It's been a big year for my little Volkswagen Scirocco. Not only did it reach retirement age -- twenty-five years old, enough to qualify for California historic-vehicle license plates -- but its odometer rolled over the 100,000-mile mark. I spent months collecting parts and building a brand-new monster engine for it. And then things got really crazy when, in a conference call, senior web editor Phil Floraday proposed the idea of devoting an issue of the magazine to automotive fantasies.
I raised my hand so hard I knocked the telephone clear off my desk. My Scirocco and I were days away from celebrating our fifteenth anniversary together, yet I had never had the opportunity to keep my foot buried long enough to achieve maximum velocity -- something I've done in dozens of other cars through the years. That just didn't seem right.
I had calculated my car's theoretical new top speed based on dynamometer numbers, but I wanted to know more about the car in which I've invested so much time and money. I wanted to know not just how fast it would go with its new engine, but what it would be like at Vmax. The only place I could do that, of course, is Germany. So before Deutschland finally succumbs to pressure from the European Union and gains a national speed limit, before I blow a connecting rod through the block of this hyperactive homebuilt engine, and before my editors come to their senses, I'm on the phone to make travel arrangements for the Scirocco.
Cosdel International Transportation is more familiar with sending Bugattis around the world than 1980s Vee Dubs -- it's the unofficial shipping company for the megabuck entries at the Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance -- but for about as much money as my business-class plane ticket, Cosdel arranges first-class round-trip accommodations for my VW. I can barely hear the information they're giving me because I'm on a cordless phone in the garage stuffing greasy parts into the trunk. To own an old Volkswagen is to understand that if you have a spare part with you, the corresponding part actually attached to the car won't break. The corollary is that anything you forget at home will surely fail -- particularly if that part is made of unobtanium, as are most old VW parts. So I stuff the Scirocco full of everything I can and head to Cosdel's customs warehouse.
I have a hard time saying good-bye to a car that I usually don't let out of my sight for more than an hour at a time, but I feel a little better when I park the VW next to a stunning orange Lamborghini Miura. Cosdel's agents will gently push the Scirocco into a container, secure it, and seal it: the next time it starts, it'll be inhaling European air, and I'll be the one who turns the key. My rolling boil of anxiety is reduced to a simmer the next day when Cosdel e-mails me a URL that I can use to obsessively track the Scirocco's location. Which I do 210 times a day over the next five weeks.
THE PICK UP
I arrive in Amsterdam a few hours after the car clears customs, and by the time I get to Cosdel's Dutch affiliate's office, I'm so nervous I'm shaking like a shih tzu. When the smiling agent swipes his key card and opens the high-security door, my heart almost stops. I'm looking not into the dark, threatening warehouse of my nightmares but at something more akin to a fashionable loft apartment with pristine dark-painted floors, tall walls littered with framed artwork, and potted ferns bathed in diffused natural light pouring in from north-facing windows. On one end, there's a plush couch, a wooden coffee table, and two leather high-back chairs. Resting quietly in a far corner are a Bugatti, a Delahaye, and a Spyker. In another is the Scirocco, glistening under the fluorescent lights and as immaculate as when it started its journey. I'll admit that I got a bit choked up. I waste no time bidding adieu and head straight for the highway, where I catch myself doing something I have never done on the Continent: passing a car on the right, which is a huge no-no over here. I've known for some time that I have two disparate driving styles: In America, I drive like I'm in New York, where I lived through middle school. In Europe, I follow the German driving rules I learned in high school. I always thought the sole determinant of driving style was geography, but to my surprise, the car counts, too. Being in a car that I've only ever driven in North America blurs the lines completely.
The drive to the German border takes only two hours. It's a torturous two hours, though, because while the Dutch have many things going for them (impressive linguistic abilities, beautiful countryside, cheese, tulips, and obsessive-compulsive lane discipline), they drive painfully slowly. When the speed limit changes from 100 to 130 kph (62 to 81 mph), they inch up from 96 to 104 kph. I guess ubiquitous speed cameras and $8-per-gallon gasoline will do that. Luckily, the Germans seem oblivious to such practical fiscal concerns, and a few kilometers after crossing the border, I see something that I've never seen while driving my Scirocco: the no-speed-limit sign.
The round roadside sign with five black diagonal lines could just as easily be a hypnotic spinning disc, because the second I see it, I am no longer worried about breaking down in a car that's 5700 miles from home. My plan to slowly approach top speed has vaporized into a hasty third-gear downshift and full throttle.
As you squeeze the accelerator at high speeds in most fast cars, torque flows as smoothly as syrup from a Mrs. Butterworth's bottle. It's nothing like that in my 2.0-liter sixteen-valve Scirocco. The engine has no balance shafts and sports a flywheel made of tissue paper, and at 7200 rpm, the hugely undersquare four-banger's piston speeds are in exotic-car territory. The vibration is second only to a lawn mower's and is accompanied by a guttural wail so profound it masks even the deafening wind noise. And road noise. And interior squeaks and rattles.
Third and fourth gears go by quickly, pulling the Scirocco to 110 mph -- a speed I admit to having seen many times in North America -- but once in fifth, it's a long, slow, six-mile climb to top speed. As the needle rises slowly past 122 mph -- the Scirocco 16V's original top speed -- the front end becomes so light it feels as though the tires might actually lift off the ground. For once, I'm wishing for the numb electric power steering that more and more German cars now have, because this is something I definitely don't want to feel.
And then it happens: the engine note suddenly goes flat. At first I think I've tripped the knock sensor, but over the next few minutes it becomes clear -- hitting the Scirocco's top speed, like breaking the sound barrier, is an acoustic event. In modern cars with fluid-filled, active visco-magnetorheological engine mounts (or just regular old sound insulation), you see top speed in the speedometer's readout. In this old Volkswagen, you also hear it. On a flat stretch of autobahn, that change happens at precisely 135 mph.