“Rubylove,” was all that she said. She slowly turned and retreated back into the garage. — Excerpt from “The Woodstock Volkswagen Show,” 7/29/11.
Where Mrs. Sorensen came up with that nickname for her 1965 Volkswagen Deluxe Sedan remains unknown. Cat Stevens’ song of the same name would not be released until 1971, two years after Mrs. Sorensen uttered that nonsensical word and retreated into whatever private universe she was inhabiting at the time. Perhaps she was deep in the throes of one of her ever more frequent fugues. Perhaps she was perfectly lucid. We will never know.
Either way, I’ve decided to keep the name because, well, it fits!
For all the time I spent getting the body straight, you’d think I would have reached a color decision before the car was actually ready for the paint booth. Actually, there were several ideas rattling around in the cranial space that would normally be occupied by a brain. Among the top contenders were L87 Pearl White, as well as a custom color to match my favorite bicycle (seen above in the background). For this last option, I had even e-mailed the gentlemen at Surly Bikes (the manufacturers of the frame) to explain what I was up to, and to ask if they could provide any help. They responded promptly and enthusiastically with a powder coating code (RAL 6013, Reed Green — but not quite the same as the VW color of the same name) and made me promise to send pics. Now, I am aware that matching auto paint to RAL codes is tricky, but I’m given to understand that it can be done. But in the end, my concern was that this color would have been fun for about a week.
During my last (and, to date, only) State of the Volksie address, I said, “All I will say is that my decision [is] already made regarding the first choice of color for the car. It just hit me one day, and imbued me with a clarity and certainty that I rarely enjoy. I haven’t given it much thought since. That’s how sure I am.” That was back in January, and until the very day that James and his son came to get the Beetle — the very moment, even, that they were about to drive away with it — my resolve did not waver. The choice was L518 Java Green. Certainly I could have called him the next day, or the next week even — at any time, as long as he had not mixed any base coat yet — to inform him of a change of heart. But for some deep-seated reason, I wanted to make the decision in the actual presence of the car. There would be no last minute phone calls.
At that very moment, with the car already on the trailer, something was speaking to me. I don’t believe in auras, but it was something like that. The car suddenly seemed to glow with one of those little bursts of color normally found framing the words On Sale Now! or New and Improved! It was like the undersized, under-appreciated third-grader who sits silently all year doodling in the back of science class, suddenly thrusting his hand in the air one fine spring day when the subject turns to butterflies or lunar landings.
Me! Ooh — me!
I asked James a couple of questions — mainly concerning cost, because what I was now thinking about would, for whatever reason, add to the price. Then I walked over to my workbench, tore off a scrap of paper, scribbled on it with a gnawed and dull pencil, and handed him the note. Upon it I had written, from memory: “VW Ruby Red — L456.”
I went around and opened up the deck lid, to expose the original paint that I discovered upon pulling the old tar board away.
“Like that,” I said.
“Are you sure now?” he said, skeptical of my sudden switch.
“You can call me in the next couple of days, and —”
“Paint it red,” I said, shaking my head. “Ruby Red.”
We shook hands and the thing was done. Before he drove off, I said he could call me at any time. I reminded him that the man who has my Volksie has my attention.
For two weeks I heard nothing. As nightly my vacuous headspace played host to a series of nightmares, mainly featuring revelations of shoddy workmanship on my behalf, and frustration on behalf of the paint man, this silence did not bother me so much. I believe that a professional must be given the time, the space, and a measure of trust. I did not want to pester him, or to make him feel rushed.
But after that second week, my sheer curiosity got the better of me. I gave him a ring. He said he was about to call me anyway. I thought, uh-oh. Were there problems? Was he giving up? Would he report me to the Bondo Police? It was nothing, he assured me, of the sort. He reiterated his first impression, that my work had been pretty darn good. There were a couple of areas that needed some massaging (the roof and driver’s door, mainly, but I knew that already). But overall, nothing major. He simply wanted to inform me that the inside base coats were laid, he was getting ready to apply the clear, and that I should come down to his shop to check on the color before he committed to the outside of the car. I was about to head out of town for a couple of days, so we set up a time the following week. In the meantime, he said, he’d go ahead and clear the inside, to give me a better idea. But he assured me I’d like it.
