The Shined Shoe Man of ’64
I remember sitting on a lot with different colored versions of me. All waiting to be purchased. The first thing I noticed was how small I was compared to these American sedans. I could probably park inside most of them. “What possible use could they have for a little machine like me?” I used to think. Then one day a slim looking man walked up to me with one of the salesman. He walked with a faint limp and was dressed in a white shirt, black tie, with large framed glasses folded in his front shirt pocket which also held a variety of pens. I noticed his shoes were spotless. They were so clean I could see parts of my bumper in their reflection.
The salesman pointed to me and said, “This is the most basic model I have. No options besides a radio. Plain Jane, just as you asked.” The shined shoe man walked all around me with the eyes of someone who knew cars. He opened my rear hood to see my engine. “How much horsepower did you say it had?” He asked the salesman, who was almost hesitant to answer. “Thirty-six, but it gets great gas mileage!” He exclaimed. The man simply smiled. I heard him say, “Thirty six…damn Germans sure know their way around a work bench”, under his breath before closing the hood. The shined shoe man dusted his hands and extended one to the salesman, “I’ll take it.” He said. The year was 1964.
The drive to my new home was scary. Detroit belonged to the automobile. Everywhere I looked I saw hundreds of vehicles whooshing around. Baring their horns and gunning their engines as owners propelled them around to their destinations. I felt like an ant in the woods as everything towered over me. “How am I going to survive alongside these massive V8’s with my 1200 cc engine?” I thought. I was relieved when I finally pulled up into a drive way. I was parked next to a red Ford sedan, a Galaxie 500 that was one model year older than me but still looked showroom fresh.
A Ford Man with a German Car
The owner honked my horn and a young woman wearing a yellow sun dress and long red hair came out. A brown haired little boy in sneakers and jeans was holding on to her hand. They were both excited to see him, and me. “It’s cute, but a little small isn’t dear?” The woman said with concern in her voice. “Looks like a clown car, pop.” The little boy remarked. The man simply responded. “This little car is an engineering marvel. Now you can use the Ford to take Marky to school and run errands while I use this for work.” He padded me on the roof. “Are you sure honey? Won’t you be… a little embarrassed to be seen in this little, German, car?” The man loosen his tie, “Nonsense. Come on, let’s go inside.”
That night the Ford filled me in on what kind of owner this confident sounding man was. Mentioned that he was an engineer at Ford Motor Company and had a real passion for machines like us. Very meticulous, clean, and would look after me very well. It was pleasing to here but I wasn’t sure. I was a spare car and this Ford was clearly the favorite among the family, but I would have to wait and see.
My first day taking him to work was dramatic. I remember pulling into the parking lot of this massive building with the Ford logo on the side. I parked in between two pick up trucks, also Fords, and saw him walk in with carrying a briefcase with a herd of men into one of the buildings. After a few minutes I heard voices coming up behind me. “Hey, check it out Jim. It’s a Volks.” It was a man in blue overalls carrying a lunch box. The other man looked dismissive at me. “Fucking nerve of someone bringing a German car to a Ford plant.” And then he spat at me. The glob landed on my front left fender. It slid all the way down past my headlamp and on to the ground. Even after it dried I felt it for the rest of the day until I was home.
On weekends my owner, who I later found out was called Gene, would wash me and the Galaxie out in the driveway. His son, Mark, would help by rinsing the cars after Gene rubbed us with a soapy sponge. Instead of covering us with soap all at once he would take it a piece at a time. Washing the roof, then work his way around us. He even made sure to wipe the inside of our door wells and gas caps. Mark would follow him around holding the water hose in a fold as to not spill unnecessary water. After they were done Mark would go inside to watch TV and Gene would sit on a lawn chair with some men that lived around the neighborhood and drink foamy beverages from a cooler.
Once I overheard one of the men, who was much larger that Gene, say a remark about me. “I still can’t believe you, a Ford man, went and got a crout car.” Gene shook his head in disapproval. “Come on Dick, this little car was born way after the war. This machine wasn’t shooting at us in Berlin. It’s just a car, and a nice one at that.” The larger man reached for another cylinder can in the cooler. “Maybe so, but I still wouldn’t be caught dead in one. I don’t how you can.” He rocked his head back holding the can of beer to his mouth. The second man, the smallest and youngest of the three also voiced his opinion. “I have to agree with Dick. It just doesn’t seem right. Why couldn’t you have gotten a Corvair or Falcon? They’re small and American made.”
