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Bugs in old-time Phoenix - Volkswagens, that is


Growing up in Minneapolis, Minnesota in the 1960s and '70s, I saw a lot of bugs. And not just mosquitos (although there were plenty of those!), but Volkswagen Bugs. I saw a few of them when I moved to Phoenix, but not quite as many. The engines were air cooled, and so didn't have a radiator, so my best guess is that they could be kinda tricky to keep healthy in the heat. I had a MG, which did have a radiator, when I moved to Phoenix in 1977, and on hot days I kept a close eye on the temperature gauge, which went up even if there was a long stoplight. If you've ever driven a car like that, you know that one of the ways to get the engine from overheating is to get the car moving, and turn the heater up to full blast. I often did that when it was over 100 degrees!

Anyway, I really never had much interest in Volkswagens. I like small cars, and cars that get good gas mileage, but the look of the Volkswagen Beetle (which is what it was supposed to be called) never appealed to me. My MG had a noisy engine, but I like that sound, and I disliked the sound of a Volkswagen, or Porsche, engine. It's a matter of taste!

I remember the "think small" campaign, and how Volkswagens were marketed to people who wanted to be anti-establishment. They came to symbolize not "buying into the system", and being a free spirit. They were also cheap, and easy to repair. And some people like Bbugs because they remembered Model Ts, which were also cheap and easy to repair. A bug wasn't a car meant for "putting on airs" - it was a functional machine, and if you had one whitewall and one black wall, like the Bug in the picture at the top of this post, it wasn't an embarrassment at all.



I had a good friend at ASU who always drove around in a bug. It was a convertible, and he loved it. I'm guessing that he drove it back and forth from back east, as he never spent a summer in Phoenix. He was very tall, and I always drew cartoons of him driving with his head above the windshield. Of course, bugs had a lot of headroom, which was part of the reason my friend like those cars.

When I would go to the BAP on 7th Street to buy parts for my MG, I'd sometimes see a "Volkwagen Engine Repair Kit", which was just a rubber band. The joke poked fun at how simple bugs were to fix, and while it wasn't quite like that, it was true. People could keep bugs alive with the minimum of effort and investment.

Oh yeah, and I can't leave here until I tell you about the game my brothers and I played when we were kids, called "Slug Bug". To relieve our boredom on trips in the car, we'd watch out for Volkwagen bugs, and the first one to see one would punch the other in the arm. It was a lot of fun, and we both had pretty bruised-up arms because of it. And I'd like to think that Phoenix kids did the same thing, but probably there wasn't as much slugging.

Slug Bug! Your turn!

Image at the top of this post: The southeast corner of Central Avenue and Osborn in the 1960s, Phoenix, Arizona.

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