Gqeberha ‒ When you’ve been around for 70 years, and for most of that time been at the top of your game, there’s bound to be a couple of milestones and a legacy to reflect on. And when you’ve become part of a country’s DNA like Volkswagen South Africa has, there’s even more reason to celebrate.
Almost everyone has a story to tell about their experience with a VW. Whether it’s a Beetle, Mk1 Golf, Jetta, Fox, Citi Golf, (red veldskoen) Kombi, Polo or a GTI, there must be literally millions of stories to tell.
I learnt to drive in my mother’s 1500 1970s blue Beetle, my father letting me put my hand on the gear lever to get a feel for the four changes before he let me behind the steering wheel, letting me feel like a god when I’d managed to change to third without stalling.
At school a friend’s family only had VWs in the driveway; a round nose aircooled Kombi (later a T3), a Beetle and two Golf Mk1s for the older sisters. Granted they were German, but to this day the family still only drives “Vollas”.
My aunt had a Beetle SP 1600, the same motor I had in my Beach Buggy many years later, and at school I helped a friend convert his dad’s Beetle to a Baja Bug, grinding, moulding, putting on large exhausts and fat tackies.
Four of us drove up from Cape Town in the middle of winter on a weekend pass in a 1600 Beetle with broken heater levers and a few months later returned from the “Border” to Waterkloof Airforce Base (yes, the same one the Guptas commandeered) and sped to Sun City in a Fox (which was initially the Jetta) to see Freddy Mercury perform his magic on stage.
Later as a student, friends raced around in Caddy bakkies and my girlfriend had an immaculate Mk1 Golf and her father a Variant.
And that’s just me.
So why the trip down memory lane?
Well, Volkswagen South Africa has been making cars in South Africa for 70 years and that’s no mean feat.
To honour that legacy the company dusted off a couple of classics out of their museum and invited media, friends and VW family to help celebrate at the plant in Kariega (Uitenhage).
The plant came about in 1946 after a franchise agreement was signed between the South African company Industrial and Commercial Holdings and the Studebaker Export Corporation.
A 20.2 hectare site was purchased for R2500 just outside Uitenhage and so came about South African Motor Assemblers and Distributors (SAMAD) that employed 320 people. The rest, as they say, is history.
They made various Studebaker and Austin vehicles and on August 31, 1951 the first Beetle rolled off the assembly line. Four years later Type 2 Kombis, Panel vans and Pickups were also being built and as part of the VW family the Audi Super 90.
In 1965 the Studebaker Corporation shut and November 1966 saw the name change from SAMAD to Volkswagen of South Africa Limited.
The following year VWSA concluded an agreement with Auto Union GmbH, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Volkswagenwerk AG, for the assembly and distribution of Audi vehicles from January 1, 1968.
VWSA’s history is littered with landmarks that can fill an encyclopedia, including the export of thousands of cars and a number of unique South African builds, but a red letter day would be the production of the last Beetle in January 1979, which we were privileged to drive as part of the 21 529 464 (you read right, that’s 21-million) produced world wide.
Seeing a swath of old “Veedubs” including the original Mk1 GTI outside the Hotel in Gqeberha ready to drive to the plant had bystanders and journalists smiling from ear to ear.
My driving partner and I had pulled a 1967 fully restored Beetle from the hat. It had a few modifications like front disk brakes and a tweaked engine, the rear flat four air-cooled engine whine and thin twin pipes bringing back many memories .
Beetles were never easy to drive, the driving position, stiff clutch, big steering wheel, powerless steering, unboosted brake drums that you could never get to grip at the same time and seat backrests that stopped just below your shoulder blades if you were tall, all made for an interesting drive.
But millions of people drove them and survived to tell the story without ABS, airbags, EBD or frankly any electrickery.
That was the theme throughout the collection and we loved it, not because it harped back to a better time but because it also showcased just how much progress has been made in a relatively short time.
Imagine a three speed automatic Jetta or Golf rolling off the line today or any car with just a four speed manual gearbox.
However, old school is still cool, showcased by the Audi 100 Coupe which made its debut in 1969 and is still beautiful to look at with its classic lines and fastback shape.
It drives like a dog compared to today's standards but still, it must have been special to own one back in the day.
In a sea of SUVs, “sameness” and sometimes uninspiring designs and drives on our roads today, looking back at our car heritage is good for the soul.
Let’s hope that 70 years from now when self drive and electric cars have replaced everything we know and love today, people will look back and say that we too were the cool kids.
Here’s to the next 70 years.
The cars we got to drive were: 1967 Beetle, 1979 Beetle (the last one off the line), 1978 MK 1 automatic Golf, 1982 MK 1 automatic Jetta, 1958 Beetle convertible, Audi S4 Quattro, Audi 100 S Coupe, MK 1 Golf GTI, T3 Kombi, 1985 Citi Golf Sport.