Patsy Hamilton celebrated his 80th birthday this week with family and friends.
Even though his health has been up and down over the last few years, he still gets a bit of time to spend on a special type of car that he has worked on all his life.
It’s hard to believe that one of the most revered people in Europe once instructed a car designer to make a car that turned out to be one of the most loved cars ever produced.
It was in 1938 that the cornerstone was laid at the production plant to build the Volkswagen Beetle by Adolf Hitler. World War 2 brought it to a stop and Hitler made Ferdinand Porsche a talented automotive engineer turn his production plant to modifying the Beetle into a military vehicle.
In 1945 production was slowly getting back on track and the public first got a chance to see the first of VW beetles on the road.
1938 was also the year that one of Letterkenny’s best-known motor mechanics was born, Patsy Hamilton. Sadly on the day he was born his mother passed away. Patsy Hamilton began his life in Oxford and still remembers the gas masks from the Second World War before he came to Drumkeen in Co. Donegal to be raised by his father’s sisters.
Patsy went to school there and recalls after school gathering blackberries and snaring rabbits, gutting them and selling them. He then went to the newly built technical school in Lower Ard O’Donnell in Letterkenny before getting accepted into the local VW dealers in Letterkenny, McClean and McLaughlin in 1954 to start his apprenticeship as a motor mechanic.
His apprenticeship included training days in Dublin where VW had an assembly line building beetles and vans. Ireland was the first place outside Germany where the VWs were assembled. Mechanics who trained in the assembly plant like Patsy were taught to take every component on the VW apart and then put it back together again on the revolutionary air-cooled engine.
Back in Letterkenny Patsy and all the staff were flat out in the 50s and 60s in Mc Clean and McLaughlin’s VW garage as sales rocketed of the Beetle, vans and mini busses in Donegal.
The robust German vehicle suited the roads and demands in Donegal, but early models did have a small fault with a camshaft followers failure which only could be sorted by taking the engine out and dismantling it to replace the small part the size of a one shilling coin.
Patsy was one of the mechanics who was detailed to do this work and would regularly strip and rebuilt two or three flat four VW engines a week in Letterkenny.
In 1962 Patsy and his wife Mary made the difficult decision to head to England in search of much needed specialised physiotherapy for their newly born son Paul if their child was going to have any chance of walking.
While Paul went through therapy in England which was a brilliant success, Patsy got a job working on the busses.
Patsy had a chance meeting with a boss of a VW garage on the buses which ended up with a job offer in their garage in Paisley in Glasgow, Patsy initially turned down the offer as he never took any of his tools with him to England, but the dealership offered to kit Patsy out and he took up the offer and started work in one of the biggest VW dealerships in Scotland.
This was in the 60s and the garage had mechanics from Scotland, England and even from Germany.
Patsy’s experience and training on the assembly line in Dublin gave him an advantage in his job and soon he was made foreman on the shop floor.
On the 15th of August in 1967 Patsy was home on holidays to Letterkenny when he met his former boss from McClean and McLaughin in the old Golden Grill. The two got talking and his old boss asked Patsy would he consider coming back to work in Letterkenny. Patsy thought about the offer while he was home on holidays and with a bit of persuasion from his father-in-law, Jack Boyce, Patsy stayed in Donegal and took up the offer to go back to work where he had learned his trade in Letterkenny.
When McClean and McLaughlin changed their dealership from VW to Ford Patsy followed VW beetle to its new home and got a job in JJ Reids which is the present days VW dealership. When the the new VW Golf was introduced to the range and production of the Beetle ended Patsy decided to start out on his own working out of a small garage on the High Rd where he was busy working in all kind of cars but the rear engine Beetle and VW van still found their way to Patsy’s garage on the High Rd.
Even when Patsy was heading for the 60 mark and was starting to wind down the workload an American tourist by the name of Steve Clarke and his wife Betty broke down in Donegal in his type 25 VW camper van. Things were not looking good for them until someone mentioned Patsy Hamilton to them.
After a bit of searching they ended up at Patsy’s door at his home in Mc Neely Villas in the old town in Letterkenny, Patsy had a look at the VW camper which had cylinder head and piston damage and set about sourcing parts to repair the badly damage engine. The infamous Vintage VW specialist Barbers on the Culmore Rd in Derry found the parts for Patsy and Patsy had the camper engine stripped and rebuilt and up and running in just over a week.
The tourist by the name of Steve Clarke was so impressed with Patsy’s knowledge of the VW engine kept in contact with Patsy as he continued his tour of Europe sending Patsy photos of the left-hand drive camper heading through 20ft snowdrifts in Norway.
He also asked if Patsy would ever think about going out to Florida to the annual gathering of VW beetles cars and camper vans.
Patsy thought nothing of the offer other than the couple being so glad to get back on the road but a short time after, Steve Clarke who was a barrister by profession, put his case to Patsy again and offered him and his wife Mary an all expenses trip to America and all the barrister asked in return of Patsy would be to show the barrister how to build a VW air-cooled engine.
Patsy and his wife did take up the offer to fly to Florida to give a demonstration on the flat-four engine, something Patsy worked at all his life.
Sadly Steve Clarke passed away and Patsy misses the connection that both of them had in the VW from the other side of the world.
Patsy celebrated his 80th with his family with a VW Beetle on his birthday cake last weekend.
Patsy recently was told by his cardiologist to stay away from the Electric welder as it might run the risk of shorting out Patsy’s recently fitted pacemaker! And even though a lot of Patsy’s time is taken up at the renal unit at Letterkenny University Hospital where he receives weekly dialysis Patsy still manages to goes missing to his workshop at his home where he has two VW Beetles sitting up on axle stands.
One car’s body is shot but the 1200 engine is good which he will fit to the other one which is halfway through a big restoration. Suspension and brakes have all been refurbished and a lot of panels have been replaced all by Patsy over the last couple of years. The passenger’s door has that heavy clonk as it closes always associated with the Beetle but the driver’s door is banjaxed and needs replaced.
Patsy is looking forward to getting the Beetle shipped up to his sons Raymond’s Workshop soon near Drumkeen, who specialises in paintwork to get more panel work done before Patsy fits the engine.
This week was a double celebration for Patsy Hamilton and the Beetle. They both started life in 1938 they both went through their own trouble in World War 2 lives before finding each other in 1954.
That was the morning a long-haired teenager walked into McClean and McLaughlin’s to start his career as a motor mechanic. Patsy emigrated and the Beetle found him in Paisley in Scotland, Patsy came home on holidays and the Beetle was asking him to stay in Donegal.
When VW stopped making the Beetle, Patsy set up business looking after old Beetles in Donegal. And the final golden handshake came when he repaired a perfect stranger’s VW camper van who returned a gesture of gratitude and took Patsy in a trip of a lifetime to Florida.
Happy Birthday, Patsy.Tags: