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Peter Cheney in one of his Volkswagen Beetles (Peter Cheney/Peter Cheney/The Globe and Mail)
Peter Cheney in one of his Volkswagen Beetles (Peter Cheney/Peter Cheney/The Globe and Mail)

Road Rush

A Bug's life: my unbreakable bond with the Beetle Add to ...

The Volkswagen Beetle is an unlikely legend. Commissioned by Adolf Hitler, its dark political lineage was the least of its problems. The Beetle had inadequate brakes, dangerous handling, and a weak engine. The windshield washer sucked air out of the spare tire.

But the Beetle helped me land my wife and pay my way through university. This is the story of my time with the People's Car. It's a love story, but with conditions. When I was a little boy, dreaming about Porsches and Ferraris I had no way of knowing that my deepest automotive relationship would be with the Beetle, one of the cheapest and most deeply flawed cars ever built.

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When Volkswagen announced the latest version of the Beetle this year, I shook my head. The legend lives. Or does it? The original Beetle was produced for more than 60 years, and became the best-selling car of all time. It had an air-cooled engine, mounted in the back. The 2012 Beetle has a water-cooled engine, mounted in the front. Unlike the original, the 2012 Beetle has good brakes and a steering shaft that won't impale you in a head-on collision.

All good. But how can a good, safe car be a Beetle? Flawed design was as intrinsic to the People's Car as tight leather pants and drug abuse were to The Doors.

I bought my first Beetle in my late teens, an age particularly prone to romantic delusion. I saw my Beetle as a poor man's Porsche (classic design, German heritage, rear-mounted boxer engine). It had just 35 horsepower, but that would change thanks to the brilliant mechanical upgrades I planned.

The Beetle was a blank canvas. You could project your dreams upon it, however strange they might be. Some remade their Beetles as rolling Marrakesh bazaars, hung with roach clips and peace symbols. Others converted them into dune buggies, pickup trucks or jitneys. Mine would be a tiny, snarling German sports car. Or so I hoped.

I spent the next six months on the cold concrete floor of my parent's carport, hammering out the dented body panels, fixing the brakes and souping up the engine. (I thought a bigger carburetor would make my Beetle faster. I was wrong.) I was also wrong about the steering, the suspension and the heating system, which had flaws that could be traced back to the time of the Fuhrer.

The brakes were the size of snuff cans. The heating system passed air over the hot exhaust system, so even the smallest rust hole pumped poisonous gases into the passenger cabin. Worst of all, the rear-mounted engine and suspension design created dynamic instability that called for a master's touch at the wheel. (I did not have a master's touch at the wheel.)

But I was young and ambitious, and I had a vision. Months later, my Beetle's horsepower had risen from 35 to approximately 36, and the carport was strewn with tools and how-to books. (I was an English student, not a mechanic, so I learned from the printed word.) Those were some of the best days of my life.

A few months later, I decided to take a break from school and apply for a job in a Porsche-VW shop. I got the position because I had my own tools, and because I spoke English, the language of the shop's customers.

By the time I left the shop to attend journalism school, I was a full-fledged mechanic, and I knew almost everything there was to know about the VW Beetle, which is to say that I was now fully aware of its problems. The air-cooled engine was a gross polluter. The cylinder heads rattled like castanets. The distinctive curved shape generated aerodynamic lift - at high speed the Beetle turned into a wing, and the suspension design compounded the problem, making the car seriously unstable.

I didn't care. I was now a professional VW mechanic. The Beetle's humped shape was a love-hate thing, and I had come down on the love side of the fence. I'd bought and sold half a dozen Beetles, and before heading back to university, I purchased and rebuilt one more - a royal blue 1967.

The Beetle had come to define my existence. Fixing them for a living had given me the money I needed for school, and my mechanical skills meant that I could keep my own car running instead of paying others. As a bonus, some of my fellow students paid me to fix their Beetles.

I was a Beetle man. My Beetle even helped woo the woman I wanted to marry (my roommate's girlfriend, Marian). My roommate drove a Chevy Nova, and my little blue car struck Marian as deeply exotic. Cruising in the Beetle forged our relationship, and Marian was amazed that I knew how fix my own car. (I didn't tell her that an original Beetle is one of the easiest cars in the world to work on.)

My years of repairing and driving Beetles had taught me how to cope with the car's numerous faults. I had upgraded mine with Porsche brakes, and trained myself never to suddenly chop the throttle if I found myself going too fast in a corner (to do so is to invite a spin, maybe even a rollover). And yet I scoffed when others called the Beetle dangerous. Yes, it was easy to spin. Yes, it was unstable at high speed. And yes, it had all the crash protection of a motorized Coors can. But I didn't intend to crash.

Some part of me knew the critics were right. I had been with an ex-girlfriend when she lost control of one of my favourite Beetles and went off the road, destroying the car. (She had made the cardinal error of chopping the throttle when the car swerved on gravel.)

I attributed the crash to her lack of skill, but the Beetle was not a forgiving car. Behind the Herbie the Love Bug myth was a little car with nasty handling dynamics and design defects that had created entire industries. One of my friends made a small fortune by opening a machine shop that modified VW engines to eliminate some of their more egregious flaws - like misaligned engine cases and cylinder-head studs that refused to stay tight. (The slipping studs meant the valves constantly fell out of adjustment, creating an ongoing revenue stream for VW mechanics like myself.)

The Beetle's flaws were offset by some inspiring abilities. The chassis and body were so well sealed that the car could float on water. The rear engine made it almost unstoppable on snow or sand. And the car was stunningly simple, with a shape dictated by sheer utility.

And now there's a new Beetle. It's better than the last New Beetle (the 1998 version), which struck aficionados as a disgusting attempt at strip-mining the mojo of the original, a car that rolled through the Second World War and Woodstock. And now we have the next attempt - the 2012 car. Its roofline looks a lot like the Beetles I once loved, and beneath its metal skin is a set of mechanicals that I would have installed myself, if I'd only been able - a smooth, water-cooled engine, six-speed transmission and disc brakes.

Will the new car become a classic? I doubt it. The first Beetle was imperfect. The new one eliminates its faults, yet loses the magic and the history that came with them. Some cars are loved. Some are not. Who can explain it? But no one weeps at the grave of the Pontiac Firefly. The Beetle is another story.

For more from Peter Cheney, go to facebook.com/cheneydrive (No login required!)

Twitter: Peter Cheney@cheneydrive

E-mail: pcheney@globeandmail.com

Globe and Mail Road Rush archive: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/globe-drive/car-life/cheney/

Follow on Twitter: @cheneydrive

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