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Story by Lois Grace

As I write this, spring is right around the corner. It's starting to warm up and it's time to get our Volkswagens (young and old) out for some fun. Here in California our season of fun lasts longer, with more sunshine, than most other places. As a result a lot of us enjoy lazy weekends driving our old cars, and on just about any Sunday here you can take in a car show of some kind or meet another vintage auto enthusiast on the road. This tale involves one such meeting, but it definitely is not the kind of meeting any of us want.

Dr Pete Keesling is a respected, well-known local veterinarian who also happens to be a member of the Golden Gate Chapter of the VVWCA. Long time Autoist readers will know that is the club chapter I joined so many years ago. Besides being an animal lover of the first order, Dr Pete is also a vintage VW guy and has several examples of fine VW-hood in his stable. That stable was reduced by one, last Thursday, when Dr Pete was involved in a terrible crash with his Oval Window Beetle.

I'll let Pete tell you in his own words:

"Since the cat is out of the bag (so to speak), I'll let you know …I was T-Boned yesterday by a young guy in an SUV. Both of us were at speed limit (45mph). He had a stop sign and didn't see it….hit me on the right side, sending me into the windshield and the car into a fence, a piece of which ended up in the car. 1.2 miles from home…..almost made it… I'm okay and will recover fully. Broken ribs and a cracked cervical vertebrae, along with large number of staples and sutures to close a lot of open wounds. Tough day….my herd was reduced by one…Pete"

This is the stuff of nightmares. This is the kind of thing we all hope will not happen to us. This is what makes many of us reluctant to drive our precious old cars. For me, what happened to Pete and his Oval hit (pardon the awful pun) particularly close to home, because it is what happened to me. When Vernon and I were hit in 1974, it wrecked Vern in much the same way. I was injured but not nearly as badly as Pete. I know how Pete must be feeling right now, seeing his beautiful, beloved VW a mangled pile of metal. It's a hurt that only we old car folks can understand. Whether Pete decides to rebuild his car or not, this accident will forever color his driving fun. Sure, there will be more VWs to drive and more fun to be had but right now it's pretty painful.

The wreck Vernon and I had wasn't a wake-up call for me. Even before I'd begun driving I'd always worn a seat belt; Mom and Dad saw to that. And when I started driving on my own I wore it every time I went out. It just seemed easier than explaining how I got hurt to my parents, from a hospital bed. What it did do for me was make me realize just how valuable Vernon was to me. Sure, he wasn't restored then and he was not even close to being in like-new condition like Pete's Oval. But I think that was the point where I decided I'd find a way to restore Vernon - even if it wasn't a show car restoration - somehow. Pete had already done the resto to his car. Besides being injured himself, he had to see his beautiful baby reduced to a broken pile of parts. I am not sure I could handle that. That is a special kind of hurt.

Vintage car people often restore their cars to factory-specific perfection. And, many times, that perfection doesn't include modern safety equipment like seat belts. If the car is old enough, and most of our Volkswagens are in this category, they did not come new with seat belts. Pete's car did not have seat belts, and while they would not have stopped the damage to the car they surely would have lessened his injuries. My dad was a great believer in seat belts, and installed them in every car he bought, even the new vehicles that didn't come with them. My folks bought a 1954 Ford wagon after I was born, and one of the first things Dad did was to install a set of aircraft seat belts in it. These belts have a metal "flipper" instead of a buckle, and you would thread the tough webbed belt itself through the slot and tighten the flipper down on it. This style accommodated a variety of bodies (from small to large!) and was easy to undo. How safe they actually were is anyone's guess, but at the time they were better than none. Vernon, my 1959 Single Cab pickup, had those same belts in him at the time of our wreck. Not just belts that were like the ones in the '54 Ford, but the very same belts! They were a faded red and the metal "flippers" were pretty scratched and banged up, but they saved my butt. They didn't let go and they kept me inside the cab, which was the best place to be at the time. Those belts had already spent safety time inside some airplane when my dad installed them in the '54 Ford wagon. Now here they were, twenty years later, doing duty in Vernon. If Pete had had belts of any kind in his car, it might have saved him from going into the windshield. It might also have spared him the broken ribs and head injuries. No one can say for sure but in the interest of doing an accurate restoration on his Oval, seat belts were left off the list.

I understand the need and desire for absolute accuracy in a restoration. But if it is going to be a vintage car that you want to drive, maybe some modern safety equipment should be considered. Some safety modifications just aren't practical for our old vintage VWs. Structural steel beams and all-wheel drive can't be conveniently added to them. Airbags might be possible, somehow, but sounds unlikely to me, even if you could find someone to engineer it for you. Not many people are willing to go to that extreme to install them either. Seat belts are something fairly easy to install and should not affect the way the car looks or shows. Just tuck them under the seat frame if you don't like the way they look. Or, put them on display, and they will show spectators that your car is driven and not trailered. All my Volkswagens, vintage and not, are equipped with seatbelts. It only took one incident for me to be convinced that they needed them.

It is hard to know what to do when restoring a vintage VW. I was lucky with my 1969 Sedan, Bogie, because he'd been born with seat belts. The guy I bought him from had removed them (why?) but he found them in his garage and gave them to me later. Deciding to put them back in was easy. My vote is always to put seatbelt in a vintage car if you plan to drive it. Or, you can choose not to install seat belts, and take the chance that what happened to Pete and me will not happen to you. You might be right and it won't happen to you. But no one knows for sure. How lucky do you feel?

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