COAL: 1973 Volkswagen Type 2 Westfalia Camper – Not Quite Enough Crumple Zone

(Welcome our newest COALman. He has a short series of six cars, and then our next new COALer will start his series).

Driving to the store the other day with my daughter in the rocket seat, I was flipping through radio stations until I happened upon “Summer Nights” by Van Halen. Say what you will about this particular 80s prom anthem, but it takes me back to a particular summer spent in the driveway of my parents’ house, grinding the dents out of a faded Volkswagen bus. There are some lessons it’s taken multiple failures for me to learn: Don’t date crazy chicks, don’t leave the toilet seat up in a house full of women, Don’t do work on spec or without a deposit, don’t do shots of tequila under any circumstances, and don’t buy a 20-year-old vehicle without knowing what you’re getting yourself into. This was the first time the Sky Pilot tried to drill that last lesson into my head, and definitely not the last.

Let me set this up: My father, in a kind gesture (no doubt brought on by fatigue related to driving me all over creation), bought me a used blue Datsun 240 at auction somewhere around my 15th birthday. For long months it sat in the garage waiting for me to gather the funds and knowledge to get it running. I should also mention here that buying cars for our family was not a big deal, because my Dad owned a repossession agency and auctioned cars all the time. We weren’t swimming in money, but good deals came up every once in a while, and a ragged out 15-year-old sportscar wasn’t worth anything to the bank by then.

I will admit the 240 was pretty cool for a first car; it was low, it wore fat racing slicks on slotted mags, and it had an aftermarket sunroof. As it sat, it would have been the envy of a certain segment of my high school, circa 1987. But I knew it wasn’t the car for me: I was challenged to stoplight duels more than once, and driving was a precious gift I didn’t want to lose. Plus, it became a cop magnet after my dad had it painted arrest-me-red. We got it running, mostly, but it was balky in cold weather and the brakes never got dialed in correctly. The last straw was when the fuel pump blew up and puked my weekly gas budget all over the road on my way to work one afternoon.

By then, I had my eye on an orange whale sitting inside the chainlink fence of our impound lot (see the Polaroid above). It was a 1973 VW T2 camper van sitting on four bald tires. The headlights had been punched in by a front end collision at some point (insert foreshadowing music here). The paint was faded, but there was no evident rust. The engine took several liberal stomps of the gas to wake and missed on one cylinder. The interior stank of mildew and German upholstery. It was an early-70’s European living room on wheels with a built-in wet bar; I was in love.

For the kingly sum of $400, it was mine. I think my Dad was disappointed I wasn’t interested in his gift Datsun, but the pro/con matrix I drew on a sheet of tabloid paper for my parents spelled out my intentions: The sports car was impractical and dangerous. The bus was spacious, thrifty on gas, and wouldn’t make it over 70MPH on a downhill slope. Plus, I had private visions of camping trips with friends, out-of-state road trips, and eventually packing it with all of my junk for a trip to college. I’m sure, in hindsight, it would have been a magnet for the crusty patchouli-stinking trustafarians at my art school, even if I looked like I stepped out of a J.Crew catalog.

So, I spent the spring of 1988 with an angle grinder in my hand, smoothing out high spots around the headlight buckets. It was my first experience with a slaphammer, bondo, wet/dry sandpaper, and auto primer. It went pretty well, too; I’d say it was about a 10-footer when I was done. My Dad noticed how much time I was putting in on the body, had his body guy respray it in VW orange, and it looked much more presentable even if the faded patina I liked was gone. Meanwhile, a visit to the mechanic, a rebuilt carb, and several Benjamins had the 4-banger running smoothly.

The author on the day it got back from paint. That’s the impound lot behind me.

It was a stick, and it featured the longest gear lever I’ve ever thrown. Because the shift linkage traveled all the way to the back, it took a while to master the spongy feel of the gears compared to the tight Japanese econoboxes I’d learned on. Plus, VW’s odd placement of reverse (mush down and to the left) made parking a challenge. The engine put out more power than I thought it would, though–to a point. As other people have probably mentioned on these pages, the wheel was enormous but tilted way forward like a dump truck. I recall that the steering was tight but took some adjustment, as the driver’s seat is directly above the wheels.

After it came back from the mechanic, I unbolted everything above the roofline and spread it out on the lawn. I used a bucket of laundry detergent and several stiff brushes to scrub the grime out of the plaid fabric and off the fiberglass while the upholstery inside ran through the washer. When it all went back together, the bus stank of cleaner until the day I sold it. To this day the smell of Simple Green puts me back behind the huge wheel of that puttering beauty.

One unusual feature of my van was that the top was backwards compared to a lot of the other camper vans I’ve seen; the front 3/4 tilted up from a hinge above the windshield and the back 1/4 was a storage rack. Most of the others I’ve seen have the storage up front. I don’t know if this was unusual or not; maybe other people can weigh in here (Ed: Westfalia made both kinds).  My Mom got on my Dad about the tires, so we sprung for four new all-weather radials and he had them mounted with the white side out, to my dismay.

That summer, I played OU812 through my aftermarket Blaupunkt tape deck endlessly while I drove it to marching band practice with all of the drumline gear stuffed in back, to and from my friends’ houses, and later to high school, where I definitely had the most unusual ride in the parking lot. I even found it a cooler place to sleep than my un-air conditioned sweatbox of a bedroom: I popped the top up in the driveway, opened the hammock, and slept outdoors all summer until the weather got too cold. Sleeping on the big bed in back was possible but smelled a little too much like gas for me. There was also an interesting setup up front, where a hammock hooked into clips on the A and B pillars, and created another sleeping area over the front seats.

Parked at marching band practice (note the drums in the upper right). 

I had my misadventures with her as time went by; working on the engine was a back-breaking experience due to its location and the non-ergonomic location of the rear hatch. I learned how to roll-start a manual when I had some problems with the battery and a bad ground. Changing plugs wasn’t as easy as it looked on my Dad’s F350, which had an engine bay the size of a dumpster. I found out the hard way about cross-threading spark plugs in an aluminum block when I blew one out of the socket hard enough to drive it into the overhead access hatch. I nursed it home on three cylinders and explained the problem to my Dad, and he had his mechanic repair it with a helicoil.

She met her final day head-on, like a proper German. Driving a friend home from school the fall of my senior year, I crested a hill at about 35mph. There was no time to brake for a Sentra which pulled into the intersection without looking. Its bumper rode up onto mine and pushed the sheet metal into the cabin until it was about 6″ from my passenger’s knees; I bounced off the dashboard and steering column and stalled the engine, surprised at how fast everything had happened. I checked on Sue, my passenger, who was white as a sheet but OK, then got out and checked on the other driver, a shaken middle-aged woman.

After the cops showed up and took the report, Sue’s parents came and got her (this happened only 1/4 mile from her house) and the leaking Sentra got towed away. Not thinking clearly (but still pragmatically), I got back in the bus (both doors still opened and closed perfectly), fired it up, and headed home. My parents were out of town, so I parked it in the driveway and used my Mom’s car to drive to school the next day. The bus sat for a month or so until I decided for good that I didn’t feel safe in it, and we sold it shortly afterwards.