The year is 1949, Volkswagen is up and running, building Beetles for the amusement of the four people in America who know about them. Nineteen forty-nine was also the year Volkswagen began commercial production of the VW Type 2, or Transporter, more commonly known as the VW Microbus. The idea was to build the largest possible vehicle using the same 94.5-inch wheelbase as the Beetle. The van would be 165 inches long, only 5 inches longer than the car. It was designed to be a box with wheels. The front is flat, the steering wheel almost parallel to the ground, and the driver's and passenger’s seats mount directly above the wheels. The cargo area is reached through two swinging doors on the right side of the van and a hatch in the rear. What is brilliant is the van’s cost, compact dimensions, and enormous volume (170 cubic feet).
The Transporter, also called the Kombi or Microbus, has a carrying capacity of three-quarters of a ton and is powered by the same 30-horsepower, 1.2-liter, air-cooled, four-cylinder, horizontally opposed (flat) engine as the Beetle. The engine is mounted behind the rear axle and drive, the rear wheels through a four-speed manual transmission. The suspension is independent all around via torsion bars. Reduction gears are installed at each driving wheel hub to make the engine run faster, thereby producing enough pulling power to move 2430 pounds of van.
The tiny flat-four engine was not supposed to exceed 3500 rpm, so Volkswagen put a sticker on the dash instructing drivers that “The allowable top speed of this vehicle is 50 mph.” Seven years later Road & Track tested a new VW Microbus (now up to 36 horsepower) and recorded a top speed average of 59 mph. with a best run of 60 mph. Acceleration from 0 to 60 mph took 75 seconds, from 0 to 50 mph took 30.6 seconds. Although few people in America cared, fuel economy was remarkable. 26 to 29 miles per gallon.
“I hear you have the cleanest bus in town. " I’m on the phone speaking to Paul Cooper of Julian.
“I used to have the cleanest bus in town, a 1971 dual-port engine, single carb, but unfortunately I got rid of it and bought another.”
Cooper is 40 years old, married, works as an illustrator. “The one I have now is a ’71 as well. I’m starting to restore this one, too. It’s a big job. I like everything to be perfect, even the paint. I like everything stock.”
“What do you do with your van?”
“I drive down to the beach and surf, go up and down our mountain roads; it’s gutless, but I get there. I love mine. My wife is a surveyor. She used to take it all over. She loves it, too. We went to Thomas Mountain, over by Idyllwild, a while back. That mountain is so steep, it’s only for Jeeps. We wanted to go up to the peak, and sure enough we got up there. Once we arrived, all we saw were Jeeps, all the drivers were shaking their heads.”
I lean back in my swivel chair. On my left is a ten-foot-high living room window that looks out onto a courtyard where palms grow up out of an underplanting of ivy and pink impatiens. £ Between two palms, a fountain plashes.
Returning to Cooper, I ask, “How do you get up that mountain?”
“The independent suspension on that year, in that ’71 van, I mean, they just go. If you drive carefully, you can get to places where maybe you shouldn’t. You have to be careful. It’s a small motor; it has to run at peak efficiency. They’ll take a lot of abuse, but they won’t give you any power."
“How do you find parts?”
“It’s such a cult car, Volkswagens in general. They have catalogs for parts. You can send away for anything. They literally manufacture every component, whole body parts, front panels, pop-tops, the whole nine yards. It’s cheap and you can maintain them."
Outside, a hummingbird feeds from a blooming rose. I ask, “What did you pay for your current ’71?”
Cooper pauses, then reveals, “Eighteen hundred. That's a pretty normal price. This one, when you open up the back door, there’s a screen, makes it nice for camping. We have a cot for our baby that fits up in the cab area. There are four mounted clips, two on either side of the front doors, where a canvas cot slips in.”
“I’m partial to VWs, but they are deathtraps. How do you relate to that?”
“I don't know, I drive as best I can. I don’t tailgate at all. I give myself lots of space and let the chips fall where they may.”
Next call is to Sabin Mroz, a carpenter, window maker, most of all an artisan, living in Alpine. Mroz is 53 years old, married, father of two grown children, and owner of a 1965 split - window VW van. I hear a soft, laconic voice, “I bought it in 1973, paid $750. This one is a deluxe, which means it has one more window in the back than the standard. The van just turned 400,000 miles. When I bought it, the original engine had been rebuilt. All they did was the upper end; they didn't do the lower end. Then the rods started knocking, so I had to have that fixed. Then I bought an engine and later on had that rebuilt. The one in there now is rebuilt from a Mexican block. It’s a 1766cc, I really like it.”
The hummingbird flies away, replaced by a revolting eight-year-old kid attempting to skateboard on the courtyard tile. I ask Sabin. “Does the 1766 engine give you decent power?”
“Well, I dialed down the compression level, so it tends to have low rpm torque. The engine runs cooler at a lower compression. It runs more like a tractor engine.”
