The plan was to plop an air mattress in the 1967 Volkswagen Type 2 Microbus and sleep in a van down by the river. It wasn’t a good plan; it was hardly a plan at all.
The Deluxe Station Bus painted orange and trimmed in white with white steel wheels and mirrored hubcaps contained three bench seats firmly bolted in place. It would not accommodate a mattress and I did not bring a tent. That would be but the first challenge in taking an international treasure out for an overnight jaunt.
When I picked it up outside of Detroit, where it huddled for attention with five other classic Volkswagens, from a 1984 Rabbit GTI to a Karmann Ghia roadster from the ‘60s, the liftgate above the rear pancake engine jammed open. Eventually, our man on the job, Joe, got it unstuck and I was on my way, puttering down the road, not feeling bad.
Something about that bench seat and the four-on-the-floor manual transmission excited me as much as any other time traveler set to take off. With the front axle underfoot and a split windshield leading the charge, no hood, no exhaust, and 21 glorious windows, anything could happen, except for breaking 70 mph.
The 1493-cc—OK, 1.5-liter—flat-4 engine in this heavily restored example owned by Volkswagen itself makes 53 horsepower, good enough to go from 0-60 mph when it can. Load it up with up to nine passengers and it can’t.
Volkswagen claims an aspirational top speed of 65 mph, but with the right speed, the right wind angle, and a blessing from the goddess Fortuna, the speedometer could hit 70 mph. On the Interstate, the wind pushed the Bus around like a bully and his thugs who only want to be amused. It handled like a boat that mated with a shopping cart to make a Bus, liable to tip, with swoopy sweeping steering demands, torsion bar axles in loose communication front and rear, and enough charm to make me accept that sometimes the destination is a welcome break from the journey.
I knew this piece of collector art on wheels would draw attention but never in my near 30 years of driving cars had I experienced such widespread and unabashed adoration for a vehicle that transcends generations and demographics. Kids waved, teens gawked, passersby—of which there were many in a 53-horsepower car—flashed thumbs, snapped shots, or nodded appreciatively. Boomers of a certain persuasion hustled to shoot it with their iPhones.
One Boomer in particular, with curls unfurling from this fishing cap, leaned on the hood of his truck and waved from the RV park where the road dead-ended and Lake Huron began. Private property surrounded the stamp-sized beach and there were no good angles. I ratcheted the parking brake free and pulled into a driveway to back out. Getting it to reverse was tricky, as promised. It went left of H but not down, then went into second, then went left of H again, and finally, it found that narrow groove into reverse. As I pulled away my Boomer fan had grown into five men, smirking and honoring my efforts with a golf clap. I laughed my ass off.
There’s a lightness to time travel, and it’s impossible to take yourself seriously behind the flat wheel of a Bus.
At the campground of Lakeport State Park on the western edge of Lake Huron, I loosened the wing nuts and propped open the front driver’s window to let in the cool lake breeze. There was no A/C, of course, only a push-button AM radio, an ashtray, and an aftermarket cupholder serving as cabin features. As the sweat cooled on my bald head, heads turned, fingers pointed, and smiles beamed.
The de facto camp host pointed me in the direction of my site and after I finished loading my firewood, he loaded a listing in his iPhone for a 13-window Bus, as if he were in the market, as if his fifth-wheel trailer could fit two Buses.
“Not sure why they call it that,” he said, counting the windows in the listing. “But this one is yours for $57,000.”
Windows are the defining marker of a Type 1 and, later, a Type 2, Bus. Not long after that conversation from the neighboring campsite, an older man with a tye-dyed Buenos Dias shirt and a salt-and-pepper rat tail couldn’t contain his excitement. “That a 23-window? Well, I’ll be.” He had a friend, who had a friend, they were in Costa Rica, some things happened, it was rarer than rare, he concluded, doing two full walk-arounds.
