Saturday, March 30, 2019

A Long, Strange Trip for the Volkswagen Bus

I had a V.W. bug in high school, and one of my best buddies had a bus.

It was just the culture back then, and we didn't think that much more of it besides being in the moment and being cool.

At the Los Angeles Times, "The Volkswagen Bus’ long, strange trip from hippie van to hot collectible":

“You see? You see? You see?” Enrique Aragon shouts over the loud purr of his 1966 Volkswagen 21-Window Deluxe Bus as he gestures toward gawkers yet again.

For the last hour, the 42-year-old electrician and member of the Boyle Heights-based Volksstyle Car Club has cruised Colorado Boulevard in Pasadena in his dominguero. And all along the ride, people won’t let him be.

AAA tow-truck drivers pull up and mouth, “Beautiful car!” Middle-aged couples in Ohio State sweatshirts wave from a bar. Bearded hipsters offer the thumbs-up. Children flash a peace sign.

Nearly everyone else just stares.

Aragon is used to it. His ’66 is a glimmering shrine to Southern California car culture. He spent three years and $45,000 to restore it from a shell with no wheels or seats to its current, showroom-ready state. It has a two-tone brown paint job that tapers into a V in the vehicle’s flat front. A ragtop that rolls up like a carpet to reveal a sunroof. A windshield that pops open into two sides. Porsche hubcaps. Pleather interior. Chrome all around.

And the Bus’ namesake piece de resistance: 21 windows that wrap around the sides, the roof and the back so that a ride inside feels like putting wheels on the Crystal Cathedral.

“People point all the time,” he says. “Everyone trips out because they don’t know they’re still around.”

In fact, the Volkswagen Bus never went away, although at times it has fallen sharply out of fashion. And it’s back like never before.

From 1950 to 1979, the German automaker churned out over 4.7 million of them under different names and models —Westfalia, Samba, Kombi, Transporter — to create one of the most beloved lines of cars worldwide. Its basic frame — a raised, boxy body, a weak engine in the back, bench seats on the inside, a plethora of windows — attracted a devoted worldwide following. Aficionados turned them into everything from surf wagons and homes to taxis and work trucks. Even movable beer gardens.

“It’s the most easily recognized van or commercial vehicle on the planet,” says Brian Moody, executive editor for “Low operating cost, low purchase cost when Volkswagen made them. Globally, you can talk to a Brazilian who has great VW Bus memories. A Mexican. A European. An Indian. Not everyone had a Mustang convertible.”

But over the last decade, this once-humble workhorse has become something it’s never been: one of the hottest gets in the vintage auto world.

The Instagram generation has popularized them through the hashtag #vanlife, in which you can scroll through over 4 million photos of people posing in gorgeous locations with immaculately staged Buses. Meanwhile, baby boomers with nostalgia in their hearts and retirement savings in their pockets have pushed prices to record-breaking levels — the current record holder is a ’65 auctioned off in 2017 for $302,500 — with no cooling in sight, leaving longtime fans like Aragon both amazed and upset.

“All these high prices happened because of the internet,” he says. “It killed it. People used to have to work for Buses. You had to go out and look. You had to wait. Now, people just throw money.”

Nowhere is the current Bus-collecting frenzy more pronounced than in Southern California — Orange County in particular — where an alternative Bus universe first blossomed in the 1960s. There, the vehicle became a part of the social fabric, thanks to the region’s surfer and Kustom Kulture scenes. The area’s temperate weather ensured that the Bus, which has a tendency to rust quickly, had a far longer life than in the Snow Belt...