Chasing the Beetle
Picture this: a roar of a loud engine as you 'speed' towards the Mohakhali flyover. Air rushing through the antique-y triangular opening on the driver's side. The dials on the 1960s dashboard steadily creep upwards as the roar heightens. You kick the clutch and slam the steed into fourth gear. Roaring loudest now.
Suddenly, you see trouble and a challenge in the left rear-view mirror. A bright green object looms and is soon beside your charging chariot as you begin your ascent on the flyover. This is a matter of pride, so you drop her into third to get it revving more and then shift into fourth to maximise acceleration. You think that will teach the pretender in green. But as you floor the accelerator you realise, to your utter horror and humiliation, that the green beast, the CNG-propelled auto-rickshaw, has shot past you and you are inhaling its compressed natural gas exhaust.
That driver was me, and my steed a 1969 Volkswagen Beetle. And this race with a CNG, whose driver I imagine to have laughed all the way to the tea-stall where he recounted the details with glee, was my breaking point. For four years I had pushed this hunk of metal around -- literally pushed as it broke down more often than a female sitcom character alone on Valentine's Day -- all over Dhaka. The suspension was shot to bits, the slightest pothole setting off a cacophonic orchestra that resembled more a kitchen cabinet on wheels than a car.
But I took it all, didn't mind. It was after all my car, and to tell the truth it was beautiful in a way few modern cars can match. But eating CNG dust was the humiliating straw that broke this camel's back. I was fed up, and so when a cousin said that he would take it off my hands till I wanted it back again, I was more than happy to oblige. That was around 2007, and I vowed that the next time I drive the car it would be in much better shape, and that no CNG would ever embarrass me like that, ever.
Sounds like a pipedream? It's not. The Germans, when building the Beetle, created a masterpiece. To skip to the meat of the story, if you see a sky-blue bug creating a ruckus on Dhaka streets, overtaking your car and zooming in and out of traffic, it's probably me.
Okay, I may be exaggerating just a bit there, but context is crucial. The truth is that now the Beetle is capable of reaching respectable speeds, is not threatened by CNGs, starts every time I turn the ignition key, and stops when I reach my destination. Compared to 2007, that's gold.
All it took was a little commitment, financial and otherwise. There was not a whole lot to fix to get the car in good shape. Yes, there was an urgent need for a new engine, and an equally pressing call for an improved suspension. As Zubeir Moin, the President of the Volkswagen Club of Bangladesh said, those are the two things that most often need to get looked into when reclaiming this vintage, twinkling beaut of a car. The result is that you will be the owner of a proper car that gets you from A to B without much fuss, and also one that will lift your spirits every time you see it in the office parking lot.
Now down to brass tacks. The engine, an original Volkswagen 1200cc from Germany was overhauled, and that set me back by about Tk.1 lakh. The existing suspension was given a comprehensive working over and the effect has been good. The work cost about Tk.20,000. And equally crucial, a Pioneer car music system with four JVC speakers, all at Tk.11,000.
Those interested in owning this gem from the past can get in touch with the VW Club. “Beetles in driveable shape and with all relevant papers up to date will cost at least Tk.6-7 lakh. Of course, people can get them in much worse condition for as little as Tk.15,000-20,000, but they would have to spend another 3-4 lakh to get the papers up to date, and then some more to get the car back into shape,” Moin said.
Hereabouts would be a good place to say that one should really have a passion or at least a sentimental attachment when embarking on the Beetle journey. That is the 'otherwise' part of the commitment talked about earlier. In my case, this was a car that my father rode in the early 70s, and so forms more than a tenuous link to the past, and also the little joy I feel at being able to best some more modern cars because mine is a manual transmission and theirs automatic. It's a victory very short-lived but a victory nonetheless. Also, the admiring stares from people at traffic stops and impromptu conversations with strangers, many urging me to keep the Beetle alive, do no harm.
For others it is the feeling of calm and blissful detachment one gets when driving in an ultra-modern Dhaka teeming with smoke and honks and generic metal beasts. For others still, it is the antique feel of the interiors, the cosy space that admits four people, which seems impossible from the outside. Whatever the reason, a genuine commitment is necessary.
Why? Well, don't delude yourself; the Beetle's not an easy mistress. It will need work from time to time. You need the patience to engage in a conversation with it, follow its narrative. Just the other day, I slammed the door shut and the driver's window just slid down into its slot and wouldn't come back up. So, now I am the guy driving around Dhaka in a Beetle with his window stuck shut. That's just the next chapter I guess....
Special thanks to Zubeir Moin for helping Star Lifestyle with the photo shoot. Those interested in purchasing Volkswagen Beetles can call him at 01711520019
Photo: Sazzad Ibne Sayed