Back in the summer of 1998, British ex-pat Sebastian Montagu, resident in the USA, decided he fancied a new Volkswagen Beetle. It had then recently arrived on the market, reviving the name and silhouette of the iconic original. He bought it from the VW dealer in Amesbury, Massachusetts. The price was around $20,000 – about £12,500 at the exchange rate of the time. And what a bargain that has turned out to be. Seventeen years later, Sebastian is still driving the car, which now has an impressive 350,000-plus miles on the clock.
Over the years a few things have needed replacing beyond normal servicing items, but the car is still on its original engine. The gearbox had to be replaced, using one that had previously been in a Jetta. Work has been needed to rectify problems with the air conditioning, the wipers, electric windows and some fuel flap release gremlins, but those are hardly surprising in a car of its age and on this kind of mileage. Apart from that, the Beetle has suffered a couple of tyre blowouts on the interstate, and on a drive to Mexico, Sebastian stopped at a local Volkswagen dealer because a headlight bulb had blown. He recalls: “The staff were very unfriendly because of the US licence plates, but when they heard my English accent the atmosphere changed completely. Then it was beaming smiles, and they could not have been friendlier. They were amazed that I had driven there from Fort Lauderdale. That was when I put the Union Jack on the front.”
During its long life, the car has clocked up the miles on many long road trips, including crossing the US from east to west, New England to south Florida several times a year, as well as from Boston deep into Canada several times. “The longest and most fun road trip was the drive from Fort Lauderdale to southern Mexico and back in 2006, including Mexico City, the Yucatan Peninsula and a visit to the VW factory in Puebla where the car was built. I pretty much saw the whole of Mexico on that visit.”
Amazingly, considering its mileage, the Beetle is only used for six months a year. Sebastian splits his time between America and Brighton, where he has a diesel Jaguar XJ. As an early adopter of diesel motoring in the US, he had to get used to the surprise of other drivers about his Volkswagen. “For the first ten years of ownership I would always be gently reminded by helpful truck drivers and gas station attendants that I was putting diesel in the car – ‘That thing is diesel?’ – with the fuel only being associated with large trucks. I always had to fill where the trucks filled up, usually around the back. Thank heavens that is no longer the case.”
The Beetle has undergone some modification. In 2006, Sebastian had it chipped to improve the power output from 90 to 130 horse power, with a new turbocharger and injectors fitted, and additional dash gauges added, too. As a result, fuel economy improved as well as performance. So what kind of fuel economy figures does he get from the car? Sebastian knows very precisely, having kept detailed records of every fill-up throughout its life. It averages 55.1mpg – and that’s imperial, not the US measurement. “The acceleration away from the lights since having it chipped is phenomenal,” he says. “And nobody can believe the mileage. The car attracts a lot of attention, some good, some bad. Some men hate it and wouldn’t be seen dead in it. Others are bemused that it runs on diesel.”
“The Beetle was only meant to be temporary, but 16 years on and I still have her. I have thought about trading her in, now that the US diesel market continues to grow with available models – albeit slowly – but I just can’t do it.”