“Twenty-two years owning the same van, how many trips to Mexico?”
“I couldn’t even begin to count them. I’ve never been to the East Coast. Have been up north, been to Seattle. It breaks down once in a while. The most delightful breakdown was outside of San Francisco, at the nuclear weapons laboratory in Livermore. Of course it was a Saturday night. Three phone calls later we located the local VW mechanic. He owned a VW, which we borrowed. We went swimming in a nearby lake, had a great weekend while he rebuilt the engine, and we were back on the road Monday morning.”
The courtyard kid on the skateboard falls down, begins to howl. I give a thumbs-up sign, take another sip of morning coffee, feel better. “Do you ever get called filthy hippie swine, driving around in that?”
“Never really did, but there is that connection. Every so often I’ll get a hippie sign from other drivers. ‘Hey, peace, brother.’"
“Sabin, what do you like best about the van?”
“The size and scale and proportion. I like the arrangement, the accommodations, the design of the bus. I love the side doors. In a ’65 they swing open. I do carpentry work. The newer models have rolling doors, the suspension is a little better, but they have those doors. The amount of effort required to open and close a sliding door, where you have to sling the whole door versus pivoting it on a hinge, there’s no comparison. I go in and out of the bus so much during the course of the day that my arms would be worn out with sliding doors.”
“How do you relate to the deathtrap situation?”
“Yeah, yeah, that’s true. There is that fear. I try to develop, cultivate, and practice extremely cautious driving habits. I just don’t drive into situations; I slow down, back off, see the escape route. You don’t want to hit anything. In a VW van there’s nothing in front of you.” The howling kid’s mother has arrived. She’s a frumpy, overweight blonde dressed in pink Bermuda shorts. She begins, at high rpm, to berate the child for hurting himself. My sympathies instantly switch to the boy. I return to Sabin, “Do you maintain your van?"
“The parts are cheap. The tradeoff for that is that they have to be replaced more often. And they need to be tended to. The new Vanagons have a whole lot of neat features about them and a lot of expensive parts that go with it. There are parts that cost six, eight hundred bucks, and there’s a whole lot more parts that cost several hundred dollars. Old VW van parts aren’t that expensive.”
“How is yours set up on the inside?” “I’m in the third remodel now. I keep refining. I have a permanent partial shelf in the back, just inside the hatch. The shelf is low enough so that it doesn’t obstruct the rear-view mirror. I have bedding, closet, things like that. For camping I have a two-person table that clips on to the wall opposite the door. It drops down for sleeping. Then a bench where the back seat would be. It’s made of light plywood, wood construction, very simple and strong. I have hatch plates on top of the bench that drop in, so if I have to get some things from inside, I can lift up the plywood with a finger. I also have openings in the front so I can reach in from that angle if I want. The van has split front seats. Behind the driver’s seat there’s a storage box, and again, it has a hatch plate on top and opens on the side. That one I take out every so often. I took it out yesterday to go to the dump. I can carry 13 trash cans inside that van.”
Mom orders the sobbing kid back to the apartment. The kid slinks away. The woman picks up the skateboard, cases the courtyard, checking for witnesses, turns on her heel, and harrumphs out of sight.
I dial Bill Lyons, 44, a general contractor who lives in Coronado, and ask when he bought his van.
“I bought it two years ago for $180. It’s a ’66 split window, and it’s a panel, which is pretty rare. A panel doesn’t have windows on the sides. Other than that, it’s set up like a normal van, except it doesn’t have any seats in the back.”
“How did you ever find a van for a hundred and eighty bucks?”
“I have some property in Imperial Beach, so I go down there all the time. I used to drive by this bus; it was sitting in a back yard. Weeds were growing through it. I thought, ‘One of these days, I’m going to stop and ask this guy if he’ll sell.’ The next day I’m back in I.B., and there’s a For Sale sign on the van. I couldn’t believe it.
“There were weeds growing up through the floor and a rusted hole about the size of a basketball on one side. The engine was half torn apart. Of course it didn’t run, and it had three flat tires. The body was pretty good except for the big hole. I had that cut out and a new section welded in. Most of the glass was in place. The first thing my son and I did was completely strip it down. We took every nut and bolt off the van. Then we started cleaning things up and deciding what to do and what to buy. I did all the bodywork and then took it down and had it painted in National City. Now it’s the original pearl white, L87. I have about $7500 in it. Took a year and a half to finish.”
I pour another cup of coffee from my Thermos and ask Lyons, “Where do you get parts?”
“There’s at least six different places that will send you catalogs. You get the catalogs, decide which parts you want, and they’ll UPS ’em to you overnight. And there is a big meet-up in Pomona once a month. You can’t imagine how many people are there with Volkswagen vans. The meet is held at the fairgrounds. If you buy VW Trends or Hot VWs, there’ll always be an ad for the Pomona Swap Meet. You literally have to get there at four in the morning. People go around with flashlights. Everybody has their car and all the parts that they've accumulated over the years. It is unbelievable. Everyone should see it in their lifetime. It’s incredible.”
