Ken’s red beetle 1963 – I am three years old. I pose against the beetle in the way I have seen my mother do. Fat legs in shorts, frilly top, slops and sunglasses. I am not smiling. We have done a very long journey to visit the cousins in Zambia. I am the only one in the photograph. It is small, black and white and has frilly edges. The cousins have television. I can’t believe South Africa is so backward. It’s the first time I see TV.
Cecil’s white beetle 1965 – I am small enough to fit in the dogbox and it is my place. Also I’m not afraid of the leguaan he keeps in the car and who also likes the dogbox. Cecil also keeps snakes, small crocodiles and a baboon called Samfoof. He works at the snake park. One day he gives me a snake and says: Go show your mother. I walk into the kitchen with the snake and watch as the women drinking tea run screaming into the passage. Samfoof rides on the handlebars of my tricycle. He’s small enough to hang between them as I do a circuit around the house and out the gate into the street. We do this over and over.
Charles’ purple chopper 1972 – I’m consumed with surprise and shock. I have never seen a bicycle like this. The ones I know are heavy and black and big and I’m forbidden to ride because bicycles are dangerous and people die riding them. This bike is chunky, has small fat wheels and gears and brakes you work by hand. I’ve never had faith in backpedal brakes. It also has gears – three. Charles decides to teach me to ride and use gears. Within a day I’m scheming how to get one of my own or steal his. But he soon moves on to a red racing bike and so whenever I visit I ride the chopper. We go everywhere (even though we’re supposed to stay in the garden). One day we’re flying down a very steep road somewhere and Charles calls out to a passing motorist: What speed are you doing? 40km/h the motorist says. We’re delighted.
My red scooter 1970 – Medusa Street has quite a slope. So go right up to the top of the corner opposite the shops and just let go. By the time you reach number 8 you’re hurtling. I’ve opened both gates and the door at the end of the driveway and the gate on the other side of the house. If you don’t come off on the right hand turn into the driveway the momentum will carry you all around the house and at a crucial point (near the hydrangea at the corner of the veranda) if you start to pedal hard you can make it all the way back to the top of the road in one seamless motion. I do this over and over on school afternoons when my homework is done and I’m bored waiting for my father to come back from work.
Lorraine’s white beetle 1976 – My mother’s only just learned to drive and has just acquired her first car. The man who sold it to her has parked it in the garage under the block of flats where she and I now live. The next morning she’s taking me to school for the first time. She’s nervous about driving it because the garage is full of pillars she has to negotiate. She gets through two successfully but then takes a corner too tight and slams the back right mudguard into the corner of the wall. Going forward won’t release it, going backward won’t release it. Any movement crunches the metal more and more with loud agonising noises. People going to work start to gather. I am so embarrassed I get out of the car and leave. A while later when the car is free but buckled she comes looking for me. I am too ashamed to tell her how ashamed I am of her driving skills.
Ken’s turquoise green VW station wagon 1970 – I go with him to buy the car. It’s huge and the seats can fold down so that we can sleep in the back. He hands over R2500 in cash for it. He then drives me to school in it. It’s very shiny. When we get to the T-junction just before the school I am trying to work out if we are poor or rich. The new car seems to indicate that we have a lot of money, but the one-bedroom flat we all live in seems to say we are poor. I can’t decide.
Sofia’s brown Fiat 1975 – My mother arrives one afternoon after work at my grandmother’s house and announces she too is waiting for my father to return from work. His car is in the driveway and this is how we do things. My school is around the corner, he drives me here, parks the car and I walk to school while he catches the bus to town. He returns at 5pm to pick me up and we drive home where we meet my mother. So this is unusual. At 5.30 there is no sign of my father so she decides we’ll go for a walk to the park. We put the dog on a leash and set off up the road. As we round the corner we see my father in the passenger seat of a parked brown Fiat. There is a blonde woman in the driver’s seat. Who is that? I ask my mother. She says, Sofia. A while later me father tells me how he could never get my mother to drive. But he taught Sofia, and now she drives like a man. What he means is fast.
Brian’s dark blue beetle 1985 – It’s actually not his, it belongs to Africa Enterprise. But he borrows it to come visit me after work. When it’s time for him to go (I live with a watchful family) he and I walk outside and sit on the running board and talk for another three to four hours.
