Lindbergh's Volkswagen being conserved, prepared for display at History Center: June 2001

Charles A. Lindbergh House in Little Falls
Lindbergh's Volkswagen

The 1959 Volkswagen Beetle that aviator Charles A. Lindbergh purchased new in Paris and drove 130,000 miles on four continents has made some exotic trips, but its latest trip may be its most unusual one.

With its engine and mechanical parts "mothballed," conservation experts at the Minnesota Historical Society pushed the car through the long halls in the subbasement of the History Center into the conservation laboratory. In the lab, the car is being prepared for temporary display at the History Center in St. Paul before returning next year to a new exhibit at the Charles A. Lindbergh House in Little Falls.

Over the past few months, the car has been transformed from simply a vintage vehicle into a museum artifact. The process began on March 16 when the car was removed from the Lindbergh House garage. It had been a popular feature of the house tours along with the Lindbergh family's 1916 Saxon car, in which Charles Lindbergh had made his first driving adventure. At age 14, he drove the Saxon to California as chauffeur for his mother and uncle.

From Little Falls, the Beetle went to Karmann Jack's (currently Auto Haus), a Volkswagen specialist in Stillwater, where mechanics and technicians cleaned the car's mechanical parts and removed the fluids, says Aaron Novodvorsky, a Society exhibits project specialist.

"The car's running gear, drive train and engine were completely disassembled and the fluids were replaced with Cosmoline wax," Novodvorsky says. "This is the process the military uses when it 'mothballs' its vehicles like jeeps and trucks. Although the car has not been started since the 1970s, the wax could be removed at a later date and the car made to run again."

Conservator Paul Storch, who is working on the car in his lab, says a rust inhibitor was applied to all concealed parts. "Here we'll do the stabilization of the body itself," Storch said. "The car will be cleaned, hand washed and given a wax coating to protect the finish. This is not restoration to restore a car to its new condition. We try to keep further deterioration from happening and to keep the car in its current well-maintained condition." Storch will make some repairs, such as stabilizing the seat seams and fixing rusted running boards. He will save the little dents, such as the one Lindbergh's daughter Reeve writes about in her memoir, "Under a Wing," published in 1998. Recalling her first visit to the Lindbergh House in 1975, she writes, "I was amused to see our old Volkswagen, the one I had learned to drive in, with a dent still in the left front fender where I'd run into the stone wall at the curve of our driveway."

Those dents and personal touches are precious, from a historical perspective. Lindbergh died in 1974. Next Feb. 4 he would have been 100.

"The car is important as Lindbergh's car," says researcher Paul Blankman. "It's an early model Beetle, and in reasonably good shape, so a collector would buy it. But its real significance comes from the fact that Charles Lindbergh drove the car on four continents and personally donated it to the Historical Society." The car also speaks to the humility of its former owner, says Donald H. Westfall, Lindbergh House historic site manager. "Most of our visitors are amazed to learn that

Lindbergh drove this sort of car, considering the fact that he could afford to be driven around in a limousine anywhere he wanted," Westfall says. "He wasn't necessarily one to seek out physical comforts for himself. Rather, he would appreciate the challenge of not being so comfortable. In addition, he would prefer to travel incognito without being recognized as a celebrity."

The car is "a fabulous artifact," museum collections project specialist Cindy Hall says, "because it tells us so much about the man - how well he cared for the car and how meticulous he was in his travels. Unlike many objects from the past, this object was donated by a living person, a hero, who told us about it and wrote about it." The car, along with a collection of related objects, shows that Lindbergh planned his trips carefully. He carried maps with hand-written notations. Also inside the car were: two suitcases; a flashlight; gas can; canteen; machete; inflatable air mattress; whisk broom; small shovel; miscellaneous tools; wire; metal tubing; spoon; and cans of dried beef, sardines and baked beans.

Charles A. Lindbergh House in Little Falls
Charles A. Lindbergh House in Little Falls
Lindbergh drove the Beetle to Little Falls from Connecticut in 1970 and left it there, expecting to someday return for it. Under the Connecticut license plates, which expired in October 1972, are European ones, probably French.

"I bought it in Paris, in 1959," Charles Lindbergh wrote about the car, "and operated it under a French tourist license for a number of years. I drove it considerably through most western European countries, and Anne and I used it as a family car while we were living in Switzerland. I once drove it around the eastern Mediterranean, leaving it for several months in Istanbul while I carried on airline and other activities, and for another several months in Beirut."

A tall man in a small car, Lindbergh slept in the car on trips to Beirut, Egypt, around the Mediterranean and throughout Europe. "I suppose that, over the years, I have spent more than a hundred nights in it," Lindbergh recalled. "I found that I could take the right front seat out, take its back off, reverse its position in the slide grooves, and with the use of an air mattress, make a comfortable full length bed."

In "Autobiography of Values," Lindbergh wrote about encountering two Maasai spearmen in Kenya and offering them a ride. "They accepted solemnly and started to climb into my small Volkswagen, but their sharp-bladed weapons were too long to take inside." He then motioned to one man to sit in the front and the other in a back seat, and asked the one in front to hold the spears through the open window. "My Volkswagen must have looked like an armed knight as it rolled through the dust and sand," he recalled.

After conservation, the car will go on display in the History Center. In August 2002, the car will go on long-term display in the remodeled Lindbergh House visitor center. The timing coincides with a community-wide celebration of the 75th anniversary of Lindbergh's return to Little Falls after his May 1927 historic solo flight across the Atlantic.

The Minnesota History Center is at 345 Kellogg Blvd. W. in St. Paul. Auxiliary aids and services are available with advance notice. For more information, call 651-296-6126, 1-800-657-3773 or TTY 651-282-6073.

The Minnesota Historical Society is a non-profit educational and cultural institution established in 1849 to preserve and share Minnesota history. The Society collects, preserves and tells the story of Minnesota's past through museum exhibits, extensive libraries and collections, historic sites, educational programs and book publishing.

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