Getting Back on the Bus

It’s easy to get in over your head and freeze out of indecision and pride.  Blogs that don’t updated certainly show signs of this.  Vehicles and projects that sit without progress are also victims of this.  Our green Westy is victim of my own distractions.

But 2017 holds promise for our green instant parade machine.  Joe Miller is a Pittsburgh classic VW specialist and is now giving it some much needed TLC so it can be a daily driver this spring through fall!  Many thanks to Brendan Lane for the lead 🙂

On the “short” list for Joe are:

  1. Getting the electronics of the starter and alternator straightened out
  2. Installing a new ignition switch (goodbye doorbell-push-button starting)
  3. Linkage bushing installs for smoother shifting
  4. Exhaust improvements
  5. Basic body work on lower sides to pass pick PA inspection

Once it has run a bit in spring I’ll be doing more work getting the denim covered interior panels done and making decisions on longer term body work.

The few times I drove it this year were a reminder of what riding it it does for my spirit.  It’s a great pick-me-up when it works.  My perspective on life is better in it and I underestimate over time how much I rely on that.  Riding the motorcycle helps, but they are different kinds of boosts.  Hopefully 2017 is smattered with plenty of both!


Give Me Shelter

fawn under busI think it’s safe to assume that most people getting behind the wheel of a VW Bus have an eye for nature, after all, half of the people I run into refer to it as a “hippie van.”  Often, we’re pretty close to nature when we park the Westfalia to pop up the camper-top and enjoy time away from more civilized trappings.

Today, however, nature found my bus.  With it out of commission while waiting for my alternator to be rebuilt, it’s been in my driveway up on ramps.  As I pulled into the driveway in my car, I saw this little guy taking shade from the hot sun under my bus.  I zoomed in from ten feet or so behind my bus.  When I got right up to the bus, he took off into the woods.  I’m glad he has that sense because I’d hate to think that it was that tame.

fawn 48 hoursI think it’s the same fawn I saw just a few weeks back.  Then, it was easily the smallest guy I’d ever seen up close.  It couldn’t have been more than 48 hours old.  I say him coming through our back woods, still shorter than most of the undergrowth.  It took shelter under the roots of a fallen tree and I was able to get a picture.  I had not seen it since then, so part of me was happy the little guy was still around.

fawn MinnieWe have lots of deer around our house.  Last June we had a similar close encounter where our dog Minnie got curious with a week-old fawn.  As much as we hate the way they eat our shrubs, flowers, and even a few plastic plants, you can’t help but love the chance encounters with the fawns.

I don’t know if the green color of my bus made it seem more natural for it to take shelter under.  Part of me wants to think that it’s a providential sign and part of the good aura of such a vehicle.  Realistically, I drove up in a quiet car, at the right time, and in the right frame of mind that I looked around to happen into an experience worth writing about.

State of the Bus 2015

bouncin-busKeeping a 38-year-old vehicle on the road is not always easy.  Cars from the 1970’s did not have the rust-proofing nor quality pain and clear-coating that is available today.  if my bus had not lived its entire life in Pittsburgh, it would probably be compost at this point.  Luckily, it’s West Coast upbringing and barn hiatus the past two winters have kept the body from degrading too quickly.

bus panel replaceBut it is time to repair some lower body panels before the damage becomes severe.   The Bus Depot sold me lower body panels at a very reasonable price.  They’ve been there with parts throughout and make this whole venture possible at all, so I’m thankful for their service.  Those body panels will save me the expense of custom fabricating or really bad patching.  Now with the help of some friends with a knowledge of body work, I hope to get them in place and primed to halt the most serious rust.

