It seems as though there's an expert for everything in this industry. If you're interested in Type 34s, talk to Lee Hedges in San Diego; if you want to chat about Herbies, you call David Evans in Florida. If Okrasas are your thing, dial up Joe "Mr. Okrasa" Ruiz in California. In fact, there's not really an area of the Volkswagen world that's left to discover. The toys, the stamps, the literature, the parts, and even the "barn Beetles" are all floating to the surface, as more and more of Volkswagen history his being snatched up.
Was there any uncharted VW-land left to explore? Hmmm.And then it hits me: the enormously famous photo of Ben Pon talking with an unnamed gentleman next to a Volkswagen as it first sets its tires on American soil in 1949. Everyone has seen that picture, but what I wanted was the behind-the-scenes proof of that fateful day, the hidden details. When the car was ready for its journey, it needed a ship to carry it across the Atlantic. It needed to be documented. It need to be signed for, delivered, picked up and packaged. When it arrived in the States, it needed to clear customs. Finally, Pon needed to claim it and probably sign for it. Where are all of those documents? Where's the shipping bill, the receiving notice, and the unloading paperwork from the stevedoring company? He stayed at the Roosevelt Hotel in New York; where's the record of his payment and/or his stay. Finally, he had to go home to Holland. How did he get back there? Nobody knows the ship or the date.
It was these things I decided to search for, but there was no VW expert to call. I was on my own, but if I was going to collect something unique to the VW community, these original documents are what I wanted to find.
So, I started as I start all of my far-fetched investigations, the Internet. No luck searching "Ben Pon" or browsing any of the usual history sites, as they all said the same thing, that Pon arrived and left--minus two Beetles.
Next stop was Walter Henry Nelson's popular book Small Wonder, and in the chapter concerning VW infiltration of America, it says Pon's ship was the M/S Westerdam, owned by the Holland-America Lines. It said he arrived on January 17, 1949, and stayed at the Roosevelt Hotel in New York.
I called the public relations department of Holland-America Lines (HAL) and I got a hold of Melina Prior, a very delightful woman who gave me the number of Bill Miller in Hoboken, N.J., the cruise line's historian, who wrote a book called Wallenius--Continuing a Tradition of Excellence.
I phoned Mr. Miller, and he explained that the Westerdam I (there were three) was a break-bulk combo ship, essentially a ship that carried a combination of loose cargo (large containers were not used yet) and about 200 passengers, our Mr. Pon one of them. I discovered that Pon must have landed at the Fifth Street Pier in Hoboken, N.J., against several common misconceptions: One, he only brought with him one Beetle instead of two (a number that derives from the sales figures for 1949--however, where/when did the second one come in?); and two, he came into N.J. instead of N.Y.
Miller told me that the Westerdam was dismantled in Mexico in 1964 after an 18-year career of cross-Atlantic freightering Volkswagens. But as to any documents that proved of Pon's travels, the only idea he could come up with was a privately owned HAL museum in Rotterdam, Holland, Westerdam's home port since 1946.
In the meantime, for some information about VW shipping in general, Miller put me in contact with Dick Faber, who used to work for the Motorships Inc., the U.S. agents for Wallenius Shipping Line from 1958 until 1972. This line, known as the Opera Line (because each route was named for an opera) brought all the VWs over in coal ships or grain ships, using false decks (temporary decks) installed in the huse holds to accommodate the little cars. Then the dock workers would remove the cars and decks and the ships would go to Norfolk and load up with coal for the return voyage to Europe. Mr. Faber also suggested that I contact the HAL museum.
After some searching, I ended up with the email address of Cees P. Humman, director of the HAL museum, who put me in contact with Irene Kuipers, public relations for Pon's import company, which still imports Volkswagens. Because of the language barrier, Mr. Humman helped translate and acquire a book about the history of Ben's father Mijndert Pon's company: a cigar shop in 1898 turned bicycle shop in 1900 turned auto importer in 1920.
During this time, Mr. Humman suggested I contact the director of Rotterdam city archives, Mr. E. Schroeder. I did, and Mr. Schroeder sent to me my first piece of proof to the puzzle, the passenger book listing from the M/S Noordam, dated February 14, 1949, Pon's return voyage (reprinted here). I was getting somewhere; now I just needed to fill in the blanks, which included cargo manifests from the Westerdam to show that only one Beetle and parts were shipped over and proof from the Roosevelt Hotel that he stayed in N.Y. during his trip.
I contacted the Immigrant Ships Transcribers Guild, the Ocean Liners' Museum and the World Ship Society. I spoke with William Farrell of Schenkers International, the U.S. Customs Agency in 1949, Louella Jones and Allen Morrison of the N.Y./N.J. Port Authority and even David Bird, the General Manager of the Roosevelt Hotel, all dead ends. The Roosevelt Hotel doesn't keep its records prior to seven years (plus they closed down to renovate in 1995 and lost a lot of documents), the Port Authority doesn't keep records back that far, and Schenkers didn't get back to me yet. So far, nothing but dead ends.
Where do I go from here? I can find out who Pon sold the first Beetle to, what dealers he visited while he was here, what happened to the Beetle, to Pon and to the parts? Plus, where'd that second Beetle come from? I haven't found all of the answers yet, but I'm getting there.