In VW Beetle's last clutch moments, it was push or scream

Friday, January 15, 2010

Our very first car was a 1960 VW Beetle that cost us $100. In the final months of its life, the only way to get it started was to park on a hill, get some headway and pop the clutch.

In the fall of 1967, I was one of the few girls at Frostburg State College who had her own car. We called it the "Birdmobile." It got the name because of some now long-forgotten joke.

The Birdmobile was a light oxidized green 1960 VW Beetle. It had a temperamental clutch that my 19-year-old brother had installed at the Andrews Air Force Base auto shop just before my dad gave me the car at the beginning of my junior year.

My dorm mates would pile into it, and I would drive us everywhere. We could drive down to Cumberland to Mason's Barn or to the fish fry at the Howard Johnson's in La Vale or up to the Happy Hills chicken house, several miles above the college. Food was obviously important.

Frostburg's streets undulate, and every one has an incline of some degree, many featuring a stop sign about midway to the top. I had mastered the art of balancing the amount of gas I gave the engine while in first gear, and how far I let the clutch out, with the degree of the incline of the hill upon which I was stopped. Thus, after slowing on my approach to a stop sign, I did not brake, but using the clutch I could suspend my VW with exquisite, practiced proficiency on the incline. The other girls envied me. They couldn't even drive a stick.

Needless to say, that clutch did not last, either, and my brother was at it again in the base shop. This time, his efforts resulted in a clutch that worked only in second gear and higher. If I tried to start off in first, the car would lurch forward, resisting, and bang so badly I would quickly put it in second and hope I had enough oomph to continue.

Mostly, I would just start off in second, giving it lots of gas and letting the clutch out slowly. No more balancing. This defect was a decided problem in the hills of Frostburg and everywhere between there and home in Prince George's County. On holidays, my three buddies and I squeezed ourselves and two suitcases apiece into the Birdmobile and traveled home. We flew down each hill on Route 40 in hopes of having enough momentum to get up the next. There was no way to stop and start from first gear. So we didn't.

If I had to actually stop, everyone would get out and push if second gear wasn't enough to get me going. Friends were left to catch up after I got to level ground. There was one hill in particular with a stop light at its crest in Hagerstown. As we barreled through town on our approach to the light, we all would scream, "Don't change! Don't change!" It must have worked. I don't remember running a red light.

When I got married after senior year, my husband had it painted canary yellow. It looked like Tweety Pie. We traded it in the next year on a new Toyota Corolla.

My old friends and I still laugh about our adventures in the Birdmobile even these 43 years later. VW is making them in the same color now, and every time I see one, I'm reminded of my "Sweet Bird of Youth."

-- Melony Hinton Bush,


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