“I cannot sell you that car,” the man said firmly in thickly accented English. He was short, wearing an imaculate white coat like a doctor’s, with fierce blue eyes and  close-clipped reddish hair 

Bill and I looked at the rusted VW van with the faded advertising for a brand of Scotch whisky painted on the side. Our investigations had convinced us that it was the least dilapitated of the half a dozen similar VW vans slowly rotting away on a back lot behind one of the largest VW dealers in Hamburg. As one, Bill and I turned to the ramrod-straight little man in the doctor’s coat and asked why he could not sell us that van.

“Because,” the man said, his voice rising in volume and pitch until his final word was virtually screamed at us, “it is SCRAP!!!

The shrieking tone of the man reminded me of an old black and white war movie where the Gestapo man approaches the hero on a train and screams in just the same voice breaking with rage; “Ver are your PAPERS!!!

The problem for Bill and I was not our papers, it was our money. It was sometime in the  second week of July, 1967. We’d already been in Europe about a month, arriving in Paris on a charter flight from LA in early June. After those first few days in Paris, during which I discovered many things, including how coffee ought to taste, we’d spent next four weeks using our Eurailpass both for transportation and lodging. We’d pick a general direction, say, east, hop a train and when night came sleep on the bench seats in First Class. When we awoke we’d get off at the first stop, find out what country we were in and have breakfast.  If we were in an interesting place we’d explore, but by nightfall at the latest we’d be back on board the next train going our general direction. We got as far east as Munich. To the south we’d reached Rome and Madrid. In the north we’d seen Copenhagen, then back to Paris, north to Amsterdam again, and now, with the Eurailpass nearly expired, Hamburg and the VW dealership of Heinrich Wiegmann.

A friend of mine from high school had told us about Wiegmann’s establishment. A year older than me, Ron Hadian was the first in our circle to, as one kid put it, “get into the world traveler bag.” In 1964 Ron had made an epic journey with small funds that included several months in Europe and North
Africa. He’d returned to LA with tales of adventure and a bad case of dystentery. One of the highlights of  his trip had been buying a 1961 VW van in Hamburg which, like the European railroads, now became his mode of transport and home away from home. He said Wiegmann gave him a great deal, and so here we were now, bidding $175 US on “SCRAP!!!

“Come here,” the man in  the white coat said. We followed him around the corner of the building to a tarmac lot filled with other used vehicles. He strode up to one of them, a gray 1963 van with no advertising on it and walked around it critically. “I will sell you this one,” he announced. “We will replace the rusted body panels with new ones…We will paint it…We will give you a new engine out of a crate from the factory with a new engine guarantee…It will cost you $350.”

Bill and I spent the next week in Hamburg waiting for the mechanics to finish. Every day we’d go down to Heinrich Wiegmann’s to watch. We could hardly believe it when they used torches to cut away panels that looked fine to us and weld in brand new ones. And just as promised, the engine came out of a crate and included a booklet from the factory entitling us to free maintainance from any VW dealer in Europe for the first 7500 kilometers.

We drove it first to the Isle of Sylt, then headed south, throgh Amsterdam, Paris, Barcelona, then over to the French Riviera, Monaco, the Italian Riviera, Switzerland, Paris again, then took the ferry from Calais to England and toured that country, Scotland and Wales, finally selling the van in London for $350, the same price we’d paid for it. Certainly I’ve never had a better deal on a car  than that one.

The other day I got curious and googled “Heinrich Wiegmann” and sure enough, he’s still there, or at least his dealership is. If you want a good deal on a VW, go see Heinrich!


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