Thursday, 26 April 2012

VW Story

Chapter One

    On the Easter weekend, 1965, when I was living at Muloorina in South Australia, I travelled on the Ghan train from Marree to Adelaide, the main purpose being to pick up a brand-new white Volkswagen 1200 Custom sedan which I had ordered, to be paid for with hire purchase and my Vespa scooter as a trade-in.  The price was £990 give or take a quid or two.  (The only hiccup was that because I was under 21, I discovered that I had to get Dad to act as guarantor for the hire purchase agreement, and he wasn't very happy about it, probably due to the lack of notice or any prior request.)

    Thus began my direct association with Volkswagens.

    I was influenced, I think, by three factors.  I was well aware of the reputation that the VW had as a bush car.  They had won some of the round-Australia reliability trials conducted by Redex and Ampol in the early 1950s and were highly praised for abilities on rough roads.  Second, in about 1957, my Mum's sister, Auntie Hazel, and her husband, Uncle Mick, had driven from Perth to Adelaide, when the road was still corrugated dirt from Kalgoorlie to Port Augusta, in an early model Beetle in a bit over 48 hours, if memory serves me well.  They had  driven virtually non-stop!  I was very impressed, and can still picture the dark-blue, oval-window, Beetle parked alongside our side fence, where they parked on arrival.

    Third, when we moved from Woodville to Glenelg in 1959, I continued to commute to Woodville High School for a couple of months, facilitated by one of my teachers, "Bodge" Narroway, who lived nearby in Glenelg and could give me a lift in his blue VW, a mid-fifties oval-window.  When he was unable to do this, I was passed on to the famous Gerry Phillips, my latin teacher and hockey coach, who had a brand-new black Beetle, very shiny and swish by comparison.  I was impressed by the slick floor gear change, the seating position at the front of the car with no bonnet to speak of, and of course the "chaff-cutter" noise of the motor.

    During the teachers' college years, I drove to Renmark with another student and was allowed to test-drive his grey Beetle.  A very easy car to drive (I could only compare it to Dad's Ford Consul) and could reach its top speed in third gear!

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    Back at Muloorina, I did a lot of driving on weekends and learnt to love my car.  I drove it from the station to Marree and return many times, a round trip of 130km on the station track, graded but very rough.  When not used the car was parked in one corner of the Cessna's hangar, out of the weather.

 This photo taken in the bed of the Frome River near Marree.

    In those days, there were no Toyota Landcruisers in northern South Australia!  The stations had Land Rovers for station work, and most private bush driving was still done in two-wheel-drive vehicles, albeit much larger than a Beetle. The boss at Muloorina had  a Dodge Phoenix, his son a current model Ford Fairlane, and the two sons-in-law had earlier Fairlanes.  My teacher predecessor had a Chrysler Royal.  So long wheelbase V8s were the popular choice for long distances and corrugations.

    Nevertheless, I was soon driving everywhere on the station in the Beetle, soaking up the bush life, learning to handle varying driving conditions, sandy stretches, corrugations (fast enough to ride on top of them), and stretches of water after rain.  Muloorina was a hundred miles from the western boundary to the eastern, with Lake Eyre in the north, so plenty of opportunity for adventure and different driving conditions.  The weight distribution of the VW, with engine over the back driven wheels, and the solid pan under the car, made it ideal in most conditions
    One Saturday afternoon, I was out in one of the western paddocks with Harry, the sixteen-year-old jackeroo, following the fence line, when the track crossed a small gully that had washed out severely.  Instead of detouring around (I was probably "dared" not to) we got stuck in the middle, with the nearside front wheel and the offside rear wheel dangling in the air!  We thought we would be there until rescued, probably no earlier than Sunday morning.  However, after we lifted and manhandled the front of the car sideways into a more suitable position, and put a small mallee trunk under the elevated rear wheel, there was enough traction to get it out, no worse for wear.  We were immensely relieved, but also proud of our effort, which meant avoiding the embarrassment of a search party finding our silly predicament.

