An automotive affliction, originally derived from the Latin: tibi (you) horrendum (have horrible) gustus (taste) in curruss (cars). Characterized by delusions of grandeur, an unchecked willingness to repeatedly empty one’s wallet, and recurring bouts of existential frustration.
It all started with Hot Wheels and Legos, of course.
Just like so many of you, as a child, I could name makes and models of cars effortlessly and accurately. My parents acknowledged that this was a unique skill, but one I was unlikely going to be able to exploit for any purpose in the Real World. I had a bucket of rusty die cast cars of all sorts, though my favorites were a pair of two-toned Vanagons; one had an aqua and navy blue paint scheme, the other was orange and tan. Both had little Westfalia style tops that popped up, and impressions of little road bikes stamped onto the back.
Growing up in California, I’d often see the real things, loaded up and chugging slowly along the road, and I would wonder about their drivers. Where were they going? On the highway of life, these drivers seemed to be in no great hurry. And they were cruising along in tiny, portable adventure machines! Even the daffy, eight year-old me could tell that RVs were bloated road hogs for old farts on a last hurrah, but these – now these – I could imagine driving one day.
Last winter, when rummaging through the miscellanea collecting dust in my parents’ attic, I came across a Lego rendering of what could only be taken for a VW Eurovan (T4 to those outside USA). It looks like a juvenile me took some kind of Lego vehicle kit and went rogue with it (I was and remain the kind of guy to toss the manual away).
By the time I was a teen, van culture was long dead – in rigor mortis, even. The shagadelic cool of the Mystery Machine and the muscular mojo of Mr T.’s Vandura had given way to a stereotype of pedophiles and the destitute living in stinky, sleazebag relics of a bygone era.
When I reached motoring age, none of my peers would have been caught dead in a van. All of the custom conversion vans with their wall-to-wall Day-Glo carpeting, miles of yachty wood, captain’s chairs, and TVs became instant pariahs.
And yet the VW vans remained (then and now) a cult fetish worshipped by two discernable but often overlapping groups: Hippies and Adventurists.
Later, in my twenties, two older Boomer buddies of mine had camper vans, and they stoked the fires of desire in me. One friend would take his on camping trips, to outdoor concerts, to the Grand Canyon, etc. The inside of his van was decked out with all the psychedelic paraphernalia of a Hippie love shack. What quintessentially American freedom, I imagined, to spend the day kayaking or hiking, and then pull off the road, recline on your bed, pop a cold one and put your arm around your girl. The other buddy was perpetually taking off for jaunts across the contiguous US on beer safaris. He would come back after a summer of travelling with a cooler full of exotic beers and would occasionally share them with me, telling about the experiences he had while on the road: “Now this one came from a small brewery operated out of a converted three car garage about twenty miles east of Missoula.” Yes, it’s no wonder I was smitten with the idea of owning my own van one day.
Now I’m not what you’d call terribly mechanically savvy. I never took an autoshop class or had a father figure to show me how to work on cars. All the work I’ve ever done was borne out of necessity, or because I was too broke or cheap to pay a mechanic. After a series of smaller cars and wagons that weren’t cutting it when loaded with wife, dog, and all our crap (and after an aborted relationship with a Dodge Horizon van), I reckoned with my chronic case of VW-itis and the fact that nothing but a VW was going to do. I figured that with my dubious skills to fix a broken or gradually breaking one, that a VW Bus or Vanagon was out. I therefore zeroed in on the late model Eurovans (made until 2003 here in the US), reasoning idiotically that they were still new enough that they might perform well for some years to come.
Eurovans are very odd and fairly rare vehicles. In fact, I’m going to venture to guess that some of you looked at the first photo of this article and thought, “What the hell is that?” The late model ones were sold from 1999-2003, and they’re funky enough that some mechanics will flat out refuse to work on them. (Ask me how I know). Being a mechanic or having a good one is a must, as nothing is easy or intuitive on these vans; everything is covered, hermetically sealed, or idiosyncratic. Additionally, the automatic transmissions are considered to be ticking time bombs and cost somewhere in the neighborhood or $6-7k to replace. Only a fool like myself would buy one that hasn’t already had the transmission swapped out or rebuilt.
The one I ended up buying came from Santa Cruz, originally by way of Milwaukee. It’s a 2002 Eurovan Multivan (MV), which means it is the lite camper version: it has a bed and a table, but no poptop or fridge.
