Thursday, August 14, 2008
The salesman wasn’t selling. Despite offers that dwarfed what his three beautiful Volkswagen Beetles cost, Bob Lewis of Bob Lewis Volkswagen wasn’t interested. His species of Bug was too rare.
A trio of drop-top fuel-injected icons, the cars are three of the last convertibles of their kind– the best-selling car design in world history– ever made. (VW would produce a revamped Beetle design with plastic components and a relocated engine in the 1990s.) And though they were manufactured in December 1979 during the last week of production, these three have seen sunlight just a handful of times and have fewer miles, combined, than most strollers– Lewis specifically ordered the VWs with specific instructions that they be completely free of extra miles. One of the three has just 10 miles on its odometer, two still have German compressed air in the tires and all three are impeccably maintained. They don’t feel new; they are new– without a single registered owner.
David Ferguson, who owns and operates Images Autobody in Campbell, Calif., was one of the many car fans who saw the pristine automobiles primping in the indoor showroom at Lewis’ store, as they did for decades, and one of the potential suitors whose offers to buy them were rebuffed.
“I asked him for years,” Ferguson remembers. “He didn’t call me back the first four times.”
When the two finally spoke, Ferguson admits Lewis’ annoyance was audible. “He was a little rough,” Ferguson says. “He said, ‘They are not for sale. They’re for my grandkids.’ ”
After a decade, Ferguson gave up trying. But the dead deal would find life thanks to an accumulation of mitigating circumstances: Ferguson and Lewis would become friends, Lewis would deconstruct his empire and the grandchildren would come to number nine.
“He couldn’t divide the cars three ways,” Ferguson reasons, saying he and partner Gayle Jones (in photo, upper left) paid $25,000 each for the cars, or about five times their sticker price.
The car customizer will share his riches with Monterey, taking his German pearls to Gordon McCall’s exclusive Wednesday high-ender at the Jet Center, around town with Thursday’s Tour d’Elegance (parking them on Ocean Avenue thereafter), over to the Quail Motorsports Gathering in Carmel Valley on Friday and then to Carmel to park and share with the public along Ocean Avenue again on Saturday (for a full list of events, see story, this page). Ferguson plans to solicit bids personally.
The little Beetles might at first glance seem out of place among the borderline gaudy Bugattis and Bentleys of the week, but Ferguson is no stranger to such regal events. He says his shop’s cars, mostly Jaguars, have won their class at the Palo Alto Concours eight of last nine years, “and we had a 1957 ragtop VW bug that was a national champ for four years in a row.”
At the same time, one could argue that the six-digit machines should be lucky to keep such cute-and-historic company– traditionally, no car enjoys the same play as the VW Beetle. They’ve been highlighted in Hollywood as much as any car. Off-road competitions like Baja Bug stoke enthusiasm as much as cult clubs and customizations. A fleet of green Beetles helps define the one of the biggest cities in the world, Mexico City, and some estimate 2 billion have covered the world’s streets, all told. Ultimately, it’s not a stretch to say the VW Bug should have finished higher in 1999’s international Car of the Century vote (it finished fourth).
“I’ve been a dealer 37 years,” Lewis says. “Everybody’s got a story about a Volkswagen. People just relate to that car. When you say Volkswagen, a lot a people smile.”
Ferguson estimates the car will command around $50,000, a more affordable number than most of the vehicles that will roll onto stages around the Peninsula all weekend (after all, Volkswagen does mean “people’s car”). Ferguson says Bruce Weiner, owner of the largest micro car collection in the world, is interested, as is a collector who owns a Beetle museum– “but anything can happen,” says Ferguson. People bug out for Beetles.
Whether the two VWs find an owner who wants to actually ditch the air-conditioned garage for wind-whipped roads or one who wants to keep it on ice for history’s sake, one small measure of history will be meted out: the VWs will actually go for a drive. Ferguson has his eye on several candidates for the cars’ first extended action in three decades– including Carmel Valley Road, 17-Mile Drive and Highway 1.