Show Buzz: Bug-a-Palüza 14

Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary defines lollapalooza as “one that is extraordinarily impressive” or “an outstanding example.” To most of us younger than, say, forty-five, the word might be more likely to conjure memories of a certain series of outdoor music festivals. I still have an unused ticket for the first Lollapalooza concert, in 1991, which at the last minute I decided not to attend because then — as now — I had an aversion to crowds, events, hooplas, or any sort of organized mayhem.

The same reservations resurfaced when I learned about the 14th iteration of the Bug-a-Palüza Volkswagen show to be held at Camp Jordan in East Ridge, Tennessee, and saw that my calendar was clear on the weekend of April 21st-22nd. Don’t misunderstand me — I love my classic Volkswagens! But still, there were the voices of doubt: That’s a lot of driving. I need to be working on my own car. I’ll be shunned like a leper. They’ll recognize me for the charlatan that I am. It’s supposed to rain. I need to do laundry. Bullshit umlauts piss me off.

Some of these concerns were valid. In the previous few weeks, I had been putting way more miles on the Subie than I cared to think about. It was indeed supposed to rain. My festering, fermenting pile of laundry wasn’t getting any smaller. And yes, being somewhat familiar with the rules of German grammar (and not a fan of 80’s heavy metal bands), bullshit umlauts really do piss me off.

On the plus side, I’d be attending as a spectator. No advance tickets were necessary. And East Ridge (near Chattanooga) is about three hours away. I could just go up for the day. If I felt like it. I went to bed Friday night with no clear plans.

I rose before dawn, fixed a pot of coffee, and sat down at my laptop with a bowl of granola. There was indeed some weather brewing. But it looked like it might push on through by the time I got there. I read the news. I checked my e-mail.

As the caffeine kicked in my mind started to wander. I thought about the journalists I’d always admired, and thought about my own journalistic duties. No, it wouldn’t exactly be a gonzo affair — like launching through the desert in a rented Cadillac convertible loaded to the gunwales with party favors, or chronicling the madcap hijinks of a busload of Merry Pranksters on a cross-country blitz. But I needed another reason, it seemed, to do this thing, other than simply because I really did feel like it. So I decided to look at it as a reporting mission. I grabbed my backpack, camera, and rain jacket, kissed my not-yet-awake wife bye-bye, and was out the door by 6:15.

As usual I eschewed the interstate, instead plotting a course through the winding two-lane roads of the north Georgia mountains. I actually enjoyed the drive, and it didn’t bother me that it was almost 10 a.m. by the time I arrived at Camp Jordan. I had driven through some heavy rain en route, but the low clouds in East Ridge must have been the trailing edge of the weather. By early afternoon I was glad I to have remembered the sunscreen. My rain jacket remained balled up in my backpack.

When I pulled up, the gates had already been open for the better part of two hours. But as I walked toward the show grounds, there was still a steady stream of air-cooled Volksies rolling by. As soon as I heard that wonderful, wheezing, whistling, tea-tin-full-of-pennies parade I knew I had made a good decision. If there were just one thing I could keep with me in my memories of that day, it would be that sound.

The general setup was like this: the perimeter of the show ground proper was set off from the rest of the sprawling sports and recreation facility by temporary fencing. The parts swappers and sellers were on the far left end of a large parking lot, with the show cars arrayed on the remainder of the pavement. At right edge of the parking lot was a pavilion where they were grilling up hot dogs and burgers. Beyond that was a soccer field where the campsites were set up — dozens of VW campers and Westfalias, from early split-windows to later-model Eurovans, doing what they were designed to do. A stage was set up in a position that seemed to dominate the entire show. An emcee yammered into an overloud sound system in between songs streamed in from the local classic rock station.

Since show cars were still arriving, I decided to try get an edge on the competition and spend some time browsing among the parts for sale. I had vague notions of finding a pair of original steel wheels (I have two good ones, and two that are a bit banged up) or a non-doghouse, “fresh air” fan shroud (with the cooling flap mechanism intact). But really I’m in that in-between stage of my project where I have most of what I need to finish the body work, and haven’t yet determined what I need for the rest of it. I’ve got enough t-shirts, models, books, and pint glasses. I’m not into rare accessories.

I did come close to buying a driver’s door. I already have five or six — I’ve lost count — and didn’t really need one. But it caught my eye as a two-year-only door (’65-’66) that would be right for my car. Most non-VW people would probably be surprised to learn that as similar as the Beetles appeared year after year, incremental changes were made that make finding correct parts challenging, at times. For example, the window frames were made slightly larger in ‘65, so a door from a ’64 wouldn’t work. And in ‘67, the latching mechanism and other innards were different. 1967 as whole, in fact, was an especially tricky year, with a whole host of one-year-only body parts. So I could have it a lot worse.

