(Welcome our newest COAL contributor Heath McClure. You’re going to love the ride! Click on the author’s name for the rest of his posts. PN)
So, my young family needed reliable transportation.
It was the early ’90s and my wife had a bun in the oven. Our sole vehicle, my ’81 Toyota pickup, SR5 long bed 5-speed and my pride and joy, simply was outclassed now due to its virtue/vice of having bucket seats and being tiny. So what to do for the coming kiddo and the car seat? Change for a bench seat? Still tiny in there. Couldn’t very well strap him in the bed a la Subaru Brat, so sell the Toyota and get a…drumroll please…
Yes, that most practical of personal transport, the one single automobile that is Plato’s Theory of (car) Forms made sheet metal, the perfect solution to the problem of getting humans and their stuff from point A to point B; behold the minivan and weep all ye pretenders.
I was excited to be joining the minivan revolution, and who wouldn’t be back in 1992? But of course now comes the kicker, my fairly deeply ingrained inability to own any auto that is remotely mainstream and “normal”. It’s a curse really, but there it is. So instead of shopping for a normal, practical, reasonably cheap used Dodge Caravan, with woodgrain sides of course, like every other normal American family was buying in ’92, I veered once again into my endless delusional love affair with Volkswagen air cooled. A love affair that had always left me, in the end, cold, broke, and feeling slightly soiled.
See, to my mind the perfect minivan is, er, uh, was, the Type 2, the original and of course the all-time best. Modern things like “handling” and “power” and “safety”? Bah. That’s for the plinker, not for me, no sir, no how.
Now where can I find me a cherry Transporter?
We were living in central Texas at the time, and as this was pre-internet era the go-to source was the good old Thrifty Nickel rag. And shazam, on first attempt I found not only a Type 2 that might work out, but the Holy Grail of them all, in my mind, a mint Westfalia. It was in Dallas, said it was original owner, was green, had AC (!) and only 42,000 miles. Asking price, $4,500. In short order I was on the phone, confirmed that the ad was legit, and we were on our way to Dallas cash in hand.
Of course I didn’t have 4,500 bucks per se, but I’d always managed some creative, uh, financing, and so the money was, uh, acquired in short order. Luckily my long-suffering wife was game on my automotive misfires, and gave me a lot of rope to hang myself when it came to picking cars.
Following the directions in Dallas we soon began driving into tony, leafy hoods. Fine sprawling mid-century ranch homes obviously built for doctors, lawyers and the bourgeois of Dallas lay before us. Soon enough we found the house and saw the van for the first time, it was under a fully sided car port to the left of the home and simply took my breath away. It was beyond all expectations, as clean and neat as if it had just rolled off the line. No way could this be a 15-year-old VW, but somehow it was. The paint, that fantastical lime green called “Sage Green,” was glowing and wax residue was lurking in cracks and crannies, clearly this man knew how to care for paint. It had orange/brown stripes and a set of goofy imitation white spoked rim hubcaps that were VW marked and original to the van (the “spoke accent wheel covers”). The interior had that old VW smell of curious German plastics, was squeaky clean and in the “Green Plaid” pattern fabric. Every single thing was immaculate, the carpets, the seats, the woodgrain, all of which had been Pledged its whole life into utter submission. Sweet.
It had the FI 2.0 liter engine coupled to the usual 4-speed manual. That engine husked out 67 net horsepower making this the hot rod of Type 2s. And it was air conditioned! A compressor sat to the left of the engine with its own drive belt, and an under-dash set of vents and controls in the cab controlled the beautiful, beautiful cooled air. The owner said the dealer had installed the AC unit and it was a nice neat job, and worked quite well. All the camper gear was functioning and in perfect order, the upper canvas for the hightop was like new, the stove and electric fridge and sink all working great. And did I mention it had cruise control? It did, another dealer add-on and it worked. Had the 12-volt fridge, two burner propane stove, outside water and power hookups as well as power front disc brakes, and even a screen for the door when opened to keep out the gnats. Primo.
