Sunday, July 4, 2010

A bug's life

"Come and see this car," beckoned my girlfriend as she appeared in the flat this afternoon. It was an odd request for several reasons; principally because she tends to treat cars with a level of disinterest normally reserved for me flicking through a shoe catalogue. Something about this particular example had clearly caught her attention though.

A friend had given her a lift in what turned out to be a 1973 Volkswagen Beetle. It was sporting a slight patina, with the odd scratch and dent that only added to its appeal (as befits a trusty workhorse that brought every day transport to millions).

I know the phrase 'character' is banded about too frequently in automotive circles, and often used as a euphemism for something less flattering, but the humble little bug really did have it by the bucket load. I was busy mumbling my appreciation when the owner thrust the keys forward and asked if I'd like to have a go. Under the circumstances it would have been rude not to.

After a couple of stabs of the throttle to prime its carburettor, the horizontally opposed 4 chuntered into life and settled to a percussive idle. The first tentative steps were all surprisingly easy. The clutch was light and progressive, the gearshift was actually better than you might expect given it's a 40 year old mechanism operating something at the other end of the car and, to my amazement, the brakes were both well servoed and reasonably effective.

Predictably, the performance wasn't spectacular by modern standards, but there was something very engaging about the way the ancient 1500cc engine went its about business. The same could be said for the dynamics. The steering was extremely light around the straight-ahead, feeling a little floaty under normal circumstances, but it weighted up markedly under lock, requiring a degree of effort at manoeuvring speeds. The only really issue came from the gearbox, which seemed to be losing its synchromesh on second, but, to be honest, double de-clutching on the way back only added to the retro experience.

So does this mean I'm a Vee Dub convert? Well, yes and no. I'm not sure I'd want to forego the conveniences of a modern run-around for one. And, engaging as it was, I wasn't sufficiently smitten to want to swap the Caterham for one as a toy. But, if money was no object - after half a dozen assorted Astons, the odd Ferrari and various other types of exotica - there might just be a space for the bug in my fantasy garage.

(Photo: VW/Newspress)

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