Saturday, January 29, 2011

The Karmann GoNot

Looking around the student parking lot on campus, I have begun to wonder what happened to the concept of a starving student. Cars driven by the students appear to be worth much more than the cars driven by the faculty.

Many years ago, my wife and I were students, and I think we could genuinely be described as, if not starving, then at least somewhat underfed students. And this was reflected by our car: we didn’t have one. We either walked or rode the bus everywhere we went. As we were going to school in Houston, this was a real hardship. Houston is one of the great car cities; it is hard to live there without a car.

So, my wife and I started looking for something in our price range. Well, it wasn’t exactly a range, we had $75. We could have gone up to $85, but it would have meant skipping a few meals. Luckily, we found a car for sale for exactly $75. And, compounding our luck, the man selling it lived on a bus route. When you are car shopping by public transportation, your choices are limited.

The car was a 1959 Karmann Ghia Type 14 Coupe. This was a sports car where the engine and chassis were proven German engineering coupled with an Italian styled body. Damn, that sounds exotic. What we actually had was a twelve year old Volkswagen underneath an aging Italian body. Some things age like fine wine. Italian sports cars age like milk. Putting these two halves together may have been some form of revenge for us winning that war. This poor car had lived most of its life too close to salt water, and the only precision instrument the previous owner had used for maintenance must have been six feet of rusty chain.

The car, while running, was a wreck. We bought it immediately and drove it home. I think the top speed we achieved on that first trip was about 10 miles an hour, but I’m not sure as the speedometer wasn’t connected.

Almost nothing worked as it should. As we began the laborious task of repairing the car, we discovered it was a rolling disaster area. Someone had rewired the car using assorted appliance cord and stereo speaker wire. The brakes, windshield wipers, hand brake, and starter were sort of iffy. The heater could not be turned off. The battery could only reliably hold a charge until you needed to use it, and the transmission was not a team player. The car had an independent steering system, meaning it would independently decide to suddenly change lanes. With luck, we could usually get three of the four cylinders to fire. We loved that car.

I remember pushing that car a lot, usually to get it started. This took more than a few people to push it fast and long enough for the engine to fire. As Blanche Dubois said, we frequently depended on the kindness of strangers. I also remember more than a few flats. We could not afford new or even retreaded tires, so we kept patching the original tires; a set of Dunflopped Maypops.

Still, this was quite a learning experience for both of us. My wife learned I had a full set of wrenches and an fuller vocabulary of curse words. I learned she had double jointed hands. While trying to get enough gas to manually feed the carburetor, I dropped a turkey baster into the gas tank. She promptly reached down there and retrieved it. Looking at the tiny hole she had just put her hand through was the first time I believed she might actually accomplish her dream of going to medical school and becoming a surgeon.

While I never did get that car in really good shape, it did have something of a high point: our last real ride in the car was its crowning moment.

I had cleaned the spark plugs, replaced some more of the melting wiring, and generally hammered it back into a shape that looked like a car. It was late one night when I turned the key and it actually started right up. It even sounded pretty good, a nice deep roaring noise. Of course that was mainly due to the faulty muffler wrapped in duct tape, but it was the time for a test ride. My wife and I roared off, taking a trip down a long curving road. I had the pedal buried in the floor, wind was blowing wildly through the holes in the floorboards and we got up to an amazing 35 miles per hour!

And that’s when the engine died, the headlights went out and the hood flew up. It’s also when we decided to sell it.

In some ways, this really was the perfect car for us as we could not have afforded the gas and maintenance for a real car, that Karmann Ghia was more of a hobby than transportation. My wife and I had a lot of fun working on that car together and it was sort of sad when we finally realized that it was not worth the effort. Eventually we sold it to someone else for the same price we had paid, $75. I hope they had half the fun with that car we did.

I feel sort of sorry for students of today. Forty years from now, it will be a little boring for someone to write a blog where they say, “Yeah, I had a car in college. It always worked. Eventually, I sold it and bought another one that worked.”

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