I was in love.
After a cursory test drive to at least say I drove it, it was an honor to hand the man the full asking price, he signed the papers, and bam, it was mine, mine, all MINE!! (er, uh, ours).
After getting it home and giving it the Full Monty once over, it was apparent that it was even better than I’d hoped. Never been in an accident, no rust at all whatsoever, all glass perfect, and it had great compression on all four cylinders. First order of the day, as usual when buying anything, was an oil change and then a lengthy polish and wax. It had hilarious stickers by the factory in various locations saying things like, “Achtung! Neintouchdehotthingie!” and such. I now owned the world’s greatest minivan. Bow before me all posers in mass market Iacoocamobiles.
And it was time for a road trip, to California to see my folks and then up to Washington to see the wife’s family. Would an untested 15-year-old air-cooled VW Westy be able to make a 5,000 mile round trip in the height of summer? Sure. No problem. I got this. In fact we’d be camping in the van all the way, it’d be super cool and unlike those plinkers in their Dodge Caravans and Plymouth Voyagers we’d be having a whale of a time, seeing sights, camping and self-sufficient, like Americans ought to be. We loaded up and set out only a few weeks after buying the van.
That was when a few minor problems manifested themselves.
Problem one; wind. The Westy did not like wind when it came from three places, port, starboard and the bow. In fact once we got into the West Texas wilds the sidewinds nearly were blowing us off the road, and driving at anything over 50 mph the van was almost unmanageable. Loaded with luggage, the rear heavy tendency of the Type 2 was even worse than usual, and the Westys are rather top heavy to boot, it felt like trying to navigate a boat in rough seas with all the weight in the stern. So at one rather dismal rest stop where we licked our wounds and contemplated turning back, an idea came to me; add ballast to the front. Lots of large rocks were soon gathered and about 200 pounds worth were placed between the front seats, here they remained until we arrived in Bakersfield, CA. And son of a gun it worked! The van was much more manageable and speeds could be increased to 60, we were practically flying along, but you still had to actively drive it, if you know what I mean, wink wink, nudge nudge. Plinkers in Caravans passed me at 85 with one hand on the wheel and the other on their diet soda, but whatever.
Problem two; the AC. Oh for sure it worked, the AC. But the problem was obvious to anyone with less VW lust in their eye than me, there was simply too much volume for that little dash mounted unit to fill with cool air. You only had cool air coming out of the dash, it lacked the inner roof mount unit, and the lack of serious insulation and the large space quickly rendered the AC as pointless as teats on a bull beyond about 18” inches from the dash. Plinkers in Voyagers passed us with the windows all up and their dual AC units blowing frost on their spoiled back seat rugrats, but whatever.
Problem three; the power. There actually wasn’t any, and that was the problem. With the AC running who knows how many of those original 67 ponies were actually making the wheels go round, and whatever that number was it wasn’t enough. Any hill at all caused speed to drop, a lot. I noticed that, distressingly, my foot was buried on the floor a depressingly large amount of time and it still didn’t help. I became a topography expert, noticing even the slightest upgrade that was coming up and accelerating like mad to try to get some speed up before that hill stole it all away. Downshift you say? Of course. How about second, will second work for you? Oh, OK, first it is, then. Conformist plebs in Grand Caravans scooted by me, their startled minions little faces plastered in the back windows, looking puzzled, at the slow, ancient, lime green VW van that was straining with all its might to pull the “hill” in second gear while their dad’s shiny new van was flying up it at 80 as mom and dad full-bore argued about whatever it is middle-class couples argue about in the middle of nowhere New Mexico at 80mph on I-10, but whatever.
Problem four; breakdowns. Yeah, things broke. But hey I wrench and of course brought enough tools to do a full rebuild on the side of the road if need be. I mean come on, if you’ve ever owned an old VW you know what I mean, you never leave home without enough gear to at least drop the engine and replace a valve, right? The biggest problem was the FI, it kept cutting in and out and that was simply not good, not good at all, and beyond my ken to fix on the side of a road near Wasteland, AZ.
