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Bitten by the bug

Most of us would love to own a Volkswagen Beetle — that bug-shaped people’s car made popular in no small measure by the 1968 film The Love Bug.

autos Updated: Dec 13, 2009 01:27 IST
Mini Pant Zachariah
Mini Pant Zachariah
Hindustan Times

Most of us would love to own a Volkswagen Beetle — that bug-shaped people’s car made popular in no small measure by the 1968 film The Love Bug.

To know that Mumbai’s Keith Mascarenhas, 58, owns seven of them would turn anybody as green with envy as the immaculately restored 1962 model he owns. Mind you, these are cars that came his way after much wooing and courting, followed by some painstaking restoration work.

Mascarenhas, who lives in Bandra and runs a family business of insulation components, acquired his first Beetle in 1995. It was a 1974 model that came for Rs 90,000, an amount that Mascarenhas, traded in his blue-chip shares to raise. The same car would fetch Rs 3.5 lakh today, but Mascarenhas would never sell.

The design, of course, was a major draw but what sealed the Beetle deal for Mascarenhas is the German engineering. “The Beetle has been on the road since 1938. If a car has lasted this long, there must be something good in it,” he argues. The engine is so simple that you can fix it yourself, if you have a mechanical bent of mind, he adds.

Across the Bandra-Worli Sealink, in Peddar Road lives Anand Desai, 34, an automobile dealer. Way back in 1993, when he turned 18, his father offered to buy him a car of his choice. Fiats and Maruti 800s ruled the market then but Desai Jr was smitten by the Beetle.

He recalls, “My family, which is in the automobile business, could not understand why I wanted to bring home this white elephant that would run up my petrol and maintenance bills.” It took a lot of convincing but he finally had his way with a 1969 Beetle sedan.

Why the Beetle? Desai smiles and replies after a pause, “Why? I guess it is the same story with every Beetle lover — a passion for the car. Its cute shape attracts everyone from an eight-year-old child to an 80-year-old gentleman.”

No price is too high

Mascarenhas and Desai are part of an informal group of 20 Beetle owners in Mumbai who’ve been bitten by the bug and meet occasionally to share notes and drive around in the beauties.

How these owners came to acquire their Beetles makes for interesting stories. For Mascarenhas, who owns a rare 1957 model with an oval back windshield, it was a car that he was destined to own. The original owner was one Mr D’souza who had fled to Mumbai from Uganda during Idi Amin’s regime. “The car was a little run down so I offered him Rs 20,000. I don’t know whether he was offended by my offer but he later sold it to a friend of mine for Rs 50,000,” recalls Mascarenhas.

He got the car anyway in 1998 when the second owner of the car decided to sell it and he grabbed it for Rs 90,000. It’s a different matter that Mascarenhas spent over Rs 2.5 lakh on restoration work for the car.

For Desai, buying his second Beetle, a 1957 convertible, was a stroke of luck. The car belonged to a lady who had brought it to India from Germany over 40 years ago. In her will, she bequeathed it to her children, one of whom was Desai’s friend. At the time, the family was unwilling to sell the car and no amount of coaxing helped.

Then, one day, out of the blue, one of the family members casually mentioned to Desai that they might consider selling the car. “I promptly went to their house with my cheque book and told them to quote their price. I towed away the car with no wheels,” recalls Desai. Did he get it at a fair price? “Not in my wildest dreams did I think they’d sell the car. No price tag was too big for that Beetle,” declares Desai.

Drapes for the lady

Acquiring an old Beetle is just part of the fun for hardcore fans. Restoring it to its old glory is the real joy. It took Desai the whole of 1995 and a whole lot more of rupees to refurbish the car he had bought for a mere Rs 50,000. “The spares had to be brought in from Bangkok, the UK or wherever they were available,” he recalls. Acknowledgement of his efforts came when the Volkswagen Motoring magazine put his car on the cover of its August 1997 issue.

So, are these Beetle fans among the 150-odd people who’ve signed up for the completely refurbished ‘New Beetle’ launched early this month? Desai says he already has it. The New Beetle — with its four-cylinder, two-litre petrol engine with a six-speed automatic tiptronic gearbox, safety features like four airbags, all disc brakes and 15 inch alloy wheels — is a version that was introduced in the West in 1999, says Desai.

And Mascarenhas thinks Rs 20.45 lakh (ex-showroom Delhi) is “frankly, too ridiculous a price to pay for what is basically a people’s car”. He adds with a twinkle, “I’ll be on the lookout for a second hand New Beetle, though.”