Herbie arrived uninvited at our house one night in 1973 when Dean rocked up with a buggered 1961 1200cc VW Beetle. We didn’t actually name it Herbie but that name had been made famous by the 1968 movie, The Love Bug, and so I shall refer to it thus from time to time. The family all trundled out into the dark to watch proud Dean show off his new little baby. Dad was aghast as, with his superior experience, he knew that it was a piece of junk and washed his hands of it. Dean’s friend, Michael Baker, owned one and it was he who had convinced Dean to buy it for R90. I was in Standard 9 and this was a lovely, real life challenge for me. I had done my apprenticeship on Mom’s sewing machine and Dad’s lawnmower. Now for the big time.
Main picture: 1960-1969 Volkswagen Beetle – Not my vehicle as only one photo exists of it
Herbie 1: The Little Car That Couldn’t
Michael and I tried to get the engine running properly, but it was eventually conceded that it needed a radical overhaul, so a remanufactured sub-assembly was bought from Embassy Volkwagen at the bottom of Mount Road. That place was to virtually become a second home for me until 1980. It was amazing that the factory remanufactured unit cost only about R100 – R120. With a new exhaust, the engine was good to go.
Unfortunately, the bodywork wasn’t good to go. The A-pillars (the part of the body on which the front door hinges are located) were rusted out at the base. Rivetting straps of hoop iron in place with the largest rivet gun Dad could borrow soon sorted that one out. To disguise the repair for roadworthy purposes, I faired the strips over with Pratley’s Putty and sanded the whole area smooth. I hadn’t learnt about body filler yet which is cheaper and easier to work with. After the front suspension link pins and king pins were replaced, the Beetle finally passed roadworthy and I considered myself to be a qualified mechanic.
Herbie 1: Adoption and Reincarnation
Dean eventually upgraded to a 1500cc Vauxhall Viva and I became the resident mechanic and part time spray painter for that as well. The Beetle was now superfluous to his requirements and so he donated it to me.
I happily accepted this gift and I lavished attention on as only a mechanically minded boy without a girlfriend could do with his first car.
The first order of business was to personalise it. Dad had a chunk of teak in the garage so I replicated the driver’s door handle. After hand shaping it, I painted coat after coat of sanding sealer on it whilst lightly sanding in between until every pore and grain was filled and smooth.
Next was the gear knob. I started with a square of dark wood, glued a light coloured wood around that and then the dark wood around that again. I had no lathe, so after roughly shaping a tapered cylinder with a chisel, I spent a day or two carefully sanding it into its final shape. The sanding sealer treatment was repeated on it.
The final addition was a magnetic St Christopher that was stuck on the dash. Sandra MaCleod’s mom gave it to me as a good luck charm and boy I needed it. They also gave me new running boards – they thought that I was a good influence on Sandra and probably had high hopes for me.
Being a boy, I added adjustable sports shocks all round, a stiffer stabiliser bar up front and a sway-away bar on the rear that cured VW’s propensity for rolling over. The car couldn’t go very fast or brake quickly but it could go around corners nicely.
Herbie 1: Footloose and Brake Free
Towards the end my third year out of school (1977) I frantically applied for bursaries to complete my engineering degree at UCT. Dorbyl expressed an interest and offered me an air ticket to visit them in Cape Town for an interview. I parlayed the ticket for a promise to pay me in cash if I could make my own way there. Bargain. The ticket was worth about R120 and the petrol would be about R40 return. With the balance I could now adventure out into the big wide world for the first time on my own.
I arrived in Cape Town with only a slight misfire which I quickly cleared up. I arranged to sleep on the floor of John Exley’s room in Leo Marquard residence. He and I had been friends when we studied together in first year. I spent about 2 weeks slumming it in his room when the time came for me to leave. On my last night, I returned to the Res and found that my brakes had become rather spongy. That was not good as I was due to leave the next morning.
I left at about 6 the next morning and gingerly made my way to Western Province Motors in Claremont. I found a public parking behind and commenced to bleed the brakes. No amount of bleeding would get rid of the air bubbles. As a final resort, I stripped out the master cylinder and inspected it. It was past its sell by date as it was hopelessly corroded inside. The last scab of rust on the bore must have popped off the previous night. On enquiry at the spares department, I was told that a replacement master cylinder would cost R11. Since I had just over R20 in my pocket which was enough for the petrol, a packet of wine gums and maybe a sausage roll on the way home, I was stuffed.
One option was to phone my parents and ask them to wire some money. That was a non-starter as I never asked my parents for a thing unless I was really in dire straits. These straits that I was in weren’t dire enough in my estimation and, in any case, I hadn’t been reckless in a while so I elected to put everything back together and ride carefully back to PE, relying on my handbrake.
I finished up just after 10 that morning after spinning a sob story to a meter maid who tried to shoo me out of the parking lot on the basis that it wasn’t a repair shop. I must have looked truly contrite and woe begone that she didn’t give me a fine for overstaying the maximum parking time.
I headed out into the traffic with one hand on the handbrake and eagle eyes popping out of my skull trying to predict what the traffic was doing multiple cars ahead. There was a glimmer of a brake. If I gave the pedal 5 – 10 vigorous pumps a there would be a spongy brake pedal about 1” off the floor which would sink away again within a few seconds. The handbrake also had its problem as the car would lurch if it was applied energetically. Weeks later I investigated this problem and found that the left rear half shaft oil seal had leaked oil all over the left rear brake drum. Nevertheless, I was confident that I could successfully reach PE on a single right side handbrake.
And so it was that a relieved driver eventually pulled into PE after midnight having only eaten that sausage roll and a packet of wine gums the whole day. The day driving had been OK, but the night driving was particularly taxing with the Beetle’s 2 candlepower 6V headlights.
Herbie 1: St Christopher Works Overtime – Again.
All I had done was to move the problem from Cape Town to PE. I still had no money or brakes but I had to go to varsity two afternoons a week. Travelling in traffic presented new problems but with judicious route planning and carefully monitoring of the traffic lights I safely stayed out of trouble for two weeks until a fateful Friday afternoon.
It was about 4pm and I was returning home from varsity. Approaching the Lower Valley Rd that leads to Brickmakers Kloof, I had a choice: I could go through the intersection and, skirting town, make my way up Military Rd to Rink Str or turn left and go up Brickmakers Kloof to the same destination. I elected to go straight through as the traffic seemed light. Approaching the lights which were red, I moved to the inside lane and speeded up slightly, overtaking a car. I was anticipating the light change but, unfortunately for me, a bus on the opposite side was also anticipating this and didn’t see me. At the change he immediately pulled off across me to go to the bottom of Brickmakers Kloof where I had previously almost been wiped out by a bus while on my Yammie. I don’t know why, but these buses obviously had it in for me.
I reckon that even with the brakes in good order, I would not have been able to stop. Knowing that I had just overtaken a car and hence the outside lane was clear, I just swung into the corner. Two things saved me: the Beetle had a very good suspension setup and was virtually immune from the standard Beetle rollover problem and the Lower Valley robots were set back quite a way which allowed me to broadside in front of the waiting cars and make a trembling enforced exit into Lower Valley Rd. After I had the arse end under control and had virtually straightened out, I snatched a swift glance in my rearview mirror. All I could see was the radiator he was so close.
That was it. My brake free days were done. I must have begged, borrowed or done something craven to get the money for the repairs.
(Note that in those days the Settlers Way was not complete and the Union Street was a 2-way road and not 1-way as shown here)