Curbside Outtakes: A Trip to Buslab – A Volkswagen Journey, Type II

One thing you will see a lot of in Berkeley, is Volkswagen Type II’s (Transporters, Microbuses), or simply “VW Buses” as they are known colloquially in America.  Not as many 1st or 2nd generations around as there used to be, but there are still a number of them about, and a lot of (3rd generation) Vanagons of all shapes and sizes.  One notable characteristic is the density of these buses tends to increase as one approaches the Berkeley/Oakland border, near the (in)famous “Here There” sculpture, which somewhat ironically memorializes the Gertrude Stein quote “There is no There there” about Oakland.

The magnetic attraction of this locality is no mystery, as a previous post documented, the field of its influence can be felt throughout the New World, and possibly beyond (I would be not surprised if I found that Alien Visitors preferred VW Buses as their form of terrestrial transport).  The stickers which announce allegiance to this oasis of boxer bliss are found on their wards throughout the city.

This past Memorial Day weekend I began a quest to visit the center of it all.  Our journey begins on a typical residential street in Berkeley, where without much looking we come across our first automotive field bird, perhaps indicating we must be closer to our destination.

It’s a 1986 Vanagon, rather late in the run.  Having been manufactured for the U.S. market after mid-1982 means it has the water-cooled “Wasserboxer” engine, identified by the second lower grille (thanks esteemed editor-in-chief Paul). Looks to be in pretty good shape!

The rear window shade is a good feature.  I like the near-disc hubcaps.

It’s a full-on camper, ready to go at the moment’s notice.  The cloth seats are in pretty good shape.

One of my dear Aunts had one of these for the longest time, I think I was able to ride in it once.  I was always fascinated by the incredibly long shifter, I always wondered if it would be too “wobbly” for good shifting.  Of course, I hadn’t really considered that, in terms of the entire path back to the transmission, this was just the tip of the iceberg, and perhaps the stiffest member of that unlikely linkage.

That table looks like it would be perfect for an impromptu board meeting, if your foundation was very, very small.

No “Buslab” sticker on this one.  So we must be still a little ways from our goal.

Just a block away, we come across the next harbinger of VW-land, one a little worse for wear, and parked right next to an Oldsmobile which may be the subject of its own CC some day.

This example is a perhaps a bit more characteristic of the typical “Berkeley-Bus”.  There is the requisite Bernie Sanders sticker, and a sticker which I believe indicates the owner is from the Ivory Coast.

And it has the sticker!  A sure sign we are close to the land of plenty, well, if you favor VW buses.

This one’s a 1990, just a couple of years before the Vanagon was replaced in the U.S. market by the Eurovan.

It’s had a bit harder life, but one can see it has been outfitted with a cell-phone holder in a convenient place for navigation, so it must be getting around some.  Those green headrests are a bit jarring, I cannot conceive of a time when they were actually appealing.

We round the corner, and yes, I think I see it! VW-land-ho!  With a few denizens surrounding it, waiting to be let into the promised land, perhaps.

Getting a little closer, that second-generation Transporter deserves an inspection.

It’s pre-smog, so it must be quite elderly, though I have no idea what year it is exactly.  Those are the early-style (1972 and earlier) taillights, I think.

After a lull in the early 2000’s, the housing crisis in the Bay Area has increased once more the popularity of the VW Microbus, for obvious reasons.

From the front, it looks like a “high-light” version, e.g. from after 1972 and later.  But the grille also looks somewhat mangled.  Really this might be an amalgam of parts from many years.

Just one more fjord to cross, and we will reach land!

Of course, the first creature we meet upon landing on the beach is a monster of some kind.  I hope it is friendly, or at least can be mollified with some treats.

A lot of stories on the back of this bus, not all of them family-friendly.  The only Margot I know was famous for Superman movies, and sadly passed away not so long-ago.  I don’t think this Margot was into dating Clark Kent.

One might not be able to mollify this monster with treats, but maybe a couple of rear tires to match the front ones, or front ones to match the rear ones.  Who is Margot?  How did she get marooned in Dubuque?  How did she escape?  What does any of that have to do with soup?  Or Bernie Sanders? So many questions.

I went back later in the week and talked with the owner of another of these vans, and he told me that “Margot” was named after Gwyneth Paltrow’s character Margot Tenenbaum in The Royal Tenenbaums, that it has a Subaru boxer engine installed, is NOT a Syncro, and is waiting for the rear fenderwell to be modified so the same tires as currently on the front can be fitted.   Like I said, so many questions.

