Carini: Road-tripping my ’71 Super Beetle to college seemed like a good idea

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Volkswagen

There’s nothing like a road trip—even if it’s a terrible one. In fact, awful road trips often create the best memories.

In early August 1970, I flew to Idaho to start my freshman year of college. I arrived in Idaho Falls and headed to campus, where I shared an apartment with four strangers with whom I eventually became good friends.

Like so many college kids, I needed a job, and with my experience, it was easy to find work at a body shop. I was soon hired at the Ford dealership for $5 an hour and all the cookies I could eat.

I could walk to classes, but I needed transportation to get to work. One of my co-workers sold me an old Suzuki motorcycle for $50. I rode it all over town, and as fall turned to winter in Idaho, I discovered that motorcycles tended to fall down—a lot—in the snow.

I went home to Connecticut for Christmas break and told my father I needed a car. We found a 1971 VW Super Beetle that had been hit hard in the front. We sourced a good front clip to graft onto the car, and Dad worked with me as we welded it to the unibody in the middle of the rocker panels. I then resprayed the front of the car to match the original silver-blue paint, and it was running and driving within a week. A week later, it was registered and I was packed.

The VW may have been relatively new, with only about 10,000 miles on the odometer, but it had been in a major accident and was mechanically unknown. For some reason, I thought it was a good idea to drive it 2300 miles to Idaho. Heading out solo, I had my toolbox, an eight-track tape player with four tapes, a sleeping bag, and my clothes. The car didn’t even have a radio.

I aimed the Super Beetle west using an AAA route book to guide me. Along the way, I stopped in Chicago, where my aunt and uncle fed me, gave me a bed, and slipped me $20. I was a poor college kid, so I could only afford one night in a motel. The other nights I slept alongside the highway, bundled up in the sleeping bag and my Air Force surplus coat.

Each morning, I’d scrape the windshield and all the windows—on the inside and outside. On the road, it took about an hour to get any kind of warm air from the VW’s heater box to the defroster vents. I wasn’t too cold during the day when the sun was out, but it got colder after dark. One night, even the carburetor froze, making the Beetle especially hard to start.

While I was traveling the desolate roads of Wyoming, the wind buffeted the VW and I started to see the carcasses of semitrailers that had been swept onto their sides. Wind-driven snow made visibility difficult, and many trucks and cars had pulled onto the shoulder. Suddenly, the wind hit the car so hard that it tilted onto two wheels, and I thought it was going to roll. I stopped under a bridge to escape the wind. When I opened the door, it was ripped out of my hands and slammed forward into the fender, badly bending the hinges. Using a small socket as a fulcrum, I managed to bend the hinges back until I could close the door.

Into the wind, the little car struggled in third gear, and I didn’t know what to do, so I pulled into a truck stop. The waitress asked me where I was headed, and I told her I was returning to school in Idaho. I also mentioned that I was going to wait for the winds to die down. She told me that if I did that, I’d be there for a few months.

Back on the road near Laramie, it was so dreadful I couldn’t get the VW out of second gear. After the cold and difficult drive, I was so excited to hit the Idaho border, knowing that I could grab a hot shower, sleep in a warm bed, and have all the cookies I could eat. Considering what I had put it through, the Bug certainly deserved a cookie, too.

At the close of the school year, a girl I was dating needed a ride home to California, so I volunteered. After getting her there, I sold the VW to her brother and took the fast way home—I flew!

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