Avoidable Contact #68: A housecat falls in love, once more, with a Fox

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woman sits on car by riverbank
Nick Bygrave

“What kind of trips did you take in your Fox?” Gosh, that’s the one question I was hoping Olivia wouldn’t ask. Thirty years ago, I’d have been strongly tempted to lie in response; 15 years ago, I’d likely have offered some sort of evasion. As I shamble towards the completion of my fifth decade, however, I’ve come to appreciate the obscure advantages of age that trail the obvious miseries at a more-than-respectful distance, and one of them is this: I had neither a reason, nor the ability, to impress the young woman who was asking the question. So …

“Olivia,” I replied, “I didn’t go anywhere at all.” It’s true. John Mayer once sang, “I am not a nomad / I am not a rocket man / I was born a housecat / by the sleight of my mother’s hand,” and I can sympathize. In 1990, when I took delivery of my four-speed, bland-silver, two-door, four-speed Fox, I had nowhere to go with it. Flat broke and working long hours all that summer, I never even left the state of Ohio. In the five years that followed, I went to Kentucky a few times, for bike races … and that was it. At the time, I complained that I didn’t have the money or the time to have any real adventures in the car, but the truth was that I just didn’t have any sort of yearning to roam whatsoever. Not until my thirties could I bring myself to simply travel for the sake of the trip, and then only rarely.

Last month, however, I found myself traveling back in time, courtesy of 21-year-old Olivia and her 31-year-old four-speed Volkswagen Fox. I’d seen her and the car on the Instagram page of FIAT parts specialist Nick Bygrave, and had been immediately intrigued. The Fox looked perfect. Better than mine had looked when I traded it back in ’95. I messaged Nick, and he set us up, having warned Olivia in advance that I was the sort of Neanderthal one rarely finds outside a natural-history museum nowadays. If she was concerned by this, she didn’t communicate that concern.

Nick Bygrave

I rolled up to a riverside park near Upper Arlington, Ohio, on my snorting Kawasaki ZX-14R to find Olivia standing next to her new car. She’s the second owner, having just acquired it last month. Her predecessors dragged the Fox for 215,000 miles behind a Fleetwood Bounder RV before retiring it to storage. This relatively uncomplicated existence goes a long way to explain the near-pristine state of the Fox, and it also offers a few clues as to why it was painted to match the Bounder, right down to the little kangaroo silhouette on the rear quarter panels.

Nick Bygrave

Olivia told me this and a few other stories about the Fox, including one concerning the hasty fabrication of a shift linkage on Nick’s part to replace the broken original one she now wears on a metal ring linked to her belt. She also told me about herself. A recent arrival to Ohio from the West Coast and something of a free spirit, she specializes in “handpoke” tattoos, simple line drawings done one painful ink needle push at a time, without a tattoo gun. Having survived 48 years with about two lateral feet of scarring and a half-pound of titanium bone reinforcement but not a single “tat,” I was both fascinated and terrified at the idea of sitting there for a few hours and being deliberately jabbed a thousand or so times.

Nick Bygrave

As we drove gently along a one-lane park road, I told her the bizarre story of how her car came to be. How VW decided in the late ’70s to build a short-wheelbase version of the old Audi Fox at a “captive” factory in Brazil, using first an air-cooled Beetle engine, then a simple watercooled inline-four. And how that car came to be the de facto singular mode of transportation for that country, thanks to VW’s ability to work with and around Brazilian law. The decision to bring it to the United States 17 years later as a $6995 loss leader—then the almost immediate currency fluctuations that made it a $10,500 proposition by the time I bought mine in 1990, effectively dooming it as a purchase option for anyone besides dyed-in-the-wool VW fanatics like my 18-year-old self (yes, that’s me below).

