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Quantum Mechanic: Volkswagen’s Keith Price

Keith Price stands in a bustling, modern kitchen in Troy, Michigan. Like most of the other guests, he’s been discussing his family’s cars; though his audience shifts frequently, as is wont to happen at a house party, he’s not fazed. He describes with fervor the Quantum that belongs to his teenage son, affectionately referred to as the HarleQuantum, a moniker with which the other guests appear to be familiar. In his jeans and sweater, gesturing with his drink, he blends seamlessly into the background, another player in a party full of car geeks.

“He’s the one I wanted you to meet,” whispers the hostess.

Approximately twelve hours later, Keith, fresh-faced and tastefully suited, paces the Volkswagen display floor at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. It’s apparent that not only does he have a gift for remembering names and faces, he is somehow impervious to his surroundings. A wash of fluorescent lighting gives the cars a surreal glow, far too bright for the hour; just beyond is a bank of televisions showcasing the past year’s worth of VW commercials, surrounded by weary journalists collapsed on white leather couches. Despite the atmosphere, Keith extends his hand, smiles, accepts the proffered business card, and cheerfully offers up a “Good time last night,” while scanning the crowds hoping to spot the next person with whom he needs to chat. Such is life for the public relations manager at Volkswagen of America.

To chat with Keith is to wish that time could stand still. There always seems to be a story behind the story, whether he’s smooth-talking at a show or yakking over beers and burgers at The Emory on Detroit’s famed Woodward Avenue. Everything is tangential to the auto industry, and his voice is second-to-none at conveying a “wink wink, nudge nudge” that leaves his audience wanting more.

The VW community is both renowned and rebuked for taking to heart the choices and actions of the beloved, quirky German company and its worldwide siblings—in doing so, it’s easy to forget that that any corporation is comprised of individuals. In an industry in which consumers analyze and criticize every move, Keith is an enigma. He’s a car enthusiast who has influence over the company. He’s a businessman who doesn’t communicate in numbers and statistics. And he can identify with the brand’s fiercely loyal fan base; he, like much of his generation, was born into it. He fondly remembers childhood summers spent roaming around with his parents in a 1966 Type II Split Window Campmobile, toting a kayak, hauling antiques, attending VW Club of America picnics, and even traveling to Alaska on the Alcan Highway.

“The impact of my folks’ VW enthusiasm on me at an impressionable age was significant and profound,” says Keith. “They were emblematic of the people that were drawn to the Volkswagen brand in the late fifties and early sixties.”

It seemed only natural, then, that his career would take him in the direction of Volkswagen, although the process took 27 years. Fresh out of Northwood University, Keith started in the media department of Chrysler’s advertising agency, and moved on to publishing, working for magazines such as Automobile, Entertainment Weekly, TV Guide, Outside, and AutoWeek.

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Although Keith’s position at VW, in its most basic objective, is to help the company sell new cars, his upbringing clearly cultivated a fondness for the vintage; unfortunately, his job’s many perks don’t include unlimited garage space. Currently, he has four in the garage at home, one in a neighbor’s garage, one behind a neighbor’s garage, some in the driveway. This collection includes a 1988 Cabriolet that’s fully race-prepped for its frequent attendance at Michigan Volkswagen Enthusiasts’ club track days. His camper fills the need for wholesome recreation, as does the family’s prized collection of Quantums.

The Quantum is an oddball even in original form, an ancestor of the modern Passat; the wagon, Keith’s preference, is even more of an ugly duckling. It should be a mystery why a man with unparalleled access to modern VWs would choose to collect such an unglamorous car, were it not for Keith’s talent for sorting out the nuts and bolts.

“They’re cheap, they’re easy to fix, they’re wickedly durable and reliable, they’re stingy with fuel, and they’re really comfortable,” explains Keith. “They still make these wonderful cars in China and, I think, Brazil. Parts are cheap. Like $14 rotor cheap. With all-wheel drive, locking differentials, and some good snow tires, a Syncro is a pleasure to drive in the winter.”

Keith didn’t warn his son that a writer would be calling to badger him with questions about the HarleQuantum, but 19-year-old Hal was eager to share the story of this Price family relic.

“He had this idea, but he didn’t have a car crappy enough to do it with,” explains Hal. “We got into this craze for buying Quantums. It was a bonding thing. He’s got friends and business contacts all over the place. He’d buy Quantums all over the country and we’d fly to wherever the car was, and we’d hang out for a couple days and drive it back. It was more about wanting to go skiing in Breckenridge, CO and just using the car as an excuse and driving it back. We’ve been doing that for a long time.”

