(Updated in February, 2021)
It was the late eighties, I was single, and I needed a truck.
When I learned that a friend’s sister had a non-running ‘71 VW van for sale for $100, I thought to myself, “I can fix it; why not?” So I dragged my then-girlfriend (now wife of 32+ years) halfway around the Atlanta perimeter, and found a very rusty and forlorn Campmobile sitting in the driveway, the rear bumper adorned with “Take it Easy” and other various ‘hippie culture’ bumper stickers.
Money changed hands (the first of a rather large sum associated with this vehicle) and girlfriend was given a quick course in how to tow a vehicle with a chain (around I-285, no less): we were off.
My second purchase – like one so many other VW owners had made before me – was a copy of How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive ~ A Manual of Step-by-Step Procedures for the Compleat Idiot. After scratching my head at John Muir’s quirky writing style (and liking it), I poked around in the engine compartment and eventually discovered the points were closed up. Ten minutes later, I had a live vehicle on my hands.
Since this was a Campmobile and I needed a truck, I spent the next weekend gutting the van. Everything behind the front seats went out to the curb, including the gasoline-powered “Eberspächer” heater (dumb move; didn’t know how valuable it would become) and the usual assortment of flotsam and jetsam that accumulates in dead and abandoned vehicles (consistent with the bumper stickers, natch).
I used the van infrequently for hauling trash and other bulky items, including cleaning up the dead car parts pile out beside the carport (over a ton of old engine blocks and the like went in one single trip to the scrapyard). My brother then drove it for a while, followed by an admin at work who borrowed it while she had her ‘67 Mustang restored one summer. When it came back, we had just sold one of our two Honda Civics (baby coming – need cash!), so after a back-lot engine rebuild, the ’bus became my daily driver.
Not long after, one of my three close college buddies was getting close to his wedding date. We had established a tradition among the four of us to produce a spoof movie for viewing at the bachelor party. We had been to see the film The Memphis Belle earlier in the year, so we simply changed the name to The Mayfield Belle, which was both my friend’s name as well as that of a regional dairy. Naturally, the ‘nose art’ utilized the dairy’s “Jersey” logo, with all of the missions indicated by milk bottles – targets were of course sighted using the top-secret Borden Bomb Sight.
So, $100 worth of olive drab and grey paint later, my ‘bus was converted into a VW-17 “Flying Buttress,” complete with fake .50 cal. machine guns menacingly protruding out the windows and rear door. The movie was a huge hit with my friend, and after “demilitarizing” the Belle, she continued to soldier on as my daily driver.
She was now, however, attracting a lot more attention in war paint than she ever did while in mufti, especially from the local constabulary. While I never received a single ticket in eight years of driving the Belle, I was pulled over more times than in any other car I’ve owned.
For example, one late night while driving through a small North Georgia town about one in the morning, a local squad car pulled out and followed me a couple of miles before switching on the blues. I pulled over, hands at 10 and 2 on the wheel, and politely answered all questions and provided the required documentation. I happened to have a lot of computer equipment in the back under an old army blanket (to keep road grit out of everything), and one of the officers finally couldn’t contain his curiosity any longer and asked “You got drugs or guns back there, boy?” I explained my cargo, and said I’d be glad to slowly (!) pull the blanket back, at which point they were satisfied with my story.
When you drive a beater for eight years, you tend to accumulate a lot of stories and memories, and both our sons spent many hours of their early boyhood playing ‘bomber run’ in the Belle. One particularly memorable family trip involved a drive from Charlotte, NC to Boston, MA to retrieve items from a grandparent’s estate. I had optimistically rented a small U-haul trailer and bumper-mounted hitch, which seemed to be manageable in a quick test drive around our subdivision.
Things quickly looked ominous, however, as top speed going up the rolling NC interstate hills was working out to around 45-50 mph (the only bright spot was that people gave us plenty of room on the highway). To make matters worse, a stress crack developed in one of the bumper mounts after several hours. A quick stop at Wal•mart for some tie-down straps only slightly prolonged the inevitable, and sometime around 10pm, having just passed through the Bronx in New York, the bumper finally let go completely. This being pre-cell phone days, I had to untangle the mess and go find a pay phone to call U-haul and tell them to come get their stuff. All the goods intended for the trailer ended up riding home in the van – the wife and children got home via rental car.
The Belle came to an inglorious end one late summer in Central Illinois, not too far from where we would eventually live for nearly two decades. We were on our way to Oshkosh for the big airshow, and not too far past Bloomington, IL, the Belle simply gave up. After running all the normal checks and procedures in the Idiot manual, it was obvious she had Gone West.
As there was really no point in trying to save her at this point (we were far from home, and rust and age had pretty much already won the battle), our friends were called in for a Search and Rescue mission; tears were shed by the boys (and maybe a few myself), after which we towed the lifeless hulk to the next exit with a gas station and left instructions for them to call a nearby junkyard on Monday to come haul it away.
I’ll always miss the Belle – she carried me through five jobs in three states and gave me some great memories. She was also the first in a still-growing list of Volkswagen vehicles to grace our curbsides and driveways over the past two-and-a-half decades.
So long, old gal…
Postscript – After a nearly twenty year hiatus, I became a Volkswagen van owner again in late 2013.
Post-postscript – We gifted the Routan to our pastor in 2019 and replaced it with a 2018 Buick Regal TourX.