Unfortunately, it’s not just body rust I’m fighting.  I have a slight exhaust leak in the manifold off of cylinder 1.  Samba exhaust systems went in a couple of directions in the mid-70’s and the ones in the states differ from those in Europe, making some parts hard to find.  Most aftermarket parts are styled to work on the European models where since the numbers were greater there, combined with the same parts used in the rest of the Americas.  It means that I may have to convert my heat exchangers and exhaust for models made before 1975, so some creative adaptation may be required.alternators

Then there’s the alternator.  It went and upon ordering a replacement, I found out a previous owner got creative and used a 70 amp alternator instead of the standard 55 amp one.  Good if you think about having added capacity to generate electricity, but bad if he did not also use the right pulley with a fan blade for increased cooling capability.  That may be why I had to have a local company rebuild it and find a proper blade/pulley combo. (Thanks Boulevard Generators).  So now I’m set with a well-rebuilt alternator but spent double the price for a 55A one, but still $100 less than asking price for the 70A variety.

silk tail linerFinally, I continue to tweak the inside little by little.  When I over-reached while belted in the car and tore a silk shirt I’ve enjoyed for 20 years, it ticked me off.  But when I was able to give that fabric new life covering the tail section of the headliner, I was rather pleased with myself. Now to get all of those old torn jeans into sections large enough to make the inner door panels more presentable.  I’m looking forward to my old back pockets being spare storage on the various doors they’ll go onto.

The toughest thing is lasting through the dry spells where I can’t drive it.  When I drive in it and get the smiles from other drivers and kids, it fuels me to keep it running and forget other stress.  Passing by it on the ramps waiting for the right part or time/finances to fix it can be hard.  Still worth the cost of admission though 🙂

How We Got the Bus

If you’d have asked me what I would be driving for fun 20 years ago, I’d have hoped for a Corvette. So how did I end up with a ’77 VW camper? The formula would be “Hawaiian trip + eBay = VW bus ownership.”

In 2012 our family travelled with good friends to Hawaii (The Big Island) for a camping adventure. We rented late ’80’s Westfalias and toured the island for eight nights of camping fun. The first night I realized why they used 25 year old VW’s with a quarter-million miles on them. As we wound our way down the steep, curvy, narrow road to the campsite, I realized even a small motorhome would not have been able to traverse the side-roads of a volcanic island. When we pulled into a gas station on the north side of the island on the third day, the smile, shaka, and “aloha” of the station attendant was a welcome much warmer welcome than the biggest paid resort smile. We stayed a few nights at Hawaiian resorts and fell very catered to, but the authentic greeting of a local along the road seemed much more sincere. In the same vein, the sincere joy of people waving at us around Pittsburgh is so much better than the one-fingered-waves we sometimes get in other vehicles 😉

So after our great fun in Hawaii, I started watching eBay to get an idea on what it would cost to get our own Westy. I like Craigslist, but you’re just not going to find a decent VW bus around Pittsburgh. There is too much road salt in the winter for a late 70’s bus to survive here. After watching and researching, my heart was set on a late 70’s version. I wanted manual-transmission, air-cooled simplicity with enough power to be safe. I also liked the rounded look of the “bay” models (70’s) as opposed to the squareness of the “wedgies” (80’s). My wife gave me the OK as I bid in the low teens on a Westy in Jersey. Within the last couple of minutes, it jumped to nearly $20k so I baled. A month later when I bid just over $6k on one in Florida, I expected to be quickly outbid. It was not in as good shape as the first one, but it was running and pretty decent. Before I knew it, I had won the auction. As our Hawaii-camping friends happen to come to the door just 5 minutes later, we laughed trying to figure out how we were going to get this thing 1200 miles northward to Pittsburgh.

So after several phone conversations with the owner, we determined that I’d fly one-way to Florida, staying with my aunt and uncle before driving north over three days. The transaction itself was a bit tricky as we did not really know each other and the internet has all kinds of stopped-check and rip-off horror stories. Paypal ended up being a great method to safely transfer the balance due (eBay had taken the $500 deposit already). I was lucky enough to have my two daughters to help on the trip. It rained most of our visit in Florida, which was a bummer when you leave Pittsburgh in the middle of winter. They were great sports though, even learning how hard it is to pop-start an old bus in a flat Georgia hotel parking lot. Our relatives and friends in Florida were great as well. Quarters were tight at times and there were a few repairs that a dry garage and some spare lamp cord made possible. But overall, we all had a blast!  After nearly 3 days in Florida and the often cold three-day drive back, our adventure ended successfully in our Pittsburgh driveway!  So far so good 😉


A “Green” Sibling

I wasn’t old enough to know what drew people to buy a VW bus back in the 60’s and 70’s. It was a pretty unique vehicle until GM and Ford eventually brought van’s to market. I’d have to assume that it offered great space and flexibility for a reasonable price. I’ll have to discuss it with my Dad, who bought one in 1966. They didn’t have it too long, probably due to the low power that a former car-club guy would have hated.

