Sign up for our free newsletter

Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.

John Hazel squats and lifts the bumper of his Volkswagen Golf to his knees. His friend and pit mate, Richard Pugh, slides the jack into place. An adjustment has to be made. Although his car is equipped with $15,000 worth of accessories, including a spoiler, compact disc player, and rigged suspension, Hazel has tire envy. As he glances down the rows of Jettas, Golfs, and GTIs lined up at Old Dominion Speedway’s Memorial Day “Bug Out,” Hazel notes the flashy wheels, the super-low riders with the gold trim and the booming go-go beats. His car looks small and normal by comparison. “I’m gonna tuck ’em,” he repeats—like a mantra—referring to his tires.

His forehead glistens with sweat as he furiously upgrades his 14-inch wheels with a 17-inch Fittipaldi Polaris set. They are big and brassy in the Euro way Hazel loves. At $325 a pop, they are the Grey Poupon of hubcaps. With his tires mounted, Hazel is quick to criticize the “macks,” with their three-spoke wheels, who populate the lot. He says those wheels are at least three years passé.

“Wheels—that’s the big thing,” he says. After adjusting his kick-ass wheels, Hazel lowers the suspension on his car so much that the tires are practically holding up the car. When Pugh turns the steering wheel, the front wheels chafe against metal. At this point, the car can move only in a straight line. But that’s OK. Hazel didn’t come to the Bug Out to drive.

“It’s nice to see my car this low,” Hazel says proudly of his immobile transport. A six-time show vet, Hazel knows the ritual—stand by your car. “I’m not going to try to do anything. I don’t have too many extras, but did you see the wheels?”

VWs, once the emblem of utilitarian transportation, have become the template for an endlessly consuming class of automotive entomologists.

“Once you get something for 19 years and it don’t let you down, would you let it go?” asks Gunter Kryszon, 67, sitting at a picnic table by his pea-green ’78 Volkswagen camper. He opens up the side door to expose a kitchen area with sink and folding bed. Pointing out the trophies and plagues littering the floor, Kryszon boasts that his car has driven 165,000 miles and visited 48 states. He is a regular at these shows. “This is supposed to be the biggest one on the East Coast,” says Kryszon, who came from New Jersey to attend. “It’s interesting to see what’s going on.”

At today’s Bug Out, there’s a contingent from the German Air Sucker Society, the Central Jersey Volkswagen Society, and the Unique Cruisers Volkswagen Club. Some just collect the tool kits. Some have a thing for the instruction manuals. Some are just drawn to a sign reading: “All parts on the tarp $1 each.”

Down at the intersection of “Oh No Drive” and “Main Street,” the die-hards slog through the incessant drizzle on their way to the parts booths. Here, it’s every bughead for himself. The novices attend the slalom races, in which Beetles and Rabbits attempt to meander through a course dotted with orange cones. The families clap and holler when the cars spin out on the slick track. The fans with money collect the $25 German license plates or $30 VW bus cuff links under the white tents. The hard-core groupies come without a car on display. They pine for parts.

Families and teenage punks scamper through the wreckage intent on finding something that may finally start their old Volkswagens. Here the rust never sleeps, it just gets recycled. The competition for rare gear is intense among the vendors with greasy, stubby fingers, showing off the ’57 Dehne fuel gauge, the ’54 gas tank, or an authentic wood bumper. The merchandise lies out like exposed graves with body parts placed in near-assembled order for these auto anthropologists.

Tim Histand sells his goods from inside his ’86 Van. Crouching in the back seat, he shares space with an empty Wheatables box, Maxwell House coffee cups, cans of oil, and plenty of garbage bags and mud. His tarp-covered tables—loaded up with old tools and toys—frame his car. You aren’t sure which is the merchandise and which is trash. With his overgrown white beard and sallow skin, Histand is a textbook case of what can happen when you become intimate with your car. And he’s cranky about it.

When a buyer haggles over a plastic motorized dune-buggy toy, Histand is firm even though he has know idea if the thing runs. “Thirty dollars is as low as I’ll go,” he says. The buyer demurs, but buys it anyway.

Histand insists that the Bugfests are the perfect family event. His wife Kathy straightens him out real fast.

“It has separated husbands and wives,” she argues. “You don’t know how many men I have heard say, ‘It’s my wife or the cars.’”

“It’s a joke,” insists Histand.

“It’s not a joke,” Kathy says, plopping down on the passenger seat.

“The women don’t have a feel for it like the men do,” explains Histand. “It’s that simple. My wife doesn’t really get off on the stuff. You have to know the difference between a 1948 mirror and a 1951 mirror, and women can’t.”

As the Histands bicker, the other collectors begin to hoist up the leftover gear for the long haul home. A twentysomething collector dressed in a white T-shirt and pleated shorts screams to his friends that he sold nothing at the event and will never come back. His friends just laugh and pack up.

Collector Tom Schwendeman says the disgruntled-vendor experience will become more common over the years. Eventually, there will be no more junkyards to raid, auctions to attend, or dead relatives leaving behind Volkswagens, he predicts.

“Although the stuff might be rare, it’s only significant in this time frame,” he explains. “For the next generation, it’s meaningless. The same thing that makes us feel mature when we were young makes us young when we are mature. You can’t go back in time. It’s only a fleeting feeling.”

As the convention winds down, Hazel and his buddies are still sitting in their rows, hyping their cars. It’s a regular jam session. Kids swap cleaning secrets and dish info on the latest equipment. They trade magazines for Volkswagen gear-junkies such as European Car, Street Power, and Super Street.

Along with wheels, spit-shined engines get the most respect. Some even have color-coordinated hoses and valves to match their paint jobs. These cars are treated as royal go-carts; they are small enough to personalize and fuck up without feeling as though you are really damaging anything.

Kenny Jensen’s surf-green-down-to-the-taillights 1995 GTI is one of the standouts. “It was something nobody else had,” Jensen explains of his one-upmanship.

To Martin Holcomb, Jensen’s car is a prime reason why Volkswagens rule. “It’s not like driving a Honda,” explains Holcomb, owner of a ’94 Jetta. “The cars are built to be driven. The way it handles, it helps you be your own driver,” he says, cribbing from the lastest ad campaign. “You have a Volkswagen, man—no matter who you are, you cool.”

The schmoozers—minus Hazel, who opted for a nearby Hooters—say they spend most of their down time racing the streets looking for Porsches and Hondas to scare. The round of boasts and toasts hits the brakes when one of the kids gets a call on his cell phone.

It’s Jensen. His car has stalled, apparently from water dripping onto his shiny four-cylinder, 2-liter engine. He may need a ride home.CP