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Bitten By The Bug

Darby Milnor

I was bitten by the bug “when I was no bigger than knee high to a grasshopper,” as my mom would say. I have spent my entire life collecting, restoring, rescuing, repairing, advising and searching out Volkswagen Beetles. My mom used to tell a story about one of the first cars I ever restored.


I came home one night very excited about the new “1964 VW convertible” I had just bought. My parents went out to the garage to see my new car and they couldn’t believe what they saw. This “new” VW Convertible was in pieces and I brought it home in boxes! My mother asked me what I thought I was going to do with that. I looked at her and with no doubt in my mind, told her I was going to put “this poor bug” back together and give Bugface a proper home. (Yes, I name EVERY VW Beetle that comes to live with me.) This wasn’t the first car and certainly hasn’t been the last that I’ve saved from going to the junkyard. When my wife and I were dating, many of our “date nights” were spent either in my garage working on or rescuing “poor broken down” Beetles.


As a matter of fact that same 1964 Convertible transported me to Church on my wedding day! The Church wouldn’t allow the traditional “Throwing of Rice” and suggested we release balloons instead.  Allowing enough room for me to drive the two blocks to the ceremony, every other square inch of the car was packed with helium balloons. The car was parked on the sidewalk out front and when the time came Sandy and I reached in and unclamped the top, sending about 100 balloons on their way.


A benefit of my lifelong hobby was a creative way to bring in a little extra money anytime we had an unexpected repair or an emergency came up. It’s also been a way to show support for the VW community and help other enthusiasts with their VW problems. One year, as I was driving home from a show, I came across a fellow VW owner who was broken down on the side of the road. Of course I stopped and offered to help. I was able to repair the VW Van on the side of the road so the gentleman could get his VW home. My wife would tell you that in the 27 years that we’ve been married, I’ve been loyal and committed not only to my family, but also to my VW community.


My true love and passion for the Volkswagen Beetle runs deep and has earned me the title, Dr. Darby, a title I’ve been given as the VW doctor. People call day and night for help and advice with their own cars. I once tried to count the number of VWs that have come into my life, the number was close to 700 with 348 of those actually belonging to me.


I worked for Volkswagen dealers for many years as a hands-on Director of Parts and Service, spending most of my time out in the shop and not stuck behind a desk. I received Factory Training right alongside my Technicians and developed some wonderful friendships between those dedicated Techs, Customers and those I had frequent contact with at VW Corporate.


My Father was my best friend and he and I traveled near and far together for many years, attending VW shows, cruises, sniffing out hidden old Bugs and whatever other kinds of trouble we could get into.


After working for VW, I spent a number of years in the corporate world, negotiating worldwide buys for a major electronics company. I survived seven major workforce reductions, but with the eighth I found myself looking for a job. That set my Dad’s head to spinning! He repeatedly asked me just why in (censored) would I even consider looking for a job when I had all the VW work on my hands. My reply was always the same, there are so few VWs left in our area I couldn’t make a living working on them full time.


You see, by this time we had moved about 30 miles west to a home with a much larger garage (my only requirement in a house) and I had 12 customer’s VWs, 3 of my own plus my wife’s and my daughter’s New Beetles at home. I have wonderful neighbors and had some stashed in their driveways, garages, etc. Driving down my street looked like a VW ad from the 60s where every house has a Bug in the driveway! But my thought process was steadfast. Most of these cars belong to friends and I’ve kept most of them on the road for the better part of 30 years. I did have a handful of cars that come and go from out of state, etc. but I felt I’d never make it out in the “big” world.


Dad’s health was rapidly failing and I was truly blessed being able to spend a great portion of his last six months at his side. In his final days he had three wishes.

1) To be at home with my mother, his devoted wife of 65 years.

2) To be able to attend Mid America Motorworks’ Funfest for Air-Cooled VW one more time and bring his prized Karmann Ghia.

3) That I quit procrastinating and open my VW restoration company before the Village had me run out of town.


Dad passed away in April of 2010 and I’m proud to say that he was my hero, he was always there for me and, at the end, I was there for him, holding his hand. His last words to me were, “I’ll be checking up on you so you’d better behave yourself!”


Dad has a funny way of making his presence known, and I use the word “HAS” because he still does to this day, even though physically he’s been gone almost 5 years.


Fall of 2010 after the family had gotten through sorting out his things, helped Mom to better adjust and were getting back to doing what we all do on a daily basis, my wife, Sandy and I sat down and came up with a plan to open our restoration company.


It was a scary move to go from always working for someone to having to rely on yourself, but we leased 2000 square feet in a nice new building in neighboring Cary, IL , installed lifts and equipment, and I set forth “Pursing my passion’ as Mike Yager would say. It’s been over 4 years now and I’ve been fortunate enough to extend my customer base from coast to coast. I’ve even have sent cars to Puerto Rico, Mexico, Canada and Europe.


One of the first lessons I learned was “Dad was right.” Having moved out of a 3 car garage into 2000 square feet, I thought I was in heaven. I quickly learned I didn’t have enough room as the VWs kept coming. In the summer of 2011, I added another 2000 square feet and hired a VW-passionate young man, fresh out of Wyoming Tech and soon after had the opportunity to add another 4000 square feet dedicated to the body shop and two more great guys with experience and talents beyond their years.


It’s been a great 4 years as we’ve been able to sustain business while at the same time keep our quality levels up. We have maintained some wonderful cars and put about 15 more beautiful classic VWs back on the roads and into hands of folks who love them as much as we do. We’ve even had the opportunity to turn out a couple of classic “Foreign” cars such as a 1954 Ford F100, 1955 Chevy and a few others.


Our specialty is our Adopt a Bug Program, where we take an order for a specific car, find a suitable project and build your dream VW for you.


As I said earlier, although Dad passed away just shy of 5 years ago, he has become kind of a fixture around the shop. Just after I moved in here one cold fall day, I noticed out of the corner of my eye someone walking past the windows of the garage door toward the office, when I went to check who was coming in, I found no one there. This happens often, as well as other things like the phone ringing late at night if I’m burning the midnight oil only to find it’s only the cordless ringing with a caller ID of “Other handset calling.”


One day at lunch I noticed someone out through the shop window passing the garage door and looked up to see nobody there. To my surprise my Tech Ian said that he thought he just saw someone on his way in. Then to my astonishment one by one the whole crew, including Mark my part time shop straightener-upper admitted to seeing someone often but always at a glance. We’ve all decided that it could be no one or nothing other than Dad checking up on us.


I feel fortunate for the relationships I’ve developed over the years and the great bunch of people who make up this wonderful hobby. Some of those great folks make up the staff at Mid America Motorworks. It’s a great thing to deal with an organization as passionate and professional as they are. Sourcing most of our parts from them is a no brainer. I looked for years for a supplier that was knowledgeable and professional and found them just a phone call away in Effingham, IL.


If you are ever in the area stop by, or give us a call. We’d love to take a break, talk cars and show you how we can transform your old VW into a show stopper, proud cruise night cruiser or maybe just get that hesitation out of your current ride. Maybe you are in the mood for something with wheels but aren’t sure what? We always have 50-60 VWs here. And maybe, just maybe, you’ll spot Dad out of the corner of your eye too!

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