BILL MAXWELL: VW van still cruises memory lane
When I read that the last Volkswagen campervan would roll off the assembly line Dec. 31, I was transported back in time.
The company in Brazil that is the world’s last manufacturer of this automotive icon will stop production. It says it can’t make money and meet the country’s new safety mandates of antilock braking systems and air bags beginning 2014.
I fell in love with the Volkswagen campervan during the summer of 1964, at the end of my freshman year of college. I was driving with a schoolmate in his old Plymouth sedan from Texas to Atlanta. Outside Vicksburg, Miss., the car broke down and we started walking in search of a service station. We didn’t dare hold out our thumbs as hitchhikers because, as two young black males in the Deep South, we were afraid to attract attention.
Trudging along the fence, away from the road, we were surprised to hear tinny beeping behind us and to see a psychedelic-painted VW campervan, a mobile mural, stop on the easement a few yards from us.
We were ready to run when two tie-dye-clad young white men hopped out. The driver waved and asked if that was our car about 5 miles back. His smile and that strange fragrance emanating from him — which we learned was patchouli oil — put us at ease. He offered to drive us the 15 miles to Vicksburg to find a mechanic.
As we approached the van, the side door slid open, and we were greeted by three young white women wearing flowing, ankle-length skirts. They made room for us on the L-shaped seat even though we were sweaty. Incense filled the air. One woman opened the icebox, grabbed two cold beers and handed them to us. Nothing had ever been more refreshing.
As we drove to Vicksburg, our rescuers sang Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’” and “Blowin’ in the Wind,” and we joined in, all of us laughing. They drove us to a service station and stayed with us. A truck towed our car to the station, and we learned that the clutch needed replacing, which we couldn’t pay for on the spot. Our rescuers drove us to Atlanta and dropped us off.
We never saw or heard from them again. That was my introduction to the campervan, nicknamed the “bus,” the “hippie van” and many other endearing terms.
In 1974, when I taught at Northern Illinois University, I bought a campervan, a 1972 mustard-colored gem with the spare mounted in front. I was inspired to buy it because of my memories of those five hippies who aided my schoolmate and me during one of the most racially violent periods in the South.
That bus, its psychedelic paint and incense, has stayed in my imagination as a symbol of adventure, freedom, friendship, peace and love.
First sold in 1950, the bus was integral to America’s counterculture during the 1960s and 1970s, becoming the top-selling auto import in the nation. It was the vehicle of choice during 1967’s Summer of Love, when as many as 100,000 people descended on the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood of San Francisco. It was ubiquitous at Woodstock in 1969, and legions of Deadheads piled into their buses to follow the Grateful Dead to concerts nationwide.
From 1974 to 1978, I drove my van from coast to coast to camp and fish. I got rid of it after I bought a travel trailer, replacing it with an eight-cylinder Chevy pickup. The van’s engine wasn’t powerful enough to constantly pull the trailer in the mountains. I still recall angry motorists screaming profanities and raising their middle finger as they flew by.
Two hours after I placed an ad to sell the van on a campus bulletin board, a colleague came to my office and handed me a check for the price I was asking. He said he’d coveted the van for the two years he’d seen it on campus.
To this day, I regret selling my bus. I’ve owned several vehicles since then but without becoming attached to any. I don’t think there will ever be another auto with the spiritual pull and adventurous allure of the hippie van.