We recently purchased our second Prius. Like the VW bus was in the 60’s, the Prius is still pretty unique now. Outstanding gas mileage with the convenient flexibility of a hatchback make it a hard vehicle to beat from out standpoint. I really wish there was a bus-like hybrid available, but nothing has made it beyond the concept stage.

Though roughly 50 years separate the technology of our bus and our Prius, I love the simplicity of each. They both take advantage of physics principles. Both are lightweight and offer better fuel economy than other vehicles in their market. While the VW bus is not as environmentally clean, it is very simple in design and maintenance aspects. While the Prius does not have the space and is complex technologically, it is relatively trouble-free and has a good deal more storage and flexibility than the sedan shape of many of its competitors.

It’s no Westfalia, but we’re happy so far with our new Prius and after nearly 140,000 miles, we’re happy with our old Prius as well.

Toyota Prius

A Lonely Ride

I recently made the journey from Pittsburgh to Connecticut, hauling 9 high school debate students to a tournament.  Due among other things to the number of travelers, I could not drive our Westy, but instead rented a Ford van.  It was a pleasant ride, but just not the same.  The van had power and comfort and the kids were great company, but it was a lonely drive.  It made me realize that I’m fueled by riding with everyone else on the highway when I pilot the VW bus.

Think about it.  For the most part, people ride the highway, enduring its boredom, eager to reach their destination.  When I’m driving the old bus, I’ve grown accustomed to attention and friendly smiles from other cars and bystanders.  I don’t know what they think as they change their path to maneuver around me, but the typical smiles coming from the passengers make me think the inconvenience is well worth the memory or fun thought seeing an old VW bus triggered.  Perhaps that’s why I’m happier driving the bus and dealing with the inconvenience of old technology, than I am in the comfort of a newer, more comfortable, though more mundane car.

Green Flames

VW Buses get noticed even when they’re plain, but you’ll remember if you’ve seen this one around.


Not only is it a very cool ride, but Zach’s got the right attitude as well.  There are not too many other kinds of drivers that will pull over and compare rides like Westy owners.  Zach keeps his 1971 Westfalia in great shape.  He’s air-cooled VW through and through, driving a Super Beetle when he’s not behind the wheel of this one.

Great to meet you Zach!  Representing the ‘burgh and the bus well 🙂

Humbled by Patience

On our last trip, actually our first long family trip in the bus, my wife Joumana dealt with my stubborn persistence like an angel.  It was a hot July day on the final leg of our journey from Pittsburgh to Montreal, and back.  This stretch from Saugerties, NY home should have taken about 8 hours.  We’ve made the trip dozens of times, but never in a vintage car without air conditioning.  This time the trip took nearly 15 hours and she refrained from “I told you so’s” for its entirety.  We limped over Pennsylvania mountains at 30 MPH and stopped every 20-50 miles and she let me stubbornly tron on, eventually pulling in the driveway after 2:30 AM.

As much as it takes a different kind of person to deal with the eccentricities of a vintage car, it takes a very understanding support team to not declare mutiny and have said vehicle towed-off in the night.  The reasons the owner/driver has for wanting an old bus will inevitably differ from those of the supportive spouse and that can be hard to recall in those moments of stress.  With each trip I learn more tidbits about the bus, understanding how it works, and knowing how to react to and anticipate problems.  It’s not unlike my marriage.  Hopefully both keep running pretty well for many years to come.

Lest We Forget

Welcome to my new blog where I hope to record my thoughts on our escapades in this vintage bus.  After the mini-adventures that we’ve had to date and shared with friends, it seemed like a good idea to start recording some of the highlights.  Not just fun, but troubles, methods to fix things, and who knows, maybe a few insights to share.