The door had “$30” written on it, so I figured I’d have a closer look. The old guy running the booth stood over me as I inspected it closely. I ran my hand over the skin rapidly in several different directions, and was surprised at how smooth it was. I set it on its side and inspected the bottom for rust holes, inside and out. Solid and clean. Drain holes clear. Next I leaned it back against the folding table, and grabbed each hinge and jiggled. A little bit of play. But for $30, well . . .

“A man who knows what he’s lookin’ for,” the old man observed, chewing on whatever it is old men seem to be perpetually chewing on.

I was carefully checking the inside surface of the door, basking in this complement (though saying nothing), when suddenly I noticed it: a tiny pinprick of light shining through, right smack dab in the middle of the door. Then I could see that the factory tar board glued to the inside of the door was quite ratty, and (barely) concealing a hidden colony of rust gremlins. My guess is that the door scrapers — which were no longer installed, as this was a bare door — had rotted away at some point, like they do, and moisture had kept the tar board damp on a regular basis. I was surprised at this, given that the usual rust havens seemed solid. But I’m learning that rust is very, very cunning this way.

So I politely declined and moved on, congratulating myself on being more discerning and more disciplined in my parts shopping. I’m proud to say that the $200 cash that I had allowed myself remained in my pocket for the duration. Still, it was fun poking around. I also determined that attendance at future swap meets will be all but mandatory once I get into the mechanical side of things, and have a specific list of much-needed items.

My stated purpose of the visit might have been for the sake of journalism; but if I’m honest, I just came to gawk. I took over 400 photographs in four hours. If you are not already convinced by my previous postings that I’m certainly no photographer, you will be presently. But if you’re like me (and God help you if you are), for a show report you want more pics and less talky-talky. So here I’m offering just a small selection of my favorites, with commentary that you can choose to ignore if you wish to be that way.

I regularly read the magazines and spend way too much time on the websites. This and the only other Volkswagen show I’ve ever attended (Daytona WinterJam 2010) hardly makes me an authority on current trends. Still, it cannot be denied that patina continues to rock the scene. There were several examples represented, many of which were already lowered, narrowed, and clear-coated to a bowling ball luster. I see a similar future awaiting this example:

Of course, original examples in patina and dust bring to mind the Holy Grail of all air-cooled VW aficionados: the “barn find.” Sometimes I think this term is abused. Any idiot can take a ratty old Beetle, cover it in dust, and call it a “barn find.” Also, I’m not so sure that it’s worth something simply because you found it in a barn. Define “barn.” Define “find,” for that matter (did someone “lose” the car at some point?). There term is so common nowadays, one might be forgiven for thinking that there are more “barn finds” than there are barns. Skepticism aside, this one made as good a case as any:

Another element that caught my eye in several instances was the use of folk art or found objects to dress up otherwise bland (or worse) cars. I’ve seen burlap coffee sacks used as upholstery. Sinister looking, ornately carved talismans as gear shift knobs. One-off hood ornaments emulating the Winged Nike, but with bigger boobs. Bamboo strips used as headliner material. One such element much in play at this show was the use of beer bottle caps.

If some of this is not always to my personal taste, I can at least admire these efforts at personalization, as long as the level of execution matches the creativity behind it, and as long as it’s not something that would irreparably alter an otherwise sound car. To me, it’s all part of the fun of a classic Volkswagen.

The oldest car I identified that day was this stunning example, a 1951 Beetle in pastel green. I heard it before I saw it. I was standing in his allotted space with my cheap Nikon pressed to my face, snapping away at something else, when I noticed the dreamy purring of a warm, expertly-tuned four-banger behind me. I stepped aside as my jaw dropped and a puddle of drool gathered on my lower lip. To be sure, I’m not certain that I would even want to own a Beetle this fine, this old. From what I understand, these cars in stock configuration are a whole different driving experience, with its 25-horse (!) engine and non-synch first gear. This wouldn’t be a factor anyway because I’d be worried sick about driving such a gem in the first place.

The newest Beetle present (not, mind, a New Beetle, nor a New New Beetle) was a 2003 Mexi-Beetle. With its lustrous, purplish-blue paint, repositioned front turn signals (incorporated into the bumper), and lack of chrome trim, I recognized it well before its owner, sitting in a lawn chair and enjoying the emerging sun, quipped, “Betcha can’t guess what year this ‘un is!”

I wondered if he was going to ask me to pull his finger next. “It’s a Mexi-Beetle,” I said flatly.

“An ’03, to be exact!” he said, proudly.

