Thursday 5 July 2012


It's 1959 and we were the proud owners of an oval window Volkswagen Beetle. A sort of metallic grey colour (although the term hadn't fallen into common usage at the time), it was a delightful little car. My dad's standing there in the prime of life and obviously delighted with this German motoring masterpiece. An aircraft engineer by profession and a car and motorcycle nut by choice, he'd had dozens of vehicles, most of which he'd fixed up himself, but this was the first he'd bought from a recognised motor dealer. Not new, it was but a very few years old and in great condition. Its maximum speed, around 70mph, was also the cruising speed and its flat four air-cooled engine made a delicious sound from the back. A particular curiosity was the (and a first for us) windscreen washers being powered by compressed air drawn from the valve in the spare wheel located under the bonnet. Too many rainy days and it was advisable not to have a puncture. The poor car was grossly overloaded in this photograph carrying the remnants of the contents of my grandma's home - we were about to set off on a sixty mile trip, and as far as I can remember nothing fell off.

The Beetle was a source of fascination to him, and as he had to know how everything worked, he pulled the engine out one day on some pretext or another - satisfied, he put it all back together on the next. Eventually of course he tired of this faithful servant and bought a nice, but thoroughly corroded Borgward Isabella ts - another German car but nowhere near to being in the same league as far as build quality was concerned, yet satisfying his latent sporting motorist pretensions. By then his predilection for falling asleep at the wheel (he was a flight engineer and obviously suffered from what we now know as 'jet lag' but was then 'propellor lag') on his long drive home from trips abroad, saw the Borgward vanish down and along a construction trench in the road, never to exit. He wasn't injured and neither were the surprised pipe-layers who gentlemanly helped him from the steaming wreck after he'd almost killed them.

Oval window Beetles, like their earlier cousins the split window models, are much sought after these days and command huge money. I can't remember what we paid for ours but it wasn't more than a few hundred pounds, although that seemed like a small fortune at the time. I learned (illegally) to drive in it aged ten, and having been seen doing so was  reported to the police - fortunately having recently broken my arm, the old man managed to talk the sergeant who'd come to see us, out of the threat of prosecution, pointing to my left arm in plaster.

Here's to the VW Beetle, designed under Hitler but turned, thank goodness, to more peaceful use by the British occupying forces who took over the Volkswagen factory. They got the production lines going again after the war, thus paving the way for VW to become one of the world's most successful car companies. Ironic, eh?


Peter Ashley said...

Lovely post Jon, thankyou. But 'Borgward Isabella'! That takes me back, back to my 60's Observers Books of Automobiles.

Thud said...

I fondly remember my fathers first car, a ford Pop. It was old even then but the world (well Britain) became our oyster...great stuff.

Jon Dudley said...

The Borgward was a good car but appeared to be made of recycled baked bean cans...or at least ours was. I saw the Beetle years later, still doing sterling service, from the top of a double decker bus on a school day trip to Walton-on-the-Naze.

It's amazing to think now Thud, when the world and his wife have motorised transport, just how many families in the 50's relied solely on public transport. And just how liberating the acquisition of same really was.

Philip Wilkinson said...

I remember, when I was a small boy, seeing a Borgward Isabella for the first time and spelling out the name of the marque to myself, having never come across it before, and being transfixed by the stylized script of the badge above the front wheel arch. I think I must have been getting a sense of something slightly other, from a different world than the Ford Anglias and Morris Minors that I was used to.