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About A Week: Beetles

Peter Hinchliffe recalls adventures and excitements involving the Herbie car – the Volkswagen Beetle.

There was almost as much chance of hitching a ride on a Cape Kennedy space ship as there was of persuading my dad to loan me his Volkswagen Beetle.

Dad was an early-day VW owner, back in the 1950s. Beetles were then so rare in England that if the owner of one saw another Beetle coming towards him he would automatically flash his headlights in brotherly greeting.

“I’ll be careful dad,’’ I pleaded. “Third gear all the way and I’ll pay for the repairs if I scratch it.’’

“You’ve got your own car,’’ dad said.

My car was a battered Ford Popular, formerly a newspaper staff car used by reporters in a hurry. It had 92,000 miles on the clock when I acquired it from Douglas Stockall who was at that time the paper’s chief reporter.

A trusty little car, the Ford Pop. But the Beetle was trendier than my old rust bucket.

“Go on dad,’’ I urged. “You know I’ve never had an accident. I’ll take good care of it.’’

One Saturday night he said OK. Off I drove to Leeds in a gleaming machine which was washed and polished every week, behaving as though I was a Lord of the Realm.

I went to the pictures, leaving the Beetle in the street right by the cinema in City Square. Oh for the days when there were so few vehicles around that you could park pretty much where you pleased!

There was a shock waiting for me when I came out of the cinema sometime after 10 pm. A man was unlocking dad’s car preparatory to getting into the driving seat.

Now I’m no warrior. Never have been. But I knew what lay in store if I told dad his car had been stolen.

And the man unlocking the door was smaller than me.

I sprinted up the street, grabbed hold of the fellah and pinned him against the side of the VW, yelling “What the heck are you doing?’’

The man twitched like a startled rabbit. “Getting into my car,’’ he said.

“This isn’t your…’’ I began.

Then I saw a second car, parked right alongside. An identical Indian Red Beetle.

Fortunately the little man treated the episode as a joke. I never asked to borrow dad’s Indian Red baby again. The prospect of his pet being stolen was too big a burden.

The year after that I bought my own Beetle, a second-hand beauty which cost £275.

That was the first of the six Beetles which I owned. After meeting and marrying my American-born wife in 1963 we drove in a blue Beetle on a belated honeymoon through Texas, Colorado, Utah, California, Arizona and New Mexico. Nearly 5,000 miles in a fortnight - and never a whimper from our trusty beetle-backed steed.

Six years later we were working in Kenya, driving around in a dun-coloured Beetle which matched those dusty desolate African roads.

My most memorable motoring experience came in Africa while I was a passenger in a Beetle. The driver on that occasion was Mr Bhatt, the proprietor of a Nairobi newspaper.

Another passenger in the car was the late Mohammed Amin, a brilliant photographer and a friend with whom I worked on a number of major news stories.

Mo Amin, accompanied by Michael Buerk the BBC TV reporter, filmed the devastating pictures of starving Ethiopians which led to the launch of Bob Geldorff’s Live Aid appeal in the 1980s.

Mr Bhatt, Mo and I were travelling through a lonely tract of Tsavo West national park when we came upon a herd of more than 200 elephants.

“Stop, Mr Bhatt,’’ said Mo. “I need to get some wildlife pics for the American market.’’

He got out and stood at the rear of the Beetle. A huge bull elephant stalked onto the red murram track and squared up to Mo.

Mo shouted at it, flapping his arms.

“Oh my God, Amin,’’ said Mr Bhatt. “Get into the car.’’

The elephant put in a dummy charge. Mo was busy filming.

“We are going to die,’’ wailed Mr Bhatt. “Get into the car.’’

Mo put a foot on the Beetle’s tiny running board and, clinging to the roof with one hand, continued to film.

“Get in you b……. idiot,’’ I yelled, as the elephant now charged with serious intent.

Fortunately, despite the jittery feet of our driver, the Beetle out-accelerated the pachyderm.

We were saved.

The last of the old-style Beetles rolled off a production line in a Volkswagen plant in Mexico.

VW launched a new Beetle, a bigger, more-bulbous version of the original, electronically superior in every possible way. But it lacked the character of its forebear. There was no chance of it starring in a new Herbie film.

The old Beetle, first conceived and designed in the 1930s, is rarely seen on British roads.

But millions of us treasure happy and astonishing Beetle memories.

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