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HISTORIC HAPPENINGS -December 2009

Volkswagen Graveyard Gets New Life
by Vicki Barker


Tom Arnold takes the wheel in a vintage Tom Tom’s tow truck poised to haul away a yellow VW beetle outside the shop.
Photo by Vicki Barker

Nevertheless, the ventures of New Spain in consolidating various pack-and-trade paths that probably originated with Native Americans contributed to the inevitable development of permanent settlements in six states, including Moab, Green River, Provo, Nephi and Cedar City in Utah.

One of Moab’s most unique attractions -- Tom Tom’s Volkswagen “museum” -- is getting more attractive and attracting more attention by the month under direction of its co-founder, the junior Tom Arnold.

Thomas J. Arnold, the middle son of the late Thomas K. “TK” Arnold, has been working steadily at bringing order to chaos and infusing new life into the business he and his dad established in 1971 -- cleaning up, clearing out, and creating fun visuals that have generated lots of attention.

Not that the “largest collection of VW’s in the West” failed to get attention before, Tom said. The settling pond of vee-dubs near the intersection of Mill Creek Drive and Spanish Valley Drive has been the subject of numerous articles and the focus of photographers, speculation and politics, criticism and delight over the past three decades -- much due to the powerful personality of TK, the senior “curator” of the museum, who passed away three years ago this January.


Tom Arnold (right) and Rick Berry of Moab recently created a new gate at the VW museum. Photo by Vicki Barker

TK started the collection in 1961 with eight Volkswagens in Golden, Colo., and it peaked at 420 in Moab, according to his son. Since 2007, Tom has had a number of the vehicles crushed, moved a few to new sites, and sold some, dropping the count to 298 just before Thanksgiving. Stragglers that huddled along the shoulder of the road have been removed, bugs and vans are being grouped among their peers, a crisp new service sign is mounted on the front of the building, and Tom was inspired to create a couple of eye-catching projects that have drawn positive comments.

Besides some obvious clean-up, the most popular change that townspeople have called about is a red gate that he and long-time family friend Rick Berry crafted out of the doors and front-end of a VW van. They also parked a vintage tow truck with a rusting Tom Tom’s sign on the door out front of the shop, poised as if to haul away a yellow beetle. The truck conspicuously sports flat tires, reflecting Tom’s sense of humor and that of his father, who at different times posted signs above the door that read “Doctor’s Office,” and “Fashion Boutique.”

Whenever Tom is at the shop, “everybody just stops and tells me they like the gate,” he said on the phone from Sandy, where he works for the city as hydraulic engineer. “Even the mayor said he thought it was pretty cool. He said it was looking really good out there. It’s my beautification project.”

Tom Tom’s is really not a local business in the sense that “we never sell anything to people locally,” said Tom’s mother, Sue, who owns the auto yard. Instead, the collection -- referred to variously as a museum or VW “graveyard” or parts-and-service shop -- generates ongoing interest around the world by word of mouth, Tom said.

“It’s a landmark. Everybody in the world knows about it,” he said, noting that he had just received a call from a fellow in Wichita, Kan., who had just seen a documentary that showed Tom Tom’s. As “caretaker,” Tom was headed down to Moab to take care of business for the viewer, who wanted to buy a VW bus. Tom said he’s responded to orders for all or parts of VW’s throughout the world, a side job that has kept him rather busy on weekends.

Mrs. Arnold said her husband would rarely sell a VW; instead, he would buy broken-down vehicles. Tom said that pattern started after TK moved the family from Aurora to Golden and bought a wrecked VW to repair the ‘58 family VW that had broken down on a trip to Texas. TK also nursed a passion for Porsches, and a few remain on-site. “There’s a couple of Fords, but they don’t count,” Berry noted.


Tom “TK” Arnold was steward and curator of the VW collection for nearly 50 years.
Photo Courtesy of Sue Arnold.

Tom said the shop is a place of refuge for him. “It’s a man cave. That’s all it was to Dad. He wouldn’t sell anything,” he said. It has also always been a cat refuge, and in the spring, a favored birthing ground for a skunk family, Mrs. Arnold said.
A few years ago, the feline population at Tom Tom’s was estimated at 35 to 37 cats. Eventually, the Humane Society stepped in and trapped as many of the cats as they could, for neutering. Berry said he counted six cats recently, two obviously domesticated, wearing collars. Tom said the family used to share a joke that TK’s rule was, if he sold a car, “the cat comes with the car.”

Mrs. Arnold has always shared her husband’s love of VWs and continues to drive one. Tom still has the 1955 VW bus he claims he has never driven. All the family except Joe, the youngest, remember their first VW -- a dark blue beetle they had in Vancouver, Canada. At an old farm auction, they’d bought a sleigh made in 1892. TK would hitch the sleigh to the rear bumper and pull his three boys through the snow. It was great fun, and when they got stuck, the car was so light that Tom, Bill and Dave could push it back onto the path, their mother said.

“It did so well on the ice and snow, that’s how we got started in VW’s. They were so easy to push,” she said.

If all goes as planned, the sleigh pulled by a VW beetle will be in this year’s Electric Light Parade.

 
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