The kid is in the courtyard again, skateboard tucked under his arm. He walks out to the alley. Nice going, kid. Go get ’em. I pour the last cup of coffee, carry it out to my 1971 VW van, and drive over to Bugs R Us, located in the 5600 block of El Cajon Boulevard.
The office is tucked away behind a high fence. One enters into a lot filled with 20 parked VWs, from Jetta to pop-top van to humble bug. I pull up to the office door and dismount. Inside, fitting at his metal desk behind a low wooden partition, is the owner, Jack Seuferer. Seuferer's 45 years old, five foot ten, blond hair, mustache, ntense blue-green eyes, and a pocked, ruddy, narrow face. I ask him to describe his business.
‘‘We work on anywhere from 8 to 15 cars a day, 10 to 20 percent of that would be vans.”
“I’ll ask you my deathtrap question right off the top."
“VW vans were never deathtraps when they were put together, when they were new. They’re not deathtraps if somebody maintains them. Any car can be a deathtrap if it needs brakes and people don’t fix them.”
Does not compute. I feel a dead end, roll my eyes, move on to another topic. “What kind of person buys a 1960s split-window VW van?”
"A lot of high school kids like the old body style. They look in Hot WVs magazine for one that’s been customized, and it looks pretty cool. If you buy an old one, it’s an investment. They’re a $3000 van today. Ten years from now they’ll still be a $3000 van. You buy any of the new vans and that’s not true.”
A phone rings. Seuferer lets it ring five times, gets up, walks over to the wall phone, engages in ball-bearing chat, talks for four minutes, hangs up.
Phone instantly rings again. Seuferer talks about front ends for another •our minutes before he again returns to his desk, ask, “Do you own a VW van?”
“I’ve owned bunches of them. Besides the shop van, I’ve got a Vanagon camper, and mv wife drives a Vanagon."
“How difficult are they to maintain?" “They’re cheaper to maintain when they went to hydraulic lifters and cheaper still when they went to electronic ignition. Now they’re like any car, you run ’em, you change spark plugs, change the oil. With the hydraulic lifters, you don’t have to do the valve adjustment. Prior to ’78, you had to adjust the valves every 3000 miles during the hot summer months. If you tried to push it to 6000, sometimes they’ll end up getting tight on you. That can cause burnt valves. Older vans are fairly expensive to maintain if you have to pay someone to adjust the valves every 3000 miles."
The phone rings again. I throw out a fast question, “The market share for Volkswagens has gone into the ground over the last 20 years. Do you think you’ll ever run out of customers?”
“No, not in Southern California. If I had this shop back East, I’d probably be working on all the imports. But here we always have enough work. But there has been a dramatic change in customers. We used to work on more vans. Seems like we don’t work on as many vans as we used to. We used to joke about changing our name to Vans R Us because we’d have ten vans in here and only one or two bugs. Now the older vans are being scrapped out or they’re bought up by collectors, restorers, who use them for weekend driving."
A big man wearing blue overalls enters the office, answers the phone. Seuferer continues, “There are a lot of people who think it’s cool to buy an old van and fix it up. Sometimes they’ll spend many, many hours on it, but most restored vehicles, they’re never as good as new. Sometimes, when someone restores a van, they’ll spend two or three times what a new vehicle is worth. And the result is never as good as when it was built. No matter what kind of parts you have in there, the body is not as rigid, so it’s not as strong. You've still got squeaks and rattles that you can never get rid of.
“Now, it is possible to rebuild and make a van better than new; use heavier-dutv bearings, for example. But buy a brand-new car, drive 100,000 miles, if you maintain it, it should be rank-free, unless you take it off-road or something. Get a restored car, and after a year or two they start to fall apart. When people restore vans, they tend to leave nuts and bolts off, leave washers off.
“And there’s too many rebuilders out there that are rebuilding engines that should not be rebuilt. Volkswagens are getting a bad reputation for that reason. People come in here and say, I'm thinking about buying a Volkswagen, but my friends are telling me that they’re junk, they don’t last.’ Well, if you rebuild a VW engine right, they’ll go 100,000 miles. Unfortunately, people are rebuilding engines for the third or fourth time. Those engines shouldn’t be rebuilt, but it’s cheaper than buying a new one, so they do it; and after 20,000 miles, the engine loses oil, overheats, makes Volkswagen look bad.”
“I’ve been working here since the mid-’70s. My grandfather, Ben Neil, owned a shop in Coronado, which is now the Mobil station. After the war, my dad, Ken, and my grandfather built this shop in Imperial Beach. That was 1952. After high school, I lifeguarded and managed tools for the City of San Diego. One day my dad said, ‘Well, why don’t you come out and see how you like it.’ I did and I’ve been here ever since. I bought the shop from my dad in 1980.”
