Curbside Classic: 1960 VW Bus – On The Road And On The Bus; Three Years, 40,000 Miles And Three Engines, So Far

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Ideally, I’d get to meet every driver of all the old Curbside Classics I shoot; well, maybe with some exceptions. Our logo says Every Car Has A Story, but what do we really know about any specific car’s story? When I saw this old VW bus parked on the side of West 13th the other day, I almost kept going, since I’ve shot a number of them already. Eugene has been a Mecca for old VW buses ever since the first of many original hippies left San Francisco in 1967 and headed up I-5 to Eugene, and made it the hippie capital of the world – The second Oregon Trail. And how many of them blew their engines on that trek?

But then I noticed all the stuff strapped up on top, and a sudden pang for that way of life—which I partook of myself to some degree in my youth—welled up, and I had to pull over and check it out. Good thing, because its owner Hannah was on the other side of it, re-arranging her belongings, and I got to hear the story of her covered (Volks)wagon road trip, a re-enactment of sorts.  The original Oregon Trail with its slow covered wagons is still being re-enacted.  Will young people be re-enacting the VW hippie-bus version in a hundred years?

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I’ve already written my long and in-depth paean to the VW bus here, so I’m going to mostly stick to Hannah’s bus, if I can stay on tack. The VW bus is the kind of vehicle that tends to take you new and unexpected places, even if just in one’s mind and imagination, like I did in that article. Time to stick to the facts, and the sewing machine.

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Hanna obviously likes to sew, as in addition to the electric machine there’s a full-sized Singer (update: White) treadle machine in there. Is that a first? Probably not, if I had to guess. But it doesn’t leave a lot of space except for a bed and the basics, all rather efficiently organized.

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I asked Hannah if she was making the trip alone, other than her dog, which was snoozing in the shade underneath the bus. She told me she had a partner for some of the trip, but was currently solo. I can imagine that two in that bus would be a true test of compatibility.

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My iPhone, which I’ve been very happy with, flubbed this shot of the driver’s compartment. But it’s pretty iconic, like the rest of this vehicle, so no great loss.

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In the interests of improving the less-than stellar safety of this bus, a set of modern seat/shoulder belts has been installed.

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Hannah and her dad spent five years rebuilding this ’60 Kombi, so she’s come by it the hard way. And she’s learned some lessons the hard way, like blowing up two engines so far. Both were apparently heat-stress related, a common malady in these old buses, which were designed in cool northern Germany. There was a reason so many of them had side scoops mounted over the side air vents, to force more air into the engine compartment at speed, as well as auxiliary oil coolers mounted out in the breeze too. Keeping an air-cooled VW engine cool in the hot American summer when pushing a big box down the road can be a challenge.

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One of those engine failures was due to a mechanic not making sure the thermostatically-controlled bellows was working properly in the fan; a critical component.

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The current mill is a 1600cc dual-port engine, and seems to be holding up so far. Assuming the original very low gearing of a 1960 bus, with its little 1200cc 36 hp engine, this one must be not be too terribly stressed on a level highway, with a top speed undoubtedly no more than 60. But climbing the mountains is a different story.

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I noticed the oil marks on the rear wheel, and asked reduction gears leaking? Yes they are…another thing to attend to, but in the meantime, Hannah’s making sure the oil level is monitored regularly.

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I noticed the Indiana plates, and asked her if that’s where she was from, and thinking about how that’s a somewhat unlikely place for Hannah to be from. No; that’s just where the van is licensed to. I forgot to ask her where she was  actually from. The planet earth.

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But she’s in Eugene for a while…how long is unknown, as her three-year trip so far has not really ended. And she proudly showed me the 1966 vintage Oregon plates she bought at a bus-fest, and she’s going to use them to register her bus as a Special Interest Vehicle, which means no more annual registration fees. Of course, vehicles with these tags have some restrictions, such as:  Maintain the vehicle of special interest as a collector’s item, and use the vehicle only for exhibitions, parades, club activities and similar uses, and not use the vehicle primarily for the transportation of persons or property.  Well, Hanna’s endless road trip is an exhibition of sort, with historical value. And her bus is certainly a collector’s item, one whose prices are going through the roof lately. Oregon plates are rather fitting for an old bus.

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But although she and her bus have found their way to Eugene and may stay for a while, there are more trips to be made. The next one is back to the Bay Area, down I5, for the Grateful dead Fare Thee Well concerts, this very weekend in Santa Clara. But she’s not taking her bus, because of that leaking reduction gear housing. The trip will be made…in a friend’s VW bus; but a newer second generation T2. Sometimes expediency just has to trump historical reenactment. And Hanna’s bus will be roadworthy again soon.

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It may be the Grateful dead’s very last concert, but Hanna and her bus still have places to go. The trip never really ends.


My ode to the VW Bus: CC 1965 VW Samba – Tinnibus