Anthea’s/Lorraine’s white beetle 1996 – Tracy and Roy and their two little boys come to visit after their holiday on a farm. Tracy and Roy are exhausted from the exertions of their holiday and take to the spare room bed for a nap every afternoon leaving me with two overly excited and very lively children to watch. One rainy afternoon I can’t think what to do. So I pack all the kids in the back of the beetle and drive to the top of the very steep part of Somerset road where it meets the gate of PJ Olivier school. Then we wait for the light to just about change to green and hurtle down the road so that we can catch the bump and dip where the road meets Beaufort and fling all three children off their bums as the beetle’s four wheels lift and the back seat suspension does the rest. This we do for about an hour until they’ve giggled themselves into exhaustion. I don’t tell Tracy or Roy how we spent the afternoon.
Anthea’s/Lorraine’s white beetle 2007 – Brian and Gemma go out for their first driving lesson in the car I learnt to drive in. We have decided that I’m the angry and impatient one; he’s the calm patient one so he gets to teach her to drive. Half an hour later they’re back fighting and swearing. She tells him she will never again let him be her driving teacher, he tells her he certainly doesn’t want to. I get told: You have to do it. So I do and I’m very good at it. I don’t panic, I don’t yell. I inspire confidence. She learns to drive.
Anthea and Brian’s green (used to be Lorraine’s white) beetle 2016 – For two years now it’s just stood in the driveway rotting. And fairly often someone rings the doorbell and offer R8000 or R5000 to buy it. There are usually owners of beetles looking for parts. They say No every time. How can you sell a car a grandmother, a mother and a daughter all learned to drive in? The floor rusts to brown dust, the spiders move in, the engine fossilises. She cannot figure out what to do. She can’t seem to weigh the advantages of just get rid of it to just fix it. Then they’re driving through Storms River and stop for petrol. Right next to them is a bakkie and a trailer with a very fine beetle on it. They ask the man, Do you restore beetles? No, he says, but he can give them the name and number of a man who does. So they phone the man and send him pictures. That very same afternoon a priest arrives in a yellow beetle full of children. He slows down as he looks through the fence and then turns and comes back and parks. He puts in an offer. No thanks, they say, it’s going to Mosselbay to be restored.
Udo’s dirty orange beetle 1986 – A new volunteer has arrived. He’s called Udo and he’s German from Namibia. He drives a beetle. Over dinner we get talking and he asks me: Have you ever been to the Okavango? No, I don’t have a 4x4, I say. I have an old yellow Passat with carburettor problems. He laughs and begins to tell me how he visits the swamps regularly and all he does is let the air out of the beetle’s tyres. That way it copes with the soft sand roads, and, he chuckles, he often passes 4x4s being towed. A while later we join a sit-in to protest segregation on Durban’s beaches. Brian and I watch as four or five cops try to shove Udo off the sand. It takes four of them to lift him bodily and get him to move.
VS Passat yellow station wagon with baby seat 1991 – Gemma is now talking but has problems with the tr sound. One morning we’re driving to work when we’re overtaken by a large truck. Look daddy, she says, look at that big fuck. We have to teach her to say lorry in a week as my mother is coming to visit.
Blue Citi Golf Johannesburg 2004 – We decide: Take the Golf to Joburg, it’s newer, more reliable and safer. The beetle stays in Grahamstown because getting stuck in a small town is no big deal. You can always walk to help. Then the two of you come visit during the holidays. I’m hugely enjoying driving in Johannesburg again. I revisit streets and views I love, I discover new routes and a whole lot of streets south of where I live with river names: Niger, Tugela, Kafue, Zambesi, Umgeni, Congo, Gambia, Orange, Kei, Mazoe, Cunene. The names segue into Scottish ones: The Braids, Muirfield, Hoylake and Troon. I drive you all over Joburg showing you my favourite things. You are both lost, almost all the time. Every now and again one of you asks: Which way is north? You are sarcastically pointing out that in your experience only Joburgers are obsessed with knowing where north is. This might just be me. It’s about this time that because Brian drives the beetle all the time that it comes to be known as his. It’s not his, my name is still on the documents as the owner.
Silver Peugeot 207 2016 – Gemma fetches me from the Gautrain station and winds her way through Sandton to Linden. I get lost. She’s learnt the Joburg trick of staying off the main roads and highways and creating her own idiosyncratic routes down tree-lined and Jacaranda-flowered streets. She doesn’t know that I learned this from her grandfather (even though he never taught me to drive I spent years with him in many different cars). On our daily commutes to school and home we had favourite routes: the very steep road from Observatory through Bez Valley to Kensington that gave you vertigo; the mountain passes – Sylvia’s Pass, Munro Drive, Stewart Drive. I still dream of Stewart Drive. Midway – in the dream –there’s a street off the drive to the left with a double-storey house with an open door and the light streams out from inside, beckoning and welcoming. I always turn left into that street in the dream, but I never actually enter that door.