Speaking is Greg Neil, owner of Neil’s Volkswagen, located in the 200 block of Palm Avenue in Imperial Beach. Neil is a lanky six-foot five. He speaks as quickly as his mind works, which is quick indeed. It’s 11:00 a.m. on a Friday morning. We’re sitting next door to his shop, on the patio of International Blends, having caffeine and croissants. I ask Neil to explain the different eras of VW vans.
“Here’s the breakdown. VW vans had split front windows prior to ’68. Then the ’68 to ’71 models had a standard windshield. In ’71 they started the dual port engine. It was more powerful, obviously, and also that year had the front disc brakes. Then we had ’72 to ’79, with the flat pancake engine, 72 to 74 being dual carb, 75 to 79 being fuel injected. Then they went to the box-style Vanagon with the same engine, all fuel injected. Now they’re into the Eurovan. They’ve gone to a smaller size to compete with the Japanese.”
A man walks up to our table, recognizes Greg, stands over him, begins to ask VW engine questions. Greg, politely, patiently, pleasantly, answers each question. Finally the man leaves. I’ve lost my thread, start again, “What was the weirdest repair you ever did on a van?”
“It was somewhere in the mid-’70s. The van was a split-window bus with six young people in it, probably 18 to 20 years old. They left it at the shop for some work, a few little service items, and they went to the beach. I didn’t think much of it. I worked through lunch. I had the van up on the lift, was changing the oil, doing the lube, little things underneath the van. I heard a couple of noises, didn’t pay much attention, got done with what I was doing, put the lift down, and a couple came out of the bus still getting dressed. They’d been in there making love.”
“Ah, a VW tradition.” I bite on my croissant, ask, “What is the best year for a VW van?”
“Seventy-one. It has the dual port, power-assist brakes, got your early motor. It’s more aesthetic than the water pumpers. They’re easy to work on, parts are available, and the cost is less.”
“Do you ever worry about running out of customers?"
“During the ’70s we had a lot of VW van stuff, a lot of engine rebuilding, transmission. It was the heyday of Volkswagen then, things were booming. Now we’ve branched out. We do Asian stuff, Toyotas and all that, because there’s not that many vans around. Now 60 to 70 percent of our business is VW. It used to be 99 percent. We didn’t work on anything else.
“VW had economic problems in the ’80s. Now they don’t have as many cars out there as Toyota and Nissan. I don’t know how their Eurovans are doing. You got to remember, those things cost $25,000, and there are a lot of other vans, like the Dodge Caravan, competing in that market. But VW was the first minivan. Nobody had them back then.”
“And they lost it.”
“Yeah, yeah. They went to the Vanagon, had some problems with those. The water-cooled ones with the rubber head gaskets weren’t a real swift design. And the rising price of everything. I had a chart of all the VW van models made in ’68. There were a good 20, 25 of them — ambulances, things with no doors on the side, things with two doors, slider doors, fire trucks, pickups, every variety you can think of.”
I ask Neil what sort of trips he’s taken.
“We used to go down to Mexico a lot, surfing. A crew of us used to drive down in VW buses. Never broke down. Those vans are amazing. David Meeks, who is now the service manager at Metro (Volkswagen), and I were down in Baja. It was the middle of the night, driving up steep dirt roads that are barely passable with motorcycles, and he was driving his VW bus pulling a trailer. He stopped, three of us got out and stood on the back of his bus bumper. The idea was to give it enough traction to get up the hill. That thing made it. I mean, I’ve put concrete three feet high in my bus and taken it to the dump. The front bumper was only six inches off the ground, it was that loaded, but the bus crawled out there, no problem. I’ve put 120,000 miles on mine without touching the motor or taking the heads off. It just keeps on chugging.’’ I picture full moon, a half dozen guys pleasantly drunk, working together, getting that van up to where it wasn’t supposed to be, then a campfire, lots of laughing. I shift in my seat. “How many people drive into your shop with a van that’s just an abused wreck?”
“In the buses, you're talking about a quarter of the owners who don’t take any care, the top 25 percent that really take care of them, and the rest fall in between. People that have problems often have problems with pollution control. The engines are real dirty. Compared to a new car, for instance, they’re filthy, because VW engines are air cooled. You’ll see a lot of missing pollution controls. The other thing is the body and electrical. People let that go, they don’t care as long as it still gets them there and back. They’ll usually fix dangerous things, like brakes and the engine, but they’ll slide on the body and interior. Generally the ones that take care of them take care of everything.”
“Is there a particular job that you say to yourself, ‘God, I hate this’?"
“Probably the ’72 to ’74 buses with dual carburetors, and the carburetors are missing parts or pollution controls. You can’t get those parts; they’re basically unavailable. We’ve had to fabricate throttle shaft bushings for the carburetor, weld linkage rods, that sort of thing. Other than those years, the buses aren’t too bad."