It was indeed a fine example of the last model year for the air-cooled Beetle, and the owner had every right to be proud. He gave me its short history — the typical “old lady who only drove it to church on Sundays” spiel. But with its ridiculously low mileage (I can’t remember the actual number) and immaculate condition, I believe it. It was strange to contemplate this car, 52 years newer than its very similar pastel green ancestor across the parking lot, and roughly the same age as my Subaru.

One of the first cars of the show to catch my eye was this Type 4 (above). You almost never see these anymore. I admired how remarkably straight and rust-free this example was. I wanted to ask more about it, but the owner wasn’t around. If it were mine, I’d keep it in tune, protect it, and leave it just as it is — a remarkable survivor of a dying breed!

With this next example, you’re really getting close to the “r” word:

When most people think of a Karmann Ghia (myself included), they usually think of the car that was based on a Beetle chassis, but with an Italian-designed body executed by a German coach builder. There were plenty of those on display. But this one is a Type 3 Karmann Ghia, of which only 42,505 were made (for comparison, remember that there were over 440,000 “normal” Karmann Ghias made, and around 22,000,000 Beetles). So I’d call it rare, especially given the relative numbers. Some people think they look like Corvairs. In my opinion, a Corvair is weak tea to this Italian-style double-shot of espresso! Being for the most part a stocker, I was unsure, at first, about the Sprintstars and the slightly lowered stance. But once it sank in, I decided it worked quite well. The interior did need a little bit of tidying. But like the Type 4 above, there is little else I would do with this fine car.

Speaking of interiors, my vote for “Best Beetle Interior” would be this one:

It’s colorful without being gaudy. Personalized without being kitschy. “Lived-in” without being trashy. Works for me!

A close second would be this one:

The owner was sitting nearby as I completed a slow circuit of this beautiful Bahama Blue ’65. The exterior, it turns out, was all original, with just a few minor repairs over the years. The paint still took a high polish very well. But when I stuck my head in the window I immediately appreciated the simple, uncluttered, clean and original look of it.

“Who did your interior?” I asked.

He beamed and replied that he did it himself. He was quite humble about it, and was quick to point out some minor flaws that I surely would never have noticed myself. Since these were the results of his very first attempt at it, he shared with me his experience and gave me some pointers. I told him I’d be quite satisfied to have mine turn out half as nice.

I’ve been a bit mum about the Buses so far. But if you know me by now, you know it was only a matter of time. As far as interiors go, my “Best Bus Interior” award goes to this late-70‘s example:

It was bone stock, immaculate, and in a color scheme that was specifically created to enhance the experience of any psychedelics used within. Although this benefit would be of very limited use to me anymore, I could definitely, indefinitely live in there.

This Bus actually won awards in two categories of my own creation, the other being that of “Vehicle I’d Want Most to Take Home.” Again, I’ve always wanted a Westfalia, and the color is spot on. I admired this Bus so much that it was only later, after reviewing the photos, that I noticed the overspray on the canvas. But by then it didn’t matter. My decision was made, and such a trivial thing was no reason to reconsider.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that the green Westy was my favorite vehicle of the entire show. I hate to make decisions, so on that one I simply won’t. But I will nominate the next Bus — a ’66 21-window — for the “Vehicle Which Most Made My Knees Weak and Loins Ache” award. There is nothing more I can say. So here is the pic:

I seem to be fond of reminding everyone that I’m a traditionalist, a “stocker” who rails against deviants who stray too far from what rolled off the assembly line fifty years ago — a finished product with Porsche lineage and teams of German engineers behind it. While this creed continues to guide the work on my own car (in no small part, it must be admitted, because I have neither the imagination nor the know-how to venture too far outside of that box), I’m coming to appreciate those who dare to be different — and have the ability to pull it off.

I’m not sure, exactly, what “it” is. The French call it je ne sais quoi, or “I don’t know what.” But French is a fern language. What ferners speak. Socialist ferners. Besides, I can’t really call the award in this category the “Je Ne Sais Quoi” award. The “Ich Weiß Nicht Was” might be more appropriate, but just doesn’t seem to roll off the tongue as well. In fact, nothing in German rolls off the tongue. If it does, you’re pronouncing it wrong. And you might injure somebody.

Here’s one example of what I mean:

In my book, this badass Bus has “it” for sure. But on that day, the standard bearer for what I’m talking about was this totally nuts Beetle:

It’s something I wouldn’t dare conceive of myself — even if I could. Nor is it a car that I would be particularly interested in driving, or parking in my garage. But in some strange and unidentifiable way, this crazy ride was bending my mind. It was too radical to comprehend, yet too intriguing to ignore. Closely — but not too closely — I examined it from every angle, as if it had just plummeted from the sky and plunked down on the pavement, steaming hot and radioactive from its hurtling flight across the Milky Way.