    At the beginning of one of the school holidays, I was driving south to Adelaide, a distance of 700km (400km unsealed), with two of the teachers from Marree as passengers.  It was after dark when we stopped at the Parachilna pub for a break.  A while and a few miles later, travelling at 80kph, the car gave a lurch which was almost imperceptible given the background of corrugation vibration and bounce.  Then Bob, the rear passenger called out frantically that he could see a wheel spinning along beside us!  I nursed the car to a stop.  It handled remarkably well on three wheels and only sunk onto the rear hub when we were almost stopped, so no damage there.  With one torch we set out to find the wheel, expecting a long search in the otherwise pitch black.  The wheel was fifty metres behind us in the middle of the road!  What's more four of the five wheel bolts were in the hubcap which was still on the wheel.  Thanks to the deep design and wide lip of the Beetle hubcap, we progressed to Adelaide that night!  (I'd changed a flat tyre in the hangar before the start of the trip -- normal practice was to let the car down off the jack before the final tightening of the wheel bolts, but somehow I was distracted from that last, crucial step).

During a weekend in 1966, I made a trip with the same two Marree teachers to Birdsville.  In the wheeltracks of famed mailman Tom Kruse (still living in Marree at the time), we were on the Birdsville Track in a Beetle!  We had a minimum of gear, but essentially, a guitar case on the roof rack which was added for the trip.  (The best thing about the roof rack was that schoolkids could sit on it with their legs dangling in front of the windscreen).  We knew all the station people on the southern half of the Track, so called in at Mulka, Mungaranie, Clayton, Dulkaninna and Etadunna on the way to say hullo, relay or collect messages, and get a cup of tea.  In those days before the bores were capped, we were able to stop on the roadside at a bore where the water came out at near boiling point, and walk down the bore drain testing the temperature until we found the perfect hot bath!  In Birdsville, we camped in the bed of the Diamantina, spent the evening at the pub, and next day retraced our route to Marree.  Except for one flat tyre, the Beetle was faultless.
Going north on the Birdsville Track.  (Photo lifted from my 8mm movie)

    I had two minor prangs in that car, both caused by over-exuberant driving.  Once driving north near Farina at night, I foolishly tried to overtake a roadtrain, when visibility immediately behind and alongside the trailer was nil, due to the billowing, blasting bulldust lit up by the headlights.  During the manoeuvre, the road curved left and I hit large rocks on the right-hand windrow, over-corrected and came to rest against the left-side windrow.  Only superficial damage to the mudguard and a bent bumper bar.

    In 1967 after I'd moved to Hesso near Port Augusta, I returned for a visit to Marree and Muloorina at the Easter break.  Late one evening in Marree, I missed the left-hand bend at the northern crossing of the railway line, turned in too late, and hit the blue metal bed of the line which stood a metre high at that  point.  The front bumper bar was damaged, and the chassis cracked through so that the front torsion bars were no longer supporting the front of the car. This task was taken over by the fuel tank, resting on the steering column!  I drove back to Hesso (400km) on Easter Monday at about 40kph and had great difficulty turning corners -- I can still remember every corrugation (and corner)!

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    After I moved to Hesso in 1967, I had access to the skills of the engineer, engine drivers and fitters at the Pumping Station, which boosted the flow of piped water from Morgan to Whyalla and Woomera.  These were fathers of some of the kids I taught.  They spent little time on the hourly instrument checks and a lot of time on personal projects, aka "foreignies".  They were extremely happy to strip down the front of the white Beetle, weld up the chassis, take out a few dings, and assemble it as good as new.  Nevertheless, the recommendation was to trade it in on a new one.

    In the next school holidays, I drove to Adelaide and took delivery of a 1967 pale blue 1300 Deluxe Beetle with pale blue seats and door trims and complete with optional radio.  (In the white Beetle I had a battery-operated kitchen radio on the passenger seat, with a wire antenna strung about the place, wherever it would work at the time.)  Unlike the earlier Custom, this car had external chrome trim, chrome hubcaps, a glovebox lid and fuel gauge, and I added optional chrome wheel trims and a sun visor.

   Very few shots of the blue Beetle exist.  This from an 8mm movie, driving along the banks of the Darling river near Menindie on a trip to Broken Hill.
    I was so solicitous of my new Beetle's welfare that I built a carport for it!  Accommodation at Hesso was a "silver bullet" next to the school, that is a caravan clad with silver metal and curved edges, ubiquitous in the bush in those days, more so in the NT.  Next to the silver bullet, I built a carport with railway sleepers as uprights, and an old corrugated water tank split in halves as the self-supporting roof.  It kept the car out of the sun and rain but was too narrow due to the tank diameter, requiring contortions to get in and out the car.