I’m still back on the mountain drinking whiskey with Greg and his buddies. Why would they want to be on the mountain with surfboards? Does Greg still go to Baja? If not, what stopped it? Marriage, children, or inconvenience? I look out to the street, see Neil’s Vanagon, remember why I’m here.
“Mike Boone, over at Mike’s Foreign Auto, told me he can recognize different personalities driving different VW vans. For instance, the split-window era still has hippie remnants; the ’71 to ’80 vans are owned by people who have steady, real jobs, who fix them up real nice; they’d have an RV if they had the money. And from the mid-’80s on, vans are owned by people who don’t have a clue about the VW tradition; it’s just another car. Would you agree?”
“Well, the newer you go, when you get into the water-cooled stuff and the Vanagons, you’re getting to the middle-class owners. Like somebody out of Coronado, run-the-kids-around type of people. These people all have jobs, work consistently. When you get into the earlier stuff, you get a sprinkling of sailors and military people, and you get people that surf and things like that.
“Back East and up North, people hate them, because of the heating problems. There’s virtually no heat in early VW vans. I often drive from here to Coronado at four in the morning to take my daughter swimming. By the time I get back from Coronado, there might be a little bit of heat coming out of the dash, but if you get in any snow country, forget it. You might as well have an air conditioner on all the whole time.”
“What do you use yours for?”
“My daughter does triathlon, so we throw the bike and all her gear in there and shoot up to a race. The van I have is getting beat up. I’m thinking of selling it, but I hate getting rid of it. Every bus I’ve owned, within a year to a year and a half after selling it, I’ve always bought another one. Always. They’re just so handy. That cargo door on the side especially. You know how low it is, for loading groceries, loading things, it’s perfect. I built a second garage and a room addition at my dad’s house out of that van. The drywall barely fit in, and four-by-eight sheets of plywood barely fit in, but they do fit in. You can leave all your tools in it overnight; I’d leave the van at Dad’s house, use it as a storage shed.”
“How much should you pay for a VW van?"
“Any decent van, clean, raring to go, should cost two to three thousand dollars, especially if it’s a camper that’s cherry. If you take care of them, they’ll last. I’ve got 180,000 on mine. Generally, the upright motors, like a ’71, they’re good for 100,000, safely. You see people burning them up before then, but you see people get a lot more too. Those pancake motors, the lower ends on them are real strong. Volkswagen’s upper end has always been the problem, the valve and cylinder head situation. The ’77, ’78, and ’79 flat motors tend to have seat problems where the valve seat, the head of the valve comes out and maybe goes through a piston, tears up the case, and really chews things up. You don’t see that in the early ones. Another thing is the 55 mph speed limit. We noticed a huge drop in the engine sales within six months after the 55 mph speed limit came in. Before, you’d see holes in the case from people driving 65, 75, and 80.”
Neil bids adieu, gracefully gets up from our patio table, walks across the street to his van, off to check on the surf. I decide to walk around the city, shake off this assault of road fever. And since there’s nothing much else to do. I’ll tell you about Van Horn, Texas. After all, what is a story about VW vans without a VW van story?
A good country-western tune talks about getting drunk, getting out of jail, mentions pickup trucks and the lonesome sound of a train running late at night. VW van stories include mechanical breakdowns in remote places, the driver is short of money, and at the last moment, pure dumb luck puts him on the road again.
I bought my 1971 camper ten years ago from Carl, the manager of the Astro Motel in Santa Rosa, California. Paid $2100 cash. The van has a brand-new paint job, white on top, blue below, with dashing red and white pinstripe lightning bolts running the length of its immaculate, dent-free body. Inside, adorable blue-checkered curtains cover the side and rear windows. The van is equipped with a skylight, two fans on the dash, newly rebuilt engine, new brakes, new whitewall tires, gleaming original chrome hubcaps, CB radio, outdoor awning, fridge, sink, table, and a Day-Glo Carlsbad Caverns bumper sticker pasted below the rear window. Carl had quite a collection of bumper stickers: Veterans of Foreign Wars, “Kissing a Smoker Is Like Licking an Ashtray,” “I (heart] America,” topped off by the increasingly hard-to-find yellow Mr. Happy Face smiling and urging us to “Have a Nice Day.” The deal-clincher is the rear lights. At night, tiny red lights frame the rear license plate, blinking on and off, seeming to travel around the license plate in an endless circle.
I quickly understood that the whole idea of owning a van was to pack up everything you possess and drive around with it. I decided on San Miguel de Allende as destination. San Miguel is 150 miles north of Mexico City, sits at 6134 feet elevation.
The plan was to drive the back roads out of California, camp on the northern rim of the Grand Canyon, meander through southern Colorado, spend some time in northern New Mexico, pass through El Paso, turn right on U.S. Highway 90, travel down to Brownsville, cross into Mexico early in the morning, and then make the 11-hour honk into San Miguel in one dead daylight run.
