Cars Of A Lifetime: 1979 Volkswagen ASI Riviera camper bus (one more time around)

Readers may remember my other VW bus and associated hippie aspirations.  By the time the mid ’90s were underway, the hippie in me was long-dead (never really worked for me, and no “free love” anymore), but my VW bus ideal was still alive and well.

I already owned several vehicles, including the previously written about 1957 IHC pickup, a Volvo 164, and something else I’m sure that I have forgotten about.  But I never stop looking for a good deal on anything. One day I saw what might be a good deal in the paper; a 1979 VW Camper bus for nine hundred dollars in Portland.  The ad said that the bus had transmission issues, just like my last VW van adventure.   So I though it was certainly worth a look for nine hundred dollars!

I called a friend and had him drive me up from Dallas.  We made our way to a fairly populous part of town where we found a tan VW bus parked on the side of the road.  The owner was a younger fellow and told us that he had taken it to Baja and back several times but now the transmission was going out.  I knew that there was a good chance that it was merely the linkage as in the last one.  I knew it was a gamble, so I looked over the bus well. The engine ran great, the interior was filthy but all in good order.  The canvas camper top was good and everything worked.

( The bus ideal )

I paid the man his nine hundred dollars and took the chance that I might have to call a tow truck.  But just like the last van it went into third and reverse just fine.  So I drove it all the way back down I5 at 40-45 mph on the shoulder because I am too damn cheap to spring for a tow truck unless I absolutely have to!

image courtesy

A word about camper buses; there was, of course, the Westfalia that you are more than likely familiar with.  Then there were conversions done in the country of sale.  Here in the USA, one of the most prolific aftermarket outfitters was Automotive Services Inc., in conjunction with Riviera, in Washington and Oregon.  They purchased base model buses, had the tops made by Campmobile, and installed standard RV fare inside of them.  For more reading and lots of eye candy, you can visit the ASI Riviera Registry here.

I parked it at my friend Bill’s house because he lived twenty miles closer, in Keizer. The next day, Bill’s teenage brother Jimmy came over.  Jimmy loved Volkswagens, and when he saw the bus he went into a swoon.  He looked it over inside and out and caressed it admiringly.  I had some errands to run and left Jimmy to fawn over the new VW. When I got back to Bill’s house, Jimmy had taken it upon himself to clean out the bus.  I was shocked that he would do that just for fun!  And if you know anything about VW van people, you can guess how much dog hair and garbage was in it.  I still owe him one for that.

(anti-war demonstration )

After the cleaning, I set about work on the transmission linkage.  As I had suspected, that’s all that was wrong with it.  So, ten dollars and half an hour later and I had a fully functional van.

I had learned by that time that many things were much more simple than they were made out to be in the world of auto mechanics (just as the reverse was also true.)  Once later on, Bill got bitten by the bus bug as well and was looking into buying one for three hundred dollars.  The only problem was that it was dented in front and that it spewed gas all over when it ran.  The owner told him that he had taken it to a German car mechanic (German for rip-off-artist) who diagnosed it as a bad injector line.

Since the lines were crimped on the injectors at the factory, it would need a new injector.  All told,  it was going to be well over five hundred dollars to fix.  So Bill asked if I could come and see the van.  I looked at it and asked Bill to give the owner the money now.  He did, I then asked the owner if he would be angry if I fixed it right there, he said no.  So, I cut off the factory crimp with a pair of snippers, cut a length of fuel line to size, slipped it on, hose clamped it, and it was all fixed for about five dollars in about ten minutes.  And that is how one obtains a good deal on an old VW.

( The bus next to my IHC pickup in Dallas )

But I digress, let us get back to the 1979 camper.  It had a propane refrigerator and stove, so I figured I should test them out.  I took it to the gas station and had them fill the tank.  But a problem developed.  Apparently, the fill valve froze on!  The gas began billowing out, eventually covering the whole parking lot in propane fog.  I was getting pretty worried, but the attendant said it was all “very safe”.  He called the propane supplier fellow up and asked him to come out.

After some time, a fellow in a white truck and blue overalls arrived.  He took a look at the spewing propane and fetched a big pipe wrench out of his tool box.  Then he set about beating the fill valve mercilessly with the wrench!  After much abuse it broke free and the propane was shut off.  I asked him if he was not worried about sparks and he casually told me that unless propane had just the right mixture with oxygen it would not ignite.  As far as I know he is still alive to this day.

(The bus’s propane system in my imagination)

After all of the hubbub with the propane I finally tested out the system.  To my surprise everything worked great, so I was all set for camping.  However, I was a bit jaded by the propane experience so I never refilled it, instead relying on a Coleman stove.

( My bus at the camp-out)


The first camping trip I took it on was the Father-Son Camp-Out held by my church at the time.  I took my first (and only at the time) son, who was about a year and a half old, as well as my good friend, the late Peter Puppo.  The camp-out was at a remote lake at the end of an unmaintained road in the Cascade mountain range.  The road was very rough, but proved no problem for the bus. What did prove a problem though, was bringing a one-and-a-half year old and having two men to take care of him camping.

I should here mention that Peter was in his fifties at the time, and had been a bachelor his entire life.  I was a new father and we soon discovered that we had not fully calculated the difficulties arising from taking care of an infant still in diapers in a Volkswagen bus.   How many men does it take to change a diaper in the middle of the night in a camper bus?  More than two, I can tell you that!

(Son at the lake)

I took the bus on many a camping trip (but never again with a toddler), and kept it stoked up with some supplies for spur-of-the-moment fishing or camping.  One Friday afternoon, I was at Bill’s house and we decided it was time to go camping.  So we grabbed the fishing poles, took a shotgun, a twenty-two rifle, and looked around for food.  Bill had some eggs and I had some cans in the van.  We were set, and off we went.

We arrived after dark and found that all of the food in the van was bean based.  So we had eggs, beans, chili, and beer for dinner.  Bill made the unwise decision to sleep in the cot in the top that night.  After such a gastronomically volcanic meal, I spent much time venting in the lower bed. Bill spent most of the night with his face pressed against the screen in the canvas top gasping for fresh air.

Gas issues not withstanding, there are certain cars one regrets selling, and this is one of those cars.  It was, in effect, the perfect Volkswagen bus; hydraulic lifters, two liter fuel injected engine, no rust issues, not leaky, all the electrics worked.  Yes, I know what you are thinking – is that possible?  It was, indeed.  It was the rarest of Volkwagens – one that actually works well all of the time!  But I had found a new love.  Something tougher, bigger, stronger.  And to get it I needed only four hundred dollars.  So I sold the bus on a whim to the local VW shop for half of what I had paid (still regretting that one).  But that is the subject of next week’s article.