One soldier who brakes for Bugs
July 7, 2003
BAUMHOLDER, Germany — Army Master Sgt. Joseph Cecil has not wasted the nine years he’s spent in Germany.
He has a German wife, Bianca. He speaks fluent German, as does their son, Benjamin, 9.
And he has the definitive German car — a Volkswagen Beetle that makes people stop in their tracks to admire.
The Baumholder-based soldier is an authority on the Beetle. It is probably safe to say that Cecil, rear detachment noncommissioned officer in charge for the 2nd Brigade, 1st Armored Division, probably knows more about antique Volkswagens than anyone else in an American military uniform. He can identify a Bug’s year and place of manufacture at 100 paces, no small feat since they all tend to look alike to the novice.
His restored 1952 Volkswagen Model 11E — immediately identifiable to aficionados by its split rear window — is one of the best examples of the first post-war Beetle models outside Das Volkswagen AutoMuseum in Wolfsburg.
“It’s almost a museum piece,” says his father, Robert Cecil, a retiree living in Louisville, Ky., and another Beetle fan, currently restoring his own 1974 Bug.
So how much could a tiny four-cylinder car that sold originally for a few hundred dollars be worth?
Joseph Cecil is evasive on the subject, but drops plenty of hints. The original air filter, which he only puts on for shows, alone is worth $450. When he told Benjamin that he could have his 1965 Herbie the Love Bug replica, Cecil says his son replied “Poppa, we both know the other Volkswagen is much more valuable.”
Should Benjamin need college tuition someday, selling the ’52 Beetle “could pay for most of it. Not all of it, but most of it.”
But Cecil’s fascination with Beetles has little to do with money. He simply loves the cars.
“Once you drive one, you’re bitten by the Bug!” he likes to say.
Despite its origins as Adolf Hitler’s affordable transportation for his Aryan masses, seeing his rolling anachronisms gives other people as much joy as it gives him, Cecil says. Like the German policeman who followed him home from work one day.
“I thought, ‘Oh my God, what did I do? Did I forget to hit the semaphores [pop-out turn signals]? Did I forget to signal?” Cecil recalls.
“The guy jumps out, and he says, ‘Oh my God. I had a car just like this when I started in the Polizei! It was even the same color.’ ”
Other Germans have stopped him on the street and insisted he come home with them so they could show him their own old VW. The famous Teutonic reserve melts away instantly when he goes for his Sunday drive, or drives it in local parades, he says.
“I think it brings happiness to people, especially older people,” Cecil says.
“We drove it around on Mother’s Day,” says wife, Bianca. “People are looking. People are waving. And they like to talk, talk, talk, especially the older people.”
And talk, the 40-year-old Kentuckian can. He can go on for hours about VW minutiae. His ability to speak German allows him to do primary research, consulting German experts about quirky design details such as the early cable brake systems.
Oddly, his first Volkswagen, a 1970 1600 model, was a disaster. It was a cast-off from his father, “and Dad was sorry he gave it to me because it was always breaking down,” Cecil says.
That ended up being a good thing because it forced him to work on the cars to the point he can pull an engine in 15 minutes.
Since the soldier bought the 1952 Bug in October 2001, he has done a bare-metal restoration, haunting flea markets, Volkswagen shows and online auctions for parts. By his calculations, the car is about 80 percent original, down to seat covers that he has carefully mended. The carpet is new, but authentic from a specialty company. The wind-up clock actually works.
Some people might only see a funny little car with bulbous fenders as the result of all that work and study. No seat belts. No gas gauge. Seats are held to the floor by wing nuts. The engine has a whopping 24.5 horsepower. It has a peculiar defrosting rig on the passenger’s side of the windshield, which was made 20 years before safety glass.
But something magical happens when Cecil turns the key and taps the starter button. The engine responds and hums that peculiar Beetle air-cooled engine song — sounding rather like a duet between a sewing machine and a lawnmower.
Cecil negotiates the potholes on Baumholder’s H.D. Smith Barracks with aplomb, never testing the little car’s considerable durability. He lets the 1197 cc engine find its own pace, never getting out of third gear as he putt-putts to the base chicken restaurant.
In the nearly empty lot, he parks his pride and joy far from the common riffraff — the mini-vans, the hoopties and the high-performance German sedans.
And there it rests, shining in the early summer sun.
Cecil’s wife has a 2003 BMW Sport Wagen. She can keep it, he says.
“I’d rather drive my ’52 Volkswagen,” he said. “Any day!”