The standard Microbus, Kombi, or Type 1, depending on your country, came with 11 windows, three on either side, a rear window, two front door windows, and the split windshield. There were 13-window, 15-window, and the famous 23-window Bus that was discontinued for 1964. It featured two rear windows curving around the rear windshield, one more window on either side of the body for four per side, to match the four port windows on either side up top.
Those models with eight roof windows and a manually folding rooftop were known as Sambas. Since mine was a 1967, and didn’t have the curved rear windows, it was a 21-Window Bus—officially, a 1967 Type 2 Microbus 21-Window Deluxe Samba Bus that cost $2,900. It was the last year of the split windshield, the first year of seat belts for all seats. A similar Bus auctioned for $143,000 in 2017.
This one was priceless. It was a smile maker, with a magnetism as infectious as its Day-Glo orange and white body and giant smiling VW logo on its bulbous silly face. Two young women with a Polaroid–yup, those are back, too—snapped some shots and offered me one. Teens too cool to express anything but ennui said with a half-lidded nod, “Cool car.”
It made people want to be a part of it. Before the sun set, there seemed to be a good spot on the wooded dune to shoot it. But it would cramp the walkway to the beach. The first full weekend the Michigan state parks had been opened resulted in a packed house.
Some people wore masks, some didn’t. Some people had campaign signs that read “Our Governor is an IDIOT,” most people maintained a healthy social distance when addressing the Bus.
Camp hostess Jeanette had circled the wagons and flagged down Ranger A., and together, they agreed to help clear a path. They would get nothing out of it but a picture and the satisfaction of helping a stranger.
It was another tricky move, maneuvering the Bus around a swatch of woods on a narrow isthmus of solid ground surrounded by beach sand. Go too far one way, and it could tip into Lake Huron, which, like Lake Michigan, is at record high water levels. Or I could get a wheel stuck in the sand. No way the rear-wheel-drive van could pull itself out of that.
Nothing attracts a crowd, like a crowd of 1967 Type 2 Microbus oglers.
The most frequent comment, after the initial parlay, was “When is that new one coming out?” The Volkswagen ID Buzz Microbus is slated for 2022; it’ll be all-electric and hopefully have a name not as awkward as ID Buzz or as long as Type 2 Microbus 21 Window Deluxe Samba Bus.
Michiganders know the auto industry like southern Californians know the aftermarket. This buckle on the Rust Belt might be known as the home of The Detroit Three (or The Detroit 2.5 if you want to be snarky), but it should be known for its vast recreational opportunities nestled by four Great Lakes.
The enduring image of a Bus on California’s West Coast beaches might be favored in the collective consciousness, but this Bus felt just at home on Michigan’s coast, when it stood out like a Dreamsicle lighthouse amid a sea of trucks and RVs. The comments kept coming, and I kept fielding them.
Now, as then, this timepiece on wheels universally recognized from the counterculture era of the ‘60s, when a country divided took to the road as an expression of freedom, was a gateway to conversation; it was a way to connect with people at a time when disconnect is the prevailing order.
Later, at my fire, as I let my happy thoughts stew around beneath a sky so rich with stars the stardust would blanket my eyes better than the Sandman, I reassessed my situation. I could sleep to those stars, and if the bugs got too buggy, or if the Gypsy moth poop raining down from the oak tree beside me got to be too poopy, I could curl up on a bench seat on the Bus.
Then a pickup truck rumbled to a stop. It was the ranger. He pulled a 10-person tent out of the bed and handed it to me.
“Jeanette said you didn’t have a tent,” he said.
I blushed. I had mentioned it in passing when describing to Jeanette how it wasn’t a camper Bus, how I’d come from Chicago, how she was going back to the office for the first time in three months on Monday and was anxious, how we were all anxious.
I couldn’t turn it down. These were people helping people. This was an act of kindness. I slept that much better in the shadow of the Bus knowing that kindness is not of another era.
This article by Robert Duffer was originally published by Motor Authority, an editorial partner of ClassicCars.com.