I made the decision this fall to sell my 1971 Super Beetle, which has had the name Greta for at least 20 years through two owners. The decision was a long time coming; I’d been thinking more and more often about pulling the plug. The last straw finally came in November——hardly a good time to sell a classic car——after a sub-par summer with very little recreational driving. The best of times had passed us.
I first learned about the car in the summer of 2009 after its gray colour caught my eye in the classifieds. I fell in love with it when I went to see it and give it a test drive. The interior smelled exactly the same as the old ‘74 Bug that my parents drove when I was a pre-schooler. I’ve always liked Beetles. Greta was running well, with a rust-free body, and she seemed like the right fit for me.
At the time, there were two mom-and-pop import garages in my part of town that were familiar with old Bugs. I could do some of the light-weight mechanical and electrical stuff myself at home. I knew I’d have to hire to get work done on the front end suspension, to clean and rebuild the carb, and eventually, get the new clutch that was needed. I was up for that.
I had a premonition while running my YOM licence plate business. I had unconsciously selected a set of plates from my stock, and kept people from buying them, just so I could have them in case the perfect car came along. The number was short, and the letter R is a rarity, giving my plate a very high number at the virtual end of the 1971 Ontario plate production run. I liked the plate because the numbers are those of my ALPCA membership number, but rearranged… which made the letter R all the more apropos. I didn’t set out specifically to buy a ‘71 Bug to match it with these plates… it happened serendipitously on its own.
Summer life with Greta was fun, for the most part. It wasn’t without the occasional tow or breakdown, but such is life with temperamental old cars. Occasionally, there’d be a problem that I would troubleshoot in the privacy of my own garage. When I fixed it, and the engine roared to life, there was no better feeling. But I’m not a natural gearhead… I had to do a lot of reading and learning on the fly.
The import garage that I chose first, Autoimport, was a small place in an older industrial park, which happened to be within walking distance of my home. Dropping the car off was a breeze——I never had to worry about a ride home. It was a well-organized business and they had a lot of parts on hand. But one day, I drove by the shop to find that the signage had changed to that of a new business name, and I gathered that they were into water pump repair. I learned, with a couple of phone calls, that the owner had retired, and his two right-hand guys had bought the business. But they were relocating to Kemptville, about 45 minutes out of town (an hour-plus at Greta’s speed). So I needed an alternative.
The next closest place was Avenues Garage, in the older central-west Ottawa neighbourhood of Westboro. I remember walking in the area before I had Greta, and seeing the old Bugs and Kombis parked in the lot. I started taking Greta there, but that meant that I’d either have to take a taxi home, or later on, get an Uber. It was at Avenues that I had the wheel bearings redone, and a new clutch put in, which made the car shift like new.
Last winter, my friend Dave Grant heard that Avenues had closed. It still seemed to be there, with all of its signage intact, and so I figured maybe it was still open. When I called in the spring, looking to get some work done, the owner answered on his cell, but told me that the garage closed when the property was sold over the winter. He kept the old Avenues phone number for his own. That was the beginning of the end.
I put some feelers out for other garages that could work on old Bugs, but the three that I found were all in the suburbs, leaving me with a 30-minute cab ride. I’m the only driver in my family, and I work full-time as well. When I’m not working or at home, I’m often commuting someplace with the wife and kids. Adding VW repairs into the mix: I’d be skipping work early to get a long cab ride to the ‘burbs, to pick up Greta, to drive her home, and then get the newer daily driver so I can get my son from school… we’re talking a 2-hour diversion each time I’d drop Greta off (or pick her up after she’s fixed). This was clearly not going to happen. I should have figured that out in the summer, but I didn’t want to let go. People have so much emotion for old cars. They buy them when they shouldn’t, and keep them for long after they should’ve been gone.