Once I stepped back and took a few parting shots with my Nikon, I found myself thinking that somehow — in a way that was shaking my heretofore inviolable ethos — this Beetle was just, I dunno, right. So I hereby bestow the “Just Right” award upon this bonkers Bug from another dimension, a place where heaven and hell have agreed to call it a draw, and the inhabitants of both party down like it’s 1999 for all eternity forever and always amen.

I would have much preferred to end the honors here, on a positive note. It is my habit to try to wrap things up with a warm dose of gemütlichkeit (note correct use of umlaut here) for all parties concerned. Alas, it was not to be. At some point (during the 1980’s, from the looks of it) an act of such beastly perversion was perpetrated that its repercussions continue to be felt, decades later, upon my person — in the form of insomnia, loss of appetite, tremors, tics, and a particularly stubborn case of the willies. I’m afraid that these symptoms will not relent until I get this out in the open, and thereby relieve myself of this burden. So without further ado, I must present the “WTF?” award for a creation that is one part Dr. Porsche, two parts Dr. Leary, and three parts Satan.

Thank you. I feel better already.

All in all, Bug-a-Palüza 14 lived up to its Merriam-Webster soundalike — and then some. To think that I’d had doubts about the whole thing now seems ridiculous. The wide variety of Volkswagens assembled for the event was indeed “extraordinarily impressive.” I should mention that in my coverage I’ve left out innumerable examples. As a matter of fact, I admit that I’m guilty of giving short shrift to entire classes that were present in force — sand rails, buggies, and water-cooled VW’s, just to name a few. It would have been great to stay the night, camp with friends, and dig the rest of the scene the next day. All I’d need is that green Westy. And friends. But part of the fun of this event was that there was something for everybody.

Reflecting on a day well spent, I find that it was just the kick in the pants that I needed. If you have been a regular follower, you have no doubt had it up to here with my manic ranting about all things Type 2: splits, bays, single cabs, double cabs, Westies, Kombis, Transporters, Sambas, Vanagons — the whole shootin’ match, and then some. While nothing has changed in this regard — I still fully intend to own one someday, somehow — I do realize that much of that obsession is simply due to the fact that I don’t currently own one. Shakespeare said it best, but I’m not foolin’ anyone by quoting Shakespeare. So I’ll go with W. Somerset Maugham, who said it second best: “Passion thrives not on satisfaction, but on impediment.” By that measure, I don’t have to look further than my own garage.

We are beset by impediments from many directions. Some don’t have the time to devote to such an undertaking. For others it’s money. A few simply lose steam, as evidenced by the number of half-finished projects that appear on my eBay alerts. I make no effort to hide my own biggest impediment — a lack of skills. To the contrary, I think that I’ve been somewhat successful in turning this shortcoming, via these pages, into a different skill, one that is often overlooked: the ability to not take oneself too seriously.

Naturally, I find myself comparing my impressions of this show with that of the only other I’ve attended, the WinterJam show over two years ago. To take nothing away from Bug-a-Palüza, WinterJam was bigger (spread, in fact, over multiple venues) and longer (four days versus two), with a far larger array of swappers, and a main show that was staged at a more attractive venue (in a park-like setting around a lake). But that’s not what I’m talking about here.

At WinterJam I was completely bowled over and overstimulated. Every car present was better than mine would ever be, in every way. Each was a gleaming, chrome-bedecked reminder of my own incompetence. I still had a great time, but more in the way that I might enjoy an amusement park or a good movie. It was reminiscent of the very first time I got my adolescent hands on a Playboy. I thought: that’s impossible. Wonderful! But impossible.

This time around, instead of ogling each car in dumbfounded wonder like a lusty thirteen-year-old, I was able to see with a more critical eye. This is not to say that I could replicate the work evidenced by the finest examples present that day. This would take years and years of experience — which, at this point, would be all but impossible to attain given the natural years that statistically remain to me. But in the vast majority of cases — even, and especially, in ones I admired the most — I could discern slight flaws that took nothing away from the total impact of the car. If anything, this gave me hope. It taught me that I’m not the only one who isn’t perfect. Although I have worked for countless hours in solitude, this affirmed that others have walked the same path as I, have faced their own impediments, and trusted the process enough to see it through, with something wonderful to show for it. It made me feel like part of an unspoken, unnamed brotherhood (and sisterhood — you bet!).

With this newfound inspiration, I hereby announce my goal: next year, I will arrive at Bug-a-Palüza 15 in the very same ’65 Beetle that currently resides — in a woefully incomplete state — in my garage. Even if I park it in the spectator lot, I’ll be air-coolin’ my way over the hills and through the woods to East Ridge next year. You heard it here first.

I just wish they’d do something about that bullshit umlaut.

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