Text by Karl H. Kazaks
Photos by Tom Wallace
You can tell a lot about people by the possessions they keep. Raymond Bishop owns three VW Beetles – orange, burgundy and black – which conveys something about his life and the way he treasures his connections to the past.
The orange VW is a 1973 standard Beetle. Bishop bought it in 1983 while living in Charleston, S.C. He bought the two other Beetles more recently. “That thing’s been through hard times,” Bishop says of the pumpkin-colored one. “It caught on fire once. I had to put a new engine in it.”
He drives all three Beetles regularly around Christiansburg and the New River Valley and has exhibited them in various veterans’ parades. The orange and burgundy Beetles make an eye-catching pair, as they almost match the maroon and orange colors of Virginia Tech.
The orange Beetle is Bishop’s only standard Beetle. The other two are Super Beetles ~ the burgundy a 1973, the black a 1975 with a sunroof.
Super Beetles were created because standard Beetles, as popular as they were in the late 1960s, were being outpaced by newly designed, compact models from other manufacturers, such as the Toyota Corolla. Compared to the standard Beetle, these cars provided better comfort, newer driving technology and more storage space. U.S. sales of standard Beetles peaked at 1.3 million in 1971. So the Super Beetle was conceived to compensate for the standard Beetle’s shortfalls in these areas.
The Super Beetle can be distinguished from its predecessor by an elongated front end. Standard Beetles continued to be produced even after the introduction of Super Beetles. This new feature permitted greater storage space in the Super Beetle’s forward trunk, but it was also necessitated by a redesigned front suspension. Standard Beetles use torsion beam suspension, while Super Beetles use a more modern strut suspension system. Other upgrades were added to the front ends of Super Beetles, including new steering components and a better braking system.
Despite its older suspension technology, the orange Beetle is the one Bishop likes driving the most. “It rides better to me,” he states. In addition to the longer front end, Super Beetles have another difference in their profile ~ a slightly flatter roof compared to the standard Beetle. Starting in the 1973 model year, Super Beetles also featured curved windshields.
Over the years, Bishop has been diligent about maintaining his Beetles. He performs most of the cosmetic and interior modifications and improvements himself, such as replacing door gaskets, adding running boards, and installing a modern sound systems. On his black Super Beetle – the one with the hand-crank sunroof – he added some red highlights, including pin striping along the body and sharp VW emblems on the hubcaps.
These cars don’t have air-conditioning, though they are famous for their air-cooled engines. Bishop, however, finds them quite comfortable to drive on Interstate highways, even though strong winds can move them side-to-side.
Bishop lives in his childhood home in Christiansburg where he grew up the second oldest of 10 siblings and to which he returned after a four-decade career at sea. After graduating from Christiansburg Institute, the historic African-American school, Bishop enlisted in the U.S. Navy. He eventually became a warrant officer, and after years of regular duty naval service entered the Military Sealift Command, retiring as a Lieutenant Commander. Much of his career – which spanned the Vietnam War and both gulf wars was spent as a supply officer. He was on the first U.S. oiler to enter the Persian Gulf in March, 2003.
“Growing up in a family of 12,” he relates, “you develop organizational skills useful for a supply officer.” In addition to keeping up with his Beetles, Bishop enjoys researching history, particularly local Christiansburg history and the African-American experience. His family home contains a trove of books and research material on those subjects, as well as tokens and symbols of his years at sea.
Those objects, as well as countless, indelible, family memories, fill his home and heart. “I ride on the past into the future,” he declares.