I Almost Knew What Hit Me

I almost knew what hit me. 

It was 1974 and I was driving a 1962 VW Beetle.  It was great.  It had only 18,000 original miles on it since it had been driven by a little old lady who only used it to get groceries once a week.  It needed a little work, but nothing major and I spent the previous winter going over every inch of it.  I took out the interior and cleaned everything.  There was no rust to worry about and the battery just needed to be cleaned up a bit.  I put back the rubber carpet and the seats, but left off the seat belts so I could update them later. 

I rubbed out the paint until it sparkled and cleaned up the engine compartment until it looked like new. I took off the chrome bumpers and polished them until they gleamed.  I changed out the original shock absorbers for some inverted racing shocks made in France.  Then I put a camber compensator on the rear swing axles so they couldn’t tuck under.  A larger front anti-roll bar was fitted to the front torsion suspension.  Later I was going to get some wider chrome wheels and fit some wider tires, but that could wait.  It wasn’t fast, but it handled very well.

I also had a 1971 Super Beetle that I had heavily modified.  It had a modified engine to go along with many suspension modifications.  It was quite a beast, but I decided to take the ’62 bug to work that day.

I had started a small offset printing business a year or two before.  It was doing well and I was learning a lot.  My client base had built up to a good size and I made enough money to pay for my car addiction.

That morning was a typical cool summer morning on Cape Cod.  The windows on the bug were fogged up so I ran the defroster for all it was worth.  In an air cooled VW that was not much, but it did clear the windshield so I cranked down the driver’s window as I drove to my shop.

It was early but I decided to drive over to a customers business to check to see if they were in.  I wanted to collect for a job I had done.  No one was at their building so I headed on to my place of business.

I pulled up to route 28 taking a right onto it from the parking lot.  I looked back down the road and checked my mirror.  I pulled on to the road.  Not far ahead was an intersection with a traffic light where I would have to turn left to get to my shop.  I signaled and gave up on trying to see anything out the rear window.  I was in the left turn lane and watching the traffic light to make sure it was still green.  It was.  There was no oncoming traffic and only a lone car sitting on the left at the light which was red for it.

I remember cranking the steering wheel for the left turn and looking at the driver of the car that was stopped at the red light.  He had the queerest look on his face like he couldn’t believe what he was looking at.  I thought that was odd.

What had been a quiet and peaceful morning on Cape Cod became an exclamation of noise punctuated by the car changing its shape in the blink of an eye. 

Realizing that I had been hit by another car I quickly checked for my wounds.  The skin had been scraped off some of my hand, but it was not bad, but the door had been stove in and now covered the pedals.  My left knee hurt.  Then I looked up.

Foolishly I had assumed that the car was immobilized by the crash, but it was not.  The force of the accident propelled it across the road and toward a huge old oak tree that was definitely going to win out over what was left of the VW.  I managed to steer to the left of the oak and was now heading through the underbrush toward a house.  I twisted my right leg and foot around the door that was in front of the brake pedal and managed to reach it, stopping the car inches from the house.

While I was blissfully enjoying the early morning and taking a proper left turn at the traffic light a young hair dresser, who was late for work, decided that it would be smart for her to pass me on the left while I executed my turn.  How rude of me to be in her way.  So she clobbered the drivers door of the beautiful VW Beetle.

I sat in what was left of the car.  I just wanted to catch my breath and see if anything of me was broken.  Suddenly there was this girl at my side frantically urging me to get out of the car and yanking on the drivers door as if it would work properly.

She was babbling about how sorry she was and was at the point of tears as she pleaded with me to get out of the car.  It was at that instant that it crossed my mind that I should feign passing out and dying.  Alas, I didn’t have the heart to torture her so.  She was sincerely concerned about me (I wish she had been concerned a lot earlier) so I allowed myself to be assisted out of the car.  I think she expected it to blow up like they do in the movies.

The police came.  They bent out her fender with a shovel and, after getting her information, allowed her to continue on to work.  I watched them get the tow truck and haul away what had once been a real classic car.  Then I limped across the street to my print shop and got to work. 

The skin healed on my hand and my knee bothers me from time to time.  It would never hold up so I could run very far again.

People looked at the crumpled mess of what used to be a car and marveled at how I wasn’t killed.

I was lucky. 

Damit what fun I would have had with that car.

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7 Responses to I Almost Knew What Hit Me

  1. mark says:

    Sounds like you were lucky. I’ve been lucky too. Interesting how times and society have changed. Now days, the cops wouldn’t straighten your fender and send you on your way. Likewise, many victims wouldn’t dust themselves off and go on about their day – many would be wearing a neck brace and talking with their lawyer an hour later.

    Looking back, sometimes these events mark a fork in life’s road. I wonder “what if” I still had a certain car, how would my life have gone? To lose one that you weren’t finished with is like having to give up on a dream. On counter point, these disruptions get us out of a rut we might not otherwise have left, and often make way for something better. New cars, new mods, new people and new experiences.

  2. Noel says:

    I am fortunate to have known Jim of Jim’s Garage for a long time, and I knew him when he had that accident. That was indeed a lovely little Beetle.

