Monday, April 12, 2010


A good long time ago, I owned a 1960 VW “Beetle,” which was cherry red and which broke down often, perhaps because my hard driving was not matched well with the 40 horsepower engine. Yet it was so simple a car, with technology borrowed from Henry Ford, that, like the Model T, it could often be repaired on the road, on the run.

It was not unusual for me, then a 21-year-old, to pull off the road and change the VW’s four sparkplugs or take the carburetor apart and then get moving again. Once, when coming off the Palisades Interstate Parkway in Bardonia, N.Y., I had to coast to a stop onto West Clarkstown Road after I realized I had no accelerator pedal.

Now, this was in 1963, 47 years before Toyota, then not even a pronounceable name in the United States, had its celebrated accelerator problems. Unlike Toyota’s gas pedals, which are electronic, the old VW’s was fastened to a long wire than ran 10 feet or so back to the rear engine. The cable had rusted and snapped, and so I had no way to control acceleration.

Or did I? I said this was an easy vehicle to repair. The German “people’s car,” ordered by Adolph Hitler and owing its design to Ferdinand Porsche, was built with some components based on Ford’s ideas, after German engineers visited his factories.

While Hitler’s thoughts and application were madman-oriented, the VW spawned during the 1930s and adapted for military use during World War II actually proved good for people all over the world following rejuvenation by the British, who took over the factory.

So little changed in the car over the decades. And so it was that when the accelerator cable broke on my Beetle in 1963 I was able to come up with a commonsense solution, just like so many did with the Model T. It wasn’t my brain working so much as it was the American genius Ford.

I found a piece of wood on the side of the road and wedged it into the carburetor linkage, which made the engine race. I then let out the clutch in gear three of four and went up the one-mile hill toward my Hillcrest home, pushing in the clutch when I had to stop and lurching forward when I wanted to move.

Once home, I borrowed neighbor Isaac Pfeffer’s big Buick, went to VW and bought a new accelerator cable for $7.95, soldered the old one to the new one and threaded it back to the carburetor, where I made a connection. All was well again – until the next simple-to-fix breakdown.

No simple fixes for the Toyota pedals, however. No $7.95 repairs. Also, no comparison between the ancient VW Beetle and today’s safer, smoother, more comfortable cars.

Yet somehow, lost in the transition of “progress,” is the Henry Ford idea that the car ought to be fixable by the user. Or maybe we should start taking mechanics with us, as Ford did in his race cars, riding “shotgun.”

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