One of these trips yielded a red wagon, the perfect base for Keith’s long-awaited project. With the help of a “really small” Quantum usergroup, Keith and his daughter Sally searched nationwide for a collection of mismatched Quantum body panels to bolt on, resulting in an attention-getting VW reminiscent of the infamous 1996 Harlequin Golf.

“He did all the work himself,” says Hal. “It was his project and he wanted to make it into the only HarleQuantum. He drove it, it sat for a while, and then he gave it to me. It was definitely one of my favorite cars.”

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Like most vintage VW projects, Hal admits, “it’s still kind of a work in progress.”

“I was raised on Bugs and Buses and camping out of our VW camper,” says Hal. “I was about two months old when I went to my first VW show, aircooled, of course. We’ve always had at least one aircooled in our fleet.”

Hal got hooked on watercooleds when he saw a gray mk2 Jetta doing a burnout at a show he attended with his mother at age 12. Rumored to be the true gearhead of the family, he is currently collecting parts to build a 1984 Rabbit GTI, carving out his own niche in the VW community. His father’s near-celebrity status is taken in stride.

“He’s crazy,” Hal says, not without affection. “He hangs out with our watercooled club. He taught me how to drive at a track day before I even had my license, downshifting and apexing in a Vanagon. He’s an incredible driver.”

That’s well worth keeping in mind if the notorious Cabriolet is spotted lining up at Gingerman. But at the annual Motorstadt show in June, it’s just part of the scenery, parked alongside Keith’s syncro Vanagon. Detroit has shed its morbid winter pallor and Keith has traded his suit for a t-shirt printed with bus cartoons. He strolls through the parking lot at VW headquarters with his wife, Corinne. After checking out the show entries and chatting with the Michigan VW club regulars, he and Corinne retreat to the shade of the Vanagon, accompanied by Tom Wegehaupt of VW’s PR team. There, they reminisce about recent camping trips and plan upcoming excursions.

“We’re going to put a pull-down table here,” says Keith, gesturing to the inner wall opposite the sliding door.

“We have to make sure it’ll fit,” interjects Corinne from her spot on the floor, where she is shelling peanuts. “It can’t be in the way when the bed’s out.”

“It’ll fit,” Keith says confidently, bouncing on the fold-out back seat for emphasis. “We love this queen-size bed.”

He’s candid. Perhaps too candid, especially when indulging in stereotypes and delivering social commentary. Sandwiches and drinks are being served a nearby pub, rumored to be a Friday-lunch favorite of VW staff, and Keith once again has a captive audience. He’s telling the tale of two Jackson Browne concerts he attended, in the summers of 1974 and ’75, in which a ’64 Westfalia and a ’69 Microbus, respectively, left his group stranded.

“But strangers picked us up, and we made it to both concerts,” he explains. “It didn’t matter if it was dune buggies or Buses or Beetles. It was never tough at any point in my life to surround myself with like-minded VW people. We weren’t on the fringe.”

The universal topics—sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll—lead to a particularly poignant analogy about the cultural differences between VW drivers and the drivers of another German marque, at which point Tom leans over and interrupts, “This is where it’s my job to say you can’t quote that.”

Keith laughs and defers: “What’s important is that it was always more of a connectivity thing than an exclusionary thing.”

Although he’s known for wandering into conversational territory that’s strictly off-the-record, this first-hand experience of the VW life is nevertheless an asset because Keith’s thorough understanding of VW’s consumers gives him a subtle but crucial edge. As the primary press contact at Volkswagen, Keith often makes reference in the media to the brand’s strength and influence, but his job doesn’t stop when the office lights are turned off. As a car guy in the auto industry, it’s a round-the-clock commitment.

“The Volkswagen community, both air and watercooled, has been very supportive of me in this role at Volkswagen. They seem stoked that I’m on staff at VWoA,” he says. “In the vintage air-cooled community, the consensus is that they now have a voice inside Volkswagen. Among members of the watercooled community, it’s more about product—‘When does the new clean diesel Jetta arrive?’ or ‘Why can’t I get a new Passat wagon with a manual transmission?’ That sort of stuff.”

With the pressures of family, friends, and Fahrvernugen pressing down on him, the first reaction of most is to wonder how Keith can straddle the gap between suits and sweatpants – and no gap separates more contrasting social circles. But to meet Keith Price is to be struck by his infectious affection for Volkswagen, and any lingering doubts—about the impact of his youth, his belief in the brand, or its resonance at Volkswagen—would vanish after seeing him behind the wheel of his 1958 Microbus, tooling around metro Detroit, the patter of its aircooled engine waning as the van disappears under the streetlights of Woodward Avenue.


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