Jack Baruth

Olivia’s car is about six months newer than mine was, and it has a combination of options unavailable to me when I’d been shopping. It has the GL-style interior and tachometer with the base-model four-speed transmission. VW Brazil was notorious at the time for sending the Stateside dealers pretty much whatever they felt like building. Customers wanted the slick three-door wagons with base equipment; the Brazilians sent loaded sedans and plain-Jane, no-air-conditioning coupes. There was an unannounced face lift of the interior in 1990, common to both of our cars, which was meant to come with the restyled exterior a year later until the factory just started putting the new dashboards in without telling the dealers. In ’90, I’d had a choice of both interiors on the showroom floor, picking the new one because that car also came with air conditioning. The lettering on the A/C button of Olivia’s car is worn out; mine was the same way. You had to turn it off in order to pass someone on the freeway, or maintain a steady speed above 85 mph.

Nick Bygrave

As you might expect, my job puts me in an outstanding position to drive all sorts of old cars that simply don’t live up to expectations. Having not driven a Fox since 1995, I had steeled myself to be disappointed at the gap between my nostalgic recollections and the grim reality of a 50-year-old design assembled by massively dissatisfied workers in a country where assembly-line work had all the novelty and imprecision of a hand-poked tattoo—but to my immense surprise, the Fox was still just a brilliant little car. It reminded me just how right the Audi/VW designers had gotten everything back in the ’70s. Despite being a longitudinal-engine car with a tidied-up wheelbase, the Fox is spacious front and rear. The doors are paper thin, and there’s very little tumble home to the windows, so I had about as much personal space as I’d have in a new 3-Series BMW.

Nick’s freshly-machined shift linkage was a pleasant surprise, and the 81-horse eight-valve four moaned up to six grand or so on the tach with surprising enthusiasm. This is not what you would call a fast car; it gets to 60 mph in just slightly less time than my V-6 Accord gets to 102 in the quarter-mile, but there’s enough power for fearless city driving anyway. The steering feel remains better than what you’d have found in the Rabbits and Jettas of the time, thanks to the aristocratic Audi underpinnings and the relatively stout hardware used throughout the Fox to cope with Brazilian roads.

It wasn’t easy to hand the Fox back to its owner, and for a moment I considered making some sort of outrageous offer, maybe twice what Olivia had paid, leaving her no reasonable choice but to sell it to me and find something considerably newer with the money. I was genuinely in love with the car, the same way I’d been during my test drive in March 1990. Then Olivia started telling me about her affection for the car, how she’d just learned to drive stick in it a few weeks ago, how she imagined herself going all over the Midwest, or even beyond, seated behind that simple two-spoke steering wheel. “I might drive it to Chicago,” she allowed. “Probably will.” Then she asked me about the traveling I’d done—or, in this case, had not done—in my Fox.

I gave her my sad answer and she smiled in response. What I didn’t say was this: Having gotten a late start in the business of being adventurous, I did my best to make up for lost time. Over the past decade I’ve been around the world, from Sebring to Sepang and parts in between. As I write this, I am in the middle of a two-part, three-week, 8000-mile roadtrip with my 11-year-old son, visiting about two dozen skateparks, BMX tracks, and lift-service mountain-bike parks on both sides of the country. The older I get, the less cautious I feel. It could be the reckless abandon of a housecat who spots a whiskers-wide opening in the front door and makes a run for it, or it might be nothing more than a simple realization that I have more sand at the bottom of my hourglass than the top.

As our conversation progressed, I came to realize something about Olivia that perhaps she does not know: Behind her blue-ink tattoos and modern-as-tomorrow social-media presence, she’s a genuine throwback. In an era where most people are content to interact digitally at a distance, she has the same dreams as the hot-rodders of American Graffiti did. She is going to go somewhere in her little Fox. She is going to see things. Do things. Expand her acquaintance with the world one mile at a time. The week after we met, she took her Fox on its first roadtrip that didn’t involve a tow bar. It let her down somewhere near Toledo, perhaps a clutch cable. She and Nick will fix it. Then she will resume her adventuring, of course.

It’s true: I was born a housecat. But I’m trying to change, one tentative step at a time. Olivia, if you’re reading this, I hope you never doubt yourself the way I once did. I hope you never stay home. I hope you point that Fox at all the places you’d like to see. I didn’t go anywhere in my Fox; I hope you go to all the places I never did.

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