The Ride Makes the Man


The WWII-era Kubelwagen was the German equivalent of our Willys Jeep.
Wikimedia photo by Darkone.

I had a half-hour commute while in medical school. I needed a reliable low-mileage Ford Fungus with a decent air conditioner and a radio. What I bought was a 1974 Volkswagen Thing.

For the uninitiated, the Thing was a civilianized version of the WWII-era German Kubelwagen. The Kubelwagen was the kraut counterpart to the Allies’ ubiquitous Willys Jeep. Featuring a reliable air-cooled engine not philosophically dissimilar to that of a chainsaw and truly bug ugly lines, the Kubelwagen was a unique form of martial transport.

I always assumed Kubelwagen meant “Command Vehicle” or something comparably manly. Alas, Kubelwagen actually means “Bucket Car.” Up close, it lives up to its moniker.

My VW Thing was originally orange. The kids and I promptly sanded the vehicle down and gave it a healthy coat of desert tan. I then designed and built a mount to affix the spare tire to the center of the hood in the manner of Erwin Rommel’s staff car. Finally, it was time for a little fender dressing.

The WWII Afrika Korps insignia was a stylized palm tree with a swastika in the trunk. I chose the same thing with Old Glory in place of the accursed Nazi symbol. I sketched a template on the inside of a Cap’n Crunch box, cut it out with an X-Acto knife, and adorned the fenders accordingly with spray paint. The end result was ugly as a rusty High Point pistol but inimitably cool.

The doors were removable, and the windscreen folded down. In this configuration, my old Kubel was the coolest ride on the boulevard. I also rigged up a mount for a dummy MG34 machine gun on the roll bar.

My Thing was the most reliable vehicle I have ever owned. She never once failed me through seven years of medical training in all weather and conditions. The Thing ferried me between frustration and tragedy on one end and warmth and sanctuary on the other. With its air-cooled engine and dearth of creature comforts, there just wasn’t much to break.

The VW Thing sold new in the U.S. for two years starting in 1973.
It cut a unique figure on the road.

A Modest Proposal

My trek to and from the hospital took me through a war zone. This inner-city ghetto was dirty with prostitutes, drug dealers and gangs. It was not uncommon to be serenaded by gunfire during my daily commute. Squint a bit, and it could pass for Mogadishu. The unique nature of my ride made me a fixture thereabouts. I also met many of those unfortunate souls later in a professional capacity in the emergency room.

One day, after a long night at work, I was headed home and pulled up behind a ghetto sled just as a long stoplight changed. This low-riding, pimped-out Caddy was all chrome, curb feelers and fur-trimmed interior. In the back seat, a pair of amateur pharmacists were having an animated discussion, likely about the unique challenges associated with their competitive marketplace. One gentleman glanced over his shoulder and took note of my garish German jeep.

He smiled. I smiled back. At this point, I just wanted the light to change so I could leave Mogadishu for home and hearth. My new pal then had a quick discussion with his partner and turned around in his seat to face me.

The guy adamantly pointed to my jeep and then made the universal sign for money, rubbing his fingers together vigorously with an intense look on his face. I nodded in the negative with a smile, trying to convey my gratitude for his offer. He then held up his hands, dove down into the floorboard of his pimpmobile, and returned, this time with a plump purple velvet Crown Royal bag.

A little paint and some workshop time transformed my VW Thing
into a decent facsimile of Erwin Rommel’s staff car.

The guy opened the bag and extracted a gigantic roll of money. He then pointed more adamantly at the jeep and then back at the cash. It was clear that this guy was serious about doing a deal for my jeep right there in traffic.

By now, I was getting antsy. I held up both hands and grinned like an ape on Xanax. I really didn’t want to sell my jeep, but I was grateful just the same. At that moment, the light changed, and thankfully the moment was lost.

I have pondered that exchange many times since. The only thing worse than being a skinny white guy wearing scrubs standing alone on the side of the road in that neighborhood would have been to be a skinny white guy wearing scrubs standing alone on the side of the road in that neighborhood holding that big roll of money. Some peckish opportunist would probably have cooked me up for dinner. A week later, somebody likely would have found my bleached bones picked clean. And it all turned on the timing of a stoplight…

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