Offroad Adventures with a 1973 VW Beetle

January 15, 2017

A few years ago I let a Netherlands blogger post this.  Last time I looked it had received 8000 hits. Europeans and South Africans seem particularly interested in driving on a huge sheet of glare ice.

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Later on in life a man may forget the name of his first love, but he will never forget the intimate details of his first new car. Mine was a yellow 1973 VW Beetle Custom. I chose the Custom model rather than the Superbeetle, because I was skeptical of those newfangled MacPherson struts — thought they were a fad, and CV joints looked to be a maintenance nightmare.

The Beetle was a great car on the road, especially after I replaced the stock bias-ply tires with oversized radials. The thing was amazing on ice: just how amazing I was to discover one Sunday afternoon in February.

The Big Rideau had watered up in mid-winter, leaving a triangular, five-mile expanse of perfectly glare ice. This was too much to resist. Gingerly I drove on at Portland and worked my way up through the gears, getting the feel of the unfamiliar car on the unfamiliar surface. Everything seemed quite well balanced, so I got up into 4th gear and settled into a cruising speed at what I considered the limit of adhesion, 68 miles per hour.

A Ford Courier with a cement mixer in the back came up behind me and then pulled ahead. This would not do. Determined to catch this upstart, I gradually sped up. The Beetle complained, squirmed a bit, then, resigned, settled in all the way up to 80. All of the sudden everything let go at once. There was no gradually-increasing oscillation which normally leads to a spin-out with a Beetle. Nope. All of the sudden I was spinning like a top.

This was quite an interesting sensation: on a zero-traction plane, you go from a vector of 80 mph north to a similar vector counting in about sixty revolutions per minute. I’d never spun that fast or for that long. I started to worry about oil pressure, so I shut the engine off and shifted into neutral. Still spinning, not even slowing, I turned on the tape deck. It worked fine. I was still a mile from any shore and still spinning, so I just settled back and enjoyed the ride.

Eventually the back wheels caught up and the Beetle coasted to a stop. The Ford Courier was long gone over the horizon. I started up again and continued my tour. A new Corvette blew by me, and I chose not to take up the chase. After about an hour of glare-ice driving and a tour to Rideau Ferry and back I had a pretty good feel for the car. 68 miles per hour remained the optimal cruising speed on ice.

The Beetle served us faithfully for ten years and 130 thousand miles. Then it received new floorboards and lived with my cousin for another three. Its only ill-effect from its many off-road adventures was that when we sold the car it was 1 ½ inches longer than when it was new. My dad’s horses had had to tow it quite a lot, sometimes out of ditches, and sometimes like a toboggan over the snowdrifts to the ploughed road. A couple of times I buried the thing while driving on the crust. Once, disgusted, my dad made me wait until spring to recover it. I had to use my wife’s Datsun for a month until the snow melted. What a grouch!

We got rid of the Beetle when our new son arrived. The Rabbit was much safer, but useless off-road. My dad could hardly contain his relief, but two months later he bought his new grandson an army surplus Jeep to drive around the farm.

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