Gene just looked at me. “Look fellas, I served my country overseas, with the scars in my leg to prove it. And I continue to serve my country by working here in Detroit designing engines for the working man. I think I’ve earned the right to buy whatever kind of fucking car I want.” He stood up and walked over to me. “Think of this car as a German Model T; small, well-engineered, and dirt cheap.” I had an even stronger admiration for Gene after that.
Woodward Avenue, the Tall Man in the Pontiac
One night, Gene and Mark took me out to Woodward Avenue. Mark asked why they hadn’t taken the Ford and Gene said it was because they were going on a spying mission and needed to blend in. “What are we going to spy on dad?” Mark asked as we made our way. “Rumors are spreading that another engineer has been testing a new engine out on the streets. I’m curious to see if for myself.”
When we arrived the street was littered with old hot rods. The sound of flat-head Fords and small block Chevys hummed in the air. Definitely not the sort of crowd I belonged in, but Gene parked me on under a street lamp a block away from the avenue. They went walking to go see the street racers do battle while I waited. I didn’t mind.
It was probably close to an hour when I heard something different coming up the street out of the darkness behind me. It was a mid-sized Pontiac, but it sounded different. It stopped on the curb next to me. The driver stepped out. He was tall, handsome, and had a stern look of determination in his eyes. He opened the hood of the Pontiac to give it one last inspection to make sure everything was in order before slamming the hood down. The Pontiac idled angry through its duel exhaust pipes. The whole car vibrated with aggression and whispered to me, “John’s got me souped, listen for me.” And pulled away with a throaty rumble towards Woodward.
It wasn’t long before I was able to hear the Pontiac screaming in the distance. It was intoxicating. Part of me wished I could sound like that. Strong, muscular…intimidating. On the drive back the Pontiac was all Gene and Mark could talk about. “Do you know the driver dad?” Mark asked.
“I know of him. He works for GM. DeLorean is his name. I don’t know how he’s going to market that jet of his but I hope he pulls it off.” I felt Gene’s grip on the wheel tighten in excitement.
“How come?” Asked Mark.
“Well, because then it means we’ll have to build engines that are just as fast. Can’t let GM beat us to the punch.” Gene sounded excited.
When we got back home Gene killed my engine and pushed me into the driveway as to not make any noise. They tipped toed to the house. I overheard Gene whisper to Mark, “Remember, don’t tell your mother I had you out this late. This is our secret, as men. Deal?”
The Love Bug in ’69
By 1969 Marky was sporting a freshly laminated driver’s license and Gene offered me as his first car. Although he had warmed up to me over the years he wasn’t thrilled to be using me to get around town. He said I was too slow and wanted a Mustang. Gene was always quick to lecture him, “You have to learn to crawl before you can even think about running, son.” Nevertheless, he listened and took care of me on drives to school. By this time Gene’s prediction had come true and Detroit city was singing a different tune, horsepower. I was often parked next to an American car that was sporting some kind of emblem that signified speed. GTS, GTO, SS, or Hemi. All bigger and louder than me. They never mocked me, but they never acknowledged me either. I was a ghost in that parking lot. Except when the movie came out.
Mark took me, and his first date, to go see it. The Love Bug. Starring a car just like me, a white Volkswagen Beetle. It was surreal seeing myself popping wheelies and racing against Ferrari’s on open race tracks. Mark’s date even started calling me Herbie after the movie and that soon became my nickname around school. Mark’s Herbie. Gene would always laugh at Mark’s suggestions to install a V8 in me to make me go faster. “Come on Dad, it could be a sleeper. Nobody would see it coming.” Gene would always say, “If I did that I would have to make a Beetle sized grave for you and the car.”
By this time Gene had gotten promoted and had traded the Galaxie for a black Lincoln Mark III coupe. A beautiful car that was more than twice my own body length. Spoke softly to me and said it was very grateful to belong to such a well-kept man, but hated Mark. Said that whenever he got behind the wheel he would make it spin its wheels and force it to do circles. Or press down on the parking brake while driving to force it into a slide. The Lincoln hated being abused like that, especially since Gene never found out about it.