   During 1967 the blue Beetle took me to Andamooka, Broken Hill, and at the end of the year, to Tasmania.

    The road north from Port Augusta had heavy traffic (weight rather than numbers) and was always in poor condition.  Hesso was 60km north of Port Augusta.  Although the railway siding and the pump station are both now gone, there is still the railway crossing and pipeline across the Stuart Highway to mark where the siding was.  The pump station was a few kilometres west.  The road was unsealed from Port Augusta to Kalgoorlie in the west and to Roe Creek just south of Alice Springs in the north.

    During 1967 I made a weekend trip to Andamooka opal field and another time I gave a lift home to a railway worker and his partner, who'd been dropped off at Hesso.  They lived at Wirraminna siding, out west between Pimba and Tarcoola, a mere 350km round trip from Hesso.  Normally, their only contact with the outside world was the Tea and Sugar train, so I was happy to oblige and learn stuff from other bushies.  My eyes were probably hanging out on the return trip in the small hours.  The Beetle showed on trips like this that it was truly reliable, never giving me any grief beyond flat tyres.  By this time I had learned  on the back roads around Hesso that the VW could travel on any bush track, no matter how rudimentary, provided I drove gently.  The car drove through lots of boggy ground just by letting the rear tyres down a bit, and not spinning the wheels.  The only time anything broke was when the bottom eye sheared off a shock absorber after much hammering from rocks.  Another time that the car stopped I simply had to clear the gunk out of the fuel filter (much of our fuel came out of 44-gallon drums with sludge in the bottom).

    Before I left the Port Augusta region, I bought a miniature trailer from a friend.  Hitherto I had few enough possessions that they easily fitted into the Beetle with the rear seat folded forward.  But I expected to travel to the Northern Territory and carry fuel, water, camping gear, as well as my growing collection of books and records.  The trailer had 10 inch wheels and a tray much narrower than the Beetle.  It had the advantage that I hardly knew it was being towed.

    In December, I went with my parents and siblings to Tasmania, in Dad's Valiant and my Beetle.  One brother and I spent the whole time camping in, beside or under the Beetle.  It was only necessary to crawl under the car if the rain began while sleeping beside it.  The clearance between sump and the ground was not sufficient to roll over!  During the trip the windscreen was broken by a stone, and there was a photo taken of my brother, Lester, standing fully upright in front of the passenger seat with most of his body protruding through the windscreen frame as we descended the windy road from Poatina.  When we reached Hobart, he stood up through the windscreen aperture at every intersection to direct traffic!
 This shot shows me climbing out where the windscreen used to be.
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   In 1968 I was appointed Head Teacher of Moline School, NT.  With my girlfriend from Marree along for the ride, we set off in late January for Alice Springs and points north, towing the trailer with all my worldly goods.  In those days, after turning west from Pimba, the Stuart Highway still went through Kingoonya and Tarcoola, and then north to Coober Pedy.  On this trip, there had been rain over Christmas/New Year and there was plenty of green grass and mosquitoes.  The first night we camped on the side of the road between Tarcoola and Coober Pedy and were smothered by mosquitoes and slept little.

    The next day we had to cope with a road cut up by semi-trailers.  There were lots of detours around water or road turned to quagmire.  The Beetle couldn't ride in the truck wheeltracks; at best one wheel would be in a wheel track with the car belly scraping the dirt.  Needless to say, the trailer was being dragged along with no help from its wheels!  Several times we had to disconnect the trailer to get the car through and then manhandle the trailer through the bush on a detour.  But eventually the country turned dry again and we got to Coober Pedy.

    The next day we were in good spirits when we headed north.  After 100km we swapped drivers and I promptly fell asleep.  The next thing I knew was that we were stopped -- on a perfectly smooth piece of road, and my companion needing help.  The red oil light on the dashboard was on.  It transpired that on that smooth road we had driven over the lone large rock right in the middle, about 300mm in diameter, and I was woken by the clunk.  The oil light was on because the two halves of the crankcase were separated by the knock and all the oil lost.

