JOHNNY ROBINSON: The Little Red Volkswagen Bug

The Little Red Bug

It was a 1956 model and one of the first Volkswagens in Roanoke, or so the legend goes. It had been acquired by Garland’s Drug Store for use as a delivery vehicle. In about 1959 my dad spied the little red ‘Beetle’ or ‘Bug’ being serviced in a local garage and, utterly smitten, managed to wrangle its purchase from its pharmacy owner.

I was born the year before the beetle first occupied our garage, and it was still in our possession when I became old enough to really notice things like cars. It was the first car in a long line of them with which I was enamored. You might even say I was a bit “car-crazy.”

The color of the bug was for me its first truly noteworthy characteristic. Yes it was red, as mentioned, but more specifically it was kind of a Colonial Brick Red-Orange. Anyway, it was a great color for such a novel set of wheels; eye catching for sure.

And then of course there was the totally unique design/shape of the car. Remember, this was a time when most cars around a typical town like Roanoke were considerably larger and imbued with a certain amount of sameness. There were a few other unusually cool cars around like the Stingray, Thunderbird, as well as the occasional English job (think MG, Austin Healy, and Triumph) but there was nothing quite like the VW Bug.

The little Volkswagen, besides being funny looking, had some genuine mechanical oddities inherent in its funky design. For one thing –and this is a biggie– the engine was in the rear. This prompted more than one filling station attendant’s vexation when asked to “check under the hood.”

Yes, in the front of that car, under the curved hood, was a small trunk which held the petite spare tire as well as the odd blanket and assorted tools and spares, but no engine. The tiny 36-horsepower mill was nifty-ly positioned in the rear end of the vehicle behind a flip-up cover.

That egg beater of an engine, with that characteristic VW sound, required the shifting of its hard-working German transmission on inclines that other cars deigned to notice. And, in another twist of engineering logic, that engine was air-cooled. That’s right, just like an old motorcycle, no radiator and assorted gear. This resulted in a plus of greater simplicity, and a minus of not much of a heater for the winter. And no air conditioning, of course. Are you kidding?

It did, however, have those little vent windows which could deflect a blast of ambient-temperature air on you. I miss those things.

Oddly, the bug possessed no fuel level gauge; if one ran out of gas then a lever under the drivers seat was flung, which made available a reserve supply to allow one to creep hopefully to the nearest gas station. And, by the way, if you can’t find the gas fill spout, it’s under the hood up front, tucked in by the spare tire.

The bug’s rear passenger seat was really just a suggestion of such, and the fact that my two siblings and I occupied it so well was not only thanks to our very compact size but also due to the fact that cumbersome child seats were not yet on the scene. There was a cubby behind that back seat that would fit a satchel or two of groceries.

One of my earliest memories—ever— is of swinging from the plastic loop straps affixed to the door pillars. Those straps were just perfect for young monkey antics.

A story that I don’t remember, but my family relates, concerns when I was a young tike of about three. Apparently, one afternoon I just disappeared, and some increasingly frantic minutes spent searching for me finally proved fruitful. I was fast asleep in the garage. In the bug.

Besides scooting around town, my best memories of the bug were of the many camping trips that we took with it. To local spots like Philpott, or further afield ones like Myrtle Beach. With a roof rack built by a neighbor, and equipped with a canvas tent, Coleman stove, and war surplus sleeping bags off we went.

My dad built a tike-sized bunk in the bug, at window level behind the driver’s seat. I’m sure I slept in it not only at the campsite but on the road as we scooted along the highways and byways. Like I said, no car seats, no seat belts. Caution thrown to the wind.

Speaking of which, one frigid winter day my family and some friends were ice skating on Huff Pond on Bent Mountain and my dad decided to drive the bug around on the frozen surface of the lake. This is what one might call a ‘calculated risk.’ Anyway, it’s a scene I remember clearly over a half century later…my dad hunched over the wheel, woolen hat pulled low, grinning and spinning the beetle in the middle of the pond.

It might be described as one of those “do as I say and not as I do” kind of moments.

The days of our fun with the bug eventually ran out, supplanted by the need for a bigger car. In 1962 my little sister came onto the scene, and squeezing a family of six into the little bug was really pushing it.

A new home for it was found and we acquired another Volkswagen, this time a Combi Transporter, better known as a VW Bus – and yes, that’s another story altogether. But the way the little bug exuded a universal version of joie de vivre and accompanied my family’s launch – in high gear- into a wild and wonderful new decade was extraordinarily delightful. And then some.

I still miss that funky little car.

Johnny Robinson

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