The Volkswagen Beetle was the car that our family doctor Heppie – a Scot whose real title was Doctor Hepburn – used to come out to see me when I was very young. I was suffering from those childhood ailments, like whooping-cough, measles and mumps, that have now been largely consigned to the past and banished from our lives. Injections against these diseases were not available when I was a little boy. Although uncomfortable, these illnesses were not regarded as anything other than the necessary adjuncts of growing up, but apparently they were life-threatening. A new black Beetle was a superior motorcar in the early 1950s – the sort of car you would expect your GP to drive in fact.
My earliest experience of riding in a Beetle was on the occasion when my father’s car was out of action for some reason, and he hired a Beetle from Robinson’s. Robinson is still the Norwich VW dealership, but in those days it was located in a garage just opposite Bishops Bridge in Riverside. The garage is still there, now a branch of a tyre fitting company. At one time it was used by a firm called Godfrey’s as a DIY shop. We needed a car because my father had arranged to do an ‘out-test’ (he was an optician and this was his phrase for a domiciliary visit) for Mrs Fakes in Hemsby. Mrs Fakes had kept the village shop in Hemsby when my father had been a regular visitor there before the war. His father (my grandfather) had built a wooden chalet which he erected on the sand dunes. The sands had been under the sea a few years before, so there was no question of buying the land from the previous owner; I think he just bagged it (Poseidon could not be contacted).
What I recall about the car was my discovery of a narrow slot behind the back seat which was meant for luggage. VW Beetles retained this feature to the end; when I first discovered this narrow aperture I was small enough to crouch inside it. I happily rode home there. I did not need to worry about my not wearing a seat belt in the car – they did not exist then. My father, who was quite safety conscious, had one fitted to our Hillman Husky in about 1961. They were very new at the time, and were entirely optional; most people pooh-poohed the very idea. Whatever do you want one of those silly things for? The first seat belts were just a single transverse strap from the pillar by your shoulder to the floor, and my father only had one put in for the front seat passenger; even he thought one unnecessary for the driver; the steering wheel would protect him in the event of a crash. There was no strap across your lap, so in a pile-up you could easily have slipped out it the he belt had not been tightened by hand; when you were closely restrained at all times. The automatic tensioner that locks you in if the car suddenly decelerate was a much later development.
Fast forward over thirty years and the VW Beetle was still going strong; it had been phased out of production in Europe, but it was still being made in South America. My father-in-law-to-be had just bought a new VW Jetta, and he passed on his faithful old red Beetle to Molly, his daughter and my fiancée. He had bought it in 1973 when they were still being made in Germany, and had kept it for a dozen years or so. When I married her about 18 months later I also married her Beetle! My own car was an old Ford Escort estate, and as it had recently failed its MOT. I got rid of it, and we relied on the Beetle as the family car. For personal transport I got myself a moped.
We must have kept the Beetle for almost 10 years, all through our children’s childhood. The place to go for servicing and repairs was by then Woolley’s Garage in Hingham. Mr Wooley specialised in Beetles. Once I had a go at removing the air cooling duct myself, to replace some parts, but the fiddling with endless screws while lying on the ground convinced me to leave this job to the experts in future. It is a journey of 17 miles from Norwich to Hingham, so it was quite a trip there and back. We certainly didn’t wait in Hingham until the work on our Beetle was finished. I cannot remember how we got back home again, but I suppose Mr Wooley lent us a replacement vehicle – another Beetle of course! It was pleasant to have an excuse to look round the small market town (more of a large village) of Hingham. In those days it had a splendid old ironmonger’s shop, and a secondhand emporium that was worth a browse. It was from Hingham that Samuel Lincoln, the ancestor of America President Abraham Lincoln, left for a new life in the New World in the year 1637.
Eventually we sold the Beetle. With two children, almost teenagers, we had outgrown it, and it was over 20 years old by then. It still had some years of life left in it, but it was in need of a thorough overhaul. I last saw it for sale on a garage forecourt in the village of Felthorpe.