Punch Buggy LOVE

My father warned me not to fall in love with a car. I could see more fondness in his eyes as he reminisced about his ‘64 Ford Farlane than any other life event he’d shared with me. His “baby” had been crushed like a Christmas chestnut by a hit-and-run accident in Edmonton. With it, his heart was crushed too as he said goodbye to his impressive companion. I was 16 and on the day of my birthday, gifted myself with a learner’s permit. I drove the family Dodge Caravan and had no fear of falling in love with its cat-hair filled seats and clunky transmission. 

That car-love-doubt was before I met Isabelle – my 1972 baby-blue Volkswagen Super Beetle. It was love at first sight and my very first car. My Father’s warning lasted all of zero car relationships. 

I say “met” Isabelle because I feel as though we had a serendipitous encounter. I was living in East Vancouver, fresh into college at the ripe age of 19. I lived with a few roommates and having grown up in Nova Scotia farm country, was completely out of my element. Things like public transportation and tapas gave me anxiety. Everything felt foreign to me. My “worldly” experiences prior to coming here included summers at PEI’s Rainbow Valley and dying my hair red in ninth grade. Our second-story apartment had a deck on the rear that overlooked back alley trashcans and sat comfortably above the Italian mafias “cover business” – a coffee shop with, for some reason, more backgammon games than the Toys R Us Headquarters. Once we saw a pink Cadillac pull into the back alley and out stepped a man in a green-satin, pin-striped suit. He wore a white fedora that he tipped at us like a coy cowboy as he sauntered into the back entrance of the coffee shop. We saw some crazy shit go down in that ally. But the mob gave us free cable and at 19, that was worth keeping secrets for. 

When the Vancouver bus strike of 2000 happened, thousands of people were left to creative commuting. I had no way of getting to school. It would take hours to walk and, in those days, things like Facebook and smartphones were only in the imaginations of people far smarter than I. I couldn’t make a “looking for recommendations on how the eff to get to school” post. Uber did not yet exist and most people on “the Drive” in the East Van drove skateboards, not SUVs.  

This particular night of spying offered up something even more exciting than a live episode of the Sopranos.

I had no plans of buying a car. My barista gig (at a more family friendly coffee shop) didn’t earn me much money. A splurge was buying a package of incense or double-ply toilet paper. But I did have to get to school. One evening while sipping on a mobster-medium roast, I leaned over the deck railing to see if there was any excitement coming from downstairs. Though we couldn’t understand Italian, it was cheap entertainment to hear a mob meeting taking place. Sometimes they’d leave the delivery door open and smoke cigars while they chatted. Sometimes there was yelling, sometimes there was laughing. This particular night of spying offered up something even more exciting than a live episode of the Sopranos. In our ally way sat a shiny smile on four wheels. In the back window of this antique babe was a cardboard sign with “for sale” written in thick black marker. It was Isabelle. 

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I knew Isabelle and I were meant to be together. She was in Cher-like shape, though the odometer was broken and I would never know how many miles the ol’ darlin’ had travelled in her day. She had been outfitted with Honda CRX seats and was painted a blue that made even the purest summer skies feel envy. She had big, round headlights that looked like the eyes of a Disney Princess. The horn was a cherry-blossom red button next to the steering wheel and a jade-carved buddha figurine was fixed on the dash. And did you know that the old Volkswagen “Bugs” were outfitted with engines manufactured by Porsche? I mean, that body with that brain?! I had to have her. 

I jotted down the phone number written on the cardboard and called it the next day. I arranged with Isabelle’s owners to take her for a test ride. I brought along a guy I was dating for a second opinion. That, and she was stick-shift. I could sort of drive standard? One time when I was maybe 8 years old my father let me “drive” our family Jeep on the backroads to his hunting camp. I sat on his lap in the driver’s seat, while my Uncle Kevin laughed himself sick each time his head came less than in inch from the windshield as I stalled out time and time again. My poor mother was in the backseat with her kidneys in her throat, I’m sure. Did I mention I was a fish out of water in the big city? So, my bf was really there to drive the car. I was there to swoon over it. 

I paid cash, just under $2000. How hard could a 4-speed be?

I named Isabelle myself. I don’t know if she had a name before that, but she certainly deserved one. I practiced driving on the backroads and let my pals enjoy her too. Her first road trip was to a music festival just outside Nelson, BC. It was a 13-hour drive, through BC forest fires and packed to the rim with hippies and camping gear. We made a wrong turn at one juncture and ended up at the US border. You can bet your ass that the looks of us were pulled in for questioning by the US Security Officers! Isabelle was an adventurer. She and I were kindred spirits. 

Our adventures together were limitless. Isabelle got more attention than twin-babies walking a parade of puppies. Everyone wanted to meet her and tell stories of their own V-dubs. “Oh, I had one just like that in green,” or “they don’t make them like that anymore.” People would approach me at gas stations and restaurants. I’d see them admiring her from the windshields of their Fords and Fiats, looks of wonder and amusement. The most entertaining part for me as the driver was the battery and bruising, followed by glorious giggles; Punch Buggy. 

“Punch Buggy” is the traditional practice of throwing a quick jab into the arm of the person next to you when you see a VW Bug. Couples in love, senior citizens propped up in their walkers, parents with their children – everyone played punch buggy and Isabelle was the sly elicitor of such innocent fun. Similar to the arm pump in anticipation of a truck driver honking his horn, or the low wave that motorcyclists share when crossing paths, Isabelle invited a social behaviour exclusive to her presence. She brought smiles, laughter, fond memories and endless adventure to the lives of others. Other V-dub owners would wave frantically when passing us on the highway. Some people even offered to buy her – “take her off my hands” – but Isabelle had become more than a car to me. She had become my trusty friend. 

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In 2001 I drove Isabelle across the country. All 6000km from Vancouver to the Annapolis Valley in Nova Scotia. It was her greatest adventure and probably mine too. Atop the roof was a kayak and fixed on the hood of the car (which was actually the trunk – the engines in the old bugs were in the back of the car!) was a carved, wooden voo-doo mask that acted as her protector. There were highs and lows in this trip. Isabelle didn’t have any heat, so when the temperature dropped below zero in the Rocky Mountains, I found myself outfitted in my snowsuit. I had a cassette tape that I used to scrape frost from the inside of the windshield every half hour or so. She lost the plug to her oil reserve in the middle-of-nowhere Alberta and out spilled every drop of her lifeblood. The road-trip Gods sent me an old-man mechanic in a pick-up truck. He helped me steal a new plug from a car in a wreck yard that just happened to be about 100 feet away. This chance encounter felt like it was simply part of the trip. We stayed in road side hotels and ate at diners together. We (poorly) sang songs in unison, Isabelle the steady base guitar hum to accompany my off-pitch vocals. We explored dirt roads, with our favourites being ocean-side meanderings. We pulled over next to farm fields and places that brought us peace. Isabelle shared the understanding that what came next was unknown, but we would be going there together.  

Isabelle and I were together for 16 years. I have been fortunate to share my life with some truly epic women. Women like my grandmothers and mother. Women who have inspired me and offered their unique gifts. Isabelle was alive to me. She had a soul that made me feel happy just being in her company. I was proud of her and knew she brought happiness to those around her. I absolutely fell in love with her and know now, I will be the one to share my fond memories with other young adventurers whom I meet at rest stops along the way.