The final color choice surprised nobody, perhaps, more than myself. There were several reasons why I had not considered Ruby a top contender. For one, there seems to be little agreement as to what L456 Ruby Red is actually supposed to look like. Take the following examples:
They all look great, but the variation is clear. Some are vibrant and bright, almost like one might find on a Miata. Others are deeper and richer, like the inside of a fresh cherry. I’ve been reminded of crimson, maroon, rose, burgundy, and even brown. Yet in each case, the owners swear up and down it’s L456, Ruby Red.
I prefer the deep, rich tone myself — but not too deep, or too rich. The original paint I found on the rear firewall, though almost fifty years old, gave me a pretty good idea of what I was looking for. But given the wide spectrum of results I’ve seen, I was leery about the whole thing. It could come out stunning. Or it could come out looking like, well, like a Miata. (Nothing at all against Miatas, mind. But a Miata is a Miata and a Bug is a Bug. Dig?)
So it was not without serious trepidation that I drove the Subaru down to James’s shop. That worry was soon traded for the ear-to-ear grin that I wore the whole way back. It was that good! I do not know what I would have done if the color were too bright, too brown, or otherwise contrary to the vision in my head. Maybe he would have been able to tinker with the pigment and try again. Or I might have just said forget it, let’s go with the Java Green. Either way, it would have no doubt cost me some (or all) of the extra I had set aside for contingencies such as this. Money that would come in handy for the rest of the rebuild. Money I really didn’t want to part with. But when I saw that color on the dash, the door jams, the rocker panels, and all of the other exposed surfaces of the interior, I said Go! Go! Go!
I slept a lot easier for the next two weeks. Eventually, though, I was beginning to wonder. Will he finish it on time? Should I call him? Should I leave him alone? I believe that when one hires a reputable professional, it is okay to check up on his or her work — to a point. Beyond that, there is a certain level of trust involved. If you don’t think you can handle that (and usually, I can’t) do it yourself.
In my own profession (which makes me — nominally, at least — a “professional”), I don’t mind fielding basic questions from customers when the situation warrants it. For example, many passengers have a hard time understanding why our flight from, say, New York to Atlanta is three hours late due to thunderstorms in the Ohio Valley. That’s a reasonable question. But sometimes there are some real humdingers, usually from some clown who think’s he’s being original, or funny:
Are you well-rested?
Have you been drinking?
You’re not going to go berserk on us, are you?
Are you sure this thing is safe?
Really. How would they like me to answer that?
Usually, I deadpan with a straight face and no hint of humor, “Of course [Sir/Ma’am] I’m well-rested. I don’t drink. And I am the paragon mental health. I’m never sick, I never daydream, I never get bored. My marriage is the supreme example of stress-free, blissful, and mutually enriching coexistence. My family never has any problems whatsoever. My social life is always fulfilling and in perfect harmony. I have no distracting interests. I never wish I were elsewhere, doing something else. I never get frustrated with politics, concerned about the state of the environment, or overwhelmed by the sheer scale of human suffering worldwide. I have unlimited money, and endless time to do anything my heart desires. But I have no desires, other than to serve you. Oh, and yes — this thing is perfectly safe. I personally inspect the entire aircraft between every flight, trailed closely by a team of award-winning, white-gloved mechanics in case I miss something (which never happens). After that, I painstakingly debug millions of lines of code, so that this great flying supercomputer doesn’t pull a Microsoft on us. I do this all to ensure that there will be no smoking craters on my watch, no mile-long smoldering smear of twisted metal, rubber, seat stuffing, hair, teeth, blood, and kerosene. I endure an irregular sleep schedule, limited food options, lengthy and demonstrably unhealthy periods of sitting, recycled air, solar radiation, bedbugs, cooties, and hearing loss so that you can fly off on a whim to some depressingly tacky gambling enclave to overeat and blow the rest of your social security check. Do you have any other concerns you would like me to address? No? Then, thank you for joining us today!”
I was standing at the gate in Boston’s Logan Airport one afternoon, waiting for my plane to arrive, when the cell phone in my pocket started to vibrate like an angry hornet. I pulled it out of my pocket and brought it to my face. One after another the texted photos came streaming in, images of a beautiful Ruby Red Volkswagen that couldn’t possibly be my own. The same wide smile began to spread across my face. I was positively giddy with it!
