“I don't know what I think until I write it down.” ― Joan Didion
East Texan Nurtures Big Volkswagen Bug Collection
ATHENS – Old, rusty, broken-down Volkswagens are as good as gold to Don Carter.
After more than 30 years in business, The Bug Barn is reaching an international market through online sales that’s keeping business bustling.
Dustin Carter, the second-generation behind the Volkswagen lot, has taken a vested interest in the company and his father’s legacy.
“My entire life is right here,” Dustin said. “I didn’t want his empire to rust away.”
Each model has its own personality and characters – be it a piece of trim, door handle or headlights. The biggest trend they see now in the Volkswagen community is for early model micro-busses.
“So many (people) say, ‘I had one when I was in high school’ or ‘My first car was a bug,'” Don said. “It’s nostalgic.”
The oldest Volkswagen Beetle Don owns is a 1957 oval window model. While the windows, doors and hinges are intact, the car is in need of some tender, loving care.
Before Don fully committed to the Volkswagen business, he spent 30 years as a social worker and a parole officer.
The overall-wearing, pipe-tobacco-smoking, “VW” ring-wearing man traces his Volkswagen passion back to his parents. His father was a horseman who, 35 years ago, traded a horse for a dune buggy. However, he quickly realized that a dune buggy was not for him, and Don bought it.
Sometime later, Don said he traded his truck for a motorcycle, which he then traded for four Beetles.
“When it was time to buy a carburetor or a part, it was obvious that I could buy a whole vehicle for the price of the part,” Don said.
Don always has been more interested in the fast side of Volkswagens: drag racing and trike motorcycles.
“You can do anything with a Volkswagen,” Don said. “The engine is a glorified lawn mower.”
He keeps 220 Volkswagens on his family’s property just east of Athens on Texas Highway 175. Another 100 Volkswagens stay parked at his house. Oddly enough, there is no “barn” in either location. At the Texas 175 property, Don built a red, metal shop, which houses shelves filled with bumpers, rims, knobs, switches and more.
Despite his son trying to put the bugs to rest, Don still advertises that he “buys Volkswagens in any condition.”
“It’s nothing but a hobby,” Don said. “I bought several last week.”
From the barn’s opening in 1978 through 1994, the Bug Barn operated as a fully functioning mechanic shop for Volkswagens. Now the lot is a salvage yard geared toward people searching for the pieces to finish their small wonders.
“Any car has 10,000 parts, and if you sell them for a dollar a piece, you can make money,” Don said.
While a Volkswagen Beetle might weigh out about $100 for scrap metal, the Carters make money by selling the parts: a fender for $50 or a hood for $75. Because the cars are not manufactured anymore and many have been reduced to a pancake by the “car crusher,” salvage yards like Don’s Bug Barn are a good bet for finding the pieces to reconstruct a classic Volkswagen.
Despite this, Don admits that the turn in the economy killed much of the business. At one point, Don did two ground-up restorations a month. These days, drive-by traffic has all but ceased and the idea of a “project car” has nearly vanished. Dustin said people would rather buy cars new.
When Don retired and turned his full attention to the Bug Barn about 10 years ago, Dustin left Athens for New Orleans, during which time Don’s health weakened. The Bug Barn was abandoned.
While Don can laugh at his four cancer diagnoses and two bouts with pneumonia, his son remembers how close his was to death. Dustin returned to Athens with intentions of wrapping up the business. By the time Dustin took over, brush and weeds engulfed the property. Some cars had not moved since they were parked in the 1970s and a tree was growing through another.
“It looked like craters of the moon because some cars had sat for so long,” Dustin said.
Suddenly, the flood gates opened. Dustin got the business online. He said people were “itching to come back.”
They do global business with Volkswagen enthusiasts from the United Kingdom and Europe looking to restore a project car. Dustin just sold a 1958 Karmann Ghia to a man in Barcelona.
Don said that most of the older model Volkswagens overseas rusted to the ground. While his are nowhere near perfection condition, he calls them diamonds in the rough.
I’m Melissa: an adventure-seeking, story-telling, internet-loving journalist. I work in Seattle.
You can find my work in the Puget Sound Business Journal where I use data to tell stories about the people, businesses and industries driving Washington state’s economy.
View all posts by Melissa Crowe