Road Trip Journal/Auto-Biography/Curbside Classic: 1965 VW Beetle – California Dreamin’

You’ve either experienced the California dream, or you haven’t. I have; big time.

And although I eventually left because I woke up to certain changing realities that compelled me pursue a new dream elsewhere, it was not without considerable pangs; I had fallen hard for the California dream. Unfortunately, the issues that were making the dream more challenging have mostly only gotten worse in the ensuing 25 years. But there are moments when the dream still flickers. And stumbling into this time capsule ’65 Beetle in Half Moon Bay triggered a wave of California dreamin’ memories that crashed over me like the famous Maverick breakers just offshore from here.


Is it a coincidence that California Dreamin’ by the Mamas & the Papas was also released in 1965? And how many hundreds of thousands, or even millions of kids came to California because of that song? Count me in on those numbers, even if it took a few years. That song made an indelible impression on me from the first time I heard it, and it still triggers certain deeply-formed neural connections made that winter of 1965-1966.

That song came from the heart, like all good songs. John Phillips wrote it on a cold winter night in New York City, pining for the warm California sunshine. He woke up Michelle in the middle of the night to dictate the lyrics to her. It was the their first hit and sparked a short but intense career for the Mamas & the Papas, never mind the madly intense interpersonal issues among the four.

John Phillip, a former folk singer, created a new California-oriented musical genre that bridged the folk era and the psychedelic era to come. It was pop, but it was well done. And their short time at the top ended on a high note that ushered in the new era: John Phillips (and Lou Adler) created the Montery Pop Festival in 1967, the seminal event of its kind that spawned so many others.

When I first heard the story of how Stephanie’s whole family went to Monterey Pop ’67 as a family (she was 13 at the time), it only brings back the painful memory of how our friends from across the street in Iowa City moved to California (UC Santa Barbara) the same year we moved to Baltimore (in 1965).  Instead of getting closer, we were now further away than ever.

not me, but my doppelganger

I did get there eventually, in 1972. And no, it wasn’t in a stolen Ford van. I hitchhiked there and slowly worked my way up the coast, on an epic three-month long adventure that started out on a miserable gray winter day. Oh yes, I had California Dreamin’ on my mind, as I made my way west on Route 66/I40 . Just experiencing the Southwest and desert for the first time ever on the way there was itself a revelation. It’s sunny! It’s warm! The air is dry and it smells so differently.

And as we approached the LA basin in I-15, I couldn’t believe how many imports and especially VWs there were on the road; it seemed like every fourth car was one. And so many Datsun pickups; both seemed to be the cool cars for kids.

I knew that my older brother’s high school friend from Towson was now a student at Cal Tech. So on my first day in LA I hitched to Pasadena, walked into the campus and looked for the Seismology Lab where I knew he studied, and I ran into him on the sidewalk before I even got to it. A lucky start. He said I could crash with him for a few days. And what did he drive me in to his house in? A Corvair Lakewood. And the whole way there he extolled its virtues, especially the Lakewood’s unique twin cargo areas in back and front, as only a hardcore nerd can. He was preaching to the choir; only a year later I’d be driving a Corvair.

I couldn’t believe the place when we got there. It was a veritable mansion in the old part of Pasadena. He lived there with a bunch of other students; it was a beautiful old Craftsman house, not very much different than this Greene & Greene gem. It’s of course worth many millions now, but then it was just a big old rambling house that made cheap digs for a bunch of kids. That represents a key element of the California Dream that has turned into a bit of a nightmare. Yet until 1973 ore so, California real estate was on average cheaper than the US average. Now it’s out of sight, for way too many.

The house sat on a huge lot, and in the large carriage house in back, he showed me two other Corvair Lakewoods he had; one as a parts car and the other as a backup. Wow; he was living the California Lakewood Dream.

I won’t bore you with all the details of my meanderings up the coast on Hwy 1 starting right where the I-10 ends at the beach in Santa Monica. But let’s just say that one of my abodes was decidedly different from that house in Pasadena. It was the hollowed-out trunk of a giant redwood tree in Big Sur. And this is the very tree, which I managed to find again a few years back. It made for a very comfy and cozy place to sleep. Can one homestead a tree?


The next destination was San Francisco, which took me through Half Moon Bay, riding in the back of a late-50s 3/4 ton Chevy panel van. We stopped at a farm stand in Salinas, and I couldn’t believe all the fresh and cheap produce. Although I didn’t see these buildings right on the water in Half Moon Bay, I saw plenty of other similar ones on the coast. Not surprisingly, these are right around the corner from where the featured VW was parked. I suspect there might well be a connection.


I don’t know what they were originally built to be, but they’re some kind of retreat center now, overlooking the ocean. And when we’re in Half Moon Bay each year, we walk by them almost every day, as they’re just a mile or so north along the walk/bike trail that runs each direction for some miles. They make us smile every time.


