left.jpg Picture of the Week - 5 right.jpg
A Picture taken by Jasper Fforde

December 1986: My 1956 VW Beetle, Cowley Peachey, Uxbridge.

   When you're a nineteen-year-old car nut with a mechanical bent you tend to fixate on three possibilities: tinkering around with Minis, tinkering around with Ford Escorts, or tinkering around with Beetles. Clearly, I was smitten by the latter, and do have a fondness for them even now, despite their shortcomings (of which they have many, notably an inability to stay on the road when it's wet, and the curious distinction of being able to skin every knuckle no matter how small the job.)

   I have owned many Beetles in my life; at least eight, plus a Beach Buggy, a Baja and a pair of split-screen campers. I even flew behind a Beetle engine when I owned a JT-1 aircraft, and have built a VW racing engine from the crank up. Ah, fond memories.

Still, the Beetle you see pictured was the oldest I owned - all the way from 1956.

   Driving Classic/Vintage is always something of an adventure, and a simple trip to the shops can sometimes require weeks of planning. High points of driving APC 550 were outwardly dramatic, but something of a damp squib when it came to the consequences. The first incident of note was when I was driving down a road near Uxbridge, when there was a feeling a bit like a fine cattle-grid.

   "Oh," said my then-partner, well used to my battered old vehicles by now, "what's that vibration?".
  In denial as always, I was about to open my mouth to say it was the road surface when with a wallow and a thump, the car went down on the left-hand front corner, followed by an odd noise, suspiciously like iron on asphalt. I steered the car into a handy parking place, and got out to find the entire wheel had fallen off.
   "Your entire wheel has fallen off," said a passer-by who witnessed the merry scene.
   "Oh, it does that from time to time," I replied calmly, looking up to see a single wheel, lying in the road, with traffic threading their way around it as if it was a mini-roundabout.
   "The wheel has come off," said my then-partner, "in the road, over there."
   "Yes, well, I can see that," I replied stupidly, and ran to pick it up.
   Underneath it were a neat heap of five wheel-nuts which had not been tightened. I jacked up the car and put the wheel back on, and we were off again in five minutes, no less the worse for the incident. What's strange is that the car was totally controllable once the wheel was off. Mind you, it might have been a different story at 50MPH.

   The second incident of note is witness by the blackened stain on the boot-lid - an engine fire. Again, this sounds dramatic but it wasn't. Of course, the biggest problem about Volkswagen engine fires is that you don't know you've got one, and since the fuel tank is in the front there is actually no danger of disappearing in a ball of fire - no, that delight is reserved for a frontal impact.
  So I was driving along, again near Uxbridge, when I look out of the rear mirror and notice that the car is smoking a bit more than usual. Actually, a LOT more than usual, so I pull over and put out the fire with my trusty fire extinguisher.
   The problem is that the carburetor is above the distributor, and if a fuel hose leaks, there is a very handy point of ignition to make it all become dramatic. I mended the burned out wires with some old lamp-flex I had with me, and carried on.
  The reason I had a fire extinguisher on me? Yes, you've guessed it - I've had beetles catch fire on me not once, but twice.
  And if you think that's irresponsible, you'd be right. But looking back on it now, it all seemed like a bit of a lark. But I survived it. And I still carry a fire extinguisher in any old car I drive, just in case.

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