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Summer Journal: Owners Wish the Ride Would Last Forever

  • The dashboard of Kristen Strong’s 1962 VW Beetle, which she uses as her daily driver in the summer. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)

    The dashboard of Kristen Strong’s 1962 VW Beetle, which she uses as her daily driver in the summer. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Kristen Strong says she’d drive her summer car all year if she could. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)

    Kristen Strong says she’d drive her summer car all year if she could. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Jonathan Ranney and his wife, Kathy Crowder, pose with their 1978 Fiat 131S across the street from their home in Royalton. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)

    Jonathan Ranney and his wife, Kathy Crowder, pose with their 1978 Fiat 131S across the street from their home in Royalton. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Precisely placed stickers on the rear window of Jonathan Ranney’s 1978 Fiat 131S show the rallies and events the car has been to. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)

    Precisely placed stickers on the rear window of Jonathan Ranney’s 1978 Fiat 131S show the rallies and events the car has been to. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap) Purchase photo reprints »

  • The dashboard of Kristen Strong’s 1962 VW Beetle, which she uses as her daily driver in the summer. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)
  • Kristen Strong says she’d drive her summer car all year if she could. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)
  • Jonathan Ranney and his wife, Kathy Crowder, pose with their 1978 Fiat 131S across the street from their home in Royalton. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)
  • Precisely placed stickers on the rear window of Jonathan Ranney’s 1978 Fiat 131S show the rallies and events the car has been to. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)

Kristen Strong bought what would become her summer car back in 1984, when it was the only car she and her husband Glen could afford.

The 1962 Volkswagen Beetle with a roll-back top was school bus yellow and had off-white shag carpeting inside, the result of an unfortunate makeover it received at the hands of a previous owner. The young couple, then living in Bishop, Calif., next to the Nevada border, paid $1,100.

“When we got it, it was a year from being an antique,” Strong said last week over the counter of 108 Chelsea Station, the South Royalton diner she and Glen own and run. The five-digit odometer read 30,000. “We were assuming that it had already flipped once,” she said. The first time she washed it, some of the paint came off.

But Strong had always wanted a VW Bug. A neighbor had one when she was growing up in Royalton. Her mother thought the cars were flimsy and said, “You’ll never have one.”

The Beetle made six trips across the Mojave Desert, and when the Strongs moved back to Vermont in 1987, they filled it with their stuff and towed it behind a 1972 Pontiac LeMans.

Bringing the car to the Northeast left them with a decision: Drive it year-round and face its eventual rusty demise, or make it a summer car. Like many people who want to preserve a treasured ride, Strong stores her car in the winter, safeguarding it away from the snow, ice and road salt.

It’s tempting to make the summer car into something it’s not, a vehicle for nostalgia, for example. In truth, a summer car is nothing more than a vehicle an owner likes well enough to want to keep around longer than the average car. More often than not, these cars are from an older time, when cars were simpler, more direct, less comfortable and more susceptible to corrosion.

“They really weren’t all that well rust-proofed,” said Craig Wehde, owner of Sports and Vintage Car in Plainfield and the shop’s sole mechanic. Wehde spends a lot of time working on old European cars, and starts to get really busy after the first warm days of spring. He has 10 cars of his own that are summer-only, and two or three of them he won’t take out in the rain.

After decades as a mechanic in Westchester County, N.Y., Wehde opened his Plainfield shop in 1998. There were a lot of summer cars, very valuable ones, down in New York, but the weather is worse in the Upper Valley. Putting a treasured car away for the winter is the only way to preserve it, he said.

It isn’t difficult to store a car. Put a few extra pounds of air in the tires, fill the gas tank to reduce the buildup of moisture and hitch the car’s battery to a battery tender, a device that senses when the battery gets low and charges it up.

Some summer cars aren’t driven enough, Wehde said. Back in New York, he might not see a particular car for years because the owner couldn’t find the time to enjoy it. “That’s happened more than a few times,” he said. “It’s kind of like a painting that’s locked away in a vault but you don’t look at it.” Because summer is his busy season, Wehde doesn’t always get to drive the cars he keeps in storage: Some of them get only 25 miles a year.

That’s not the case with Jonathan Ranney. He has owned any number of older Fiats, as well as Yugos of more or less the same construction. Some of them are keepers, he said. Others just have to move on.

His current summer car is a 1978 Fiat 131S. He bought it in 2007 from a fellow Fiat fanatic who had updated the car with better brakes. Ranney, who repairs musical instruments at Ellis Music, just around the corner from his Royalton home, works on his cars himself. His garage has engine stands, a parts-washer and a sandblasting booth. He has a shop off the garage, where he works on automotive projects.

“When I grew up, my dad had Fiats,” he said. Other men were driving old American cars, but Ranney’s father and uncle, who were from Springfield, Vt., were interested in the small Italian cars, particularly after the 1970s oil crisis.

While this story is about European cars, summer brings out all kinds of vehicles: American muscle cars, custom hot rods, steam-powered cars, vintage pickup trucks, modern convertibles and countless motorcycles.

“Older cars are more fun to drive, that’s just all there is to it,” Ranney said. The European cars he favors are smaller, lighter, lower to the ground and often feel faster than they are. They also aren’t all that expensive.

On a short run on Route 14, Ranney hustled his Fiat through a few sharp corners. The car looks like something an Italian police detective would have driven in the late 1970s, and it’s ready for its chase scenes.

So far, Ranney has driven the car across the country once. Now, although he’s unlikely to give up his Fiat, he’s spending a lot of time on his motorcycle.

For Kristen Strong, there’s no substitute for her Beetle.

After moving back to Vermont, she left the car parked in a field for four years. Then a friend who works at a body shop took it in, saying, “I’ll work on it when I have the time and you have the money,” Strong said.

Four years and $4,000 later, the car came back to her in its current form, painted the same burgundy red that was on the Town of Hartford’s trucks at the time. That was in 1994, the year the first of the Strongs’ three children was born.

She had seat belts installed in the back seat (there are still none in the front) and used the car to haul the kids around in the summer. She would fill it with coolers to stock the food stand at Little League games. Sometimes, she’d just go for a drive.

“The kids would be like, Mom, where are we going? And I’d be like, I don’t know,” she said.

In nearly 30 years of ownership she’s put 68,000 miles on the car.

“I would drive that car every single day of the year if I could,” Strong said. And she would choose it over any new car, too.

“For my money, seriously, it’s the best car I’ve ever owned.”

Her mechanic is telling her the bug needs a “frame up restoration,” work that might exceed in cost the eventual value of the car. She’s been told she could go out and buy another one for what she’d pay to restore her current one.

“Yeah, but it’s not my bug,” she said.

Alex Hanson can be reached at ahanson@vnews.com or 603-727-3219.