I recently acquired a 1955 VW Bug to tinker with over the winter. I've owned countless VW's over the years spanning from the early 50's split window beetles, right up to the last iteration of the Puebla, Mexico manufactured "Vocho." But, I've always had a soft spot for the oval window era Beetles. They're the perfect blend of simple, affordable, and cool. Parts are still readily available and won't bankrupt you, unlike the split beetles of the 40's and early 50's. Oval era beetles are undeniably vintage-even to the casual admirer at the gas pump next to you. ("Wow-what year is THAT one?") While it's rare to see any air-cooled VW on the road anymore in my neck of the woods, everyone would agree it doesn't get much cooler than that tiny rear window and turn signals that flip out of the "b" pillar.
I'm sure most of you would agree with me when I say there's just something remarkable about driving a car that's older than you are. Maybe it's the inner history buff in me, but I truly think being behind the wheel of a car built half a century ago is as close to time travel as we will ever get. The fact that the static of the Blaupunkt radio once broadcasted the newest hits from Buddy Holly and the Crickets (and BEFORE the day the music died) still excites me. And the fact that here it sits, and I've now been chosen as the one to look after it is something I'll always treasure. I often sit behind the wheel of whatever "new" VW I've acquired, close my eyes, and picture all of the owners that came before me. Who were they? What kind of life did they lead? Did the cherish this car, or was it simply point A to point B for them? More recently, I've found myself asking more and more, "I wonder if they're still alive?"
In the case of my newest '55, sadly that question was answered before I even took delivery of it. And the answer was "No." In fact the only reason at all that this '55 Beetle now resides in my garage is because it's original owner USMC Captain Taylor H. Wagner passed away back seven years prior.
USMC Capt. Taylor H. Wagner
Research on the internet would reveal a strikingly handsome man, and the amazing life he had led. During World War 2, Captain Wagner was witness to some of the most intense battles of the Pacific Theatre having served on (and narrowly escaped the sinking of) the USS Yorktown. He was also a pilot having flown SB2Cs, F4U Corsairs, and later in his career the F9F Panther. My jaw dropped as I researched the man who for so many years would call the Bug his own. After racking up an illustrious career in the military and even earning the Distinguished Flying Cross, Capt. Wagner settled in Laguna Beach, CA-where he settled on a brand new '55 Beetle for his trusty transportation. He traded in his pilot wings for lesson plans and chalk, and for the next few decades he would teach history at Foothill High School in Tustin, CA. The trusty Bug being his companion for that commute twice a day, five days a week. After retiring from teaching, Taylor and his wife relocated to central Texas taking the Beetle with them.
Towards the end of his life, unfortunately, Taylor would suffer from Alzheimer's disease. His wife told me she would wake up in the middle of the night only to find him sitting in the Beetle (now parked in the garage permanently) talking to it, petting the dashboard, and recounting with ease the adventures they had been on together over the last five decades. Flashes of memories that even the Alzheimer's couldn't steal from him. Sadly, on March 12th, 2009, Taylor would succumb to his illness and passed away leaving his wife, children, and treasured friend in the garage behind.
Very quickly Taylor's wife and children realized they didn't have the knowledge or drive to maintain a fifty-four year old Volkswagen so the painful decision was made to sell the car. And luckily for me, it went to a fellow VW friend and collector in Texas who stored the car and drove it occasionally until I acquired it earlier this year.
I've since connected with Taylor's widow and we've had some great conversations about Taylor and the '55 Beetle he loved so much. Patricia even told me that she was always afraid to ask him who he loved more-her or the car. She already knew the answer. She told me of riots in California the car was witness to. Road trips they had taken in the car. The fact that she had the interior re-done in tomato red leatherette for his birthday one year. Weekend trips to the beach... Amazing stores that provided a window into the life this car led, and the amazing man who held the steering wheel before I did. I'll never get to meet Taylor unfortunately. His wife, now in her 90's probably won't be around much longer either. But, I'm glad I got the chance to let her know that the car will be cared for, just as her husband had done the entire time he owned it.
I did a complete mechanical restoration of the car and brought the Jungle Green paint back to its former glory. I replaced the long gone semaphore turn signals that now flip out and light up as they should. All 36 horses are present and accounted for under the deckled, and I can honestly say it's one of the best driving VW's I've ever owned. A testament to the late Capt. Wagner and the TLC he had showered on the car over the past 5 decades. I think of him often as I grip the very same weathered "batwing" steering wheel that he had. A steering wheel that I would never in a million years repaint or refurbish, as it tells a story. My crowning touch for the car was a lone pair of dogtags bearing Taylor's name that now dangle from the rear view mirror. A nod to a hero and a friend I never got the chance to meet. Godspeed Capt. Wagner. You can rest easy knowing your beloved Beetle is in capable hands. And if I have anything to do with it, your friend will be around for another 61 years...