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Story

(Written in the Spring of 2004)


Some people simply see cars as a mode of transportation - getting them to work or school and home again. Others buy cars as status symbols, showing off wealth or power. Nevertheless, buying someone else's pre-packaged icon often pushes them into a pre-defined box. But when I drive my orange 1973 Volkswagen Thing - a rare, vintage car - I defy people's preconceptions and don't easily fit into a social box. Scrappy is my VW Thing and she and I have spent the last ten years exploring the world outside the box.

Outside the box was where VW first wanted Things to be, as the Thing was VW's answer to the Jeep - a utility vehicle designed for use in areas with no roads. Like the Jeep, it has a soft top, removable doors, a windshield that folds down, and a truly spartan interior. Unlike the Jeep, it has four doors, cheery colors (which VW dubbed "sunshine yellow" and "pumpkin orange") all pushed by VW's famous air-cooled engine. The body design is quite blocky with corrugated ribs every foot or so. The overall look is that of an angular block that is often referred to as a "baby Hummer" by passers-by.

VW had problems with the car - it did not sell well. It was underpowered and, with the stock windows installed, was very much like riding in a cold and windy tent. In the wake of Ralph Nader's "Unsafe at any Speed," VW was under mounting pressure to make their cars safer. It was easier to cancel the floundering line than to update the design, so VW stopped selling Things in the US shortly after their debut. As a result, the only model years available were the 1973 and 74.

VW had built up a counter-culture image for itself in the 70s. The VW bug was the culmination of that, but everyone owned a bug, and as the years moved on the bug eventually took on several negative connotations -- cheap, dull, unimaginative. The VW Thing, being rarer, avoided the same fate. As Things have aged, they have become even more obscure, and managed to hold onto that counter-culture feeling that most VWs used to have. Things have fallen into nobody's stereotype.

Driving with the top down and doors off, a Thing really puts ts passengers in the elements. Most modern cars enclose a driver and craft an interior environment by delivering temperature controlled air, soft lights, and tuned music to a driver who is strapped into a soft reclining seat. Yet a Thing's interior almost seems an extension of the exterior. The dashboard is simply the end of the hood and the wooden duck-board floors might have been taken from a roof rack. Low seat backs and low door-sills give an unobstructed view of the surroundings. Seeing the road go by when you look down at your feet does much to reinforce the idea that you are indeed outside. The Thing's interior consists of nothing less than the entire world around it.

This "being outside" also puts other people at ease. Similar to riding on a motorcycle, riding in such an open car leaves almost nothing to hide. Observers can see the driver and passengers as easily as the rest of the car. It removes anonymity and is the polar opposite of a tinted-glass limousine. This has the effect of putting the driver on equal footing with pedestrians and removes the barrier of uncertainty that most people feel when approaching a stranger in a car.

These out-of-the-box traits - VW's image, the spartan interior, and the openness of the car - make it a fun, friendly, and inviting vehicle. Driving a Thing on a warm sunny day, with the car completely open, is a joy on many levels. Traveling in such a car allows you to take in the world and see the unfiltered scenery. Many people react to this open friendliness with smiles, honks, and waves -- making an already sunny day that much brighter.

Not surprisingly, when the weather turns and the top goes up, many of those aspects change. The word "convertible" has new meaning for me - as my car converts from a friendly, outgoing car to a more functional closed vehicle, people's reactions become muted. Most people who do make comment are those who specifically comment on the car, "Hey! That's a VW Thing," rather than a more general honk and wave. These are probably people who, like me, have had first hand experience with how delightful a Thing is.

The first time I saw my VW Thing, Scrappy, I was in the Navy, and she was being driven by Kyle, a shipmate of mine. We were stationed in Pearl Harbor where it is always convertible weather. I was riding my mountain bike back to the ship, and Kyle drove up in Scrappy. This little orange beater car immediately grabbed my heart - sputtering there on her four cylinders looking all the world like a roller coaster with an old couch tucked in the back. Scrappy had no top or windows, and her torn seats were covered with towels and makeshift pads. He offered my a ride, and nothing the lack of delicate upholstery, I just tossed my bike in the back seat and climbed in.