This is classic California eclectic/hippie architecture from the late 60s or early 70s; and although it may not be your thing, it sure beats all the cookie-cutter houses and hotels that have surrounded it since.

And just like those exuberant buildings represent California of that time, so does this VW. Why? They were the used car of choice for a generation, as by this time they could be picked up for cheap, and everyone knew how to keep them running, or knew someone who did, having absorbed the spiritual VW ministrations from John Muir’s “How To Keep Your Volkswagen Alive”.

Just like kids picked up Model Ts for cheap during the 30s and into the 40s, so did they now with VWs. And there were plenty to be had; California was of course the early adopter for all things imported with wheels, and especially so the VW. Of course by this time (1972) Californians were buying Toyotas and Datsuns for new cars. But the VW reigned supreme as the cheap wheels-mobile for a long time to come. And this ’65 looks just like so many did back then: a bit used, but still very solid.


Yes, there’s a bit of a California tan to be seen, but I can assure you the undersides of this Beetle are rock-solid, except perhaps for where the battery sits (under the rear seat), as spilled acid is corrosive. I know more than one person who lost their battery after hitting a hard bump or pothole.


And parts were easy to come by. Yes, genuine VW parts weren’t exactly dirt cheap, but the aftermarket was exploding, mostly stuff made in Brazil, where the VW was of course the dominant car for years there. And if one wanted a bit more power from the 40 (gross) hp 1192cc mill, Empi was the place to go. By 1972, a healthy percentage of Beetles were sporting an aftermarket “extractor” exhaust.

Speaking of, I didn’t get a good shot of what’s exhausting the spent gases of this one. It’s not stock, so presumably there’s an extractor, although usually they hung so low as to be visible from this angle. My bad. And who knows just what exactly is under the hood. Not a lot of 1200s survived the long haul, unless it led a particularly sheltered life.

1965 was the last year for the 1200 in the US; in ’66 the 1300 arrived, which gave a mighty big 25% boost in hp.


It makes the ’65 a bit of an odd-ball, given that it has new body with the much bigger windows all-round, but still the old mechanicals underneath, including the last year for the king-pin front suspension.

This one has the obligatory roof carrier. It may well be the factory version, or a facsimile. I bought a new one from the VW dealer for my ’63, as it was essentially my mobile home, as I tended to be on the go a lot. And the amount of stuff I could strap to it was remarkable.

One of my favorite VW  stories involves two of the sisters that I’ve written about here quite a few times here. They were headed to University of Indiana for school at the end of summer. The original plan was that their mom Elinor would drive her Corolla and I would drive my VW, and we’d split the load between the two cars. Elinor had sold the big ’69 Fury a year or two earlier, after they sold the farm and the horses, and moved into town.

A couple of days earlier, she had lent her Corolla to a friend, and wouldn’t you know, it got totaled in a (non-injury) crash. So plan B was this: I would somehow fit the two sisters and all their stuff for a year at school, including a cat and her litter box, and a couple of bicycles, in and on my VW.

I told the girls to bring all their stuff out on the front lawn next to my VW in the driveway. I strapped all the really big stuff on top, in an ever taller mound, and then topped that with the two bikes. And then I told them to empty the suitcases full of clothes, and then we stuffed the clothes under the front seats, and in every nook and cranny. As it was, the back seat was filled to the roof except for about one-third of it, where Becky sat, with the cat on her lap and the litter box on the floor. And Norma sat in front next to me, with stuff piled around her legs.

But there was no way Becky’s cello, in a big hard case, was going to fit, and she certainly wasn’t going to let me strap it to the roof rack. So Elinor bought a Greyhound bus ticket for her and the cello, and she rode back with me in the VW.

Yes, the stock 40hp mill got a good workout that day, as I pulled out into I-80 for the 365 mile drive from Iowa City. At least it was all flat.

So what reminded me of that? Not just the roof rack, but also how this one is stuffed to the gills with this owner’s things. A fishing pole, flippers, and a surf board, among others.


And tools too. Yes, this guy is living a lot like I did back in the day, and not when I was moving other’s stuff. Yes, there’s still folks living a semi-nomadic life-style in California, and not all because of necessity. For some, it’s just the California Dream; to live simply and lightly, and enjoy it that way. That is the trick, of course, and which separates the homeless living in their old RVs and cars, and between those that do it purposefully.

Of course I’m indulging in speculation, or projection. But along the coast there’s still a number of folks who are finding ways to live that way, despite the increasing challenges. The dream is not getting easier.

But as long as there’s cars like this old VW full of the signs of the California beach-bum lifestyle, the dream hasn’t totally died yet, under the weight of high housing prices, endless gridlock traffic and wall-to-wall cookie-cutter houses and cars.