Thursday, November 7, 2013

Yippie! Hippie Trip Over for VW's Bus

They liked 'em so much, they got two of 'em.

No, not little boys, although they got two of us, too.  But those old Volkswagen buses.  My parents bought two of them in a row.

You know - the flower power hippiemobiles from the 1960's, with the big, googly-eyed headlights, the front seats perched over the front wheels, and an engine in the rear that emitted a blue haze even when you drove it new off the dealership's lot.

VW's iconic bus hasn't been sold in the United States in years, and production at its last bastion of relevance, in Sao Paulo, Brazil, is going to end next month.  Never a marvel of German reliability, the bus lost favor in most of the developed world when its interior spaciousness - it's best feature - became available in better-made and more stylish SUVs.  Even Brazil has finally enacted safety requirements for all new vehicles sold there that officially make the bus obsolete.  It would cost VW too much to try and re-engineer things like air bags and anti-lock brakes to its bare-bones people hauler.

My father developed a taste for Volkswagens while he was stationed in Germany during the Korean War.  He served as part of a peace-keeping effort while Europe re-built after World War II, and was there as VW, legendary even back then, was re-building its line of passenger vehicles.  The Beetle had officially been known as Type 1, and the bus, introduced in 1950, was officially known as Type 2.

Oddly enough, in the 1970's, VW would try a crazy four-door concept car that looked like a cross between a Third Reich military vehicle and a Beetle on steroids, and call it the "Thing."  Thing 1?  Thing 2?  Maybe Dr. Seuss designed for VW when he wasn't writing children's literature?

At any rate, by the time my parents had gotten married in the mid-60's, the VW bus had already been claimed by liberal radicals for its quirky looks and simple practicality.  Why my parents - born-again, straight-laced, button-down evangelicals - were attracted to the bus, I  never did understand.  Granted, it was bigger than the Beetle, but I think it did make some people assume some totally wrong things about my parents when they'd first see them driving a hippie vehicle into a church parking lot.

Dad, me (feeding the rabbit), a relative from Finland
(wearing a Euro-chic pantsuit - this was July 1972, after all),
Mom, and my brother, at home in upstate New York,
with the blue VW bus behind us,
next to one of Dad's American-made tanks
I absolutely loathed those two buses.  The first one was blue with a white top, and the second was tan with a white top.  I can't remember what happened to the first one, but it couldn't have been its remarkable reliability that convinced my folks to replace it with another one.  They didn't have air conditioning either, and their heaters were laughably weak.  It figures they were probably made in either Mexico or Brazil, VW's main production centers in the Western Hemisphere.  Who in those countries ever needed a functional heater?

Regular readers of my blog know that I grew up in upstate New York.  Heaters are essential for cars for most of the year up there!  I remember ice crusting on the INSIDE of our buses' windows.  Top that off with thin vinyl seat coverings, and lots of painted metal inside, and you got a nifty walk-in, drivable refrigerator from November through April.

Not that my brother and I didn't find ways to enjoy our rides in those things.  This was back in the day before seat belts, and when we were small, both my brother and I could fit, standing up, in the front passenger seat space, where there was a handrail built into the narrow dashboard.  We'd stand up, the two of us, holding onto the handrail, as Mom sailed over those country roads north of Oneida Lake, none of us buckled up, not a car seat in sight.  My brother and I had our tiny skulls mere inches away from the broad windshield, and I remember that it was only when our heads kept banging up against the glass that we were convinced that we'd grown too tall to keep riding in that position.

Dad, meanwhile, always got big, American-made tanks from his company to drive, like those massive Ford Country Squire station wagons that were almost as long as football fields.  He'd drive off on business, plowing around the Northeast in those big, air-conditioned cars, all by himself, while his entire family bounced around rural New York in a tinny metal box.  I listen to new parents today gushing about all of the safety features on their bulky, expensive family haulers, and I smile in amazement at what we survived when I was a kid.

We were only ever in one traffic accident, in the tan van with the white top.  A high school teacher, oddly enough, ran a stoplight and hit us broad-side one Wednesday evening as we were on our way to church.  The teacher had just left a school function, and was closely followed by other high schoolers driving home as well, and they all passed by the accident scene, with their teacher standing in the middle of the intersection, next to his crumpled blue sedan.  None of us were hurt, but the bus stayed in the shop for quite a while as replacement parts found their way up from South America to New York's hinterlands.