    A passing motorist going south raised the alarm for us in Coober Pedy, and we spent most of the day waiting for a towtruck to eventually arrive and pull us back there.  We stayed underground that night with kind locals.  I transferred any valuables from the trailer to the car, left it locked at a garage awaiting transport to Adelaide, and then caught the bus to Alice Springs and Moline via Pine Creek, to my new job.

     In May, Dad consigned the repaired car to Alice Springs by train and I hitched a ride down from the Top End to pick it up.  The trailer was bequeathed to my brother - not worth the hassle in the bush.  Reunited with my beloved VW, I headed back to Moline.

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    The challenge for the car in the Top End was water.  Moline was a mining community and crushing plant out east of Pine Creek, on the southern edge of what is now Kakadu National Park.  There were plenty of creek crossings on the gravel road between Pine Creek and Moline.  The Edith River and Ferguson River between Pine Creek and Katherine were always impassable after flooding rain in the wet season, the crossings being causeways rather than bridges.  I remember crossing Green Ant Creek on the Stuart Highway north of Pine Creek when the water depth was enough to test the Beetle.  Of course it never faltered -- it was a test of driver rather than vehicle.

    The country around Moline had plenty of bush tracks bordered on either side by high grass, which we called "elephant grass".  In some places it was difficult to see over the grass on horseback, let alone through the windscreen of the Beetle, so bends needed to be taken cautiously.  On weekends we would drive to the Mary River for fishing, or to UDP Falls for swimming (now called Gunlom Falls), on tracks that were only known to and used by locals.  I even joined in a buffalo hunt, driving cross-country on plains after a burn-off and trying to avoid thousands of anthills and small gullies.

    I remember that the Stuart Highway from Darwin to Alice Springs, although bitumen, was single lane all the way and had plenty of potholes.  On a trip south with a friend from Pine Creek, we stopped on a jump-up just north of Renner Springs, to admire the view in the moonlight (some time after midnight).  Apart from the view, I can still recall standing among the potholes! 

    At the end of 1968 I moved to Darwin to work in a town school.  Memories include Saturday mornings in the wet season, with the car facing away from the sun and both doors open to dry out the door cards - the window seals couldn't cope with the driving rain.  At the Nighcliff weather station in the school yard, 330mm of rain were recorded in February!

    As at Moline, I spent weekends "down the track", fishing for barramundi at Yellow Waters, which was across the Marrakai plain on the Mary River (and no longer accessible), or hunting for pig in the bush west of Berry Springs.  Access was always via bush tracks.  Once we killed a black pig that was too big to transport easily, so we lashed it across the bonnet of the Beetle and thus conveyed it back to Darwin. (We hung it on the clothes hoist to butcher it and then fill the freezer).

    At the end of the school year, I drove down to Adelaide the long way, that is via Mt Isa, Townsville, Sydney, round the coast to Melbourne, and on to Adelaide, a total of 6700km!  A friend with wife and two daughters in a Honda 360 started the trip with me but we parted company at Katherine because they couldn't keep up!  I abandoned the roof rack on the side of the road before reaching Tennant Creek, because the wind resistance was too great, affecting top speed and fuel economy. 

    After the Queensland border, the road west of Camooweal was single lane bitumen which necessitated slowing right down and abandoning the road when a roadtrain came along, to avoid the worst impacts of a shower of rocks.  Unfortunately, I encountered one on a blind bend with no time to take evasive action and the windscreen was smashed.  I drove all the way to Melbourne without one, although I eventually covered the space with plastic film and masking tape.  My recollection is that I was in too much of a hurry to spend the time to repair it until the lack of windscreen wipers and poor visibility in the Victorian weather forced me to do something about it!  I have no idea why I was in a hurry!
    My bachelor days with a Beetle ended at the beginning of 1970 when I flew to New Guinea, didn't need a car, and met my future wife.  My Dad had kindly agreed to arrange a panel beater to remove the stone chips from the front of the car, detail it generally (clean out the dust) and find a buyer for it, since I expected to be away for two years.  The end of a decade, but nowhere near the end of an era.

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1 comment:

  1. Great stories that need to be written down. I remember some of these stories well (the girlfriend's ability to drive straight over the *only rock in the road*), but others I would doubt my memory for the credibility (Lester directing traffic out the windscreen / sleeping UNDER a Beetle) and others I don't think I've heard - driving from QLD to Melb without a windscreen! Looking forward to the Kombi chapter!