We drove on in solemn silence for a while, pondering the fact that a flat tire and our delay which seemed like a bad thing might have stopped us from being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
We crossed into New Mexico, and I was still hoping we could push through to Tucamcari tonight, although I was not happy that our only ‘spare’ tire was flat.
There are not a lot of towns on this part of the journey, so we stopped in Gallup, NM to try to find a new spare.
What I had not considered is that it was Sunday, and almost all the stores were closed.
We checked Costco and their huge tire department took a look at the rather obsolete size of tires for the Bug and shook their head.
A helpful guy at a Firestone store that was just closing tried his best to find a match, even rolling a couple of tires out to the parking lot, but no dice.
He checked the code on the tires and said “These tires are 14 years old. I wouldn’t drive on them.”
Sara responded with an “I told you the tires were not good when we bought the car.”
I told the Firestone guy we were hoping to get to Tucamcari.
“After Albuquerque, there is nothing all the way to Tucamcari.” he said. “Your best bet for tires is Albuquerque.”
Alright then – Albuquerque it would be.
We called the Blue Swallow Motel and explained our predicament. The owner was totally understanding and wished us a safe drive.
As we approached Albuquerque, the sun was going down and we noticed lots of people on the side of the road with cameras and tripods all pointing west.
“Strange.” I said. Maybe it was that Albuquerque hot air ballon festival I had heard of. There were no ballons in sight though, so I figured it was just the Albuquerque Camera Club.
We pulled in to the Hampton Inn, and a guy was coming out of the hotel with two pieces of paper in his hand, one with a small hole poked in it.
“Check this out!” he said excitedly as he focused the paper with the hole over the blank paper, showing an image of the sun.
“Today is a TOTAL solar eclipse!” he said.
Sara suddenly remembered that her Grandma had told her about the upcoming eclipse – which explained the behavior of the ‘Camera Club’.
We had not planned to stop in Albuquerque, but once again fate had shown it’s hand and placed us in the only city in the Southwest that was in the direct path of the eclipse.
We managed to shoot a few pretty good photos from our room with only seconds to spare as the eclipse passed totality.
I got on the computer, and checked in to The Samba (the VW Forum I found the car on) to get tire advice.
I got good advice that Discount Tire was the best place to buy the odd sized VW tires. I went online to Discount Tire and found out that not only was the Discount Tire in Albuquerque just across the road from the Hampton Inn, but they had the tires in stock.
I booked an online appointment for 8:30am and then we decided that we had had enough for one day and retired for the night.
18 – Route 66 – Day 4
At 8:30am sharp we drove across to Discount Tire, where they were expecting us. We talked to the young guy at the desk who said that the tires were pretty expensive – about $400 for 5 new tires! We told him that was cheap for Canadians!
We sat in the waiting room and had some friendly conversation with the people waiting for their cars. A lady there had battled cancer for years, but had such a strong spirit and attitude that we were touched by her story and glad to have met her.
When the car was ready, we set off, leaving not a lot later than normal, but still a bit behind, compounded with our delays because of the flat tire.
The car ran SO much better on the new tires! It had a bit of a shimmy before at speeds over about 50 mph, but now it could run up to 70 or 75 mph smooth as silk.
Sara HAD to remind me how she had originally said – “Dad – I think those tires are kind of old.”
Of course we HAD to stop off to see the restored Blue Swallow Motel in Tucamcari that we had wanted so badly to stay in.
We met up with the owner who was doing some touch-up painting and told her how sad we were that we did not get a chance to stay there, and again she was understanding and said – “Maybe next time.”
We left New Mexico and headed into the Great State of Texas.
We had to make a stop in Adrian TX. A tiny place – really only famous as the exact halfway point of Route 66.
We stopped at the Midpoint Cafe for some homemade apple pie and conversation with the friendly owner.
