COAL Mini-Series: 1981 Volkswagen Westfalia Pt 1 – If Cars Could Talk

If cars could tell who’s been inside
And who’s been taking you out for a ride
Ain’t you glad (Ain’t you glad)
Mmm, ain’t you glad (Ain’t you glad)
But ain’t you glad (Glad)
Glad that cars don’t talk

If this old VW Bus could talk, it would have some stories to tell, believe you me.

Everyone I knew who owned an old VW Bus had an air of badassedness about him. You needed it to take a wheezy, 65 horsepower rolling domino with no crumple zone into the cross-fire of modern day traffic.

Robert Lindsey’s Falcon and the Snowman is a true story about two bright and disillusioned young men who sold government secrets to the Soviets at the height of the Cold War. Early in the novel, Lindsey describes a transcendental moment for the then teenaged Christopher Boyce (“The Falcon”) when a hippie in an old battered VW bus pulled up at his house because he heard that there was a young man there with an interest in falconry. That afternoon, standing over the high, rugged bluffs of the Palos Verdes Peninsula and watching the deft power of the glorious falcon swooping in on its prey and returning to the glove of the young hippie-mentor, Chris’ fundamental understanding of the majesty of nature, of predator and prey, and of the government and its subordinates shifted forever; His rebel identity as The Falcon was born.

Timothy Hutton as The Falcon in The Falcon and the Snowman (1985)


20 years later, I had high school teachers who could still remember The Falcon. “Y’know, The Falcon sat right where you’re sitting now,” rasped a grizzled veteran English teacher to my younger brother during the first week of his sophomore year. And some 20 years after The Falcon’s time, (and some 20 from our present day) I can still remember the time a forest green 1970 VW bus huffed and puffed its way to the end of my parents’ cul-de-sac because a curious classmate had heard that a fellow atheist lived there.

A wonderful but tumultuous friendship grew that day, and I can still recall the interior of that bus that was utterly original and unmolested in the late 90s when such buses could be had all-day-long for chump change. I remember one night when we drove up into the nether regions of my buddy’s subdivision with a case of cheap beer that we kept cold in the Westy’s ancient but working Dometic refrigerator. In that old bus that had already seen two or three generations come of age, we listened to Pink Floyd, philosophized, and laughed ourselves silly, crushing cans in the wee small hours while our parents slept obliviously. “Ain’t you glad that cars don’t talk”!

In my 20s, I met another guy who would have a profound influence on me, and he, too, had a bus. I remember him telling me of how it served as his life preserver after he got canned from a lucrative computer job in the early ‘90s. Unemployed, 30-something, and lacking a degree, Dave drove his bus out to Big Sur and then the Grand Canyon, where, armed with time and a 12 string guitar, he wrote instrumental songs, camped out, and “turned on, tuned in, and dropped out” from the corporate world forever. By the time we came to be friends, in the early aughts, the idea that my older friend had somehow managed to eke out a living and remain true to his artistic inclinations while living outside the margins of the 9-5 workaholic world seemed deeply radical. It festered inside of me and taught me that not all men and women over 40 had to sell their souls and die one day at a time rather than live one day at a time. Dave’s bus was an escape hatch from an increasingly chaotic, alienated, and soul-sucking workaday world, and it seemed also like a time-warp to simpler and happier times. It is no wonder that I dreamed of having my own one day.

I didn’t go right out and buy the titular bus. First, came a failed stint with a Dodge Class B RV that neither me nor my wife actually enjoyed driving. Next, I cut the cord on a 2002 VW Eurovan MV that no amount of money was going to fix right.

My first VW taught me a lot. But it just wasn’t the one.


But the latter relationship, rather than being toxic, convinced me to change my mindset. No professional mechanic was ever going to care about the soul of an old VW the way a DIY mechanic could. So I realized that I would have to learn how to wrench.

Self-kept service records on my wife’s Honda


I started by learning the ropes on our Japanese commuters. I read articles and watched DIY Youtube videos, reinvigorating an automotive passion that had been suppressed since childhood. Oil changes paved the way for more complicated jobs like water pumps, brakes, shocks and struts… After keeping our cars out of the shop for three years, VW-itis crept in again. I read and reread Adam Simpson’s amazing piece on his lifelong relationship with a VW bug. I read and reread Dave Saunders’ intoxicating auto-biographies of rehabbing and flipping old beaters and occasionally getting in over his head. And I began searching for a poptop bus that I could buy and fix up. The trouble is that these buses now fetch $$$, and they have never been known for running like Swiss watches, let alone today, when most of them are 35+ years old.

Vanagon as featured in seller’s ad


And then one day, there it was. On Craigslist, looking weathered, battle-scarred, and oh-so-groovy. The seller was a college kid in northern coastal California who was clearly in over his head with this bus.

I shot him a feeler email, and he sent me back a detailed biography of the van. Its name was “Jeddy,” and old Jeddy had spent his entire life on the mild California coast, migrating from Monterey to Santa Cruz. In the pictures, Jeddy looked sun-baked and tired, with plenty of body damage from a number of bang-ups. The front end was bashed in below the grille, and the poor guy looked like someone had busted him one in the chops.

There was a huge “hoss-kick” in the slider door, and even from the poor, low-res pictures, it was clear that there were some rust issues around the failed window seals.

Gah! Yikes – can that be fixed??


But inside, Jeddy looked like a den of iniquity with his funky leopard seats and piles of shag carpeting.

There was a marine grade auxiliary battery and an inverter to take Jeddy off the grid, and all of the 70s-cabin looking Westfalia interior was complete. And best of all, you could pop the top and sleep up there!

