Cute as a Bug

According to fans, no other car speaks to drivers like the Volkswagen does. Photos by Phil Houseal

May 10, 2017–Anyone who has ever owned a Volkswagen Beetle will understand.

My wife does. She owned an early 1970s model, robin’s egg blue convertible. Cute, affordable, and got good mileage. But when she started dating this homeless farm boy musician, something had to give–it wasn’t big enough to carry his drum set. So, we sold it. For far too little now, but a windfall then.

We fit right in with the hordes of collectors attending the Volkswagen Festival held recently at Lady Bird Johnson Park. Everyone I met there–everyone–had a similar memory of a beloved car with those iconic letters V and W on the hood.

“It’s precious metal,” said Elaine from Oklahoma, when I asked a group about the enduring attraction of these bug-shaped vehicles. “You take something you find under a tree, you put it back as close to original as you can get it, and you love it.”

“It’s the ‘people’s car,’” said Paula, another fan. “When I take my car and fill it with gas, I’m there 45 minutes or an hour because people want to talk about my car.”

The event is the loving child of Steve and Sharon Chamberlain of Cedar Creek. They have been hosting it for 14 years. The most recent one was over Easter weekend, so I puttered through the crowds to try to understand what motivated people from their teens to their 80s to continue the legacy.

Elaine had a story similar to my wife’s. Except her dad didn’t let her buy a bug when she was a teenager.

“My dad said I couldn’t have one because I could die,” she said, alluding to the perception of the driver being unsafe in the little vehicle. “So I didn’t get one until after I was married.”

Why her fascination with the Beetle?

“They were cheap, and we didn’t have any money,” she said, then added, “And they are cute.”

Ah, the “cute” factor. That’s partly what attracts “family” from around the world, according to the Chamberlains. They register as many as 400 cars, with visitors this year from Mexico, England, Dominican Republic, Germany, Japan, “and probably every state.”

The grounds are filled with every model of Volkswagen, from the original Beetle to the latest Passat. Some are in mint condition; others have been customized into psychedelic campers. Owners swap parts, tips, and tales.

It’s a passion.

“The whole purpose is not to make money,” Chamberlain said. “We do it because we enjoy VWs. People ask us, do you buy and sell VWs? I say, ‘Sell?’”

Walking around, you can see that many of the attendees come from that 1960s era, or, as one person stated, “old hippies.” But the idea that Volkswagens are just for baby boomers trying to recapture their lost childhoods was challenged when I met Hector and Cleto.

Hector is a 33-year-old who grew up in Mexico City. Cleto is his Shar-Pei dog that accompanies him to every show.

Hector’s family actually did drive Volkswagens, because they were still made in South America through 2003. He now lives in Dallas, where he works as a mechanic. In his spare time he buys and fixes up Volkswagens. His current ride is a cherry red bug with Coca Cola emblazoned on the side.

He and his young friends in his VW “Klub” go against the assumption this is a hobby for old people.

“My first car was a ’69 VW that my uncle bought for me,” Hector said. “I liked it; I fixed it up; I sold it to buy another. I know it’s for old people, but everybody loves it. If you see anyone in a VW on the street, you stop them and say hi. VW is family.”

“Veteran” Volkswagen owners welcome the younger crowd.

“The VW resonates with a whole generation of people,” Paula said. “Kids that weren’t even born then love it.”

Elaine’s daughter “used to be embarrassed.”

“She would dive for cover when we pulled up in our VW,” Elaine said. “Now she appreciates it.”

Every car ever made has some type of following. But with Volkswagens, it hits a new level. Hobbyists? Collectors? Club? Cult?

“We’re not a cult, we’re a family,” Elaine repeated.

Does my wife wish she still had her baby blue bug? It was unsafe, unreliable, couldn’t carry squat, and leaked when it rained.

“Yes,” she said. “Cutest thing ever.”

Details:

For information on shows and events, visit www.texasvwclassic.com.