I had an idyllic ride until I met the real world in Allamoore, Texas, 86 miles east of El Paso. Allamoore is a village set on the north side of I-10. I was just beginning my reconnaissance, driving up a dirt residential street, admiring the 75-year-old adobe houses when, reaching a dead end, I slap the van in reverse to turn around, back up a half circle and...SHIT, the son-of-a-bitch freezes. The gearshift is stuck in reverse.
I turn the engine off, turn it on, bang on gearshift, get out, walk around the van, kick the wheel wells, get back in, turn on engine, bang on gearshift, and repeat, thereby exhausting my mechanical expertise. Using every bit of my strength, I cannot move the gearshift one centimeter. Somebody has reached down, picked me up, and placed me in VW van hell. I am skating along on 250 bucks, having spent all my riches getting equipped.
There are, of course, no gas stations or mechanics in Allamoore. A tow is out of the question. I retrieve a map from the glove compartment. Van Horn is the closest town large enough to have commercial services, looks to be 30 miles away.
Van Horn, population 4500, is on the corner of I-10 and Highway 90. Four gas stations squat next to its single off-ramp. I back down the ramp into a Mobil station, dismount, stretch, walk up to the station manager, the guy with the embroidered name tag on his shirt that reads “Jesse,” and announce, “I got a little problem with my van.”
Jesse says, “We don’t work on vans.”
I continue, “It’s stuck in reverse.”
“We don’t work on vans."
“I think if you can Just pop it out....” “We... Don’t... Work...On... Volkswagens. We...Pon’t...Have...Parts.”
I blink rapidly. “That’s okay, just order them.”
I cross the street into the 76 station. Greg tells me, “We don’t work on Volkswagens,” as does Frank at Shell and Terry at Chevron. Everyone would be delighted to tow me back to El Paso for $178.
I don’t have an extra 178 bucks; therefore, the repair will have to be done here, and I’ll have to find someone in the civilian economy to do it. I walk to the town center. I enter the Culberson County Savings and Trust office, greet three women and the male manager. “Hi, I’m Patrick. My VW van has broken down. I’m looking for someone who has a Volkswagen, might know a little about the mechanics.”
In this way I toured Van Horn. The name Fritz Mueller kept coming up. Fritz used to own a gas station, been closed for some years now. But yeah, he worked on VWs, his wife left him, gone off to Houston they say. I asked a clerk in Mendoza’s Grocery where I could find Mueller. “Try the Palm Bar," he said.
Four p.m., it’s 106 degrees. I slog the mile out of town to the Palm Bar. The one-story building is made of limestone block. I enter into darkness, bump into a pool table, feel the welcome breeze from an overhead fan. At the bar, three men sit on stools, facing a black-bearded bartender.
I order a beer, turn to the men, “Excuse me, fellas, I’m looking for Fritz Mueller, do you know where I can find him?”
The bartender grunts, “What do you want him for?”
The second man down the bar from me appears to be in his 60s. His beard is gray stubble. He’s big, has a ruddy Aryan face. He introduces himself, “I’m Fritz, vat kind of Volkswagen do you huff?”
I'm astonished to hear a thick German accent coming at me in Van Horn, Texas. “Well, uh, it’s a ’71, the gear’s stuck in reverse, can’t get it out.”
“Yes, the transmission is locked,” Fritz makes an O with his thumb and index finger, places an opposing finger through the circle, lets the protruding digit dangle like a gaffed trout.
With more urgency than I want in my voice, I ask, “Can you unlock it?”
“No, it is finished. You will need a new transmission.”
“People say you used to work on VWs.” “I had a shop, years ago.”
“Can you help me out?”
“I might have a transmission in the back. I might not. I don’t do mechanic work anymore."
“I’ll help you. You just tell me what to do.” “I have only one leg. You will have to do all the heavy vork."
I look down, take in the wooden leg, gush, “Be happy to.”
And so it began. Fritz was not going to leave the Palm Bar until he was smashed. There would be no work today. I ordered another beer, shot a game of pool with Fritz, then his buddies.
It was 8:00 p.m. when Fritz decided he was ready to leave the Palm Bar. He gimps out of the bar and hobbles in the dirt along the side of the highway, in obvious pain, even though he is righteously drunk. I retrieve my van, back it through town, to his “house.” The deal is to start work in the morning. If I helped and he had a transmission, he’d swap parts for a hundred bucks.
Fritz’s home is a 36-foot trailer set on railroad ties placed 20 yards behind a decomposing, empty service station. The station is a 1930s variety, with two sets of tall, narrow pumps, an octagonal office, boarded up, and one work bay in the rear.
I back my van alongside the abandoned gas station. “Come in,” Fritz orders from the trailer.
