It's such an ordinary car, this bedraggled 1959 Volkswagen Beetle, with its dents and rust spots and an odometer that couldn't register all the miles.
That ordinariness is a great part of its charm, considering it belonged to world-famous aviator Charles Lindbergh. He spent boyhood summers in Minnesota and donated the Beetle to the Minnesota Historical Society.
"Most of our visitors are amazed to learn that Lindbergh drove this sort of car, considering the fact that he could afford to be driven around in a limousine anywhere he wanted," said Donald Westfall, manager of the Lindbergh historic site in Little Falls, Minnesota.
Lindbergh preferred to travel without being recognised as a celebrity, and he wasn't one to seek out physical comforts, Westfall said. Rather, "He would appreciate the challenge of not being so comfortable." Lindbergh, a tall man at 6 feet 4, even slept in the small car on trips to Egypt, around the Mediterranean and throughout Europe.
The gray VW is being prepared for display at the Minnesota History Centre in St. Paul, starting in mid-July. It will return to Little Falls next summer as a focus of a new exhibit at the Lindbergh House. It's not being restored; the scrapes, dents and rust will stay. It's being conserved; the Historical Society is trying to prevent further deterioration and keep the car as well-maintained as its owner did. The German VW engine is considered very well-built, and pilot Lindbergh, of course, appreciated that.
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Added seat belts
Lindbergh was 25 years old when he made his historic solo flight across the Atlantic in May 1927. After the 1932 kidnapping and murder of his first child, he and his family kept a distance from the public. They lived in England from 1935 to 1939.
He paid about $1,000 for the Volkswagen when he bought it new in Paris in 1959. It came with no radio, and he never put one in. He did add a ski rack and seat belts and operated it under a French tourist license for several years. In his book "Autobiography of Values," he wrote an anecdote involving the car:
What is it like to live the life of a Masai? Driving along a one-track dirt road in southern Kenya once, I overtook two spearmen and offered them a ride. They accepted solemnly and started to climb into my small Volkswagen, but their sharp-bladed weapons were too long to take inside. Seeing their confusion, I switched off the engine, walked around to their open door, and held out my hand. Each man handed me his spear. I motioned one to the back seat and the other to the front, then placed the spears, point forward, against the side of the car. The man in front held them there, through the open window. My Volkswagen must have looked like an armed knight as it rolled through the dust and sand.
When he was 68, he drove the Beetle to Little Falls from his home in Connecticut, stopping at the Lindbergh historic site. John Rivard, then site manager, left notes about the 1970 visit:
"Surprise was expressed that he would drive all the way from Connecticut in this small battered car. He said that he loved the car. It had been on four continents, and he had even slept in it on occasions. When someone seemed to doubt this possibility, he proceeded to take the right front seat apart and set it up again in a lengthened-out position. He then placed himself on it full length, like a boy showing off his toy."
The next evening Lindbergh made a phone call and announced that he would have to fly to New York to attend a meeting of the Pan Am board of directors, on which he served. He left his VW in the tuck-under garage at the Lindbergh house. Rivard noted, "He locked the car, being careful to leave one window slightly open, then gave me the key for safekeeping until he returned."
But he never picked up the car. He donated it to the Historical Society in 1972, two years before his death. He wrote in September 1972, "In signing the paper of transfer for the Volkswagen, I am surprised at the nostalgia I encounter."
Save the dents
During the past few months, the VW has been transformed from simply a vintage vehicle into a museum artifact.
In March 2001 the car was removed from the Lindbergh House garage. It had been a popular feature of the house tours. (So is the Lindbergh family's 1916 Saxon car, in which Charles Lindbergh took his first driving adventure. At age 14, he drove the Saxon to California as chauffeur for his mother and uncle.)
From Little Falls, the Beetle went to a VW specialist in Stillwater, where mechanics cleaned the car's mechanical parts and removed the fluids.
Aaron Novodvorksy of the exhibits staff said, "The car's running gear, drive train and engine were completely disassembled, and the fluids were replaced with Cosmoline wax." This is the process the military uses when it "mothballs" vehicles, such as jeeps and trucks, he said. Although the car has not been started since the 1970's, someday the wax could be removed and the car made to run again.
Conservator Paul Storch is working on the car in his Historical Society lab. (Next to the VW is an 1880's horse-drawn buggy, once owned by former Gov. Alexander Ramsey.) A rust inhibitor was applied to all concealed parts. The car will be cleaned, hand washed and given a wax coating to protect the finish.
Storch will save the little dents, such as the one Lindbergh's daughter Reeve wrote about in her memoir, "Under a Wing." Recalling her first visit to the Lindbergh House in 1975, she wrote, "I was amused to see our old Volkswagen, the one I had learned to drive in, with a dent still in the left front fender where I'd run into the stone wall at the curve of our driveway."
A collection of items shows that he planned his trips carefully. He carried maps with hand written notations. Inside the car were: two suitcases, a flashlight, gas can, canteen, machete, inflatable air mattress, whisk broom, small shovel, plastic canteen, miscellaneous tools, wire, metal tubing, spoon and cans of dried beef, sardines and baked beans. Under the Connecticut license plates, which expired in October 1972, are European ones, probably French. The odometer reads 30,051, but Lindbergh said the car had about 130,000 miles.
"It's an early-model Beetle, and in reasonably good shape, so a collector would buy it," said researcher Paul Blankman. "But its real significance comes from the fact that Charles Lindbergh drove the car on four continents and personally donated it to the Historical Society.