“The Old VW Bus”
30 July 2006
Although looked upon now as one of several icons of the hippie generation of the late 1960’s, to me, at the time, the VW bus appeared to be the vehicle I needed for a growing family. Minivans? They did not exist at the time and a station wagon did not seem right either.
So, after my world went to hell with my wife having a miscarriage, I totally loosing it after completing college and the Army and nothing but 10,000 years of cubical work facing me, my wife and I gave it all up and moved to the country where we lived with some friends for a summer. Not sure, what the idea or plan was or if there really was any at all but after several months, it was clear that could not live with our friends and thus moved in with my wife’s parents for a short while. While there, with what little money I had left from before I quiet work and moving in with our friends, I began the search for a family car. I had bought a new Pontiac straight out of college but the car was getting a lot of miles on it and the backseat hardly accommodated one child seat, much less 2 or more.
Certainly, I did not go looking for a VW bus (often referred to as VW microbus) but once I saw one on a dealer lot, I could afford it, and he would inspect it for me, I became the owner of a VW 1967 camper mobile or what VW called a Kombi.
While my wife has nothing but bad memories of the VW bus, I do not. I learned a lot about auto mechanics and other lessons owning the bus and yes, actually enjoyed riding around in it with my long shaggy beard and hair, clearly a hippie and proud of it.
The VW bus I bought was a model year 1967, which I only learned later was the first year VW switched over to a 12-volt electrical system with prior years being the more troublesome 6-volt system. I also only learned after I had bought my VW bus, that the same bus came with 2 different size engines and I bought the bus with the smallest, a 1200CC, 4 cylinder, air cooled, horizontally opposed, rear mounted dud. 1200 cc to push around this big, flat nosed bus? From the get-go, it was terrible. Every hill was a mountain to be climbed and the state safety inspection given to me by the dealer was a real joke as I had not gotten more than 5 miles down the road from the dealer when the muffler simply went to pieces and I had to ride home with this incredibly loud engine hammering away in the rear. When I did get home, my wife and her father surely must have thought I had lost my mind as neither had ever seen a VW bus and a once over by my father-in-law revealed many mechanical problems, the worst of which and the most immediate was the muffler. What to do? I could not return the bus to the dealer and my money was gone. Nothing left to do but try to deal with it and so I did.
A lot of the details are fuzzy now as to when and where or the order of things but know I started working on the bus from the inside. First, I took out and dumped the “refrigerator,” icebox, which sat right inside the passenger side double doors. It was just in the way and if we needed a cooler for camping, we could just a haul along a cooler but no need to crowd the back all the time with the “refrigerator.” Then I discovered that the wooden floor mounted over the sheet metal in the back passenger compartment was rotten and had to be removed and replaced. Easy enough. All seat cushions were recovered by my wife and while replacing a cover on one of the front seats, a screwdriver I was using slipped and I gashed the index finger of my left hand. Should have had it stitched, but didn’t and to this day, have a nice long scar as a memento of the VW bus.
Front inside door panels were replaced as original were nothing more than paperboard and warped. Used very thin plywood and sheet metal screws. Worked fine although should have installed some insulation in doors as there was none and every time a door was shut, sounded like a tin can being banged instead of the sound a real car door makes, which is solid.
Inspection overall, revealed that cheap, thin, metal tubes coming from engine fan housing to front of bus for compartment heat were rusted through and through and thus removed and never replaced. Turned out that I actually had a gasoline heater underneath the further most back seat and once my father-in-law and I got it working, it heated the inside great or at least the passenger compartment, although it did consume more than its share of gasoline.
Then in no particular order, came new: tires, front and rear shocks and then one day on the way home from work, no brakes. Using emergency brake and downshifting, managed to get bus home because I could not afford a tow job at the time. Turned out bum master cylinder, this then led to complete brake job to include new cylinders all around as well as drums and shoes.
Idiot’s Guide to VW Repair. (I wonder if this was the first idiot’s guide to anything ever published? Now there is an idiot’s guide for everything you can think of and more.) Not sure who alerted me to this fine book but once I had it, I began doing all mechanic work myself, being given a nice set of wrenches and sockets by my wife one Christmas. Of course no place to store them and kept them in the bus until they stolen one night.