I remember one indulgent New Year’s Eve seven or eight years ago where me and some 50 musicians camped out on a ranch in central coast CA and jammed all night long. Late in the evening, faded and bleary-eyed, I crawled into the upper deck of my buddy’s Westy, where I passed out for the night. In the early twilight, I awoke with a blazing headache and the urge to ralph up all of the previous night’s debaucheries. I had nowhere to go, and I knew that if I ralphed in the poptop bunk that my friend would never forgive me, so I held my head in my hands and gradually and painfully worked my way through a raging hangover while my buddy sawed wood below. Ah, if cars could talk!

When I first drove out to view Jeddy, I had a hard time finding the seller’s location. During the drive, I was both nervous and excited. After I arrived and laid eyes on the bus, though, I was crestfallen. It looked so hideously faded and beaten that I knew instantly that I wouldn’t buy it.

The college kid opened up the van and showed me around. Jeddy and I happen to be coevals (born the same year), and I couldn’t believe how old and decrepit things looked inside. Once brown (and now faded putting green) shag carpet covered everything, from the ground to the panels to the sagging headliner.

The poptop tent is clearly on borrowed time.


It’s deceptive with a Vanagon because they were made for so many years and the outer looks didn’t change that much. But think about it: How many cars from 1981 are still on the road? On the inside, this thing looked as old to me as my old pal Steve’s broughamtastic ’82 LeSabre that seemed lugubriously ancient to us when he drove it as a first car in the late 90s.

The seller took the comically thin and primitive ignition key and started the old air-cooled engine; It was loud as hell.

Looks simple enough, but there’s plenty of room for things to go wrong!


Over the clattering of the engine lifters, he yelled out to me that at startup, you had to keep your foot on the gas pedal for two or three minutes or the engine would just stall out and die. What a piece of crap, I thought, as I stopped him right there, before we’d even driven the van (I couldn’t yet drive stick shift anyway), and told him “thanks but no thanks”. I told him good luck, and got into my car and drove off, doing my best to convince myself not to give this crapcan a second thought.

On the ride home, my inner accountant took stock of all the van’s maladies and how much it would cost to fix them. Part of me still wanted this old bus! I sent the seller an email thanking him for meeting me, and I made a parting lowball offer of about half of his asking price. He ignored me and life went on. Except that I couldn’t get this doleful old van out of my mind.

When I saw the pictures of its sad looking countenance (much like I feel when I look at all cute old VW mongrels), I wanted to adopt him. I monitored the ad for weeks, watching as the price gradually dropped. Eventually, I upped my offer by about five hundred bucks, and the seller relented. We had a deal!

AAA towed the van nearly 100 miles back to my house, and as they arrived late in the evening, they foisted the van off of the tow truck and into the empty street parking in front of my house. Rain poured down that spring evening and into the following morning; and as I woke up and looked at the sad, deoxidized beaten van, I wondered what I’d gotten myself into. First, I had to learn how to drive a stick shift, and with only the benefit of having watched a dozen YouTubers describe the techniques in long, meandering videos, I was at a loss. At the time, I had no one to show me the ropes and had to just learn for myself. I stalled the van dozens of times before I could limp it up into my driveway where I could get it off the street and take better stock of what it needed. It didn’t take long to discover that Jeddy was leaking prodigious quantities of oil into the driveway. It appeared to be coming from the taco plate gasket and the rear main seal. Great.

“Taco plate gasket” (VW lingo, not mine).

Rather than fix the leak, some dumbdumb just used gasket sealer. Turns out the aluminum bolt holes that hold the gasket in were stripped.


There were problems galore. The horn would start blaring uncontrollably when I turned the wheel, and I had to go under the van and just unhook the wiring. There were a handful of rust holes on the body where seals or water channels had given up the ghost. The shifter shrieked something awful each time you changed gears. The cassette deck was shot. The inverter went into freakout mode each time it was turned on. Lots of problems, oh boy.

I wondered what the neighbors must have been thinking as they passed by this weathered, dejected hulk. Did they think someone had abandoned it there? Did they think it was a parts van destined to be stripped down with its ugly carcass doomed to the junkyard? Sheesh, I did feel self-conscious.

But when I would come home from work, I’d see the van in the driveway, and it never failed to put a smile on my face. I could see the beauty of what Jeddy could be, kind of like when Arnie Cunningham laid eyes on Christine (and we know how that worked out, right?) Yes, the van was ugly, slow, and probably living on borrowed time. But some part of me knew that while I could never turn back the clock on my own life, Jeddy, my coeval, could be given new life. Jeddy had witnessed a lot of life before our parallel lines converged.

Looking at his Carfax was a trip. It was sparse, mysterious, and I couldn’t help but wonder what was going on in my own life for each entry. Here was an entry for a smog check from September 1991; I was in fourth grade. Might that have been that glorious, sunny fall afternoon where we held class outside and I had the sensation of playing hooky? One that I still get flashbacks to when I’m dallying outside in midafternoon on a workday? Here’s another entry from June of 1999: Jeddy was getting an engine rebuild; I was getting ready to graduate high school. And what of the eight years where only about 200 miles were logged on the odometer? Time slowed down for old Jeddy while it sped up for yours truly.

Now our clocks were ticking together. And while I am destined to get older and uglier with each passing year, I figured, the same did not have to be true of this van. Jeddy had found a new home with me, and while I lacked expertise, time, and money, I had the state of mind, the desire. I figured it this way: You only live once. Why not drive something cool? Why not drive a VW bus?

If this old van could talk, it would have a lot of stories to tell. And now the page was turning onto a whole new chapter. What stories were left to be told, we would tell together.

End of part 1…