A Bug’s Love: The Curious Tale Of My Dad’s Wolfsburg Volkswagen Watch
Taking a look under the hood of a classic car collaboration
Father’s Day makes me nostalgic. As always, I honor my dad on the day by wearing one of the two watches he left me: a first-year Swatch and a 1960s Wolfsburg mechanical.
Never heard of Wolfsburg? It’s not a brand so much as it is a place—the hometown of Volkswagen in Germany. In the 1960s, my father’s watch was an award given by automaker to owners of VW Beetles who had driven their cars for 100,000 km without service (definitely not recommended by today's standards).
Meet the Beetles
I love VW Beetles as much as I do watches. In high school, our main mode of transportation was our friend Nada’s little red Volkswagen called 'Herpe the Love Bug' (she had a wry sense of humor). The Beetle’s rear-engine design probably saved my life when my friend Clare’s pale blue Bug got t-boned. The poor car was totaled but at least I didn’t end up with an engine block in the brain.
Notice that none of these aforementioned automobiles belonged to me or my family. It is the car of my dreams, but the department of motor vehicles has wisely denied me a driving license three times.
And my great grandmother raised two of my sister's boys alongside my grandmother. One of them grew up to become an executive at Chrysler in Detroit. So only Buicks and Plymouths were allowed to be parked in our carport.
So how did my dad end up with a VW presentation watch? My mom’s father gave it to him. My grandfather was a mechanic for the city. By day he repaired buses. On weekends he worked on friends and neighbors vehicles.
By a curious demographic quirk, the city I grew up in had a large German population. Volkswagens and Opels were as common as Fords and GMs. But getting these foreign cars serviced was trickier. Which is where my grandfather came in.
The family’s best guess is – that in lieu of money, somebody paid my Grandfather with the watch. And later he gave it to his son-in-law, my father.
The history of these VW 100,000 km Presentation Watches is just as convoluted. The best guess is that to promote the durability of the hardworking Beetle, a dealership in Germany took it upon themselves to promise customers a gold watch if they drove a certain amount of miles without service.
The initiative proved so popular that other dealers around the world also began offering this award. But because the program was not organized by VW HQ, the details of the watches themselves varied.
For example, in Germany, they were made by manufactures such as Junghans, Stowa, and Mauthe. Elgin made models for the North American market. Sweden opted for the Swiss-made Ralco.
What they all have in common is the VW logo surrounded by laurels engraved on the back.
The Volkswagen Beetle is an iconic automobile. Its fans are tribal. When driving around with Nada, I remember how other Bug drivers would give each other a subtle salute when they passed each other on the road. I do not recall my friend Gary getting the nod whilst driving around in his VW Golf.
Fanatics also like ephemera. My Bug loving friends all have keychains, models, T-shirts and other souvenirs with the VW logo. So these watches are revered in the Beetle collector community.
For one thing, they are quite rare. Again, because it started out as an unofficial initiative, it’s hard to track the number of years that the program ran. Because the Beetle proved to be a scrappy little car, the dealers probably handed out more watches than they intended.
Over the years the quality of the timepieces declined to offset the costs until they canceled the whole thing entirely in the late 1960s to early ‘70s.
Of all the VW Presentation models, the Wolfsburg is the most elusive. Made for the Canadian market, it bears the name of the company’s hometown on the dial instead of the manufacturer’s.
Under the hood
I researched this watch when my dad gave it to me about a decade ago. Back in those days, Beetle forums were the place to go for info. Sometimes it was bad info. One of the forum folk swore that Breitling made the movement.
In those days, most companies offered promotional/advertising watches (think of the Domino’s Pizza Rolexes). Over the course of a decade or so, there were probably dozens of variations of the Beetle watch ordered, with each region using a completely different watch than VW of England and so on. And there are collectors who want to catch ’em all.
In reality, this Wolfsburg is powered by the workhorse The FHF (Standard) caliber 96. This movement was super popular in the 1960s. Like the VW Bug, this mechanism is pretty easy to get repairs. First, because it was so common, finding parts is easy which is always comforting for vintage collectors. And it has a quick release mechanism for the hairspring regulator — a handy feature for quick fixes.
Lookswise, It’s very much a 1960s watch. From the round 32 mm, gold plated case, to the domed, sunray dial. From the acrylic box crystal to the typography on the Arabic numerals, this baby is totally Mad Men era elegance.
The car community also provided its own stories about the Wolfsburg. One fellow out in Nova Scotia had the same model. It had belonged to his dad who had racked up his mileage as a bread salesman. At the time, the occasion was a big enough deal that the award ceremony was covered by the local newspaper. Another gent still had all the paperwork and presentation box that came with the watch. That box said Wolfsburg by Elgin.
If these stories make the watches compelling to collectors, sentimentality also makes these timepieces hard to come by.
I will never sell mine because of the parts of this watch that are totally Lloyd Riche. My dad loved swag. If it was branded and free, he had to have it. At the same time, he hardly ever wore it because, for him, a Swiss Watch was too fancy.
He also had a weird skin chemistry that could seemingly eat through metal (which is why he switched to the resin-strapped, populist Swatch). So the case is somewhat pitted while the rest of the watch is virtually unmolested. Little signatures, but they mean so much.
(Photography by Liam O'Donnell)