Red Peugeot 307 2006 – this is our first new car. We have finally decided after being stranded in all sorts of places by both the golf and the beetle that we have grown up and now want to spend a whole chunk of our money every month on an absolutely reliable, warrantied and guaranteed car. We can’t afford a new VW but Peugeot has a deal so we faithlessly switch brands. I absolutely fall in love with this car. It has to be registered in my name (like all our cars because Brian had his Zimbabwean driver’s licence stolen and cannot get another without going to Zim to apply for it). We decide to become the kind of people who trade in the car after three years and acquire another so that the resale value is still good and we can stay on top of the payments for another new car.
Lorraine’s white beetle 1978 – Jack is teaching me to drive. He was a driving instructor in England and he brings to his driving instruction a sense of British superiority about moulding me into a very good driver. He knows all the tricky roads that the inspectors lead the driver wannabes into so that they can fail them. We drive parts of Joburg I don’t know at all: Fordsburg, Brixton, Mayfair. One day he decides we’ll collect my mother from work at the Goldfields building in Commissioner Street. We set off into the centre of town at 5pm to see how my traffic skills are doing. It’s terrifying and exhilarating. My mother is horrified when she comes out of the front door to find us parallel parked and waiting for her. This is still her car.
Nellis’ BMW 1984 – Nellis has come to work for Africa Enterprise from IBM. He arrives with all sorts of big business ideas about how to run meetings, organise organograms, and be super efficient. We work together a lot because we have the same boss. I move in with him and his family after I lose my cottage on the Africa Enterprise property to building expansion. We drive to work together. His wife tells me that the BMW is very precious to him and that he only lets her drive it occasionally. I don’t tell her that he often gives me the keys and sends me into town to fetch things.
Ernie’s “white” Renault 1985 – The Smiths give me a lift to work every day. One day somehow or the other we get talking about the colour of the car. They call it white, I say it’s blue. They tell me it’s absolutely, without doubt, white. I say it most definitely has hints and a tinge of blue. This becomes a favourite argument and we bat it back and forth. Then a massive hail storm damages the roof of the car and they have to get it fixed. Ernie takes the car to the dealer to match the paint colour and when he returns he tells me, with a little embarrassment, the colour was called “Artic Blue”. We stop having this particular argument.
Anthea’s/Lorraine’s white beetle 2003 – the beetle is rusting badly and a friend tells me of someone in Port Elizabeth who will fix it. I decide I want to change the colour to cosmic green. I go to PE and meet the man, we decide on a price and I hand over the money. He then takes me to a motor vehicle paint shop in the industrial area and instructs a man behind the counter to show me the paint colours. He leaves and I work my way through a paint chart for Toyotas. The green I want is not there. I ask the man if he has another set of charts and he pulls out the Volkswagen colours. Bingo, there’s the green I want. I tell him the code, he writes it down and orders the paint. A while later the fix it man phones me to say I should come and fetch the beetle and then he tells me that he’s really angry because instead of choosing a Toyota colour I chose a very much more expensive Volkswagen colour but because he wasn’t careful to specify this and because I’d already paid him and because the shop had already made up the cosmic green, we are all just stuck with the situation. Some years later when the beetle is rusting again, I don’t go back to PE, I phone the local bodyworks outfit and just get it done here.
Sofia’s gold Mercedes Benz 2014 – I have deliberately told Sofia that we need to be at the airport by 10 o’clock. We set off at about 9.45am confirming my suspicions that we would be late had I not lied. We cruise down empty Germiston streets on a Sunday morning after my father’s 80th birthday party. She drives fast and somewhat carelessly. As we come up a rise a cop steps out in front of the car and makes us stop. He says he’s fining her and my father for not wearing belts. She’s the soul of sweetness. The cop relents, warns her and we continue. Neither she nor my father have ever worn seat belts (they don’t believe in them). They get warned a lot but not fined.
Anthea and Brian’s green beetle 2016 – Gemma’s intended future for the rotting beetle is that we park it in the back yard and let plants grow in and through it. But, I tell her on a visit to Johannesburg, there’s no way we could get it into the back yard. We have only a pedestrian gate on the side of the house and to lift it over the top would be crazy and expensive and need a crane. Every time a buyer bangs on the door and offers us R8000 or R5000 to take the beetle off our hands the picture of the beetle gently returning to the earth in our back yard as the trees grow and the birds sing and the dogs sun themselves stops me saying Yes, just take it away.