Then the phone rang. It was James, wanting to know if I got the pics.
“James! You are THE man!”
“Well, now,” he said, humbly. “I don’t know about that . . .”
“James!” I shouted into the phone, “It’s freakin’ awesome!” I wanted to elaborate but my lexicon of available words was somewhat limited by the fact that I was in a public place, in uniform, and people were starting to stare. Also, James had once mentioned in passing that he sang in the church choir on Sundays, so I did not wish to offend his Christian sensibilities. No chaste words without colorful modifiers seemed to express the way I felt at that moment as I struggled to to come up with something.
“Are you at home?” he wanted to know.
It took me a moment to remember where I was, where I was going, and when I would indeed be home. This is not an unusual phenomenon in my line of work, even at less emotional times. I told him I’d be back in town the next day. We agreed that he would deliver the car then.
Is it perfect? It is not. There are a couple of runs in the clear coat, and a few minor blemishes here and there. James pointed out most of them well before I had gotten over the initial impact of seeing this gleaming gem back in my garage. He said he was disappointed in himself for these very minor flaws. He explained that in his experience, he preferred to let the paint cure for some time before the final buffing, and that was why he was delivering the car to me in this less-than-perfect (in his mind) state. At least this way, he figured, I could continue on with the rebuild. When it’s finally on the road, I could bring it by (he insisted that I show him the final product anyhow) and he would gladly do a final buffing, and touch up the inevitable nicks and scratches I might inflict upon the new paint in the interim. Sounds like a reasonable plan to me.
There were some other things I noticed upon closer inspection, after James left. My biggest gripe is the coverage (or lack thereof) on the underside of the front hood. Either he forgot it, or was running low on base coat by that point. Either way, I plan to bring this to his attention. I can always detach the hood and bring it to him. James seems to be a man of integrity and I imagine he won’t hesitate to take care of it.
My other main complaint is that it’s just too damn shiny! I laugh at myself when I say this, but to a certain extent, it’s true. I knew beforehand that the full monty, two-stage job would shine like a bowling bowl slathered in Vaseline. But I also figured that the base/clear combo would be more durable than single-stage. As I aim to drive the thing, I’m all about the durability. But strangely, in some ways I’m looking forward to it aging a bit, fading a little, and losing some of its luster over the years. It is my belief that there are few man-made things that are more beautiful than a gracefully aged air-cooled Volkswagen.
James delivered the car on time (in about a month) and at the price he originally quoted ($3400). Most impressive, however, is the level to which he finished the roof. Until now, that had been one of the things I was worried about most, body-wise. When I bought the car the roof was quite wavy, with gobs of Bondo spread on it like peanut butter. As a matter of fact, it would not have surprised me if it was peanut butter, given some of the other Volks-felonies committed by a previous owner! I spent weeks attempting to ensure that the car’s hallmark roundness carried though to, and included, the roof. Most of the work was with hammers and dollies, a shrinking disc, very fine finishing glaze, and many hours of block sanding. There were times when, in spite of my efforts, it seemed to be getting worse. Desperation would set in. Fitting an aftermarket folding “ragtop” actually began to seem like a good idea, in those times. I even considered cutting the entire roof away at the pillars and replacing it with a donor. (This last option, while possible, is a procedure far more advanced than anything I should attempt in my lifetime, ever.)
Then there were days (usually after a few coldies) when I managed to convince myself that I was actually doing good work. I still can’t understand how one is supposed to use a guide coat for sanding back a curved surface, but that’s just me. Actually, it’s not just me — James, it turns out, is a “touch” man too. Granted, in those fingers are decades of experience I’ll never have. But on those hopeful days, I knew my work was good because I could feel it. With a shiny coat of whatever color I finally decided upon, it had to be damn near perfect. In this, I decided, I was going to need professional help. James did not disappoint — the roof is now round, smooth, and flawless! I had been planning on adding a vintage-style roof rack anyway, but now I’m reconsidering. May as well showcase that beautiful gleaming dome!