Greta ran rougher over the summer. I needed the choke and carb adjusted, but that wasn’t something I could trust myself to do. I didn’t drive all that often, and start-up was no-longer a guarantee. I couldn’t figure out if my fuel pump wasn’t delivering enough gas, or if my engine was flooded. I’m pretty sure I flooded it once over the summer, so I took the spark plugs out. They looked pretty fouled, so I let the cylinders sit open to the air for a couple of days to let any excess fuel evaporate, and then I installed new plugs. She roared to life, but soon the cycle started to repeat, with hesitant start-up. The engine quit one Friday night at a busy intersection, and I needed a tow, which took nearly an hour to arrive. I didn't have a shop to which I could have Greta towed, so I had her brought home. I loved owning a Beetle, but I needed help and there was none available to me.
I would normally bring Greta in for winter storage the third weekend of October. I’ve been renting a spot in a heated apartment garage for the past eight years. It’s fully secure and the superintendent has to be there to unlock it, so drop-off is by appointment only. But my drop-off plans were kiboshed when our household hot water tank ruptured. The clean-up of my basement and ensuing estimates / replacement took a week. My spare time evaporated, which kept me from bringing the car in when I wanted to.
My earliest chance to put Greta away for winter storage was now the second weekend of November. And, as luck would have it, we had snow and a minus 7 windchill. I feared that it would be too cold for Greta to start, and I was right. The engine turned over just fine, but the carb and automatic choke, in need of some TLC, only work reliably in warm weather. I tried firing a space heater at the engine compartment to warm things up, but I couldn’t even get the engine to cough. I tried multiple times through the day, and I probably flooded it again, judging by the smell of fuel coming out of the air filter. Using the old “pedal to the floor” remedy for flooding never worked on Greta.
So, I was left with an inoperative classic car in my household garage, in sub-zero weather. The only way to get it into winter storage now would be to tow it there, but it would just have to be towed out again in six months, which would be costly. Also out of the question was attempting to sell the car while it was in winter storage——I could only bring people to see it by carefully-timed appointment, since the super had to be there to let us in. I needed the car out of my house for the winter, and I needed its problems to become someone else’s problems. They would be easy to fix for someone better equipped than I.
I drafted an advertisement to post online. When it was done, all I had to do was click the “submit” button. I decided, before doing so, that I would go back out to the garage and try to start Greta up, one more time. Maybe she would cough again, and I could coax her into a high rev to warm her up enough to get her through the freezing air, and down into the relative safety of winter storage. Maybe she, or the old-auto gods, would sense that this could really be the end of the road, and would give me a break when it was needed most. The engine turned over easily when I turned the key, but there was absolutely no hint of ignition. I went back upstairs and clicked “submit.”
Kijiji is a terrible medium in which to advertise a car. Within minutes of posting the ad, I’d received my first message, which just said “$2500” (around half of the asking price). There were a few messages like this as time went on, ranging from as low as $2000 to as high as $3200. I had a few inquiries from real people who cared enough to actually compose complete sentences in their messages to me. I called one fellow from Blind River who was interested, although that’s seven hours away. We had a nice chat, but I wasn’t going to hold my breath for him. I invited many people over to see the car, but those who actually replied didn’t keep their appointment windows.
A Beetle that doesn’t start is a tough sell, so I reasoned that I might have flooded the engine and fouled the spark plugs again. I took the old plugs out and let the engine dry out in the meantime. I found the time on a cold evening to put the new plugs in——an arduous task, considering the minimal space in the engine compartment of an old Beetle——and I turned the engine over. Nothing. Pumped the gas pedal. Nothing. It was as if Greta was daring me to sell her.
One guy offered $2000 if he could test drive it. The first guy who low-balled with $2500 replied again a week later with the very same offer. I wasn’t desperate to move the car. I certainly preferred to have it gone, but if no one was going to pony up, I’d let Greta sit in my garage over the winter.