1200 CC and engine had no real compression but I had been living with it, so finally, with the help of a co-worker, pulled the engine out, took it apart, cylinder heads went to shop for valve work and I proceeded to clean and repair the rest. New rings, etc, etc. Dirty carbon removal job but eventually all parts clean or sort of and then all assembled and back into bus. Was not right but in those days, not all that inclined to pull engine out and do it all over again. Anyway, one night in February, group of friends and I decided to make a quick trip to the ocean and so 7 people loaded into the bus and we headed out. I knew from the start that 7 was too much of a load for my 1200 CC dud, but did it anyway and sure enough, on the beltway doing about 60 mph, heard a terrible noise from the engine compartment, felt a hesitation in power and then the sound of loose change being thrown into one of the cylinders. I had “sucked a valve”, which was not all that uncommon with VW engines but which meant that the engine was now junk. Of course I pulled the bus to the side of the road and abandon it for the rest of the trip and not sure how I actually got it back home but from there, put up on flatbed truck and taken to country place that did VW repairs. There, 1600 CC, low mileage, VW Carmagia engine installed with Porsche pressure plate and clutch disk. When I picked up bus, could not believe power it had and actually responsive to foot accelerator.
Bus was now beginning to take shape but I was not done. Next came learning how to adjust valve lash as keeping valves set correctly was important to them not getting burnt and thus potentially sucking another valve. Then a deep oil sump was added by me to allow for 2 more quarts of oil. A temperature sensor system, with sensors on each cylinder and a gauge and switch installed up by the driver so I could see the actual temperature of each cylinder as I drove along. Air scoops were added over the engine cooling vents on the rear to actually force air down and over the engine. And finally, I added a new cassette tape stereo system with speakers installed in the back and front.
With the bus now in good mechanical condition, it was ready for a paint job. Luckily, my father-in-law was an excellent auto body repair and paint man and so the bus was taken to his shop several weekends in a row and I learned how to apply body compound and shape and sand it smooth. Then the last weekend, we painted the whole bus maroon, making it officially mine.
Again, not sure of the order of things but camped using the bus many times with my wife and 2 children or just me and a friend. Furthest most back seat made into a very comfortable bed and had curtains at all the windows and there was a section of the roof, which popped up allowing me to stand up fully and also for ventilation at night. Drove it everywhere: to work; on long distance trips to see family; through the mountains of Virginia and West Virginia and only once did I have to stop by the side of the road and get out and get under to loosen the valves on number 3 cylinder as it was running too hot. Nice hard rain falling when I had to pull over but nothing left to do but fix it right then and there and so another lesson learned.
Cannot remember how long I actually owned the bus. Probably 3 years at the most as when my wife became pregnant with our 3rd child and it obvious we needed to buy a house instead of renting an apartment as we had been doing, I sold the bus to a co-worker who wound up hauling antiques with it. The money from the bus, was the down payment on a house and thus all my work, lessons learned, were traded for a house and it seemed at the time and seems now, to have been a good trade. Oh, after the VW, I kept with German, but never again owned a VW but instead went with BMW.
The VW bus. Never will understand why VW did not see the baby boomer baby boom echo coming. In the late 60’s and early 1970’s, the leading edge of the baby boomers, of which I am one, were having babies at an incredible rate and they needed a minivan and VW, if they had been smart, would have, could have, met that need with a much better version of the bus than they produced. The bus I had was cheap through and through and even with a 1600 cc engine was underpowered compared to American cars of all types and sizes.
I do not regret buying the bus, as I learned a lot and it was the right vehicle for my family and me at the time, I just wish it had been constructed better by VW.
Many years after I owned the bus, I would go to Grateful Dead concerts and the parking lot was always full of VW buses and I would always talk to the proud owners and see how many times they had had the engine out or what they had had to do to it to keep it running. Every single owner was proud to be an owner and to be keeping his or her bus alive and well.
To this day, you can still see old buses running around here and there or for sale on eBay or other auto sites.
The VW bus, just another piece of metal of my history, past.
Oh, I heard many years after I owned my bus that it finally came to rest in Vermont as a chicken coop. Certainly a strange but fitting end.