When most people think of car shows, they think of gleaming automobiles sitting in a parking lot, on a golf course fairway or inside of an expansive, climate-controlled venue.
The annual Jerome Jamboree is the exact opposite. For the better part of a week in late September, the Arizona Bus Club gathers on an old softball field just yards from the entrance to the old Gold King copper mine to celebrate everything and anything about the Volkswagen bus, aka the VW Transporter, no matter if it’s a $100,000 project or a rust bucket held together with duct tape.
The array of people in attendance was even wider than the vans in which they arrived. People strolling the grounds were wearing everything from tie-dyed shirts to golf polos. Some were young enough to be in kindergarten, some were old enough to remember when the first VW bus rolled onto showroom floors. There were hippies, business people and families.
But they had a few things in common: All were quick to wave hello and offer any parts, assistance or beverages you could want.
If it sounds like a quirky, Burning Man-esque event, it is. “Less weird,” a passerby said to me when I made the comparison to the famed Nevada desert festival aloud. But it seems fitting that a vehicle once associated with the hippie counterculture is celebrated outside of Jerome, a mining boomtown given new life by artists, galleries and boutique businesses, with more than a few flower children thrown in the mix.
“These are more than a car; they’re a culture,” Arizona Bus Club President Stuart Mears said of the VW vans on Friday, the first full day of the combined meetup and show.
But Mears was quick to add that the busses celebrated at a counterculture-esque show are now an accepted group. They’ve developed a true following and have a passionate global fanbase that checks every box for having gone mainstream.
“It’s a whole culture,” Mears added. “Not a counterculture like it was before.”
Mears brought his personal VW to the show, a yellow 1967 Westfalia first-generation split windshield. He left England 15 years ago with his wife and two children and joined the club after he bought the vehicle from a dealer in Denver and brought it to the family’s new home in Arizona.
“I had been pleading for a bus for God knows how long,” he said. “My wife couldn’t argue with me. It was the bus I’d been looking for.”
He said the show is more like attending a family event, and he’s right. While walking through the meetup with another member, Mish Evans, it was not uncommon to hear her refer to different vehicles using the owner’s first name.
Adding to the welcoming atmosphere were the sounds of the Beatles and Bob Marley, and owners waking to make breakfast. Unlike other shows, the owners don’t leave their vans overnight. Instead, they sleep in them or set up camp nearby.
The show is primarily focused on the bus, but a few other VW models — such as the Beetle and Karmann Ghia — were spotted on the grounds. Organizers said those cars were allowed because they, like the bus, are air-cooled. However, other marques are not allowed to camp. They must be parked off-site.
Daytime at the event is used for catching up, checking out other vans or walking the mile into Jerome, while the night is reserved for on-site parties complete with a live band.
More than 300 vans were expected to be at the show by Saturday night, ahead of Sunday’s annual giveaway. The jamboree gives between a third and a quarter of the money it makes from the event each year to local charities and uses the rest to restore an old bus that is later raffled off to someone in attendance.
This year’s bus was a 1979 Transporter nicknamed “Charlie Brown” because of the brown-with-orange-pinstripe paint job. Mears said it takes a full year to plan the event and restore the raffle van.
One van that was raffled off took 60 people thousands of hours to build, club Vice President Mike Baleda said. The club found the bus in Palm Springs and built it based on the beloved Riviera camper, including the wood interior.
Baleda said the club left a special gift under the paneling: Everyone who worked on the van signed the body.
The jamboree has been held outside of the Gold King Mine for the past 28 years because the area’s former owner, Don Robertson, liked the cars and the people. After he passed a few years ago, Mears said the club wanted to continue the tradition to honor his memory and because the club likes the character of the area.
Plus, the mountainous location gives van owners a challenge. Jerome sits at 5,066 feet above sea level and more than 1,700 feet above nearby Cottonwood. There’s only two ways into the town and both are a winding road.
Mears joked: “Part of the adventure is: will I make it to Jerome?”
He’s not kidding. A caravan to the show led by the raffle van from Phoenix passes over Mingus Mountain, which peaks higher than 7,800 feet in elevation. Considering the Transporter’s typically underpowered 4-cylinder engine, it really is a test.
“It’s like a survival guide coming up here,” Mears said.
This year, one van’s hydraulic brakes struggled on the downward road to the campsite. The driver used a combination of his transmission and what brakes he had left to make it safely to the jamboree, where everyone had a good laugh about it.
There’s little doubt that they’ll make the climb again. Next year’s raffle bus — a 1978 Adventure Wagon — has already been picked out. More plans are already being put in place. And while the show and all the surrounding events are a good time, Mears said he has another reason for coming back.
“The people are the nicest people you’ll ever meet,” he said.