[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.
I remember the time when my wife arranged for us to drive out to the ocean with a couple of our friends in their VW bus. This was a 1964 or so with all the extra little windows around the roof. They showed up at our place with the bus, all their gear, and their collie dog, and I soon saw that the bus interior looked like it had never been cleaned. I got out the old Kirby and cleared a couple of bags full of dog hair etc. out of it to get it to the point where I would ride in it. I drove it for a few miles that weekend, but don’t remember that much about it…apparently it drove as I had expected it to.
I had a Vanagon Westfalia…had it in the Navy; my plan was to explore the California coast on my off time…camping on the beach; living free. I discovered a few things:
1) Law enforcement, EVERYWHERE, is suspicious of these buses just parked. If you’ve set up shop with a firepit and chairs and fly, you get hit with a “no camping” ordinance. If you’re just there, they’ll take your bus apart, make sure that everyone in there is grown-up and of their own free will, and set you off with a curse and a threat.
2) Camping in one of those things…is DIRTY. You track dirt everywhere. The dirt you’d leave at the front mat of your home…the floor space is just about that size; and gets about as dirty as the foyer to the front door. Water, if any, is limited; we take washing so much for granted, we don’t even think about how often we wash up.
3) Living like that…is CLAUSTROPHOBIC. If you’re on the beach, you’ve got plenty of room to spread out. Except that camping on most beaches is a no-no. If you’re in a parking-lot-sized camping-area lot, there’s just an outdoor table where you can hear your neighbors carry on and get eaten by mosquitoes; or you can go in the van, be cramped, and listen as said mosquitoes find holes in your window screens.
It is no good, I tell ya. Frankly, on a road trip…I’d rather pack a tent; and when budget allows, stay at a nice hotel. Maybe one every other night; or every third night…chance to take a hot bath and wash the road nast off the bod.
I’d done the road-trip number in everything from a station-wagon to a VW, to a motorcycle. Never had the money for an RV; watching those retired guys fight to keep those things, with the aerodynamics of a styrofoam brick, in their lane…I won’t try. Give me a cycle and a VISA card…and the open road beckons.
I’m with you all the way! I got pulled over in that bus a lot. I have since owned a 79′ ASI camper and a Vanagon ASI camper. Came to the same conclusion.
I am not much of a camper, either. Last year the kiddies wanted to try and the wife and I were kept awake all night by drunk teenagers. This year we are staying in nice hotels.
RVs can be just as claustrophobic. As a teen, I went on a family vacation in a rented RV that lasted several days. 6 people in the thing and it got pretty small for as big as it was. Plus it was loads of fun on the east coast in the summer of 1979 when there were lines at gas stations everywhere. Good times.
You wrote 71′ Westfalia and it put the image of a 71-foot VW Bus in my head!
The ’71 bus was 15′ long. A 71′ ’71 bus would be 28′ wide and 33′ tall. Basically a two-story house on wheels. Plus the pop-up. Now there’s an idea for your next house, Paul….
Love the comments and thoroughly agree. Little mom & pop motels far from freeways are the way to go on the road.
+1 to the roadside motel. We need to keep them alive!
If I were a few years younger I’d probably try to find one of these (or a Vanagon) as an extreme back up vehicle just in case something catastrophic happens.
Claustrophobic? Sure.. But back around late 08 I learned a hard lesson. Fresh out of the big D, losing my job and fighting with my former employer for unemployment I ran out of money. Lost the house, I was renting so I left voluntarily, and had to take up residence in my 97 Ram extended cab with my 2 dogs and anything I could carry. That my friends is a tight squeeze!
Getting a Vanagon would pretty much insure something catastrophic happening.
When something did happen, and it will with anything mechanical, it was definitely catastrophic – as I learned. The Volkswagen dealer network, as I found out, is comprised with people who in another time, would have made their money out of the village graveyard late at night.
The Vanagon itself, I can find little to fault. Drove superbly, for a short, tall rig. Nice road manners; good feel on the controls. And – the safety gurus notwithstanding – I LIKED sitting way up front, ahead of the axle. Of course, that does increase risk…life is all about choices; costs and benefits.
But a simple failure of the fuel pump, after 30 months of owning it, turned into six weeks of hair-pulling and over a thousand dollars at two dealerships. I can IMAGINE what a true catastrophic failure would have done…probably have me walking away from it.
As much as i now despise Vanagons, take a look at the crash test videos. It does quite well.
Hence the few years younger part. Subtract 14 years and I would have pulled the trigger on one.
The Ram may have more actual floor space than the VWs now that she’s sporting a high top shell.
Late ’08 was hell.
Finally! I extend my warmest welcome to “Curbside Classic”, Old Coot!
Welcome indeed! Does Obbop’s Evil Twin speak with his own tongue too?
A guy I got to know thru my room mate when on Okinawa during my second trip owned an early VW bus – the one with the pop-open windshield for ventialtion. I especially liked the pop-open windshield! I thought the entire vehicle was really cool, as it was in very good shape inside and out, although I’m sure summer drives weren’t all that pleasant!
As this guy and my room mate were aspiring hippies/freaks, they paired up after both had gotten out of the air force. They showed up at my base in California shortly after they got out – and the VW was now state-side!
I can’t and won’t speculate on those two as to the nature of their friendship – one was tall, my former room mate on Okinawa was short and both were fat, ’nuff said!
That was the last I ever saw them (1973), as they were setting off touring the country ala the song “Me And You & A Dog Named Boo” sans dog.
Yeah sounds like the bus crowd
I travelled in a VW Kombi van for a while slow noisy poor brakes and lights that dont These things were very popular in Aussie but the early upright motor from the beetle is rubbish they cant cope with hot weather at all and constant running at 100 kmh is beyond a VW van The later suitcase engine is much better and at least can keep up with traffic on the flat and cruise at 110kmh all day much more expensive to rebuild but they last longer.
My mom’s 1968 Westfalia would go about 60,000 miles between rebuilds… I took my driving test in it… which was a bummer, cos I had only driven it a few times, and getting into reverse (with the extra-long shift lever– not the same as the bug) made me look like a fool in front of the examiner! Luckily, he let me pass, when I explained it was NOT my normal vehicle! After years of use and abuse, the VW went to my younger brother, and was later sold… last time we saw it, the Westfalia was sitting in a gas station down in Ventura… perhaps another hippie fixed it up?
Yep, every 60k is about right.
I had a ’72 9-passenger VW bus. Least reliable car I ever owned. Fortunately, I had lots of VW wrench experience, so there was nothing I couldnt fix, cheaply. The twin carb 1.7 “pancake” engine did propel it along surprisingly well. I took it to Mammoth on a ski trip filled with eight people and gear. I was passing Datsun pickups on the grades. The CHP waived me through snow chain checkpoints along with the 4×4’s.