A Beloved Rust Bucket: Memories of My 1963 Volkswagen Beetle

Over my years, I’ve owned various cars, and each one has been my favourite, until it wasn’t. I have severe automotive A.D.D. But, like a first kiss, there is one car that is more memorable than the rest. It was my 1963 Volkswagen Beetle.

In 2019, Volkswagen announced that sadly, it was discontinuing the VW Beetle, after about 80 years in production.

I owned it in 1973, so, although only ten years old, my 1963 Volkswagen Beetle was a rusted clunker by the time I bought it for $100. I knew some people, and was able to get it mechanically certified, although in retrospect, it really wasn’t roadworthy.

It was a faded steel-blue colour and had a small 1200-cc engine with minimal horsepower. A quart of oil every 100 miles or so kept the engine running.

Much of what made it special is looked at through the rear-view mirror of my life.

It had a manual transmission, which I still enjoy driving to this day. It was rusty. So rusty, that the running boards, yes, it had running boards, were unsafe to step on. They had rusted away from the front fenders, and the front fenders were partially rusted away from the body, so that when I got going at any speed, the air would pool under the fenders, and make them “Thwap” against the side of the car.

Volkswagen option packages were minimalist. On this model, there was no gas gauge. It’s not as if there was a gas gauge and
it didn’t work—there was no gas gauge to begin with. The way you kept track of your gas was roughly by noting how long it had been since your last fill up, and if the engine started to sputter, there was a lever on the floor that you would kick over with your foot while driving and it gave you a final gallon of gas to get you to a gas station. Very rudimentary, but it saved me numerous times.

My model didn’t have a heater fan either. The defrosting system for the front window, and heat for the whole car, was a couple
of small vents at the side of the windshield. When the engine got warmed up, some heat would be directed by convection onto the windshield from these vents but not with a fan. So, in winter, there would be days when the front windshield never got totally defrosted and the interior never got warm. I kept an ice scraper handy for the inside of the window and blankets for the passengers. Winter driving was an exercise in acrobatics, steering, shifting, scraping. Texting and coffee on the go had not been invented yet.

I had to drive on the highway to get to my summer job, but if I got going more than 45 miles per hour, an acrid smell would creep in and the cabin would begin to fill with smoke. I stayed in the slow lane and drove with the windows open.

Near the end of the car’s life, the starter failed on it, and I didn’t have the money to fix it. Being a manual, it could be push-started. I was young and strong and the car was light. For the last few months that I owned it, I would get it rolling myself, jump in, put it in gear, pop the clutch and be on my way. I would back into parking spots at malls, so I could push it out of the spot and bump start it myself.

What I liked most, apart from the adventure of driving down the highway with the car filling up with smoke and fenders flapping in the breeze while I scraped the windshield, was the fact that the car literally came alive when I started it. There was no doubt that this car had personality! I had my VW Beetle for less than a year, but I survived the experience and I lived, loved and laughed in that car. Unforgettable times!

If you enjoyed that fond look back at the 1963 Volkswagen Beetle, don’t miss the heartwarming story behind this family’s 1950 Dodge Ram.

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Originally Published in Our Canada