While we ate, the Bug rested at the Midpoint of Route 66, having faithfully traveled this far…
Our next stop was a place I have always wanted to go and was not disappointed – The Cadillac Ranch just outside of Amarillo.
We decided to stop for the night in Amarillo, since we had started late, but vowed to get an early start in the morning.
19 – Route 66 – Day 5
For the first time, we got up and hit the road before sunrise.
We HAD to make the US/Canada border by Friday or we would be stuck until Tuesday, since Monday was the Memorial Day holiday and US Customs would be closed.
As it turned out we had the most beautiful sunrise as we drove across Texas, passing the famous Leaning Water Tower in Groom, TX.
Texas may be a huge state, but Route 66 cuts across the small top part of the state.
Before long we were in Oklahoma where you find the best treat for Route 66 fans – the most pristine sections of original 1920’s and 1930’s portland concrete that is the real original Route 66!
What a treat to drive a vintage VW Beetle on the original “Mother Road”!
We had to make a stop at the famous Blue Whale of Catoosa, OK – a rest stop that I could vividly imagine the joyful cries of kids hot and tired from a long drive on the road splashing and cooling off in the 1940’s and 1950’s.
We missed it originally, diverting off on an older section of Route 66 and having to double back to find it. It was worth it.
From there we soldiered on through Oklahoma and into Missouri.
It had been a long day, but we were making up time. We needed a coffee really badly so we stopped at the Waffle House in Rolla, MO.
Sara really needed that coffee!!!
We rolled over 84,000 miles on the odometer as we steadily hummed across Missouri at a pretty steady 60 MPH.
Sadly our Route 66 journey was to end at St. Louis. We had originally intended to complete the run to Chicago, but time was not on our side, so as we crossed the old Mississippi, with the unique bent Route 66 Chain of Rocks bridge to our right, we headed straight east as Route 66 turned north to Chicago.
We made it to Terre Haute, IN and were ready to call it a night. We were pleased with the time we had made up and were more optimistic about getting to the border in time.
20 – Indiana and Ohio
We missed the slower pace of Route 66, and now were really just zipping along on the Interstate through Indiana, around Indianapolis, into Ohio.
We had noticed that right rear tire kept getting low on air so I contacted Discount Tire, did a quick calculation and concluded that we could get to a Discount Tire in Columbus, OH – just off the interstate at lunch time, so made an appointment.
It worked out really well – we pulled into Discount Tire (and they addressed us by name!) and dropped off the car and walked across the parking lot to a restaurant for lunch.
By the time we were done, the car was ready. It had picked up a nail or screw so they patched it up – no charge. I was glad we had stopped.
We were on our way with no delay and took the bypass around Columbus, heading north towards Cleveland.
We crossed into Pennsylvania and stopped for the night in Erie, PA – now so close to the border we were confident of our schedule.
21 – The Border & Home!
We got up in the morning in Erie, knowing our trip to the border at Lewiston, NY was not a long one.
We had to go to the Buffalo Airport first though, to pick up my Ford Escape.
From there, I drove the Bug and Sara followed me with the Escape as we traveled to the US Customs office at the border.
It was pretty smooth there as we had emailed the appropriate paperwork in advance as required.
They came out to verify the VIN and the car, stamped our paperwork and sent us on our way.
We crossed the border and reported to Canada Customs.
At this point we were lucky to have a great customs officer who did up all the paperwork quickly.
We were also glad we had pushed through to Erie the night before, as it allowed us to get to the border early when it was not yet busy.
With that, we crossed into Canada and headed home. Our trip was becoming a memory – one that will always be cherished.
I’m sure Victor must have been looking down, so proud of his Bug for faithfully making an over 3000 mile journey across the country.
I promised Victor’s niece that we would take care of Victor’s Bug like he would have wanted, keeping it for my ‘forever’ and passing it on to Sara for her ‘forever’ in his memory.
The Bug is truly a survivor, thanks to Victor Chu and his love for his first little car.