Recycled Computing

My First Car Was a 1966 Volkwagen Van

- 2011.03.16

My first car was a Volkswagen van, so I got very nostalgic when I read Charles Moore's recent article about the new Volkswagen Bulli. What memories!

Almost every American remembers the freedom of owning a vehicle that allowed you to drive anywhere you wanted to without having to ask your dad for the keys to the Pontiac.

Volkswagen panel van
Volkswagen panel van

I owned a '66 panel van that had no passenger windows or interior. I intended to put in an interior, but time pressure and the eventual transmission failure put a stop to it. I have always wanted to buy another despite the large number of problems with the vehicle design, which are numerous.

Easy death syndrome. There is nothing between you and other cars but sheet metal (not terrible thick sheet metal, either) in the front. Other folks recommended putting a spare tire on the front, but in a front-end accident, you and the other front seat passenger were toast. It was not just "watch out for the other guy" - it was "be very afraid of the anything else on the road"!

Total lack of horsepower. To call a split window bus underpowered is to ignore the fact that there is no power to start with. I remember attempting the big climb on Route 4 out of Bennington, Vermont, ending up in second gear one-third of the way up, and staying in that gear until I reached the top. I had to speed downhill in Vermont (yes, above the speed limit) in order to have enough momentum to climb the next hill. I think the Bus could do a little over 70 miles per hour, but nothing it ever did at that speed encouraged me to stay there.

Volkswagen Bulli concept vehicle
Volkswagen Bulli concept vehicle

Brakes? What brakes? We don't need no stinking brakes! Most hippies used to have their "old lady" (it's what we used to call our girlfriends back in the day. Men, do not use this term today! I will not be responsible for what happens to you!) throw a cinder block tied to the rear bumper out the rear hatch if they need stop in a hurry (less than 30 seconds or so).

No heat. Okay, theoretically there were two heat exchangers picking up heat from the exhaust pipes and then creeping forward to the driver's compartment, but in my case the long tube running from the back to the front was missing. It's just as well, as the valves on the heater boxes of all air-cooled VW buses were usually rusted shut. I am told that by installing an air-conditioning pipe (it's insulated) and a blower motor in the front of an air-cooled Volkswagen bus, it can be heated. I'll believe it when I feel it.

Low temperature starting issues. The Volkswagen van I had actually had no low temp starting problems. It just refused to start entirely below a certain temperature. (Somewhere in the mid 20s, I believe.) Prior to the 1967 redesign, Volkswagen had a degree of faith in a 6-volt electrical system. Needless to say, from bitter experience, I do not. I suppose it worked fine in California, but not in the frozen tundra of New England. I had to park the van on top of a hill (plenty of those around) and, in the cold morning, push it to start it rolling, jump in the driver's seat, turn the ignition on, push in the clutch, put it in gear, and dump the clutch about halfway down the hill.

Other than that, it was the freedom of the open road and the ability of the van to swallow all sorts of folks and gear and run on just a small amount of gas that endeared it to me. I drove my first girlfriend all over Vermont in it. It drove myself to work in the dead of winter and the heat of summer. It went through the motor it came with, and then the tranny started to go, so I sold it.

VW Microbus at 2007 Metro Cruise
VW Microbus camper at 2007 Metro Cruise.

I don't miss my '66 Bus, but I wouldn't mind owning a Vanagon Syncro with a Westfalia conversion (the Syncro has a sort of four-wheel drive system), and the camper version of the Volkswagen Bus was a miracle of cramming lots of stuff into a tiny space. Back out on to the open road to explore the rest of this great country (my wife has only been west of the Missisippi once).

I also wish that VW would import the T5 version of the Bus so I could buy a brand new Volkswagen Camper. I bet the heat works! LEM

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