There is a type of taxi that is unique to the Pacific coast city of Mazatlán. It is an open-air form of conveyance with Volkswagen (early Beetle) running gear.
The bodies, which are made from molded fiberglass, sit on a tube steel frame with a 1600 cc VW motor and transaxle positioned in the rear with stock VW front suspension and steering gear up front. All components in between are homemade; no two of these buggies are alike.
These taxis are burdened with the moniker Pulmonia to reflect the insidious respiratory scourge that thins populations of older Canadians along with those Americans foolish enough to live near the border of that frigid country.
When these unique taxis were created in December of 1965, the competing taxis, which were fully enclosed, told anyone who would listen that a ride in the open-air contraption would surely infect them with a deadly case of pneumonia.
However, the tourists, most of whom came from climates that could kill in minutes, loved cruising in the balmy air of the tropics. So over the ensuing 50 years these cute little taxis have become an icon that exemplifies the casual lifestyle of Mazatlán.
So it was with no surprise that a few years ago my Captured Tourist Woman announced her desire to own and drive a Pulmonia. This lack of surprise on my part was because her profusion of exuberant eccentricities was why I captured her in the first place.
It became my immediate mission to scour Mazatlán in the hopes of locating one of these fiberglass deathtraps which could provide suitable transportation, without requiring major restoration beforehand. With my mission orders in hand, my objective crystal-clear, I organized and executed a strategic plan in the most efficient manner possible: I called Juan, my executive assistant.
We started by searching for the rumored Pulmonia factory that everyone had heard about, but no one had ever seen. We were only to find a dozen hole-in-the-wall places that professed to have the expertise to build one from scratch, or resuscitate an existing unit.
Of course, I realized having one built from scratch would be rife with all the prevalent pitfalls of having anything custom-built in this country. With my manhood on the line, I was loath to gamble with the purchase of something ethereal rather than tangible; seminuevo would have to do.
After all, there were over 280 of these working taxis in the city so something should be available.
I soon found that fewer than 1% of Pulmonias have ever had proper maintenance and neither one of those was for sale. Anything I found that was remotely drivable was priced like a Bentley and would still require a multitude of repairs.
So far, any pulmonia that someone was willing to part with needed a bullet between the lights to liberate it from its dire wretchedness. After four months of searching, the quest looked futile. Then one day I got a call from Juan.
He informed me he had found a reasonably priced Pulmonia that looked to be in decent condition. It was owned by a fastidious older man who had retired from the taxi business.
At first glance, I was suspicious because it had a very recent paint job and it just looked a bit too clean. However, it started quickly without the engine sounding like a chainsaw cutting through a tin roof, and all the tires held air. I felt confident this Pulmonia could go across town and return without the aid of a tow truck.
So my Captured Tourist Woman and I, along with Juan and the Pulmonia owner, took a test drive. I drove it first to evaluate the mechanical condition and to see if it possessed any dangerous quirks.
I went to a wide, straight piece of road with little traffic, pulled over and changed seats with the prospective buyer. The owner became extremely agitated when he realized a woman was about to take command of his precious taxi and began protesting in loud and rapid Spanish.
Juan assured the distressed man that there was absolute nothing to worry about, just a short drive up the street; no hay problema. I did understand that he might have some anxiety. I mean, how many women taxi drivers have you seen in Mexico?
We finally convinced him she was a competent driver and would treat his Pulmonia as her own. So she climbed into the driver’s seat and after briefly looking for the non-existent seat belt stuffed it into first gear, popped the clutch and put the pedal to the metal.
Being from Australia, she has spent her life driving on the wrong side of the road while shifting with her left hand; this anomaly promptly became apparent before it was quickly corrected.
She rapidly wound the little 1600 to maximum RPM in the first two gears and the motor was sweating oil in third when all three passengers shouted a warning in two languages.
By the time she saw the first tope (Mexican speed bump) it was too late to hit the brakes. By the second tope the little taxi was no longer airborne and had slowed to something less than the speed of sound.
I glanced at the rear seat in time to see the fastidious owner lose his well-tended hat after his head impacted the underside of the roof. Both of Juan’s arms were extended to the roof to keep him seated while his face showed shear terror as we headed for the third tope.
The driver slammed on the brakes with the entire weight of her body by standing up – no power assist here — and the little contraption skidded to a stop mere inches from the third malevolent mound of asphalt. Juan ran back to retrieve the considerably battered hat while she and I attempted to calm the hysterical owner.
As we sheepishly returned from our test flight, I realized that after the high-speed impact of a couple of serious speed bumps the sturdy little Pulmonia had not shed any critical components and there were no rattles or squeaks; this one was the keeper.
Stay tuned to Mexico News Daily for the continuing saga of My Death Trap Blues.
Bodie Kellogg describes himself as a very middle-aged man who lives full-time in Mazatlán with a captured tourist woman and the ghost of a half wild dog. If you wish to give him cold beer, large sacks of money or a piece of your mind, he can be reached at [email protected].