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The Thing on the Hill

The muffler is broken and pedestrians can hear the rhythmic roar of the engine before they catch a glimpse of the Thing.

But once they spy its primer-gray exterior, they don’t need to look past the cracked windshield to know who’s driving the 1974 Volkswagen.

“The car is as recognizable on the Hill as the statue on top of the Capitol,” Sen. Richard Burr said last week, when the weather was pleasant enough for him to take a midday cruise around Capitol Hill with the top down.

After a few minutes on the road, the North Carolina Republican was asked by a curious pedicab driver at a stoplight whether he was “Mr. Burr.”

“That best exemplifies [it]. Doesn’t matter where I am, if I stop for a light, somebody is gonna walk over,” Burr said.

He has owned the Thing — VW’s commercial American version of a German World War II military vehicle — for 19 years. He originally bought the car and a 1973 model as gifts for his sons. 

“I thought they would be great first cars for them, and they laughed at me,” he said. “When they turned 16, they quickly informed me that they’d never be seen in it.”

VW only distributed the Thing in America for two years. The short-lived auto developed a cult following, and Burr’s ’74 model, which he keeps in Washington, D.C., is something of a local celebrity. But the ’73 model back home in North Carolina didn’t get used much, and his wife sold it about two years ago while he was away.

Strangers tend to regard the car more warmly than his sons did.

When he was still a Member of the House, Burr left the car parked at the bottom of the Capitol steps one day when he was rushing to get to a vote.

“Do you want me to take care of that?” a Capitol Police officer asked him when he reached the top of the stairs.

“I looked back and there was a Japanese family with five family members in my car and the dad was out there taking a picture,” Burr chuckled.

The Thing has become his primary mode of transportation when in Washington, D.C., and staffers and colleagues jump at the chance for a ride. However, they generally appreciate a day’s notice before clambering into the low-slung car, which requires a surprisingly high step to get inside. “It usually changes the skirts that women wear,” Burr said.

He takes pride in the car’s simplicity, saying it only needs to be refueled three times a year and requires little maintenance.

It’s a minimalist vehicle, and he takes advantage of the options that allow him to get even closer to the open road. He always drives with the convertible top retracted, even during the Washington winters. Sometimes he removes the doors, a feature referred to as the “dune buggy” option in early ads. It’s also a practical decision — the doors tend to swing open when he makes tight turns on humid days. He never wears a seat belt, although the car does have them.

“If I hit something in this car, I want to be thrown as far away from it as possible because, see, the engine is right here,” Burr said, indicating the limited buffer between the driver’s seat and the engine under the hood.

A small dent on the front grill of the Thing reminds Burr of a minor accident.

“I was driving from the House to the Senate one day, and it was right up here at the stoplight when my brakes failed, and there was a group of kids on the sidewalk so I couldn’t turn it over and try to stop it,” he said.

The car crashed into the back of a new Toyota SUV driven by Lisa Myers, a senior investigative correspondent and political analyst for NBC News.

“Needless to say it didn’t do anything to her car,” he said.

It’s obvious that little work has been done on the body of the Thing — its few embellishments are a toy tiger tail hanging from the passenger door and the campaign stickers plastered to the front and rear fenders.

“It’s become the poster child of legislative bumper stickers,” Burr said.

But “billboard” would be a better description. It all started with Rep. John Boehner, long before the Ohio Republican became Speaker.

“He wanted a bumper sticker on the car, and I said, ‘You know that will cost you,’” Burr reminisced.

Boehner asked how much.

“I said $35. All of a sudden, I got a check from his campaign for $35, and I put John Boehner’s sticker on the car,” Burr said. “From that came [Rep.] Tom Latham [R-Iowa] and [Sen.] Saxby Chambliss [R-Ga.], and then it grew into everybody’s billboard.”

The front fender was originally reserved for women, although more generic selections such as “Honk if I’m paying your mortgage” are now tucked among the “Bush Woman” and “Shelley Moore Capito, U.S. Congress” stickers.

The men — “Saxby, U.S. Congress,” “McCain,” “SB41, Scott Brown” — can be found on the rear, where stickers for Boehner and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) are peeling and worn away from the exhaust fumes.

Burr’s own stickers from his House and Senate campaigns are included among them.

But another is more telling: “You have to be real secure to be seen in a car like this.”

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