It stopped me in my tracks as while crossing a supermarket parking lot.
It was only a car, but it might as well have been a time machine. In the space of a single step, it transported me from the present to my teenage years.
It was a Volkswagen Karmann Ghia, the same color and possibly the same year as one I bought in my senior year of high school. How long had it been since I’d seen one like it?
The Karmann Ghia was my second car. My first was a decrepit MG sports car, a ragtop – emphasis on rags. Its windows were windows in name only, flapping pieces of plastic that never stayed in place and spent most of their time in the trunk. One of the car’s wheels fell off at a stop sign.
It had a crack in the floor on the passenger’s side, discovered when I drove through a puddle one rainy night and a geyser drenched my girlfriend. We’d been arguing, and she refused to believe that I hadn’t done it on purpose. Her nickname for the car was “the cave,” to which it bore a passing resemblance – close to the ground, uncomfortable, cold, drafty.
My father warned me me not to buy it. The salesman who sold it to me warned me not to buy it. It cost $400, and another $400 to keep it running for a year.
Compared to the MG, the Karmann Ghia was a Rolls Royce.
“Wow!” the aforementioned girlfriend said when she saw it for the first time. “It’s not a cave. It’s a real car!”
Karmann Ghias were Volkswagen’s attempt to turn its ubiquitous Beetle into something resembling a sports car. The idea was to take the Beetle’s platform and mechanical parts and dress them up with a sleek new body. Karmann Ghias were lower, wider and longer than Beetles and cost a few hundred dollars more. Fewer than 400,000 of them were ever built.
Mine was dark red with a white interior. The transmission was a stick shift, four on the floor. (How many teenagers today know what a stick shift is, let alone how to use one?) The instrument cluster consisted of a speedometer and a clock, with a small, circular-shaped gas gauge between them. Simplicity itself. Everything you needed and nothing you didn’t. Digital instruments were yet to be imagined, let alone invented,
The speedometer went to 90 mph, about half of the upper speed limit on some contemporary speedometers but more than enough. Like all Volkswagens of the era, the only way it would reach 90 mph would be careening down a steep incline in an almighty tailwind.
The headlight dimmer switch was on the floor. You pushed the button with your foot to dim the lights, and again to turn on the brights. Switching on the bright lights illuminated a small, blue light on the speedometer.
The blue light may have been my favorite thing about the car. I’ve always been a sucker for glowing lights on dashboards, once giving my father the cold shoulder for buying a boring Buick instead of an Oldsmobile with a big red jewel light that gleamed mesmerizingly from its dashboard.
It was the Karmann Ghia that accompanied me on one of the most memorable trips of my teenage life. Feeling restless one night, I succumbed to an irresistible urge to drive to San Francisco.
“San Francisco! Alone?” my startled parents asked.
“Late at night? Have you lost your mind?”
You couldn’t blame them, really. They were rightly concerned about my safety. Most parents would react exactly the same way, probably even more so today.
Convinced that their son was serious and hadn’t lost his marbles, they reluctantly relented.
“Have you got enough money?” Dad asked.
I had, if memory serves, about $40. That wouldn’t pay for an overnight trip to, say, Jordan Valley these days, but it was a different world then. The Karmann Ghia’s gas tank could be filled for about three bucks. A McDonald’s hamburger cost a quarter, and you actually could get a room at a Motel 6 for six dollars.
Oddly, I remember very little about my time in San Francisco on that trip. I probably went to the beach and Golden Gate Park, maybe Chinatown and Coit Tower, but it’s hard to be certain. What I do remember vividly is the drive itself.
There was something immensely satisfying about being 18 and taking a trip by yourself in your own car that you paid for yourself, enjoying the freedom and independence of being on the open road on a starry night. Even the Nevada desert was beautiful in the moonlight.
The Karmann Ghia hummed along without a hitch, gliding through silent, empty spaces and occasional towns. Even economy cars need to stop for gas now and then, however, and on a lonely stretch of desert with no town anywhere within an hour or so, the needle on fuel gauge was pointing perilously close to empty. The unexpected lights of a gas station in the middle of nowhere couldn’t have been more welcome.
The station appeared to be open, but no one seemed to be around. No attendant to pump the gas, no one in the office. A peek into a back room revealed the reason why. The attendant had zero interest in pumping gas at that hour. He was otherwise engaged with his girlfriend. I filled the tank myself, quietly left some bills on the office desk and left, wondering about the scene that would have played out if I’d been his boss instead of a customer.
My companion on that night drive was the friendly blue light on the speedometer. Its steady, dependable glow was reassuring, keeping me company in the long stretches of darkness.
A new Karmann Ghia in those days cost about $2,300. Mine, used, would have been hundreds less. Today, a restored one like it would sell for more than either of my first two houses cost.
I should have hung onto it. The memories alone would have been priceless.
Tim Woodward’s column appears every other Sunday in The Idaho Press and is posted on woodwardblog.com the following Mondays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
8 thoughts on “Not Just a Car, a Time Machine”
Tim – me too! I bought a dark green one from a college roommate for $400 in 1973. Called it “The poor man’s sports car.” Worked on it myself with help from “The Idiots Guide to VW Maintenance” (still have it I think). Leaked badly, so I drilled holes in the floor so the Eugene rain wouldn’t swoosh up on my date’s feet. Sold it for $400 to pay half the cost of my son’s birth.
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The Karman Ghia was a beautiful car. With the simplicity and reliability of a VW Beetle. Unfortunately I never owned one. As a teenager I couldn’t afford “sport’s car” insurance rates. Never mind the KG was never a sports car!
Great memories. Our family had one of the first Beetle Volkswagens. When we drove to Minnesota in it with three boys all pre-school age, we placed luggage in the leg area of the back seat, making it level, creating a huge playpen, got the boys, because of course there were no seatbelts then (1957), either. Driving through small towns in the Midwest, people would stare because they had never seen a VW!
Too bad you doin’t still have that car, Gayle. Restored, it would be worth a lot of money now. Not to mention the sentimental value.
Thanks for the memories Tim. Mine was a cross country trip at age 19 in my Datsun pickup—California to North Carolina for a friend’s wedding.
Not to mention the great gas mileage!!!
Wow, Papa! Great column. Beautifully written and I felt like I was right there with you. Joe Levitch has one, I believe! I should see if he still has it and have him take you for a spin in it.
Thanks, Andie. Glad you liked it.