Ah, now we are in the belly of the beast.  Seems like some folks are working, even on a holiday.  Somehow, I don’t think Paul Simon was writing about this kind of Boxer.

Here is our next occupant of the “beach”.  It’s a 1987.

Notably, it contains the cool “spinner knob” on the steering wheel.  If you have one of those, you are “the business”.

Especially if you have an embroidered coat-of-arms in place of the horn button on your steering wheel.

Looks like something has been leaking, or has leaked.  Maybe just malfunctioning rain gutters?  Those are some ugly wheel covers.

Just walk right in to “Wheels and Deals” and we’ll set you up with a deal on a box on some wheels.

Now we are in the heart of the Buslab.  What treasures will we unearth?

Well, another VW camper.  These VW campers were available in both “pop-up top” and without the pop-up top, and with various options for side-tents.  This one has another style of wheels that I like, though I think they would be hard to clean.  That Yamaha two-stroke dirt bike looks to have a home-brewed monoshock swingarm, which is actually rather nifty.

Kinda plane-Jane in the back.  Not even a bumper-sticker.

Note the distinct lack of a lower grille.  That means it’s an air-cooled Vanagon, from mid-1982 or before, back to mid-1979 the year the Vanagon (T3, or third-generation Type II) was introduced.


Relatively intact and comfortable passenger compartment.

A pretty standard Vanagon Westfalia Camper, a little worse for wear.

Behind the fence is some second-generation Type II goodness, and its boxer relative and spiritual successor (strangely enough, to BOTH the VW Bus and the Volvo 240), a Subaru wagon.

If we retreat across one inlet of the fjord to a nearby island, we can get a better view of murky depths of the Buslab.

They are just waiting to be let out of their cage, their rear-drive, rear-engine, boxer (sometimes air-cooled, even) weirdness waiting to infect another generation of Berkeleyites with their slow, devil-may-care wanderlust.

What’s this, a few more down the fjord?

This is a very special T3 Microbus indeed.  It’s got a Wasserboxer engine, as noted by the second grille.

It has the rare automatic transmission.  Which must make it even more incredibly slow to accelerate than the regular Microbus.

Looks to be in pretty good shape.  Another different wheel design.  In some cases, I would guess that was the only thing that changed between years.

Our next hopeful has definitely lost a few battles with pirates, and has the requisite eye patch.

In fact, in one of the last pirate raids, this unfortunate landlubber lost its driver’s seat!  That’s some hard sailing.

Looks like the pirates stole away one of the taillight lenses as well.  Could be this particular victim have met his match not from any random pirate raid, but perhaps a scuffle down at the Kingfish Pub, which like this Microbus is a survivor, the entire building having been moved down the street from its original in recent years to make way for an apartment building, “OI”.

Our last boxer-powered box refugee is actually more of an exile, parked a bit down the fjord along one of the islands.  It does NOT have a Westfalia camper, rather it is a custom job which is rather pointedly “NOT A POPE HAT”.

Pretty spacious, but not a  pop-top like many of the other Westfalias.  More along the lines of the minihome and it’s ilk.

This one has an unusual gear-shift knob, and an interesting mascot along the dash.

Always keep a skull on the dash to let the passing pirates know you aren’t to be trifled with.  Maybe that’s why this particular example still has it’s driver’s seat.

Definitely, this is a vehicle for CAMPING.

This would normally be the end of our journey, but somehow I felt unsatisfied.  The last time I had wandered near Buslab I had seen even more quirky vehicles, including some wild Syncros.  So I decided to head back over during business hours to see what I may have missed.  Right away, we see this awesome camouflage job.

It looks ready for anything, but it’s not a Syncro, just a regular Camping model.  But that is some wild camo.

This is another special-top, non-Westfalia version, like our friend “NOT A POPE HAT”, though this one has some cool rack-like bars, I assume for strapping more stuff to the top.

The asymmetrical camouflage is quite neato.  Note the front tow-bar adapter.

Some kind of interesting solar goodie on the dash, plus a fabulous big-knob shifter, and don’t forget the picture of your loved one on the dash, if there’s room.

Ready for anything.  Some pretty awesome tires and rims too, if you like those VW steelies.

Moving close in, we see a veritable flotilla of Microbusi have arrived to pay homage.

Including that red one, our first Syncro.

It’s parked alongside a couple of other interesting Buses.  Let’s move in a little closer.