Kyle didn't name Scrappy, nor did the owner before him. Whatever biblical Adam gave her that moniker did this task well, for that is undoubtedly the car's name. Driving in the rain meant getting wet, not a big issue with the warm Hawaiian rains. The doors do lock, but it's silly and pointless with no top. Kyle and I would go mountain biking up above Aiea heights. Each time we'd throw our mud-covered selves and our mud-covered bikes in Scrappy, drive back to the ship, and just hose everything down: shoes, bikes, and car - inside and out. Calling her "Scrappy" always seemed appropriate, as she has always been a no-nonsense car whose looks followed her function.

My parents came and visited me while I was in Hawaii. they rented a car, drove the island, and saw the sights. When the weekend came, I picked them up in Scrappy, and we toured those same sights my way - in Scrappy with no top or doors. We sputtered over the beaches and through the pineapple plantations of Oahu. I will never forget my dad lounging in the back seat (such as he could) taking in the sky, the air, the sun. With a big smile on his face, he said that he thought that he'd seen the island, but now he knew he had been wrong. Riding in Scrappy changes your perspective and allows you to notice details otherwise overlooked such as birds flying overhead or a rainbow on a distant peak.

When I left the Navy, I was granted one last paid-for move to my home of record - California. Scrappy was crated up, put on a ship, and followed me home. California winters are a bit more serious than Hawaii winters, and after driving her that very first weekend in California, I bought and installed a soft-top. The top warmed me, but cooled people's reaction to my car. Every winter since, I have looked forward to the spring day when the top comes off - the sky becomes my roof and the road is again at my feet.

Over the years, I've put several improvements into Scrappy. After the top came new glass windows, a rebuilt engine, new upholstery, a stereo, a rebuilt heater, new brakes, new wheels, and various small parts. I subscribed to a VW Thing e-mail list where one member quipped, "it's the Thing that ate my paycheck!" When my wife (Elle) is stuck for a gift idea, I usually end up with a new part for Scrappy. For our engagement, she gave me a sway bar with the inscription, "To help keep you level on the road ahead."

After my father passed away, I stripped off Scrappy's top and windows and drove around for the next few months in the elements. As soon as we could, Elle and I drove Scrappy down highway 1 and camped out on a beach. The sun and wind were wonderful anti-depressants and helped to remind me of how important it is to be open to the world, leave the boxes behind, take it all in, and let nothing get in the way of living life.

When my children were born, I couldn't wait for them to be old enough to take for a drive. It doesn't matter how cold or tired they are, they always want to ride in Scrappy. If I leave a door open, the kids climb in and will play for hours in the car. Left long enough, we usually find them asleep behind the back seats, having worn themselves out on this jungle gym with wheels. Having children has indeed taken the top down on my life and shown the sky beyond. My children point out and marvel at flowers, airplanes, trucks and thousands of other details of the worlds that I have long since glossed over. I marvel at them when they try to count the leaves on the tree we are parked under, or look for the caboose on the train-shaped cloud drifting past. Riding with them in Scrappy gives a dialog to all these details and makes the world outside the box far richer than it had been. They've given me a different perspective on my different perspective.

Last month, I decided it was time for Scrappy to get the complete body makeover. She now sits in the garage half torn down and awaiting a trip to the body shop. They promise to wipe away the minor (and not so minor) damage that came for years of service; she is due to have all her dings removed and rust stamped out. As I grow older, I want to present a more polished, refined version of the friendliness Scrappy projects. I find myself wanting to take pride in a nicer car, but still want to keep my place outside the box. When it's all done, she'll be sporting a new, friendly tiger stripe paint job with fake-fur seats. Smiles will not be optional!


An update to this story - Scrappy now sports her beautiful stripes! Driving her is a thrill. My next big project is to convert her engine to a type4
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