Back then, Mom's parents lived in coastal Maine, and we'd drive up there every Thanksgiving, and during the summers.  I remember we usually took Dad's cars, since they were more comfortable and more suited for highway traveling, but a couple of times, we took those hideous VW vans.

The thing about driving from rural upstate New York to rural coastal Maine at Thanksgiving time is the weather.  Always bitterly cold.  Usually with precipitation that isn't necessarily in liquid form.  I remember Dad gingerly driving those buses along narrow back roads in New England ("all the crazy drivers use the Interstates," he'd explain, or, "it's the scenic route" when all we could see was white snow).  Of course, those roads were all ice and blowing snow because the snowplows were all out plowing... the major highways and Interstates!  And we'd always leave Maine to head back home at some unearthly hour, like 5am on the Sunday after Thanksgiving.  I don't think those vans warmed up until the afternoon sun hit them - I remember Mom piling blankets on top of us to keep us from matching the ice on the inside of the windows.

When Dad was transferred down here, I was so relieved that we could start a new life in Texas without the stigma of a VW bus.  My parents decided that the rust beginning to show on the tan van, thanks to the salt New York applies to its winter roads, would look awkward down in Texas, where it never snows (yeah, right - it snows here, but they never put salt on the roads when it does).  So Dad found a sucker - I mean, a buyer - at the Exxon gas station where we regularly filled-up, at the I-81 interchange in the little village of Central Square, north of Syracuse.  One of the guys had worked on that van so much, he probably figured he'd replaced everything on it at least once already.  Dad hated parting with it, but I was so happy when we pulled away from that Exxon station, leaving that bus in its parking lot for the last time.  But even then, it looked rather forlorn, sitting there among all of the "normal" American-made cars.

Indeed, the VW bus was never conventional, at least in the United States.  It was always odd, weird, and a vehicular misfit.  In the 1990's, a later iteration of the bus, called the Eurovan, managed to revive Volkswagen's passenger van franchise for a few years.  It was even boxier than the buses my parents owned, but it had a front-mounted engine that required a snout, making it look less funky.  Those were also manufactured in Germany, adding an air of sophistication that the rear-engine buses from South America never had.  The buses still being built today in Brazil, whose production will end by the end of the year, are the old style like my parents had.

Apparently, down in South America, the traditional Type 2 has developed a reputation if not for reliability, then at least for being easily fixable.  With a relatively uncomplicated engine, even shade tree mechanics can keep one going at minimal cost.  And obviously, heating one is no problem at all.  Anyway, since so many have been built down there, it's not like VW busses are going to disappear from their streets anytime soon.

However, I can't recall the last time I saw one of any vintage here in north Texas.

While Brazilians are reportedly mourning the end of the line for their distinctive buses, this is one death of an icon that I won't be mourning at all.  Usually, I don't like change, but when my family got rid of its last bus, I couldn't wait to replace it with a conventional sedan.  When we moved to Texas, my parents bought a silver Ford Fairmont, with a burgundy interior, and I was thrilled that it had a trunk, and nobody could walk from the front seat to the middle seat to the back seat!

The Fairmont didn't even have a middle seat.  Wow - we were moving up in the world.

Today, my parents own a Chrysler minivan, and once again, you can walk from the front seat, to the pair of bucket seats in the middle, to the back seat.  There's not as much room to do it in like the VW buses had, but in terms of practicality, functionality, and space, this new generation of minivans has taken what those old hippiemobiles started and made it mainstream.  So mainstream, in fact, that the initial burst of enthusiasm for minivans that followed Chrysler's re-introduction of the concept back in the 1980's made them synonymous with fleece warm-ups in the style department.  They're the kind of vehicles grandparents drive.  Which suits my folks, since they have five grandkids.

The last time I was in the market for a new car, I briefly considered buying a minivan, since they have the headroom I prize as a tall person, and the versatility I thought I needed.  But when Mom asked me what kind of vehicle I was looking for, and I mentioned a couple of minivans, she scowled.

"Single men don't buy minivans," she advised.  So I ended up getting another Honda Accord.

At least nobody has ever assumed I might be a hippie.

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