Originally created 05/13/02

Man gives new life to old Beetles



Lee Hanks says he has made a modest living specializing in the service, repair and restoration of Volkswagens.

His property along Five Notch Road in Edgefield County is dotted with air-cooled, faded-orange Transporter buses and blue Beetles waiting for repairs. Some, like the fully restored red Beetle sitting in the garage, are waiting for their owners to find new jobs and the money to take them home.

German automaker Ferdinand Porsche, with the backing of Adolf Hitler, built the first Volkswagen Beetle in the 1930s as an affordable car for the masses.

"It's called the people's car," Mr. Hanks said. "After World War II, it was the Volkswagen that helped take German society out of depression. Volkswagen has always been a pioneer."

Mr. Hanks began his own journey with Volkswagens at the age of 7.

"I've had a love for Volkswagens since 1960," he said.

That was the year his parents, Frank and Casey Hanks, purchased a shiny new Volkswagen Beetle. Mr. Hanks and his sister, Mary Dearman, rode in the economic, gasoline-friendly Bug, and when it came time to buy each child a car, they got Volkswagens. Ms. Dearman's was a regular Beetle, and Mr. Hanks' was a Beetle convertible.

By 1972, his senior year at North Augusta High School, Mr. Hanks knew what his career would be.

"In life, you can make a good living doing anything. The thing about it is you have to stick with it," he said. "Most people are out of this business now, or dead."

He began training in the afternoons with Volkswagen mechanic Johnny Williams, who worked for Gingrey Volkswagen in Aiken before opening his own shop in the Belvedere area. Mr. Hanks later worked for Phil Coleman, the owner of Coleman Volkswagen in Augusta.

Mr. Coleman once sent Mr. Hanks to Florida for an apprenticeship with a factory-trained, German Volkswagen mechanic.

Vintage Volkswagens, which Mr. Hanks restores for a cost of $8,000 to $10,000, are becoming extinct in this country, he said. Those that haven't rusted out entirely in the past 30 years are few, he said.

In Mexico and Brazil, however, hundreds of Beetles made according to the old design roll off assembly lines each day.

"I've talked to only two people who have gotten them, but it's more or less an outlaw situation," he said.

The oldest Volkswagen Mr. Hanks repairs is a 1959 Beetle that belongs to an Augusta doctor. But he has a rusted 1958 Beetle in the yard, waiting to be primed and painted.

"Some people customize them, but I stick basically to keeping the car original. I like to see it the way it was when it was new," Mr. Hanks said.

As for the special relationship between people and their Volkswagens, Mr. Hanks sees evidence of it every day. He has mailed parts to California and Mexico to save customers with blown engines and master cylinders in disrepair.

"The thing about them," he said, "once you get rid of a Bug or a bus, you always want another one sometime in your life.

"A lot of girls name them. And another thing I've seen: The Volkswagen will stay in the family, and when the kids grow up and move away, the parents will give the car to the kid wanting it the most."

LEE HANKS

AGE: 49

FAMILY: Wife, Lynne

OCCUPATION: Self-employed, specializing in service and repair on Volkswagens

QUOTE: "These cars become a member of the family."

Reach Carly Phillips at (803) 648-1395 or carly.phillips@augustachronicle.com.