The trailer’s decor is Elvis Presley. As you enter the living room, purple velour curtains combat a red velour couch and chair for visual rights. The dining area consists of a mahogany particleboard dinette and three ravaged brown chairs. The kitchen has become a compost pile: dirty frying pans, pots, dishes, glasses, silverware, and empty baked-beans cans. Food remnants spread over the cupboards, sink, countertops, stove, and onto the floor.
Fritz reaches for a dirty pot, fills it with water, places it on the stove. He opens a cupboard, retrieves pasta, jar of spaghetti sauce, places pasta in filthy pot, finds an equally filthy pot in the sink, dumps the sauce into that. Finally, he hobbles to a far cupboard, retrieves a bottle of
gin, opens the fridge, pulls out a Pearl beer, makes his way into the living room, and collapses on the couch. I get a beer, take a seat. “So Fritz, what got you to America?”
“A long time ago. That was a long time ago.”
“Did you fight in the war?”
“I was in the Army, but I was in the support area. I was a clerk.”
“Interesting. How did you get to Texas?” “It was the camp, the camp was big, big camp."
Of course, a POW camp. There were a quarter-million German POWs held in America during the war. “How did you get to Van Horn?” Fritz waves his hand, “That doesn’t matter. I was married. She left me.” Fritz is dead-ass drunk. I notice that his dirty short-sleeved shirt, missing three top buttons, is open, revealing some kind of necklace. The links of the necklace
are gold and enormous. I walk over and pull back an edge of his shirt, greet a Nazi cross.
I walk into the kitchen, turn off burners, check Fritz, and walk down a short corridor. There’s a bathroom and bedroom. I enter the bedroom, observe black silk sheets, blood-red blankets, and another set of purple curtains. Next to me is a particleboard dresser with a mirror set above. Stuck on one comer, between brass frame and mirror, is a Polaroid of a young woman. She has auburn hair, an irregular oval face, a sweetness to her expression that touches me.
The next morning Fritz arises at ten, looking like a rotting potato. I have all the van doors open and am pacing around my machine. Fritz looks out his screen door, registers shock at seeing another person.outside. I shout, “I’m Patrick. I’m going to help you fix my van, remember?”
Fritz grunts, disappears. Twenty minutes later he arrives outside carrying a bottle of gin and takes a seat on a rusted metal lawn chair. I say, “Just sit right there. I’ll get breakfast.” I go into the trailer, find eggs, make up a Texas-size omelet, coffee, and carry the goods outside. Fritz waves me off, “I don’t want to eat.”
“Try it, Fritz.”
He takes two mouthfuls, grimaces, “There is no Tabasco."
“Try another bite."
“What is wrong with the van?”
I recount recent van events.
“I don’t think I can fix it. I only have one leg.”
I explain the deal we made, the hundred bucks, and the transmission out back. The hundred bucks perks him up a bit, he takes another swig, hobbles into the back of his wasted gas station. I follow. First stop is a greasy, duct-taped boom box. He grabs a cassette from a nearby pile, inserts it into the machine, turns the volume to maximum. The garage explodes with the sounds of a goddamn German opera bellowing out the glad tidings that the end of the world has arrived.
Fritz finds a black box of tools, orders.
“Carry this,” and slowly staggers, complaining about his missing leg, “This always hurts. It hurts all the time.” I grunt as we walk onto the prairie where two dozen dead VWs roast in the Texas sun. Fritz hobbles into a maze of junk Volkswagens, makes his way to a collapsed 71 van. The van’s roof has been smashed in, one side has been taken out. The beast has three flat tires and no motor. Fritz lies down, inches himself under the van, calls out, “Hand me the vise grips."
I pass them and shortly hear a clink, clink, clink, then, “This might work in yours.”
It was slow, oh, it was slow, running back and forth to Fritz’s pigsty of a shop, grubbing for tools, usually not finding them, back and forth, back and forth, then lugging the shop hoist out to the prairie, passing Fritz the gin bottle, trying to keep Fritz busy so the bottle didn’t get passed that often, setting the junk van on blocks, getting the tranny unhooked, listening to his nonstop bitching about his missing leg, but finally, finally, the transmission came out at 4:00 p.m.
Fritz rolls out from underneath the van, says, “That’s all for today.” I realize it’s pointless to argue.
Another long afternoon and evening at the Palm Bar. Another night at Fritz’s trailer, another pasta boil and sauce explosion, but this time Fritz manages to stay awake, dead drunk, but awake through dinner. We sit at his horrendous dinette, I take a bite of overcooked noodles, and, remembering the Polaroid picture, quietly say, “Tell me about your wife.”
“She was a little farm whore. I gave her everything, a house, food on the table, my name. She ran away, she is in Houston. I know this. I have talked to her on the phone. I am planning on going there and bringing her back. Soon, maybe in the fall.”
“What did she say when you talked to her?"
“She said she wasn’t coming back. Didn’t want to talk to me.” Fritz laughs.