The Syncro badge.  Awesome.  Full-time All-Wheel-Drive, with a viscous coupling.  So much better, I think, than a simple transfer case without a differential, like you get in a basic Jeep or Blazer.  Never have to stop.

This one has a quite big awning along the side.  Makes it easier to do shady things, if you have a lot of shade.

The whole thing has been repainted, I think, but it looks good.  Westfalia camper top.

Here’s that “Puch” badge, another clear identifier of a Syncro.  I have been informed by our esteemed editor-in-chief that these Puch badges were typically added by the owners.  Looks right at home.

Just behind it is this nice Camper, which is cool and all, but nothing in particular to recommend it.  But check out what’s behind it!

It’s this neat Type 3 Fastback.

A little worse for wear.

It’s amazing, if you think about it, that this tiny Type 3 and the (relatively) enormous Type 2’s which surround it share the same basic powertrain and underpinnings.

I remember sitting in VW Beetles a number of times.  It seems to me that the seat and door panel materials, or at least the material suppliers, were shared between VW for the Beetle and the Type 3 and BMW for the 1600/2002.  German Black Vinyl.

I remember, even as a kid, finding myself completely devoid of any leg room in the back of a VW Beetle.  Are the Type 3’s noticeably better?  This one looks to be so.  Could just be the front seat is adjusted forward.

Right behind the Type 3 is this second-generation Type II.  The turn signals seem to have been body-molded out of sight, but from the square bumper I would think this is from after the 1973 model year restyle.

I remember from my experience of watching my Aunt drive her Type 2 that they seemed rather “tippy”.  That could just be an optical illusion, given the low and rearward weight distribution.  Hey, I didn’t know much, I was 10 years old or something like that, and all I knew was that a VW Bus was weird, and not either a Volvo or a Dart.  Maybe if you lower them they handle better.  But they probably still won’t win any autocrosses, and lowered they wouldn’t win an award for highway comfort, either.

Along with your cool lowered body and those neat seat covers, you also get an automatic transmission, with instructions on how to start it taped to the dash.

Definitely after the restyle, with those newfangled tail-lamps.  The “XFL” seems somewhat out-of-character for a VW Microbus fan.  What did Joaquin Andujar say was his favorite word in the English language?  “YouNeverKnow“.

Coming up just after the “Black Bus” is another – Syncro! Though this time missing the “Puch” badge out front.

This one isn’t a camper, but it does have a handy roof-rack.  I assume one could sleep up there on a nice evening.  Maybe even pitch a tent.

I imagine with the Syncro underpinnings requiring a raised chassis, the Microbus is even more “tippy”, though some deem otherwise.

There are even more Buses downriver!  But the owners were in the middle of bringing them inside, so we couldn’t get any shots of those.

But never fear, there are even more refugees on the island than last time!  Just upstream from “NOT A POPE HAT”.

This one comes with its own rescue-backplane.

This one is a “Land Hopper”.  In case merely traversing terrain isn’t enough.

And this one is the Holy Grail, a VW Vanagon Pickup, with the Crew-Cab.  Not Four-Doors (only three, as we shall see), but still mighty trick.  Probably not a true competitor to Dodge, but still useful for crews that needed a pickup, but needed to carry stuff that was more bulky than heavy.

And it’s a Syncro.  So you and your crew could get your stuff practically anywhere.  As long as you were willing to wait.

A three-door, nonetheless!  So your crew had easy ingress and egress.

And some comfy seats.  Lots of headroom.

Lots of legroom, too.

And a pleasant enough driver’s compartment, if rather spartan.  You might want to dress warmly, too, that heater says “heat”, but it doesn’t say how much.

Next we have…

Another Syncro!  And with 2 spare tires to boot.

I guess, for a fee, Buslab will take you out yonder, and back here.  If you were in Australia, it would take you out back, and yonder here.  Or something like that.

You get some nice comfy seats, not just a bench.

Finally, perhaps saving the best for last, we have this nice Syncro “Transporter”.  Notice the nice “Puch” badge.

Some more of those VW Steelies that I like so much for some reason.  Notice the awning stowed away but ready at a moment’s notice.

I really do like that Puch badge.

So here it is again.

Sadly, now we must bid adieu to Buslab, before its denizens awake and taunt you with all manner of folk songs, frisbees, tie-died t-shirts, and shouts of “groovy”.  I hope this inspires you to take a trip, see the world, make some friends.  It’s way more fun if you can open the side door, let people sit at your table, and if you are so inclined, pop the top.

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