My only regret, really, is that I would have liked to do the paint myself. I gave it much consideration. I read books on the subject, and spent hours on the forums weighing the pros and cons. I do not expect that my first attempt would have been anywhere approaching James’s work in terms of quality and durability. But I would have liked to learn how to do it all the same, and I still do. In the end, though, I decided that I just don’t have the space. Also, with all of the equipment and supplies I’d have to invest in to create an ersatz paint booth in my small two-car garage, I’d probably spend close to what I paid James — and that’s not figuring the mistakes I would surely make.
Even James’s work would not quite be up to the standard required if I were restoring, say, a rare Aston Martin. But I’m not and it isn’t. For the price, I think I got a fair deal, and I’d go with James again.
“Ruby, if I’m honest, would probably not be my first choice.”
I said that in the “Colors” episode, in which I test the bounds of the readers’ attention span by considering — ad nauseam — the merits of almost every color available to Beetle shoppers in 1965 (and a couple that were not). Indeed, red was never a top contender. For one thing, I’m not usually a red car kind of guy. In spite of the self-indulgent and embarrassing exposure in the pages herein, I do not like to draw attention to myself. I love the car because I love the car, not because I want to scream, “Hey! Look at me! Why look at him when you can look at me!?!”
But look: it’s a forty-eight-year-old car. Its mere existence is an attention-getter. Even before I decided to tear the whole car apart, when I still drove it more or less as I bought it, I often found myself trying to tactfully extricate myself from conversations with strangers. Really, if I were trying to avoid attention, I’d be better off with a gray Kia. I’m just gonna have to get used to it.
Another concern was that I did not want to be suspected of trying to reconstruct the days of my youth — the days of my other red Beetle. Those days, if you must know, were not the happiest of times for me. But I don’t know who would accuse me of trying to revisit them anyhow. Nobody who knows me now knew me then. I did find myself thinking about these things nonetheless.
So why the change of heart?
I don’t know for sure, but it was probably several things. First, my wife’s preference was for the red. This might seem like a silly reason — after all, it’s my car — but I generally value her opinion in these things. I’m not out to impress anyone, but it would indeed flatter me to hear her say — someday — that my Beetle looks great, and to ask if she could drive it. Gladly I would throw her the keys, remind her to go easy (as if there were any other way to go with only forty horses in the stable), that it’s not her turbo six-speed Eos, and to please leave some gas in it. I’d warn her about the idiosyncrasies it’s sure to have — a sticky door lock, or a sun visor that won’t stay up. Then I’d watch her drive off — not out of worry, but out of great pride.
In the end, I decided that I had to be true to my vision for the project. It’s a natural outgrowth of knowing my limitations, having realistic goals, and dreaming about a car that I could drive with pride and satisfaction. Without formally stating or acknowledging this until now (though vaguely aware of it a subconscious level), my vision all along has not been to recreate the car as it left the factory in Wolfsburg that autumn day in 1964. Instead, I am aiming for something that I feel is more true to the Volkswagen ethos: a well-used, but well-maintained “driver.”
I truly mean it when I say that in my garage, rather than a numbers-matching concourse winner, I’d have the car the way it might have appeared in, say, 1974. Maybe a student owned it then, second-hand. Since it was his his daily wheels, he would have seen to it that it was mechanically up to snuff. Maybe he would have even washed it now and then, like if he had a date. It had its quirks but it never left him stranded. When he finally sold it a few years later — graduating from school, and into a nascent sense of entitlement to things like air conditioning, power steering, and modern highway speeds — he would be glad he had taken meticulous care of it. Later still he would regret that he ever sold it. For the rest of his life, even.
So maybe I am trying to go back after all. Whatever the case, I decided that authenticity was paramount. And nothing, I reasoned, would be more authentic than the original color of the car. So you see, in the end my decision wasn’t really a decision.
Now I sleep with the garage door remote on the nightstand. I reach for it when I wake. And this is what I can see without raising my head from the pillow:
And I know that my not-really-a-decision was the right thing when I drift off again, for a few luxurious minutes, my mind an unrippled pool of serenity. Soon enough a cat pounces, demanding food, or my wife steps from the shower and fires up the blow dryer. The aroma of freshly-ground coffee beckons. Time to get to work.