Skip to main content

Butch Cassidy And The Karmann Ghia

May 2024
4min read

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid had just blasted into our local theater, and it was the most exciting movie I had ever seen. I was seventeen years old, and my horse was a ’59 Volkswagen Karmann Ghia.

It wasn’t an ordinary Karmann Ghia by any standard, and to me it was extra special. Well before the hopped-up Volkswagen craze of the late sixties and seventies hit my native Connecticut, this slim model sported tall, fat rear wheels and tires beneath flared fenders and an aerodynamic tail with spoiler and round red lenses à la Corvette. Inside the crowded rear engine compartment, these body cosmetics were rendered legitimate by a Porsche engine breathing fire through twin Weber carburetors and an independent dual exhaust system. The front wheels would easily jump up from the road when I shifted too hard from first to second gear. Through savings from my job at the Clam Box and a small loan from my father, I had obtained the well-used car in unfinished form. I used my limited mechanical knowledge to “mint it out,” and I did a decent “shive job,” as we called it.

The car became infinitely more attractive when I was informed that “the Butch Cassidy guy” also owned a VW conversion and was an avid racer. I was sure that one day I would also be in auto racing. My interest in Butch Cassidy grew, resulting in several more trips to the movies before the film stopped showing.

Not long afterward, my girlfriend and I drove to Maine, where my father had a camp on the coast. During the trip the car’s starter developed a problem, and on the long ride home the exhaust system leaked. I waited for the weekend to make repairs.

The old guy (probably thirty) from whom I had bought the car had a complete shop in one of his barns and let me use it for repairs. I went there early Saturday morning; every push on the accelerator produced a noise like the ripping of heavy canvas. The “old guy” was already at work on another VW; I was careful not to run over the legs that stuck out from under a car up on jack stands as I backed into one of the bays.

I got out, producing my meager tool kit; I knew that mechanics were not fond of sharing tools and hoped I would have to borrow as little as possible.

“Good morning,” I said to the legs.

“Morning,” I heard over the sound of the workbench radio.

Knowing that the exhaust work would be more complicated than the starter job, I began at the manifold to remove the spaghettilike pipes, the signature of a “tricked-out” VW. Excited about the driving I had done in Maine, I launched into a monologue at my captive audience beneath the other car. The coastal roads were beautiful, I explained, smooth and winding. Behind the wheel they would be the closest thing he’d see to a road-racing track. He should go there one day; I’d be happy to go with him.

Engrossed in his repairs, he mumbled in polite agreement. Except for the radio playing songs like “Ode to Billy Joe,” silence overtook us as we continued with our work. I almost had the entire exhaust system ready for removal when my shop partner spoke.

“Hey, can you give me a hand under here?” I heard over the music. “I’ll give you a few driving tips when we’re done.”

What? Give me driving tips? Didn’t he know I was a natural? Why else would I have bought his hot Karmann Ghia? But he was letting me use his shop, so I kept my teenage mouth shut and slid under his car. I think he had been installing new brake lines or converting drums to discs. As I slapped wrenches into his outstretched palm like an operating-room nurse, it was only shop etiquette that prevented me from laughing at his grease-stained face, unrecognizable behind protective goggles. The job done, he thanked me, and we both crawled out, picking up tools. Maybe now he’d give me a hand with my exhaust and forget the driving advice. No such luck. He had his back to me by the bench as he removed his goggles, wiped his face with a clean rag, and began saying, “If you’re really interested in road racing, forget the roads and work toward getting yourself on the tracks.” But I was stupefied, for he had turned around, and I realized I was looking at Butch Cassidy. I had helped Paul Newman work on his car! Paul Newman was giving me driving advice!

Apparently the “old guy” was a friend of Mr. Newman and had given him the same shop privileges he had me.

I bumped into Butch Cassidy once again at the shop a few months later, but he was busy with several other men installing an engine, and we didn’t speak. Weeks turned into seasons and then years. I never got my car on a real track, but I continued to follow auto racing and spent some time racing motorcycles.

Several years later, well after I had traded my Karmann Ghia for a high-mileage Shelby Mustang and then that for a Mercury station wagon, I was eating at The Deck, a little restaurant that hung over a tributary to the Housatonic River in West Cornwall, Connecticut. I was with an older, different girlfriend, when I noticed that Paul Newman and his entire family were there too. My girlfriend also noticed and began to coo quietly. And, oh God, look at Joanne Woodward!

“I know him,” I said to Robin. “I’ll introduce you if you like.”

That brought out a couple of chortles and a “Sure you do!” My honor was at stake. Robin refused to come when I headed for his table. She was sure I would play the joke to the end. I cautiously approached, and when there was a lull in the family conversation, I stepped forward, excused myself, and politely asked Mr. Newman if he remembered our meeting under his car. Well, of course he did, and would I care to pull up a chair and join them for a drink? After all, I had given him a hand back in the shop. I was flattered but glanced back toward my table, where Robin was staring at me open-mouthed. Pull up two chairs, I was told. For the next half-hour Paul and I talked cars while Robin chatted with Joanne Woodward. These celebrated Connecticut Yankees were very gracious.

Apparently the whole family had gone up to Lime Rock, where they watched Dad race. After we discussed how Mr. Newman and his associates had discovered that by rebuilding, they could squeeze more horsepower out of the VW engines than we used to get from the small Porsche power plants, Robin and I finished our drinks and made our departure. I was elated for the rest of the evening.

That was the last I saw of him, almost twenty years ago, although he still lives in Westport and I remain in nearby Fairfield. But I thought of him recently when he was in the news, and I smiled remembering how I had offered the man who just placed first in his class at Daytona the chance to learn some driving skills from me.

We hope you enjoy our work.

Please support this magazine of trusted historical writing, now in its 75th year, and the volunteers that sustain it with a donation to American Heritage.

Donate