“When you’re in a car, you’re inside, outside, moving, and still, all at the same time…”
Actor, Comedian, and Porsche aficionado/car guy Jerry Seinfeld, who sold his pristine 1960 Beetle for a whopping USD121,000 earlier this year, stated the above a few years ago. This perspective comes quite close to encapsulating the joy of motoring, as well as the appeal motorcars have had on us since their introduction. This bond is one that transcends time and logic, with ineffable charm.
Cars are often part of the many moments in a person’s life, serving dutifully, getting you to where you need to be, at times, with just the thrum of the engine to keep us company as we travel the many thousands of miles that we do, in a lifetime. It isn’t any wonder how many are transported through time, when they see a car they once knew.
“We always had a Beetle in the house...”
It is in this context, we meet Dr. Arjuna Medagama and his immaculate 1954 Volkswagen Beetle. Dr. Medagama is a physician at the teaching hospital in Peradeniya, and his life is steeped with fond memories of the Beetles that have ‘been part of the family’. His father had a 1966 Beetle, and so, Dr. Medagama’s first ever trip in an automobile; from the hospital to his home, as well his first day going to school, was in a Beetle.
“Whenever I see a Beetle I stop and stare at it...”
He is drawn to the Beetle, overwhelmed by the nostalgia he finds as he “loves the shape and the sound”, and that it was the first car he knew. “Everything was centered around going in a Beetle” he recalls fondly. He wasn’t alone. Many caught ‘Beetlemania’ as Volkswagen built 21,529,464 units from 1938 all the way to 2003. The iconic shape was sold on almost every continent, assembled in many countries, and updated many times, through its production run.
“Tedious but meticulous process of getting it restored up to the factory spec...”
“The first time I could spare some money as a doctor, it was to get a loan and get a Beetle”. Such is the attachment that Dr. Medagama has to this automotive masterpiece. So much so, that he could not pass-up an opportunity when he first saw this particular car in 2003, EL 6261. “It was a very dilapidated car - when I first saw it in 2003, it was an abandoned car, there were vines that had gone over the car, the floor had rusted completely and it was parked in a garage. “I’ve always wanted an oval window and an earlier oval window at that, with a ‘heart-light’; this particular model is extremely rare in Sri Lanka.” says Dr. Medagama.
Speaking more on the acquisition of the car and initial work he continued; “We negotiated a price with the garage person, and started-off a slow restoration, and had it partly restored in 2005. I used it for a while but I was not happy. I had just done the floor boards and a very basic paint, but it needed a full ‘nut and bolt’ job. Back in 2012, we put the car back to one Mr. Gunasena, who restores and looks after most of the Beetles in Kandy, he is a fabulous character, who will take it apart and build it as it came from the factory.”
“The Gearbox and engine are still the originals on the car, so it’s a number-matching car”, an important fact, as many builds usually have no option but to scavenge parts from cars that are worse off. Dr. Medagama notes that since this was a car built in March 1954, one of the earliest oval window cars in Sri Lanka and indeed the world, with a serial number in the 500,000s, this is a relatively early car. It was registered in June 1954, and has had 5-6 owners from new. “It had been left to die by the roadside then I saw it and got it resurrected”
One of the key points brought up by Dr. Medagama, was the fact that due to the increasing difficulty to source 6v batteries, he had decided to make the car more usable by converting it to a 12v system, for which he commends his restorer Mr. Gunasena, for “not damaging the originality of the car” when changing the system did it in a manner where the fitment would retain the aesthetics of a 6v system.
Speaking on the colour of the car Dr. Medagama said “It was originally a black car, but I had another beetle which was a 1978 late model, which is black, which I repainted, and then my family asked me why I wanted another Black Beetle! So we went through the original colours of 1954, and Olive green was one of the colours on offer for that year; we looked at pictures and managed to get the colour right, and I think it’s just come out very nice.”
One of the things that stand out in the pictures of the Beetle, are the exotic wheels. These are reminiscent of the wheels that are found on many project Beetles in the US as well as a few Porsches from the era. No doubt a fitting addition to complement the subtle but well executed hue of Olive green. “When we started the restoration we saw that the rims had really rotted through, not all of them, but a couple of them and were beyond salvage without extensive repair”. Dr. Medagama seems to draw inspiration from his underlying perspective of his cars in that he uses them as daily drivers, and seeks to make small tasteful adjustments to ensure his cars are dependable and useable. Rather than look for locally available wheels of different origin, He decided to look for an OEM option. “ I managed to source a set of wheels which, back in the 1970s and 80s, were accessories meant for the Beetles of that era, but no modifications, these were straight bolt-on onto the present hubs”
He also had to bring down a lot of parts that were not available in Sri Lanka, from the UK and from retailers like Wolfsburg West in the US, via air-freight. Also a set of very rare “Albert Swan-Neck Mirrors” have been brought down and fitted to the wings of the car. Whatever that was not feasible to bring-down, was fashioned in Kandy, without sophisticated equipment, especially the single exhaust tip, which was fashioned from a dual exhaust tip system with additional tubing, as well as the battery straps. The Semaphores have been fully restored to indicate turning direction and also light up at night, with original lighting.
The attention to detail is evident on the finished product, and even if there was a discrepancy with fitment, Dr. Medagama recalls he would say to his restorer: “why don’t we go ahead and just leave it as it is, but he (the restorer) would say “no you wanted it perfect, let’s do it the perfect way”
Speaking of the challenges faced, Dr. Medagama said, “All this had a huge expense attached, one, it was not easy sourcing the parts and the second part was in paying the bills, but I was blessed with this person who restored the parts, his technical know-how and dedication to getting it right by the factory standard was a real boost to me…and that’s why I think we have ended up with such a beautiful looking car”
Dr. Medagama wanted to share his story primarily with the message that “if there is a will, even in Sri Lanka with limited resources, if you have the right person to do it, you can restore a car to factory spec. It costs quite a bit to get the car up to this standard, but if you have the time and the commitment and a person who is committed to doing it right, then you can do it”.
“People seem to have some kind of love affair with the Beetle, especially the older generation, ‘I had one when I was young or when I was in college, and they say ‘we really appreciate what you have done with the car’…”
It is always a pleasure to see a well restored classic, as well as an enthusiast who remained committed driven by his passion. There is a sense of beauty in the concept of saving a dilapidated car, and doubly so if it is of a car that you have a significant attachment to. As Dr. Medagama put it aptly “They may be 60 years old, but still once you treat them nicely, they would take you anywhere, quite reliably and would still keep up with modern traffic.”
Asked if he would like to undertake a project of another car, maybe even some other type of car, Dr. Medagama is quick to respond, noting his appetite to acquire a1956-67 Beetle, saying also that “The Beetle would always be the classic car that I would always love, and would probably not be wasting my time with anything else. My gratitude to my family for encouraging me through this restoration and their tolerance of my love for Beetles”
Special thanks to Dr. Arjuna Medagama for sharing his experience on restoring this immaculate car, of immense significance, to him and I’m sure, to many of us as well.