Out here in the Pacific Northwest, the poptop Westfalias are considered the Holy Grail. Add a poptop and the worth of the van skyrockets $10k – no kidding. Aside from its water cooled nature, what sets the Eurovan apart from its predecessors is its front mounted 2.8 VR6 engine, giving it adequate acceleration and passing power. In periods where the van has been trouble free, driving it is a joy. Fahrvergnügen!
The interior is comfortable and well thought out; the dash is logical and modern for its time, and the shorter wheelbase (compared to the full-on campers) makes the van pretty easy to park. The van does have a pretty low ground clearance, and most people who adventure off road with them raise them up more than a little bit.
The van’s Wisconsin origins meant it had some tin worm, but nothing I thought I couldn’t handle with an angle grinder. A test drive confirmed that it ran and drove, but not too much else. I donned my rose colored glasses, muzzled my inner-accountant, and ignored one defect after another. Van has rust? Probably not cancerous. Brakes squeaking? No problem – likely just needs a new set of shoes. Windows and door locks not working? Probably just a fuse like the owner suggested (but if it’s such a simple fix, why didn’t he do it himself??) Needs new tie rods? What old VW doesn’t? Windshield wipers don’t work – who needs ‘em, this is California. This, my friends, is what we call congenital VW-Itis. In hindsight, it’s a shocker that the van made it without incident back to my house.
During that first month of infatuation, I set about getting rid of the rust and making some minor repairs. During this time, I did a deep interior and exterior cleaning, replaced the 6-disc CD player (previous owner said he had no idea if it worked or not – of course it didn’t), and soldered the cracked and broken wires responsible for the loss of power windows and mirrors. Taking apart the wiper motor and tinkering with the contacts got the wipers running again.
Although I did a few things myself, there were limitations to my abilities. In truth, I had only the vaguest suspicions of how deeply this van would nickel and dime me. After a substantial investment to get the van roadworthy, I boldly set off from the Bay Area, headed for LA. It took less than 100 miles before the van started breaking down. In Soledad, after a brief respite, the van cranked but wouldn’t catch.
After a few minutes, I tried again and the engine started reluctantly on the third try. A shop in San Luis Obispo gave me a poor and misguided diagnosis, and with a lighter wallet and the van still unfixed, I continued my lugubrious descent into the bowels of hell (LA). After dark, in a seedy looking parking lot in front of a Burger King in Ventura, the engine started misfiring and the check engine light came on. Nevertheless, I had no real choice but to keep going. I got a whanger of a headache and drove white-knuckled through the gauntlet of the LA megaslopolis, flogging the ailing van some 100 miles more to my folks’ house.
When I went out to start the van the next morning, it was stone dead. No cranking, no clicking, no nothing. My mother shook her head and told me to junk the van immediately. “You don’t understand Mom,” I whined inanely, “It’s not just any van, it’s a VW camper van!” AAA came down to tow the van, but their driver, (who was obviously much more mechanically savvy than yours truly), looked into the engine bay and had an inspiration. Reaching in deep and smacking the starter with a tire iron while I attempted to engage it, he got the van to start. A few days later, I babied the van back home, where it sat in the driveway for the next few months, waiting for my wallet to catch up with its voracious appetite.
In a bout of anger-fueled, uncharacteristic pragmatism, I put the van up for sale, but I just couldn’t bring myself to sell it. I waffled and pulled the ad, rationalizing (as always) that the van could really be just one more repair away from running like a top.
Here’s how this COAL ends, and hopefully it’s a different ending from what you were suspecting: I didn’t jettison the van and then spend the next several years pining with regret for the one that got away. I didn’t fix it up only to crash it or have it suffer some catastrophic ending. Alas, the van is sitting in the driveway, right now, waiting for the next adventure. Fixed for now, it just did a nice 400-mile round trip down to Central California, and after changing out the spark plugs and starter, it looks ready for the trip I have planned to Yosemite this month.
Why do I bother driving a van that at times gives me a massive headache and is unreliable? It’s difficult to answer that cleanly or rationally. When it comes to old V-dubs, it’s not about rationality; it’s about the heart, as anyone who’s owned one will attest to. Sadly, we never got the T5 or T6 in the US, and there are a few folks rallying for VW to bring them out here, but probably not enough to make it happen. In the meantime, there is nothing new out here in the US that is like one of these; there is no substitute. Forget about the Ram Pro Master or the Dodge Sprinter or any RV for that matter. To me (and I know not all will agree), those are too big, too ugly, and lacking that special je ne sais quoi of an old VW. Yes, It has some flaws, but I love my old wayward bus. It’s a true Curbside Classic!