Here’s why I love cars: They’re gender-neutral, colorblind, politically centered metal and fiberglass boxes of excitement, individuality, and freedom. One car that absolutely embodies everything I’ve mentioned is called the VW Baja Bug. Here are a few reasons why you need to drop everything and buy one.
I’ll start this love letter off with a full, total and long disclosure: I have not driven this car, but I got damn close. Let me explain. I heard D-list internet celebrity and Jalopnik veteran Raphael Orlove needed help with his small but eclectic collection of cars, namely his Volkswagen Baja Bug, and I volunteered to take some time out of my busy schedule of binge-watching Netflix and commenting on political Facebook posts to help him. I’m such a hero.
When I got there, the Bug’s battery was dead and The Raph (That’s what I call him, now that we’re best friends) said that the car was on a tow truck the night before, because she wasn’t running right. After sacrificing the battery in my S-Class, we got the Bug running, and before I could ask to drive it, some random guy beats me to the punch.
Yes, a man off the street asked to drive a complete stranger’s car, with jumper cables still attached, in the pouring rain, with a bad alternator, arguably running on three and a half of its 4 scooter-sized cylinders, and leaving his increasingly worried-looking dog Pepper in the questionable care of said stranger – which is probably as good a time as any to transition into my first point:
5. You Will Get An Insane Amount Of Attention
A VW Baja Bug isn’t a car as it is a lifestyle choice. Why would someone, of relatively sound mind and body, choose a car with an exposed engine, no mufflers or emissions equipment of any kind, and a body half-comprised of cracked fiberglass and rusted-through thinning steel, when they could get a Toyota Corolla for the same price? It’s the kind of question that perplexes people and they can’t help but stare and engage with the owner because of it. I was with the Raph-meister (That’s what I call him, now that we’re best friends) for a few hours on a weekend, and it seemed like every 5 or 10 minutes, someone would stop and do a double take when they saw the bug, and unlike Doug DeMuro’s dudebro-magnet Ferrari, everyone wanted a piece of the Bug.
Young couples looked at the car with an approving gaze, chuckling as they walked past, likely breaking the ice on their awkward first date. Elderly women came by and talked about how their husbands used to have one “just like this” decades ago, when net neutrality was a concept that applied only to tennis. Taxi drivers held up traffic to see if the car would start (Spoiler alert: It didn’t), and a heroic freelance automotive “consultant” came by and offered help, if’n we were so inclined as to pay him. (Spoiler alert: We didn’t). It’s was by far the shittiest and most unkempt car on the street, but I honestly don’t think a Lamborghini Veneno could’ve gotten more attention that this little slice of honest simplicity. And speaking of simplicity…
4. You Can Fix It With A Hammer
If you’ve been paying attention to James May’s Cars Of The People, you’ll have learned that the VW Beetle was designed to be extremely utilitarian, and that if damaged, its simple mechanical wizardry could be set straight on the side of a remote German town, in the 1930s. The Baja Bug takes this to a new level, by removing the things you don’t need, like a bonnet. The car barely has doors (which, by the way, close with a satisfying German thunk), and the rats nest of wiring is so simple and crude that any idiot with a roll of masking tape and a Sharpie would be able to completely overhaul the electrical system.
There are no radiators to speak of, no coolant to leak onto the ground, one tiny carburetor sitting below a slightly less tiny meshed air cleaner, and cylinders that you could individually rebuild. The entire drivetrain comes out with just 4 bolts, and you could perform nearly every bit of the car’s maintenance in a parking lot or side street. The only vehicles that are arguably simpler have pedals.
3. The Worse It Looks, The Better It Is
Immediately after returning to the lap of luxury that I call my Mercedes, I took to eBay to see what Baja Bugs I could find, and I came upon an issue: They were all too nice. I didn’t want a pristine example of a throwaway car, because that would negate the entire point. Raph-a-doodle-do (That’s what I call him, now that we’re best friends) straight up rolled his car into a ditch, putting some nasty welts into his primered bodywork, cracking some fiberglass. One of his headlights made a break for it during a rally stage, and was mended with some wood screws that were fastened into the brittle fiberglass overfenders, with the chrome surrounds left to rust slowly. The front wheels were blue, and the rear wheels were a shade of yellow reserved for dentists’ waiting rooms and IRS office bathrooms, made almost indistinguishable by the amount of dirt on them.
The interior had the build quality and feel of an out-of commission amusement park ride that was turned on one last time. The well-worn seats were from an unidentified 80’s car of some sort, and the dashboard was adorned with the gifts of owners past. The accelerator pedal was missing, leaving behind simply the lever and caster, so your foot could literally roll off the accelerator pedal if you weren’t careful. The vinyl and cardboard door cards were caved in, and the yet-fruitless search for flight MH370 had nothing on the search for one of the car’s 4 gears, through the world’s sloppiest shifter.
But all of that makes the car. It’s underpowered and loud, but it’s supposed to be. Every non-structural rust hole is a admirable battle scar. Every temporary fix-turned-permanent added character and personality. This wasn’t a car, but its own entity. It wore its age with pride, dents and all – a tall order, and not something any car could pull off. This car is a tribute to a simpler era, wearing completely different clothes than it did when it left the showroom, but having way more cool stories to tell.
2. It’s The Best SUV
The regular VW Beetle can be quite low. Not so with the Baja Bug. As I went to disconnect the battery from my car and bring it down the street to give some much-needed life support to the Bug, I found Rapharino (That’s what I call him, now that we’re best friends) just hanging out underneath the car, with his feet in the New York City street, obviously and/or obliviously unconcerned with the cars whizzing past. This car had crazy ground clearance. It also had meaty tires and had its engine in the back, which allows you to do this on a dirt track quite easily:
Even thought its engine produced a paltry 50-something horsepower on a good day (not too many of those), the chassis had a ton of pedigree and it was set up to kick some serious ass and have an even seriouser amount of fun. If you fold the backseat and clear out the frunk, you have ample room for storage, and it can seat 5 ’30s-era Germans with ease, or 2 modern-day Americans in relative discomfort. Even if you can’t fit something inside, strap it to the roof, or drag it behind you, it’s so damn frugal that you could make extra trips without having it put a dent in your wallet, and you’d be smiling the entire way. It’s the all-terrain vehicle that you never knew you needed, costing a little bit less than most new 4-wheelers, which brings me to my final point:
1. It’s Seriously Cheap
If you’re looking for thrill of ownership, no car beats this for the dollar, as you can buy these modified, personalized playthings for next to nothing. For around the same price as a used Corolla, you’ll have instant friends and onlookers wherever you go. It’ll sound like a pissed off WRX, and you could slide it around in the dirt. Dents make the car look better, and you could fix it with duct tape and silly string. They made millions of Beetles, and you could convert one into a backyard-destroying Baja Bug by yourself. This car will most likely outlive you, leaving only your legacy behind.
(Photos by Raphael Orlove, Tavarish)