Traded in ’72
After nearly ten years of ownership I was traded in for a 1969 red Mustang Mach 1 that had caught Mark’s eye while on the way to his part time job at a department store. Gene allowed him to trade me in since Mark was now over 18 and working. I didn’t really mind leaving Mark, but I knew I would miss Gene. His rapidly graying hair was his patina and he his mid-section had grown larger and softer.
I sat on the dirt used car lot next to a ’57 Chevy sedan and a 60’s panel wagon overlooking a boulevard. We would watch the traffic go by and it was hard to miss the fact that Beetles were everywhere. As if we were slowly taking over the vehicle landscape. I’d see one of me for every four or five vehicles on the road! The sound of air cooled engines echoing in parallel with the rumble of iron block V8’s under the hum of tires rolling on pavement. Gene was right, I was a German Model T.
During the winter of 1972, a young woman came to see me. It had been snowing and she was wrapped in a big red scarf that covered her face except for her eyes and puffy purple coat covered her body. Thick brown hair peeked under her matching red woolen hat. Her eyes were as big as my headlamps and the color of caramel honey. The most visually stunning human I had seen to date. She was shivering as the salesmen told her about me. The one question she asked was if I had a heater, which I did, and that was that. I had a new owner. Marsha.
Marsha and Emily
Marsha was a young mother. I guessed about 24 or 25 years old, and she had a five year old daughter named Emily. She was also big eyed only hers were olive colored and she instantly fell in love with me. Emily named me Marshmallow, after her favorite snack and loved singing in the back seat to whatever songs were playing. Marsha always had the radio tuned to rock n roll stations.
Marsha would use me to drive Emily to school before going to work at an office building that I guessed was some sort of law firm. Men in suits walking in and out of it every day and once I saw her following an elderly gentlemen who was giving her a list of tasks to do before he came back from a trail. Marsha wrote everything down on a note pad before hurrying back to the office.
I always tried to find the most grip I could when we drove in the snow, especially with Emily in the car. I liked them. They were innocent and I wanted to keep them safe in this harsh city of ice and metal. Hearing Marsha hum to songs was a delight. Her favorite band was one named after me, the Beatles. Emily like their songs too and would sing along if she knew the words. Marsha would sometimes join in if the traffic was light. I never saw her with any men. Her whole world seemed to be me and Emily.
The Cadillac Man of ’73
The start of 1973 was a dramatic change. Gas stations seems to suddenly run out of fuel. Lines of cars were all the way around the block in some areas. Other were only selling 10 gallons at a time. Marsha noticed but didn’t really mind since I didn’t drink as much fuel as other cars. Occasionally, Marsha would be comforted by random people asking to buy me, but she always refused. Even when the people had their check book opened. I was still in pretty good shape for my age and hadn’t had a break down in my life. Gene had always kept me in a garage so even my rust was that bad.
By the spring the roads were starting to look normal again. No more black slush and salty pavement. I was waiting for Marsha’s lunch hour to begin when I saw a mint green ’72 Cadillac Eldorado pull out of the parking garage underneath the building and pull up to the entrance. Then I saw Marsha run out and jump into the car which then threw its weight forward and out of my sight. I couldn’t see who was driving except that he was wearing a hat, a big tall one.
I kept seeing that Cadillac every day of the week at the same time. Then I started seeing it in the afternoons at Marsha’s apartment picking her, and Emily, up. It was a month before I caught a glimpse of the driver. He was very tall, wore fine suits, and walked with a long stride making clicking noises with his cowboy boots. Sporting a mustache darker than night as he held Marsha’s hand while he carried Emily in his arm. I had never seen Marsha’s eyes so wide. She was enchanted by this oddly dressed Cadillac man, and I could tell Emily was too. He would visit them, take them out, but never spend the night; this went on for months.
It was summer and I was driving them to the park. It had been a few weeks since I had seen the Cadillac man around. During the drive she let Emily ride up front with her. She started to talk to Emily about something. The pauses in her speech meant it was something important.
“M, do you like Buck?” She asked. Emily’s turned her head quickly in attention.
“Yes! He is silly and always brings me a surprise!” She grinned.
“Well, would you like to see him every day? All the time?”
