© — In 1976 I was 19. Marin County was a great place to come of age in the 1970s. On the northern side of the Golden Gate Bridge, it hosted open-mindedness that poured forth fresh ideas. You could do anything and simply be labeled original. It was all ”Far out, Man!” It is here that I found her: a 1966 VW Westphalia camper bus. Creamy white and classic, she was my dream car. She was freedom.
The guy I bought it from had bought it in Germany; he was the second owner. He had served in the Air Force in Germany, and when he came home, the bus followed. And it was a traditional Westphalia. The cab had two large seats with a path between them. It had an icebox, with a sink, pump faucet, and holding tank for fresh water. The table neatly folded down. The rear bench seat pulled out into a comfortable bed. And it had loads of storage. This was no ordinary Westphalia; because it came from Germany, the interior paneling was real, golden ash. She was gorgeous.
I changed out the engine from a ’66 to a ’67 to get more displacement and horsepower. I did all the work myself, other than rebuilding the crankcase and transmission. I put two new engines in this bus, one transmission, and countless other parts; I swapped an engine in a parking lot in Lone Pine, once. (The credo for VW owners is that VWs are easy to work on, and it’s a good thing, too.) The other advantage to changing the engine was to go from 6-volt to 12-volt; obviously, this vehicle needed a killer stereo, requiring a 12-volt system. And, oh, did she have a stereo: tape deck, graphic equalizer, and speakers that I could pull out and set up in camp. When you cranked it, the headlights dimmed.
I put 250,000 miles on that bus. And the bus and I saw a lot of amazing things. Monument Valley…Glacier National Park…The Grand Canyon. The California Coast. The American desert, all of it. The Sierra from top to bottom. And the Embarcadero Plaza in San Francisco…as in on the plaza…at 3:00 AM…on it, around it, and off it before the police showed up. Many concerts were safely traveled to and from in this bus; she was the way to show up at The Dead.
I took to painting the bus with washable, water-based Tempura paint. We would load the paint and brushes into the bus, get lost in the desert, and paint. I once painted the bus with a balloon motif that I was particularly happy with. I then got a large tank of helium, hundreds of balloons, and filled the entire space inside with brightly colored helium balloons. My friends and I then drove up and down the main drag in Calistoga; I would stop, push the side doors open, and as balloons poured out, my friends would hand out colorful helium bubbles to unknown tourist. For hours.
One Christmas, I went all out. First, I took a 12” Styrofoam ball and covered it in fiberglass; this included building a flange on one side. I tinted the resin red, and when the fiberglass set, I removed the Styrofoam with solvent. I attached this red ball to the VW emblem on the front, and rigged a light inside connected to the headlight switch. This was her nose. Next, I built a flange on a 42” elk antler rack, and mounted this on the roof of the bus, at the front. Then I took white, 1 ½ inch climbing webbing, and ran it from the antlers to the back of the bus. On the webbing, I sewed on 40 sleigh bells. My mother, an artist, used the Tempura paint to decorate the sides of the bus with garlands, Christmas tree balls, holly, and snowflakes. Don’t ever tell me I don’t know how to do Christmas!
That year Tom O’Reilly and I decided to visit Yosemite. I find Yosemite to be most beautiful in the winter, and our plan was to spend a few days there, and get home just in time for Christmas. We went up after work on a Friday night. As we gained altitude, the rain turned to snow. We got through the park gate, but we were soon stopped in heavy snow. We came to a halt at a checkpoint set up by highway workers. They were plowing the road into the valley, but only one lane. We came to rest in the front of the line, and cars piled up behind us. After about an hour, the cars coming from the other direction passed. The snowplow turned around, headed away, and disappeared.
Several minutes later, in a heavy storm, we were allowed to proceed. We took off, slowly, leading a long line of cars, red nose glowing, sleigh bells ringing…all the way to the valley.
Copyright – Robert W. Hansen – 2012
Image Attributions: Me…and MY ’66 VW!!!!