Two weeks in, I received a message from a guy in Montreal. I wanted to sell the car locally, but he wrote a cordial message and left his number. I figured I’d give him a call. If he was serious, Montreal wasn’t that far away. On the phone, we talked about the temperaments of Beetles in general, and he asked me some thorough questions about the floor pans, engine, and parts of the body that are prone to rust. Greta hasn’t been winter driven, and I avoided driving in the rain, and the body was still in strong, rust-free shape. He was free to make the trip that day to have a look, and so I made sure I had all the boxes of small parts and service records ready.
He arrived——a young, articulate mechanic in his late 20s. He made a very thorough inspection over the next half-hour or so, doing everything from testing the play in the door hinges to inspecting the front-end suspension. He treated the car with a degree of respect throughout, which I found surprising. He said that the grey colour initially caught his attention, and he’d been considering making contact for a number of days. His once-in-a-lifetime project was a restoration of a ‘77 Porsche (halfway through a 4-5 year timeline), but he loved Beetles and wanted one that was essentially ready to drive in the summer for the next few years. Aside from the carb in need of adjustment, Greta was in as good condition as he hoped, and he had the know-how and work space to take care of her. He had a reasonable offer in mind, and we met in the middle and shook on it.
To get things started, he paid a cash deposit with the balance to be paid upon pick-up. He would have to return with a trailer, and we agreed to watch the weather and choose the next convenient day when it was mild and reasonably dry on the highway. I gave him immediate possession of all the small parts boxes and repair manuals. Buying the car was exciting for him, and it would give him something to do in the meantime while we waited for pick-up day.
I pulled the Kijiji ad down, but I sent a copy of the ad to my buyer before I did so, so he could refer to the info that I provided at his leisure. A couple of the previous low-ballers from noticed the ad was pulled, and asked if the car was sold. “Yes,” was my one-word reply, although I was tempted to add, “for double what you offered.”
Over the next week, I cleaned out the glove box, where I had squirreled away a few forgotten mementos, such as the commemorative dash plaques that remind me that I drove Greta to Volksfest four times (in Embrun, the next county to the east from here). I had a couple of pairs of rubber gloves and some folded shop towels for roadside oil checks and wire-tightening. Most interestingly, I re-discovered an old book of matches. The cover was printed in French, but had a lithographed image of JFK, with some kind of invitation to a stamp-collecting club. I found it in my early period with Greta, beneath the lower corner of the front windshield, wedged way down in a crevice behind the dash. I used a pair of forceps to grasp it and pull it out. I had no idea how long the matchbook had been stowing away aboard Greta, so I put it in the glove box as a good luck charm.
On December 1, 2018, I completed the sale of Greta to her fourth owner. He came by with a rental trailer. He couldn’t get one with a winch, but he came equipped with a bunch of nylon ratchet straps, so we used two of them in tandem to inch the car up the ramps. Once Greta was securely attached atop the trailer, he came inside so I could accept the pending e-transfer. I could feel the finality of it all as I signed the bill of sale and detached the vehicle portion of the ownership. With that, it was official… Greta was no longer mine. She was now in the care of a more mechanically inclined person than I, and headed to a warm garage full of parts and tools. He'll undoubtedly give her a good home. I gave him the matchbook, since it’s a relic of Greta herself, as opposed to my journey with her. Of course, I kept Greta’s 1971 Ontario YOM-registered plates for my collection. They were there every step of the way.
Greta is returning to Quebec, where her first and second owners lived. She stayed with me in Ontario for 9 years, 4 months, and 7 days. How do I feel about it? I’m okay, actually. It’s time to move on. To stay together any longer would make us a burden to each other. We had a great run together, and I’ll remember Greta for the fun times. An old friend told me, on the day that Greta left for Montreal, that there's an old maritime saying: "The two happiest days of a sailor's life are the day he buys his boat, and the day he sells it." He thinks that applies to VW bug owners as well. He’s probably right.
Godspeed, Greta. May the sun shine upon you, throughout your next journey.