Unavoidable attention was the rule of the day while taking a red Volkswagen beetle out for a photo shoot. It's the kind of attention given to oh-so-sexy Angelina Jolie walking through the corridors of boys school. A couple of young men wanting to be John Abraham swooped around a corner on their loud modified sport bike. They slowed, whistled appreciatively and zoomed off. Similarly a new high tech van stopped in the middle of the road to allow the occupants to have a look.
A bus driver craned his neck around to get a better view. That partly solves why buses crash so much; the drivers are too busy looking at Volkswagen Beetles. A bunch of kids on the street giggled incoherently. They loved it though they had no idea what it was. A classic Beetle has that effect on the young, old and confused.
A tyrant's legacy
In 1934 Hitler commissioned Ferdinand Porsche to design a car made by the German state. The Nazi marketing team came up with the ridiculous name KdF-Wagen (kraft durch freude strength through joy). An air cooled 985cc engine propelled this bug shaped car with a split rear window. The idea was that the common people would get to have these cars through savings stamps. Production started in 1941 with 630 units made and were all handed down to Hitler and his gang. The common people were to remain common. Who would have thought a mad, murderous maniac of a ruler would leave behind such an endearing legacy.
Rousseau is just about to finish his bachelors' degree from North South University. His dream was to own a Beetle and he saved, scrimped and begged till the dream became a reality. It's the spanking red 1967 car in the shots and he has been the very, very proud owner for about two months.
He was on the lookout for a long time. You see, Beetles in Bangladesh are quite rare and hardly anyone wants to let go of the bug.
Rousseau begged his cousin who owned two to sell him one. As you can see incessant nagging and being a general pain-in-the-nether region can pay off. He added some cool touches like the hub caps that were taken from Tata Maxi human haulers and VW logos attached to the center. They look stock if nothing else.
The car is faithful to a tee. It starts each time and runs flawlessly. Being bombproof is a common and true adjective used by Beetle owners worldwide. Uncommon adjectives include 'unsinkable' and 'unflippable'. Beetles will sink faster than you can say Titanic and the turtle shaped car can turn turtle. But hey, legends always come with unrealistic claims attached.
The young man vows never to sell off this car and will probably live inside if there is no roof over his head.
Chugging through time
It sounds like no other car with a signature chug-lug-chug-lug engine note. In the 50's the Beetle was deemed to become a world car and was exported to Britain and the States although just two had been sold in the US by the end of 1950. In 1953 the split window became a large oval and suddenly drivers could see who they were hitting when backing up.
An enlarged 1192cc engine provided 30 bhp. Production hit 1 million on 5 August 1955. A 130kmph 1500 cc model arrived in 1967 with heart- and beetle-stopping front disc brakes. The dark ages of electrical wiring were over in '68 when the six-volt system was uprated to 12-volts. Most cars here belong to the 6-volt era but owners have made the necessary conversion.
The 70's saw uprated suspension characterized by bulging bonnets. On 17 February 1972, the 15,007,034th Beetle was produced breaking the Ford Model T's all time high record. In the 80's it broke its own record crossing 20 million.
The fast and the curious
In Sylhet the Beetle is known as “kathua' or the turtle. It may have the physical resemblance but the performance is surprisingly quick and nimble around corners.
Take for example the lime green '68 Bug owned by Shaiful Alam Siddique. His car has been retrofitted with a 1600 cc engine that gives it more 'ooomph' than a lot of new cars. He tells how big rigs like the new Pajeros, Land Cruisers and Nissan Patrols almost always become real irritated when he passes them by. Many times drivers gave chase but were left behind by a blurry green shape.
Shaiful Alam is the director of an ISP company and also owned the red Beetle. He pretty much built it up from scratch. He asserts that when well looked after these cars are more reliable than many new vehicles. A troupe of several cars even made a round trip all the way to Nepal and the hilly regions of Kathmandu without breaking down. His Beetle is equipped with CD player, modern seats with comfortable headrests and a snazzy fire extinguisher. No, they don't catch fire unless you mistreat them.
Running a bug fever
Good cars on the market can be had at around 1.2 lakhs that is if you are lucky enough to find one. Parts though are slightly difficult to find although if you can get your hands on genuine items these will last almost forever. Most owners have in informal network besides the VW Club. Many owners carry spares and can get more for others. Shaiful Alam has had many parts for his cars bought from abroad with the help of friends. What matters most is the mechanic. Despite being old cars with Stone Age technology these vehicles need expert care and apparently only one mechanic has the masterful skills. That's Rauf who has a garage in Paaribaagh.
In the end it's a labour of love. What really hurts after you put so much love into it is when rickshaws come up and nudge your fenders. The front fenders and the steel bumpers are quite vulnerable. Rousseau's car came without a front bumper and he is still hunting for one. What you see in the pictures is a temporary pipe unit. Building and maintaining your bug is a long term ongoing love affair. Ownership won't be easy especially if your pockets aren't very deep.
Performance wise Beetles have excellent all weather traction although one of its vice is lift-off oversteer. This happens when you take a turn very fast and let go of the accelerator. The nose turns in more and the back slides out. 0-100 mph? Hmmm. The ride is also relaxed with a floating motion typical of pre-80's automobile technology.
Till death do us apart
Owners generally love their beetles to death quite in the literal sense. During the photo shoot I spotted one blue Bug turning a corner and ran to catch it. It was driven by Quazi Md. Mafizur Rahman who is a professor at the Dhaka University. A sputtering, gasping out of breath request to join the photo shoot was met with a gracious yes.
His was bought brand new in 1970 after he got out of university himself. The car also comes with a cool registration number of 'KA 70'. Now what are the odds of that? Mafizur Rahman has been driving his vehicle for over 30 years without ever having to overhaul the engine. The idle clatter of the engine sounds so gloriously sweet. It has all the original trim although the seats are a bit tattered. This is a car the owner probably won't let go until the day he can drive no longer.
Iconic achievements of man include Coke, Levi's Jeans, the toilet, Playboy magazine, Beatles the band and if we look far, far back then it is the invention of the wheel. Following closely on its heel is the Beetle. It has charm and character as do the owners providing the recipe for a true icon.
Special thanks to Quazi Md. Mafizur Rahman, Shaiful Alam Siddique and Md. Rashed Ahmed Shams Rousseau for driving around the city and answering the incessant questions of the writer.
By Ehsanur Raza Ronny
Photo: Amirul Rajiv