Bo and I had left one of our group’s factories in Rheine, northern Germany. Our hosts being German were thus of course very efficient and at the meeting we had attended everything was discussed in minute detail. This made us late and we had a ferry booked that night for Sweden. Fortunately on this particular evening, with a two hundred kilometre drive up to Rostock ahead of us, we had light traffic. There are few speed limits on German autobahns and we were really tanking it at 120 mph or more where we could.
Suddenly out of nowhere and up behind us came a Volkswagen Beetle. It steamed passed as if to make us appear we were going backwards. I looked at my speedo and it was reading 115 mph! Beetles of the day (1983) were not noted for their performance. In fact acceleration times for a Volkswagen Beetle were best described as 0 to 60 in 'probably does'. Millions of dedicated and loyal owners of the marque tried to justify their weird choice of vehicle with claims of "It's the best car in the world." Within less than a decade of it ceasing production in 1973/74 thankfully all of them had fallen to bits and disappeared though. So for younger readers not familiar with this jaw droppingly ugly car I will attempt to describe it.
It was dubbed 'Beetle' because it looked like one. A dung beetle in fact. One had to be seriously ill at ease with one's own body to risk being seen driving one. Powered (almost) by an air-cooled 'flat four' engine that was thrown in the boot at the back. It made a unique ‘signature VW’ noise like a bucket full of nails mixed with tin foil. This was largely because the engine was made from a bucket full of nails mixed with tin foil. It was so under powered that fly squash was never going to annoy you.
The only way a Volkswagen Beetle could be issued with a speeding ticket on a motorway was when it was on the back of a breakdown truck at the time. In fact so many overheated in valiant attempts at trying to win this cherished accolade that the UK government considered adding the marque to Motorway Prohibited User signs. The only car regularly left standing at the lights by double decker buses. Drivers that found the driving position comfortable and who could easily handle the Ferris wheel that doubled as a steering wheel had right arms three inches longer than their left, such was the angle at which it was mounted. Clutch, brake (barely necessary) and accelerator pedals were so far offset they were almost in the passenger footwell. When the MOT (Ministry of Transport compulsory vehicle condition test) was introduced in Great Britain in 1960 it was initially for all vehicles 10 years old or more. Proud Beetle owners would tell you that their vehicles never failed the test. It transpired that this was because no Beetle ever lasted that long.
Admittedly a remarkably rust resistant body (held together by good quality German paint!) was attached to a floor pan that rusted so completely it fell off altogether after 8 years. If it started raining switching the wipers on would knock twenty miles per hour off your top speed. A truly awful car the production of which had been instigated in 1938 by a sadist (Adolf Hitler) to be driven by masochists (Germans). The Volkswagen company nearly disappeared after the German defeat in 1945 but a British Army Major named Ivan Hirst decided to save the factory and made conquered Germans recommence manufacture. This was as a form of punishment for starting the world war. Despite trumped up statistics (German statistics!) for reliability. When, in the early 70s the British Automobile Association conducted properly invigilated and correctly 'weighted by mileage' tests for their popular motoring magazine called 'Drive', they had to invent a whole new category of 'no stars' and add extra pages to list all the car's failings. After it eventually went out of production most of its former UK devotees graduated to Reliant Robins. Former adherents in the rest of Europe happily returned to riding donkeys. VW even made a camper van version but you had to prove you were high on grass before being allowed to drive one. These latter versions are now particularly popular amongst the farming community. They make very good hen coups.
You will by now perhaps begin to understand why I was so surprised to be overtaken by a VW Beetle whilst driving flat out up a German autobahn at 120 MPH in a state of the art 3.5 litre V8 Rover!
“Give it wellie!” I yelled after this phantom of a car.
Bo responded in his inimitable Swedish accent with “Wellie give it what it means yes?”
Trying to explain English ‘inverted’ humour to a loveable but mostly humourless Swede was not going to be easy. Nonetheless I eventually explained to Bo that modern rubber versions of the footwear that a once conquering British General had worn for battle but that were now mostly worn by Welshmen that did things to sheep on wet mountain sides were not normally used for driving fast cars.
