While Dustin is set on liquidating the Volkswagen “empire” his father, Don, built, Don isn’t ready to let it go. He keeps adding to his collection of more than 300 Beetles, flat backs, buses and buggies.
This story ran in the Friday, Nov. 26, Tyler Morning Telegraph. If you’re ever in Athens, Texas, stop by Don’s Bug Barn.
Story copyright Melissa Crowe and Tyler Morning Telegraph
ATHENS – Old, rusty, broken-down Volkswagens are as good as gold to Don Carter.
When the bug lover opened his Bug Barn, he remembers it taking a while for people to catch on.
“They thought we were exterminators,” he said.
But 30 years later, thanks to the Internet and his son, Dustin, the business is flourishing.
People who think “a bug is a bug is a bug” are mistaken, Dustin said.
For bug enthusiasts like the Carters, Volkswagens are a timeless, cultural icon.
“Every bug’s got a story,” Dustin said.
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 hardly resembles someone who once carried a badge.
Don 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.Faced with cancer four times and pneumonia twice, Don still flashes toothy grins and puffs a tobacco pipe.
While he now can laugh at the disease, 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 said, “they’re the diamond in the rough.”
“People can see through the rust,” Don said.While Dustin dreams of a mechanic coming and running the business like a shop, for now, he refers to the Bug Barn as being in “liquidation” mode.
Dustin wants to get back to his career in New Orleans. Don keeps buying cars.
“My entire life is right here,” Dustin said. “I didn’t want his empire to rust away.”
Published November 26
Tyler Morning Telegraph
I’m Melissa, an adventure-seeking, budget-crunching, internet-loving journalist. Along with covering local government at Victoria Advocate, I write a weekly music column for Get Out and freelance for University of Houston-Victoria in my spare time.
In this year’s Texas Associated Press Managing Editors awards, I won first place for star breaking news report of the year, first star online package of the year, first community service and first deadline writing. I also won third place for team effort, honorable mention for freedom of information, and honorable mention for star investigative report of the year. I also took first place for best breaking news story in the Local Media Association Editorial Contest, a national contest.
Last year, I won second in the TAPME contest for star online package, third for star breaking news report and honorable mentions for star investigative report and team effort. The Local Media Association awarded me with an honorable mention for best breaking news story.
I grew up in rural northern Texas and graduated from the University of North Texas. After working for a family-owned paper in the eastern corner of the state, I took an opportunity to move south. When I’m not filing FOIA requests, I enjoy spicy Bloody Marys, kayaking the Guadalupe River and exploring South Texas.
Would you like to hire me to write or edit something? Or ask me a question? Or send me a link to a funny GIF? Email me!
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