“Yes mommy. I see you smile when you look at him.” Emily responded. Marsha had to adjust the wheel. She was looking at Emily’s grin for so long that I had started to drift into the next lane.
“He asked me to marry him and go live in Texas, on his ranch. What do you think?”
“Like a farm? With ponies!” Emily exclaimed in a gasp.
“I’m sure he has horses. It’s a big ranch near a big city called Dallas.”
They talked about Buck and Texas the whole way until we reached the parking lot. That’s when Marsha asked the final question. “Emily, do you want Buck to be your daddy?” Emily didn’t say a word she just reached her arms up to hug Marsha. A definitive answer. I hadn’t noticed until that moment that I been feeling a ring on her hand when she held the wheel since the Cadillac man had left.
Moving to Texas meant they didn’t need me anymore. Marsha took me to Joe a young man who ran a gas station and speed shop near her apartment. Joe was younger than Marsha, but I always knew he had strong feelings for her. He would change my oil and never charge her a dime. Marsha thought the skinny blonde guy was sweet and paid him with a kiss on the cheek, but nothing beyond that. When she told him the news Joe looked a little glum but didn’t want to spoil the happiness in her eyes. He hide his emotions well.
“So what are you going to do with this little guy?” He said, pointing at me with a wrench he held in his hand.
“I was sort of thinking I could sell it to you.” Marsha responded.
“Me?” Joe looked surprised.
“Sure. You know this car better than anyone. Always mentioned how good of shape it’s in.” Marsha gave him a smile.
“I don’t know. I got money tied up with projects. I can really only give you $130 for it.”
“That’s fine. I just want to leave the car in good hands.” She said and held up my keys to him. Owner number three. Joe sighed when Marsha left in the taxi cab. It must have hurt him more than me to see her and Emily leave. I wished them well in Texas.
Joe wasn’t much to look at. Barely old enough to drink and weighing 160 pounds soaking wet. Always dressed in dirty jeans with ratty T-shirts that had motor oil advertising on them. A big nose and faint traces of acne scaring made up his face with blue eyes and greasy blonde hair. He used me as a daily driver so that he wouldn’t have to use his gas guzzler tow truck to get around town. A fine driver who knew exactly when to shift and rev match so I ran smoothly. He installed an aftermarket 8-track player in me so he could listen to Led Zepplin tapes. I thought his taste in music was rather, loud.
This went on for a couple of years as his business, and reputation, grew. He became known as Joe-Go. Word got around that Joe was rather talented when it came to engines and body work. An artist’s eye matched with a craftsmen’s hand. By ’75 he didn’t need to pump gas to pay the rent and was strictly fixing and modifying cars and trucks for people. Most of the time it was vans. People with odd tastes who wanted to turn their work vans into street machines with water beds inside. No idea why. The vans didn’t know either but they were happy to be off work duty.
Same Face, Different Heart
It was fall of ’76 when Joe decided to park me in one of his stalls. One of his mechanics came in for work and noticed. “Hey Joe, did the Bug finally break down?” Joe was by his desk looking over some paperwork and looked up, “Nope. Thing runs like a sun dial actually. Most reliable machine I’ve ever owned.” If my paint could blush… I thought. The mechanic kept asking questions. “So then why is it in the stall?” He asked. Joe got up from his chair and moved over to a tarp that was covering something lumpy.
“You remember that customer? Ian Miller. The guy who wanted a track car?”
“Yeah. Said he wanted an exciting hobby. Don’t blame him, guy is an accountant.” The mechanic chuckled.
“Mmm. I guess crunching numbers doesn’t translate well to driving because he smashed his car last week.”
“On the track?”
“Nope. Driving to the track. Dude thought it was a good idea to drive with slicks and spun it into some poor bastard’s farm tractor on a country road.”
Joe shook his head. I remember how much time they had spent building that car. Nearly six months!
“Jesus… Did he die?” The mechanic exclaimed.
