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.