    That same year I had an accident in my own Beetle, a somewhat modded car that I autocrossed in the same club as Jim. But my accident was my fault.

    I was headed the back way to Woods Hole, driving far too enthusiastically –right out at 9/10ths and 10/10ths–on one of the many narrow windy roads Cape Cod had in those days before it became suburban (this one might have been 14 feet wide). I was going into a tight right hand turn at maybe 30, taking an early apex, and hit some sand. I drifted wide and found a Volvo station wagon coming the other way. There was nothing I could do and literally before I could say “Sh!t!” I hit the Volvo almost head-on.

    My passenger and I were both wearing seat belts. I cut my head and had a very sore chest. All he had was a sore chest. The woman in the other car was belted and was also OK, but I recall she lost a cap on one of her teeth. My car was a write-off, the floor pan seriously bent. My windshield blew out and landed 35 feet away. I had a little 13″ steering wheel that was bent about an inch and a half out of round from me locking my hands on it.

    It was also a defining moment. I was 24 and mortality became a reality. After a history of doing some fairly insane things in cars I found myself dialing it back a few notches. I still drive faster than I should sometimes, especially on back twisties, but even back then I immediatley stopped going to the edge like I used to–at least on public roads. I could have killed or crippled myself, or worse–my friend or a complete stranger. That’s stuff I have impressed upon my daughter who has now been driving for a couple of years.

    Elsewhere in Jim’s Garage he notes now the old, unpaved “ancient ways” on Cape Cod were great places to learn to drive–and do crazy things. I did a lot of that and it made me a more skilled driver, but it was that day on the back way to Woods Hole that changed me, and for the better.

  3. Jim says:

    I’ve got to thank Noel for getting me off the street and on to the autocross circuit. He was the one to get me to see my first autocross with the Cape Cod Sports Car Club ( the oldest one in the nation).

    In my typical style I was determined to not only participate, but to create the best autocross car I could out of my daily ride, a 1971 Super Beetle. I planned out all the modifications I could and stay in the class that I wanted to compete in.

    A lot of work went into the car and a lot more work would go into learning to be a successful driver. From time to time Noel would recruit me to be his navigator in some rallies. That was always a challenge as Noel was a fearless pilot.

    I enjoyed cars long before that time, but Noel got me off the street and onto the track. Thanks Noel.

  4. Noel says:

    You’re welcome, Jim. We sure had a lot of fun with that club. People were always impressed at how fast Jim could get around the course. And he’s being kind when he calls me a fearless pilot. He was the one who was fearless! Me? Possessed or manic are more apt descriptions! . But he was one composed navigator.

    I learned a lot about driving thanks to a competitive small sedan class and a course that was a lot more about real driving than the silly first and second gear “autocrosses” you see these days. The course on Otis Air Force base was two parking lots connected by a road. Even my Beetle could reach 70+ on the straight and learning to navigate the sweeping right hander at the end and get down to first gear for the subsequent LH hairpin was an education in holding a car at the limits. That knowledge served me well in autocrosses with the Worcester Area Sports Car Club which had a fast course on an airport runway and at another club in Rutland VT.

    Back then, VWs were actually pretty good autocross cars. Other small sedans could accelerate a bit faster, but couldn’t corner as well as a properly set up Beetle. Whether heavily modded like Jim’s or a bit above stock like mine it was fun to beat faster cars with cars people tended to ignore–until you tripped the timing lights!.

  5. Is there any truth to the urban myth about people who firewalled off the back seats of their VWs and put a V8 in there?

    Wow, Cape Cod and old VWs — my brother and I had a 63′ with a canvas sunroof that we used for dirt roading around Cotuit and Mashpee. If we got stuck we could lift the thing out of the sand and be on our way.

  6. Jim says:

    The V8 VW Bug is not a myth. Paul Newman blasted around his Connecticut neighborhood in just such a Beetle. After flogging it for a few years he donated it to the local vocational school

    I actually had planned to build one myself. I managed to buy a Corvair transmission and rear suspension, and picked up a 327 small block. There was a tubular frame available to bolt the body to. I stopped the project to finish up engineering school. While at school I became distracted by a beautiful lady whom I married for a brief period, and then had to face the reality that I could not devote the time required to complete the car. The parts were sold and the dream became a memory.

    While working in Connecticut I came across a guy who had engineered a V8 into a Porsche (called VW in Germany) 914. He did an astoundingly thorough job that resulted in a fantastic autocross car that should have been used on a road racing circuit.

  7. Stephen Furr says:

    I noticed the other day that the majority of my discussions with people where I was trying to get a point across were delivered in the form of “back when we had xxx, we would yyy…” I hadn’t realized that I was relying on my past so much to help make connections to present day situations.

    I remember my dad and grandfather doing this and thinking they were really old.

    Thinking about it, I don’t feel old (I’m 36) just perhaps a little more experienced than I used to be.

    I wonder if the “theoretical to anecdotal” ratio continues to decline with age? Will we all one day have nothing to say but to talk about how things used to be?

    Just an observation. Excellent story Jim. I never know how you hurt your knee. I’m glad to have know you the last 10 years through the latest ups and downs in our lives.

    Stephen

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