Finally we arrived in Bakersfield where my folks lived for needed R and R (rest and repairs). The rocks came out and were planted in mom’s flowerbeds as a decorative West Texas highlight. I got some concrete to replace them, yup, poured it right into the front console thing between the seats and then attached some weights under the front end as well. Fixed the FI with a new mass airflow meter, and patched a few other things, and set off for Silverdale, WA with a few stops to see friends along the way. Believe it or not the rest of the trip was mechanically uneventful, and once we got into the Great Pacific Northwest and could turn off the AC we even had a little more power to fight those hills and headwinds. But the Pacific Northwest led to a discovery of another issue.
Problem five; heat. Actually there wasn’t any. Not real heat. Oh sure, some warmish air came out from the vents when you pulled the lever up, ha ha ha. Very funny, you people who want heat, bah, the love burning in your hearts for all things VW should keep you warm! VW uber Alles!
Upon returning to Texas I did a few things to help with some of the very, very minor problems the trip uncovered. Bought a full set of sway bars and installed them to help with that little side wind problem. Dang if they didn’t almost make my ancient German box on wheels almost handle decently! Installed a header exhaust system to eek more power out for the hills. Installed an oil cooler. Installed an electric interior heater. Rigged the fridge to also be drainable to serve as an ice chest. Installed a porta-pottie for complete and utter independence from needing to even stop for peeing. My wife and I worked out a system of switching drivers at speed so we could go back and pee, cruise control works great for that. I’m telling ya, it was the PERFECT vehicle!
We had many an adventure with the Westy, including one priceless trip to New Orleans which ended with us having to replace all four tires because the roads there ruptured them all. New tourism motto for New Orleans, “Come and get four new tires on us!” Oh there were endless little issues with the van, but nothing a lot of blood, sweat, tears and money could not fix. Many a late night working under the glare of incandescents passed, desperately trying to get part A back onto part B without breaking part C in the process.
But I was never gonna sell my baby! No way.
Well time passed, and a couple years later we moved to California for schooling. I was working on a MA degree in some pointless thing or other in my usual quixotic quest. We towed the Westy behind our U-Haul as we came out West, and landed in Fresno. (motto: “Fresno: at least it’s not Modesto!”) Now comes the kicker, in order to register the van in the Great and Wonderful State of California, a special little sunflower of a land if ever there was one, it had to pass a smog check. Uh. Uh. I threw all that stuff away back when I upgraded the engine in Texas. Okay, crap, now I gotta find smog parts for an ancient Type 2 and somehow manage to get it to pass biannual smog checks for as long as I live here. Expletives. I start tracking down smog gear I’d need, and talking to guys who own late 70’s FI VWs and find that smogging them is a black art, not for the timid, and not a sure thing at all. “Like dude, you might have to sell it, dude” seemed the general thinking.
OK, uh, maybe I will sell my beloved Bus. And I had to admit that I’d grown weary with its endless little problems, and was really ready to get something else, maybe even ready to finally give up and join the Great American Mainstream™ and buy a normal car like everyone else. A car with real heat and AC, with actual handling in wind, and with enough power to merge onto the freeway without the sounds of the screams of terror of your passengers being the last thing you hear. So I put an ad in the local Thrifty Nickel. Got a few desultory calls, nothing much, till one guy suggested a trade, even Steven, his car for mine. He came and showed me his, I did likewise, we both liked what we saw and signed the titles on the spot. He drove away with my trusty, sort of, Westy bus and I admit freely before men that I cried a tear as it puttered away. I’ve missed that darn thing ever since. Rats.
Oh, and what did I take in trade? Remember this is our only car and it’s for my young family, which needs reliable transportation. Well, sitting in my parking spot as Westy drove away was a mint, and I mean MINT condition 1951 Ford F-1 with the 100 horse flathead V-8 and a bench seat for the kiddo to perch in the middle.
But that’s another story.