Cars Of A Lifetime: 1978 VW Bus – The Hippie Lifestyle Goes Up In Smoke

[Hippie bus pictures by PN, which were just waiting for the right article]

After my undying affair with the Citation I strayed further down the road to becoming a useless hippie. And one requisite piece of kit for a real hippie is a VW bus. I had bought a ’71 Westfalia for parts hoping to find another that needed them. Eventually I did, a 1978 seven passenger. The hippies that owned it told me it had lots of engine problems so it was cheap. When I went to see it, it had been sitting on the street for some time. A charged up battery got it to start but only two cylinders were working. I checked the compression and all was well, so I knew I could fix it. Of course, nothing is permanent, especially with old VWs.

When I got it home the first thing I did, after confirming that the bad cylinders were sparking OK, was go down to the public library and copy off the appropriate pages from the Mitchell electronic fuel injection manual. I have always been pretty good with electronics so this was right up my alley. I ended up making several diagnostic tools and eventually got the problem sorted out, though I can’t remember now what it turned out to be.

Right after we got all the cylinders firing we decided to drive her to a restaurant for a bite to eat. It was fall and there was a chill in the air. One interesting thing about VW’s is their “unique” heating system. One of the features of this system is that the always rusty heat exchangers sit right below the always leaky valve covers. It takes quite a long time for the exchangers to get really hot. Now after enough oil dripping into them and not having heated them up all the way for a long time, a nice pool collects inside them, this I did not know. But suffice it to say that by the time we arrived at the restaurant we were suffering from the early stages of carbon monoxide poisoning and reeked of motor oil. I really would never repeat that mistake again.

After replacing the valve covers and running the heater for an extended period all was well. But the interior was pretty shabby. So we pulled the nice stuff from the 71′ Westy and made a Daytripper with the fold down bed, cabinets, and such, but no pop-top. It looked really nice after I re-finished the cabinets, but the headliner was tattered. So I replaced that with a sheet of maple veneer and finished it all with Danish oil varnish.

Then it came time to scrap the old ’71. One thing I had not considered was that it had no windshield, steering wheel, or brakes. But my friend Brent of 79′ Ford pickup fame was available to help. The scrap metal yard was only about two miles away. So in the end we attached a pair of locking pliers to the steering shaft to steer with, Brent put on some goggles, and we towed it with a strap behind the 78′ bus, real slow. Of course with no brakes the back bumper took a beating, but the back bumper from the 71′ was there for replacement. I still will never forget the site of Brent behind me steering with the pliers and squinting through his goggles!

One more thing I did to it was to pull the engine, replace the clutch, and go all through it with cleaner, new gaskets, and paint. Of course I had no shop so I ended up dragging it down the gravel alley of my parent’s house with a chain and dead lifting it up to a dirty workbench in the tool shed. I also lost track of which parts went which way when I put it back together so I just guessed, oh well.

After our repair and restoration adventures, that bus proved to be a very reliable and handy vehicle. With the 1.8 liter motor and fuel injection it was never slow, not even in the mountains. We used it to haul a piano once, hauled a small camper trailer, and we drove it over mountain trails that were 4×4 only many times and never got stuck.

And then there was the great flood of 96′. I soon learned that fuel injected VW buses are nearly boats on wheels. The streets were so flooded in some areas that many cars were stalled out and flooded. But the bus just drove on through. I even added  an upright tailpipe extension made from a 90 degree exhaust pipe piece in order to get Michelle to work at the hospital which sat between an overflowing stream and a flooded low area.

Many times the headlights were fully submerged and opening the doors afterwards would yield gallons and gallons of water. I did nearly get swept away crossing the Yamhill river. The river had changed course and was now flowing fully over the country road I needed to be on. There was no way around so I just drove through. the bus was so airtight that it began to float sideways in the middle of the river. I gave her more gas to keep the back wheels spinning and it just then grabbed traction.  In retrospect, I should have opened the doors like the Land Rover folks do. Or better yet turned around and gone back.

I must now relate to you dear readers the story of the one time I did get stuck, but it was not off-road. We moved out of my parent’s house and because I was an aspiring hippie, I was seeking alternative ways of living. So we got a little leaky old (1937) camper trailer with nothing but a bed and a shelf in it and hooked it up to our bus. We alternated living at the three different Walmart parking lots in Salem and a couple of other sites. We even got to know a few people who did the same thing. One of them was a dad raising his daughter in a converted school bus. It was pretty nice actually with a wood stove, shower, toilet, couch, TV, etc.

We eventually found a semi permanent spot behind the VW junkyard just outside of town. The owner liked us to watch over the yard at night. I had also obtained a 1978 VW Rabbit (more on that latter) and parked it out there as well. One fine day I was by myself and had been eying a piece of property that I wanted to drive back on. It was off the road but there was no driveway. So I got in the bus and proceeded to straddle the ditch along the roadside.

However, I ended up with one front wheel and one back wheel in the air. No progress could be made. Just as I got out, a kid came riding by on his bike. He stopped to marvel at my foolishness. I asked him if he could stand on the front bumper for me and he agreed. That lowered the back offside tire enough to get just enough traction to reverse. But as I reversed I straightened it out and ended up with all four wheels spinning over the ditch, suspended only by my bumpers. So I asked the kid if he knew how to drive, “sure” he said.

So I got the Rabbit and strapped it up to the bus. I told the kid to put the bus in reverse and give it a little gas and then to brake as soon as it was free. He asked which pedal the gas was, a bad sign. But I was desperate as it was a busy road which I was now blocking one lane of, and if the police came by they would dock me for trespassing as well. So I gave the kid a short instructional on what to do. I put it in reverse for him and got in the Rabbit. I put her in reverse and pulled away.

I had attached the tow strap to the front bumper mount, but as I pulled, it slipped to the middle and the bumper became a very aerodynamic V in shape. But the bus was moving so I did not want to stop. The bus grabbed traction and rocketed towards the Rabbit. I backed up a little more and the bus hit my front bumper right in the middle, bending it back almost perfectly straight! I thanked the kid and gave him 20 bucks for helping me. I got off the road and a line of cars that had accumulated passed us bye, leering and honking.

The wife was none to fond of being a real hippie and hated our leaky little trailer. So I was eventually forced to pay “the man” and get in an apartment. Shortly thereafter the bus suddenly began belching white smoke. So much so that one could literally not see the bus inside the plume! I am sure it had something to do with my poor workmanship in the tool shed, but it had gone almost a year. I had no place to work on it and already owned several other cars. So I sold it to our friend at the VW junkyard and there it died a slow death, piece by piece. I do almost feel a bit sad for it. But it marked the end of my hippie aspirations. The coffee shop had closed down, the bus was dead, and I had just found out a baby was on the way. Really, a happy end to a pathetic era.