'56 Volkswagen gets new lease on life
By Molly Moser
In June of 1956, Donald Wille brought home a rather large souvenir from Heidelberg, Germany, where he served in the U.S. Army.
Four months earlier, Wille purchased a brand new Volkswagen for $1,200. He had saved up six weeks of leave time, and during those six weeks he put 6,500 miles on the car. Accompanied by several friends, Wille and the VW toured Switzerland, Holland, Italy, and Germany.
“We had a very good time in all the countries we visited,” Wille recollected. He still keeps in touch with the men who accompanied him on those trips. While traveling, he and his friends (never more than one at a time) camped or slept in the car. They put its spare tire on the ground to use as a seat, and hunched over, peering into its side mirrors, to get a clean shave.
Extra money for the down payment on the Volkswagen came from Wille’s side job, running a photography lab. While in the Army, he also spent his time in mechanical school, electrical school, and earning his G.E.D. “I was in for two years, and I figured I’d get as much out of it as I could,” he recalled. (Wille graduated from 8th grade at St. Mary’s School in 1948, and was then given permission to learn from his father at home. “You name it, I learned it,” he says.)
When the time came to return home, the Army paid Wille $79 for gas and shipped the VW stateside. “We drove from New York to Dubuque straight through, all night,” remembers Wille, who was again traveling with a fellow soldier in the passenger seat. “No map. We just got on the turnpike and went.” When he completed the long journey home, he still had some of that $79 left over.
Wille was required to sign a statement saying he’d keep the car for at least a year after he brought it home, since the same model cost $600 more to purchase in the U.S. “When I brought it back, my dad said such a thing he’d never want,” said Wille. “Six month later, he was on the waiting list to get one. He ran three or four Volkswagens after that.”
Wille drove his VW until it was “too small for all the kids.” He and his late wife had 11 children together. “Dale hated that thing,” smiled Wille, who dropped children off at school in the Volkswagen. “He counted how many kids got out of it – our kids, neighbors, nieces and nephews.”
About 20 years ago, Wille sold the VW to someone who promptly ran it into a telephone pole and never paid him. He pulled it out of a junkyard and put it in his shed, where it stayed until his children decided to surprise him for his 70th birthday.
“They wanted to surprise me, but one day I noticed it was out of the shed,” he laughed. Each of his children contributed to the project, and his son Dale (the same Dale who hated the car as a child) performed the overhaul at his shop in Menimore, Ill., with a little help from some experts.
While the car was in Illinois, a neighbor knocked on the door to tell the Willes their car was on the popular History Channel show American Pickers. “They knew it was the first one in Clayton County, but they didn’t know whose it was,” said Wille. “It’s probably the oldest one that’s running now, too.”
The overhaul was finished in September, just in time for the River Park Cruisers Car Show in Guttenberg. The Volkswagen took first place for imported vehicles. Said Wille proudly, “It looks better now than it did when I got it.”