“So she doesn’t want to come back. That makes 50 million and 1 women who have said that. Just move on.”
“Oh, she will come back. She is my wife.’’ “It doesn’t work that way. She can go anywhere she wants.”
With the finality of a Nazi judge pronouncing sentence, Fritz declares, “She is my wife.”
Feeling quite pleased that I am not a citizen of Denmark or Poland or France, I try another tack. “What kind of a person is she? I mean, is she funny, smart, a good cook, loving companion?”
“She is an ingrate, a farm whore.” My host gets up from the table, assumes his unconscious position, passes out on the couch. I stand up, step outside, walk into town, blow 20 bucks trying to get drunk at the Road Runner Cocktail Lounge.
There are no secrets in small towns.
Everybody in Van Horn had, long ago, pegged Fritz for a Nazi, complete with gold medallion. He was a POW in a Texas camp during World War II and somehow finagled a way to stay in the States. Nobody knows how. He moved to Van Horn 15 years ago and bought his mechanic shop, and later, the Palm Bar. Then the booze got to him, and he lost everything. Everyone around Van Horn hired illegal Mexicans at $3 an hour. That was the going rate. But Fritz held out for $2.
The next morning I bolt awake at 6:00 a.m. The only mission I have is to get out of this town today. Anything, do anything, say anything, but get out of here and resume my life.
Fritz arises at 10:00, hobbles outside an hour later, grunts, “I will not work today. I am not well."
Instead of offering breakfast, this morning I say, “That’s too bad. Let’s sit down, have a drink, and think this thing through.” I trot to the trailer and fetch a bottle of gin and some beer. After Fritz has four drinks, I announce, “Okay, we’re closing in on it. Let’s see if the transmission tits."
Fritz expels a Wagnerian sigh, snaps, “Get me a wrench, the red one.” It was 1:00 when we finally began work. We jack up my van, and, in Keystone Kops fashion, pull the engine. Our technique is to unscrew every bolt we could see until the engine is loose. This took a long, long time. God knows where all the bolts went. I feel certain we will never be able to remount my engine. Then we remove the rear wheels, remove the hand brake cable, remove rubber axle bolts, drive shaft, front rubber mount, and carrier bolts, an operation made twice as difficult due to Fritz’s ceaseless demands for more tools. It was 4:15 when we pulled the transaxle. Fritz works his way up to a standing position, the veins in his eyes are engorged, both hands shake, he coughs, “That is all for today.” With one hand he wipes off a faceload of sweat, with the other takes a gulp of gin, and begins to hump down to the Palm Bar.
Another night with Fritz, and I don't have the money to get hammered. I’ll have to do this sober. God help me.
Fritz returns at 8:30, dogmeat drunk. I have the pasta ready, he slumps into a chair by the dinette, and without saying a word, he slops down two plates of gruel. Next stop is couch and TV. I follow, sit, look into blood-red Hun eyes, begin the interrogation, “Tell me about Adolf Hitler. What kind of a guy was he?”
Fritz stares at his television. “He did many good things for the German people. He made the people brave. There was work for all. He made us proud, made our country whole, but he picked bad generals, and they brought hardship to the people.”
“Bad generals, good Fiuhrer, was that the deal?”
Fritz looks contemptuous, “They were not all bad generals.” Then, “That is in the past. It doesn’t matter anymore.”
I ask several questions about the Fuhrer, at one point inquiring whether Adolf played the banjo. Nothing works. Fritz begins talking to himself, a slurry monologue about his wife, the ingrate, worse than a Mexican, the outrage he feels since she left, which was only two years ago, the private detective he’ll hire, how he’s going to Houston to find her and bring her back. By 10:15 he’s unconscious.
The next morning, Fritz leaves his trailer at 11:20, grunts, “I don’t think this transmission will fit. You will have to take it back to El Paso.” By now I don’t care if Fritz has no legs and is 90 years old. I step in front of him and growl, “We have a deal. We’re going to finish the job. We’re going to do it now, and we’re going to wrap it up today." This message is delivered using the primordial male intonation of “Do what I say or fight. Make your move.”
Fritz chooses to work. We take our positions underneath my van. Five hours, five hours later the replacement transmission is installed and the motor restored. And by God if it doesn’t work. There is still enough of a mechanic left inside Fritz that he manages a smile for the first time in three days as we test-drive the van up to the Palm Bar. “It is good. The action is good.”
We enter the bar, Fritz orders a gin and Pearl beer. I hand over a hundred bucks, take in the dirty, gray linoleum floor, the same two drunks at the counter, the fat, psycho bartender, and finally come to rest on my one-legged, ginsucking Nazi mechanic. “It’s been fun.”
I made it to San Miguel, then Guatemala, the basic hell-and-back VW trip and ten years beyond. Since Van Horn, engines have come and gone, but that transmission works just fine.