The fast car in question it later turned out was a prototype Beetle Turbo. Thankfully, and because Volkswagen Beetles couldn't go round corners, it never went into production.
Bo’s reaction to my explanation was a stony faced, glum and totally emotionless “Ah, now I see. It is very funny. Yes.”
We caught our ferry. We even met our Beetle Turbo test pilot onboard and all had a good laugh about the events that evening. Swedes can laugh out loud without creasing their faces. It’s probably why they all keep their young, wrinkle free good looks.
A couple of days later we were heading up to Kiruna, the world’s northern most large(ish) town. It was November and it's cold up there around 100 kilometres above the Arctic Circle. Bo and I were split up as we boarded a crowded short body DC9 at Lulea Airport on the northern shores of the Baltic. It taxied off the stand in a near ‘white out’ blizzard. SAS, the Scandinavian state airline employed many pilots that shared the qualities of their near cousins at Finnair. Proudly inheriting legacies of legendary bravery and daring-do stemming from wildly dangerous World War 2 flying experiences. And to hell with their terrified passengers.
Everyone gets nervous onboard planes that are either about to take off or about to land. Even the pilots and the rest of the aircrew do. The more flying experience you gain then the more nervous you get. Anyone denying it means quite simply that they haven’t flown enough or they've previously volunteered for a full frontal lobotomy! A couple or more 'near misses' at a combined converging speed of 1,100 MPH will eventually change your mind on that score. Please trust me in that!
On this night we had two tanker trucks, one alongside each wing and each with a man strapped to a metal grid on top of the tank. Each man wielding a large lance with a big black rubber hose connecting it to a pump on the vehicle. They were blasting out a hot, pink foam of de-icing fluid over each wing. Trying to prevent excess ice build up on the wings before take off. A frequently disastrous and usually fatal affair for all involved if so unfortunate as to experience it.
The plane lumbers to the end of the runway and begins its roll. 80, 90, 100, 110, 120 knots and everyone on board goes deathly quiet. From my seat near the front I could see the pilots at their controls through the curtainless gap behind them. Clearly struggling to get the heavily loaded old bus aloft. When the head honcho should have yelled the command "Rotate" for final launch he instead screamed "Abort". On came the brakes along with lots and lots of reverse thrust. Cabin lights flickered and the violent deceleration was enough for a few overhead lockers to burst open. Spilling their contents of rucksacks, snow shoes and Playboy magazines over a few very frightened passengers. Some of whom were now screaming, including the woman sat next to me who grabbed my hand and then pushed her finger nails right into the back of it in sheer terror. She actually drew blood. I forgave her though because she was (Oh, use your imagination! ;o)
The pilot cheerfully announces, again in that inimitable Swedish accent that is difficult to emulate in print but here goes “Hurr da hurr da hurr. I am sorry but ice there was too much of it so we had to abort take-off. Please to remain seated and we will have another go in fifteen minutes time. Let's hope we are lucky. Hurr da hurr da hurr.”
This announcement did not improve passenger morale. However, Swedes are much like the British and if we are about to be led to our deaths then at least we have the right breeding, proper upbringing and good grace so as to accept it without complaining too much.
The trucks refilled with their funny concoction that would have looked more in place on stage at a latter day Disney World extravaganza. This time each stayed with the plane as it gathered speed down the tarmac. Quite some feat as they were driving on snow chains through six or more inches of snow! Rows of searchlights were fixed to each truck and shining along each wing. The poor men restrained in harnesses atop each tank were necessarily dressed like Eskimos. In the blizzard and flying pink foam outside, lit by eerie floodlights, it looked like a scene from ‘Dante’s Inferno On Ice’, if anyone ever dared struggle to create such a spectacular.
40, 50, 60 knots and the trucks abandoned their battle to keep up with the rapidly accelerating jet and each peeled away.
90, 100, 110, 120 knots. From ninety or more white knuckled passengers not even a breath was to be heard, just a deathly hush. This time from the cockpit came "ROTATE!”
Followed immediately from way back in the rear of the cabin "Give it Wellieeee!"
I think I wet myself.
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