“Nahh. Just banged up. Lost his taste for racing though. The car was totaled but he gave me this for a steal.” Joe pulled the trap to unveil a flat four engine from a Porsche 356. The mechanic looked at the engine, then at me, and back at Joe. “You’re crazy Joe, but I dig it! When do we start?” Joe turned to his tool box. “Right now…”
Joe’s plan was to turn me into a wolf in sheep’s clothing. A sleeper. A sucker punch on wheels. A Plain Jane white VW with the heart of a Porsche racer. They dropped my 100,000 mile 1200cc engine in less than ten minutes and started stripping my interior to make room for a roll bar. My transmission was overhauled and given an overdrive gear. This meant I could now achieve top end speeds I’ve only dreamed of! The 356’s engine was given modified heads, valves, shaved pistons, and duel carburetors. My suspension was dropped slightly and was given all new parts to handle the new power.
On the outside I looked the same. Inside was a new machine with the only hint being a single bar of steel and the fact that I no longer had a back seat. I didn’t see the road until spring of 1977. But by then I was ready. For what? I didn’t know exactly, but I was going to arrive quicker than ever.
The King Cobra of ’77
Up until this night, Joe had me as his secret. On the road he never drove me fast. When I was parked I was always covered with a tarp so nobody could see inside or sneak a peek. Tonight was the night he show them what his latest project could do. We were going to Woodward Avenue.
The scene had changed since the time I came with Gene and Mark in ’64. All the old school hot rods were now aging muscle cars. They were all modified with ridiculously large rear wheels, side exhaust pipes, and hopped up rear ends that made them look like jungle cats about to pounce. They were so loud that I could feel my sheet metal vibrated from their sound waves. All these street freaks and me, the little white bug with a dirty secret.
Everybody knew Joe-Go and they were all anxious to see what kind of trick he had under his sleeve, but nobody wanted to race him. I assumed it was because they knew better. Except for one young guy in a brand new 1977 Mustang King Cobra. The car was black with orange and red decals galore. Brand new and already modified with a hotter engine and bigger tires. Looked fast standing still! The guy looked familiar but he was sporting a leather jacket and Lions baseball cap. He said that he would race Joe for $500 dollars. Confident that his street machine would blow the doors off little old me. I kept thinking that his cocky attitude was so familiar. Joe shook his hand with the smile of a con man.
We lined up at the start. I felt like I could have done a wheel stand if I wanted to. The Mustang next to me flexed its muscle with each stab at the throttle by this wild looking guy. I stayed planted to the ground, at the ready. The guy kept wanting to get Joe’s attention but he stared ahead at the road waiting for the signal girl to give the turn on the flashlight. He carefully raised my RPM’s up to 4,000 and waited. The girl was sporting a Charlie’s Angels hair do, white hot pants with knee high go-go boots. Seconds felt like minutes as we waited for her to press the button. The breeze in the air became still, Flash!
Joe’s reaction time was dead on. I launched off the line nearly lifting my front wheels completely off the ground. I was already in second gear when I noticed the Mustang was barely leaving the start line. A cloud of tire smoke behind it. The world seemed to warp in front of me as I gained speed. My speedometer was making a full circle by the time we crossed the line at well over a 100 mph. I counted three full seconds before I heard the Mustang cross the line. A total blow out! Would have been faster to develop the film needed for it to be a photo finish.
After the race, the young man came to pay his bet. He looked visibly upset that he lost, not to Joe, but to me. Joe opened my rear hood and showed the crowd the secret to my success. The young man cheered up, “Well shit, no wonder! Damn you Joe-Go. You hustled me!” He said laughing. The young man came around and looked at me dead in the headlamp. “You know, my first car was one of these. I always wished it was faster but my father never let me tinker with it.” That’s when it hit me, this guy was Marky! All grown up! A Ford man just like his father. I finally got on his good side. He was looking at me with the same eyes he once had for that Mustang he traded me in for.
The Sleepy Sleeper
My street racing days were over by ’81. Joe didn’t want to lose me in a wreck or get impounded. I spend my days living the retired life. I have my own spot in his collection next to his red ’78 Lit Red Express Dodge truck and ice blue ’67 Corvette Stingray. Sometimes customers will recognize me as the White Flash or the Sleeper Bug when they come in with their cars. Joe is now a fully grown man who enjoys his work. He doesn’t race anymore but enjoys takings us for drives on empty roads where he can stretch out our gears. We appreciate all he does for us.
However, one thing I’ve noticed in recent years. Whenever I go out in public I don’t see as many Beetles on the road as I used to. Sometimes I wonder where they all went.
Read more stories like this one here.