Antioch Nor-Cal Bus Fest
Text + Photos: J.G. Wirt
Spotlight | They used to be everywhere.
Nowadays, you’ll most likely find old Volkswagen Transporters parked on the grass, at a park with the other old rusty buses.
In 1950, when the first smiley-faced, round-quartered Type 2 appeared, as an efficient way to move goods around in Postwar Germany, no one had a clue that it would spawn so many models and modifications, adventures and Bus-nuts.
From its start in 1950 through the last model in 1967, more than 1.8 million split-window Transporters rolled out of the German factories.
And though TV commercials today will persuade otherwise, Transporters did more than move tie-died travelers from be-ins to rock shows to beaches with killer waves.
Transporters began as humble work trucks that could move things and workers around.
The display space on a panel van – known as Bulli in Europe – made a great rolling billboard for service and delivery companies. The platform soon added versatility: In 1952 came a double-cab pickup with fold-down sides and room for the crew, along with a single-cab pickup with a lockable storage cubby under the pickup bed.
The first passenger model, the Kombi, was a van with seats that appeared soon after the van’s launch. And the next summer brought the first actual people-carrier: the Samba with side windows. The most deluxe of these has a sliding sunroof, Plexiglas skylights and 21 or 23 windows.
VW also made ambulance and high-roof delivery models. Campers and other derivations (box trucks, firetrucks, ladder trucks and specialized vendors’ vans) were created by other companies using VW’s models.
The rare and oldest models are highly sought as rolling projects. VW fiends grab them as amazing barn finds and sometimes subject them to major restorations.
The more common models are what you might see putt-putting around town or bravely keeping to the right on the freeway now and again. But not so often anymore as daily drivers.
Since the dawn of the 2000s, pre-’67 Transporter metal has skyrocketed in value. Campers and pickups and plain-old fried-out Kombis can fetch more than 10 grand just as rolling projects.
And then there’s progress. These days, craftsmen and delivery people choose a Ford Econoline or a Ram van to do their business. And an adventure-traveler would prefer a kitted-out Mercedes Sprinter van or an old Vanagon running on a modern Subaru engine over a tinny old VW pop-top splittie.
But there are still brave, patient Transporter drivers with greasy hands and a stash of proper spares taking their vans around.
That retro VW hybrid, self-driving concept van you might have heard could come out someday? Nah.
The hardcore bus-nuts still have their John Muir “How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive” book (AND their Haynes or Chilton or Clymer) and they know how to listen for the right and wrong sounds of their beasts.
And when it comes to appearance, there are plenty who just leave well enough alone.
This Spotlight’s for them. These survivors were found at the yearly NorCal Bus Fest in Antioch, California; and the twice-annual Bugorama in Sacramento, California.
The ancient VW models, the ones worth six figures, sometimes arrive at the VW meet on trailers. Most days, they spend their time under covers in nice, temperate garages.
The others, driven as weekend vehicles or even as daily drivers, wear their patina proudly.
They all have that curvy boxiness.
Many of the unrestored Transporters that still exist are around today because they somehow made it without being rolled, t-boned or mashed hard in the nose.
And because someone decided that a little rust doesn’t prevent them from serving as unique, rolling art.
As with any marque, an aficionado can turn a rotted VW crate into a showpiece, with good parts, a skilled welder and probably a rotisserie.
But it takes a lot of style to know that the corrosion adds character.
What’s growing under that thin patina is there because you can’t easily get to it. Transporters, unlike their body-on-pan Beetle brethren, are of unibody construction. That most-common left-side rust stripe lies right along the seam that joins the very long side panel to the side frame and floor. Buses and trucks from wetter areas have already lost their floors to rot, while those that led a less-damp life are just now showing signs of tin-worm.
Other common areas for corrosion include the window frames, under the dog-legs beneath the front doors and in the right rear, where battery corrosion adds its own dose of damage.
Mine weren’t rusty then, but they would be now…
Sidebar | When I was a VW nut, I was a card-carrying member of two bus clubs. I joined many a shady-park gathering and ogled all the rare models that the true fanatics had imported from Europe: ambulances, firetrucks, commercial high-top vans … the works.
I joined the bus caravan on many a summer hell-ride over the Grapevine to Orange County and to San Diego. Higher-geared and pokier Transporters alike kept to the far-right lane and pit-stopped at all the In-N-Out Burgers en route.
Once at the events, shop was talked. Camper models were compared. Glitches were fixed; tools were lent.
My oldest memory of Transporters was riding in our fourth-grade teacher’s mid-‘60s double-cab in 1973-’74 to fetch recyclables to redeem for a trip to the Gold Country. It held a lot of Hefty bags of bottles and cans. In high school, I worked for a dry-cleaner whose 1970 panel wouldn’t back up ‘til I figured out to push the shifter down and back for reverse. Duh.
1956 Standard: The first Transporter of my own was bought in Napa County. I took one inexcusable road trip down to Santa Cruz in 1984 and overheated it in the Mr. Toad’s traffic of Highway 17 on the way back. Bought it for $300; sold it for $200, less the tow fee. The tow-truck guy was going to use its unbent nose to fix his scrunched VW single-cab shop truck.
1965 Standard: Bought in 1985 from a Fresno, California, hippie (yeah; really). Tried to straighten its pugged-in nose that summer and fill in the hole in the roof where someone had put an antenna, making it look like a narwhal. Took the bumpers off (more on them later) to clean up dents. Used poor ol’ Blue to haul free firewood home when we were broke, freezing college kids. Bought it for $500. Traded it in on a new car (!) but shoulda parked it in a barn…
1963 double-door panel: I had high hopes for ol’ Yella, with the double doors on both sides, though it came to me un-running and thumped in the right-rear side. Bought for $300; fleeced it for parts.
1967 13-window Deluxe: My dear mother actually bought this maroon-and-white cream-puff off a used-car lot in Clovis, California, for $1,500 in 1985. I adopted it after it had been banged up a bit and with engine broken. I had it re-motored, straightened and repainted by a pro. I sold it for wedding money in 1993.
1966 E-Z Camper: An EZ-Camper was a tin-top (not a pop-top) panel conversion done by a company in Littlerock, California, in the Westfalia-style layout. I bought it for $2,000 in Bakersfield, California. At a bus meet, I traded the bumpers from the old ’65 (stashed away at a buddy’s) for a full-length roof rack. Sold the E-Z Camper for $3,500 in 1995 at the Pomona Swap Meet (it was destined for Japan) when we had our first kid on the way.
One final coulda-shoulda: A mid’60s Double-Cab I spied in Galt, California, for $3,500 around 1998. The engine was out and sitting in the rust-holed truck bed. Rust in the rockers, corrosion in the dog-legs under the doors, cancer around the battery tray. Bumps and bruises all around. Other than that, just surface rust. To have bought and stashed? It would be worth $10 grand easy today. Alas.