(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.
So, for those of us not majoring on aircooled VW engines, what was the final cause of death?
Spark and fuel checked out fine – I suspect it was a burned valve (certainly on cylinder number 3, per the Idiot book). However, having foolishly left my compression tester at home, I was unable to confirm.
Great story res. With a few brand names changed to protect the guilty, that could have been me. I tend to keep cars for to long and spend to much money on them. Scientists call it anthropomorphism but it’s hard to believe they don’t have a life and I am forever reluctant to end it.
Hope you do this again.
Thank you for the well-told story. For much of my life, I was your opposite, changing cars with the seasons. Still, in almost every case, I was at least a little sad when they left.
I have a great admiration for a person whose beater is maintained well enough for family road trips.
That book was my Bible, man! I’d even read it for fun sometimes.
I milked Rosebud too!
I had exactly that same model van 313 OTO or OTTO good when going but obstinate at times. My van had the 1600 twinport itself a lemon engine though I didnt know at the time among the other faults it had he developed a thirst for oil, he leaked and burned around 1litre per tank of gas eventually the pall of smoke became accompanied by a loud rythmic banging sound and a miss on number 3 so OTTO became 5 greasy 20s at the wrecking yard.
Around the same time, I picked up a ’68 while spending a year in Florida. We managed to make it all the way home to Washington state before a catastrophic failure put her out of commission. The idiot guide was an important part of the living room engine rebuild. I had never attempted anything more than oil changes before, so it was quite the learning experience. You do need a more complete book (Chilton’s etc) for some technical numbers, but the Muir book is an essential read for any air cooled driver.
Yep, it sounds like you got alot of life out of her. Those air cooled’s go for four or five years, and then it’s time for a rebuilt. Have you ever noticed every bus story contains at least one catastrophic failure?
I had a ’71 Type 2 window van from 1982 through 1988. This was the least reliable vehicle I have owned over the years, as the MTBF of the engine was 60,000 km. The last and fatal one was a broken crankshaft, after which (believe it or not) the engine was still running, if a bit rough. I will never forget the sight of the crank pulley wobbling as the engine idled at its normal 325 rpm. Perhaps this was the result of the engine being hopped up a bit by my indie. Top speed was over 130 km/hr, which was scary. Also pulled a boat trailer with this.
The 36hp in my ’59 Beetle ran great, just loud with a crankshaft that was broken clean in two. I was amazed.
And just a comment, 325rpm is waaaay too low for idle….. Not nearly enough oil pressure idling that low…..
According to ‘Small Wonder’, there were professional shops where you could pull in, have a cup of coffee, read the paper and then drive away with a rebuilt engine in your Type 1 or Type 2. It took about an hour or two, the replacements were complete units with the carb and alternator that had been run up and were ready to go. All you had to do was follow the break-in, get the valves adjusted and change the oil and you were good for another 100,000 KM. Getting an engine replaced wasn’t the week-long hell like it was/is here. No A/C, power steering rack, radiator, water pump, rubber engine mounts, power brakes, none of any of all that crap. It’s literally four bolts a few wires, and the throttle cable ’cause the engine mounts on to the transmission. They change an engine in less than two minutes in the video:
Yeah those shops existed in Aussie 2k for an engine 30,000kms warranty on van engines 60,000km on beetles, two grand every year for an engine gets old real quick.
Glad you all enjoyed the story of the “Belle,” I enjoyed writing it and reading your comments. It was hard cutting out numerous other stories to make this even somewhat brief.
I had a ’73 Camper for about two years in high school; it was awesome for carrying band instruments in, and made for a fantastic home away from home in the summertime (I’d pop the top and sleep in the hammock listening to the stereo out in front of my house). I never had anything but good luck with the 1600–I even blew a spark plug out of the head and drive it home on 3 after threading it wrong after a tune-up.
Sadly, her day came when I was hit by a woman who pulled out of a side road without looking; the bumper on her Sentra rode up and into the passenger compartment, avoiding amputation of my friend’s legs by a few narrow inches. Shaken, I started it up and drove it home, then traded it for a Nissan wagon.
Great story love the paint job,Memphis Belle was a great film
Do you know where that Bus spent most of it’s life before you? It’s really rather rusty to be a southeast Bus especially for back then. That’s road salt rust, no doubt.
Awesome, and rather typical VW Bus stories. They can drive you crazy, they’re slow, drafty deathtraps on wheels but good Lord do I have an irrational love for them.
IIRC, the van spent its formative years in Colorado, or the likes…
Sounds like you did a nice job of revving an already dead van and giving many more productive years on the road. Nice work. That paint job is quite funky too. Certainly more unusual than the typical hippy inspired ones.
A Ramblin’ Wreck.
Saw your film on Youtube – absolutely loved it! It certainly captured the spirit of ‘Memphis Belle’, and was thoroughly enjoyable!
Thank you for sharing your stories .
I’ve been across America many times in old VW vans, Beetles and Typ III’s, drove one to Guatemala City, C.A. in1976 .
I would read that book from cover to cover as a kid! Still remember this amazing illustration.
I just gave this a read as it was linked from today’s CC tenth anniversary celebrations. I can’t imagine driving around Atlanta freeways and doing a chain tow with this! When I’ve been there, the traffic specializes in stop n go.