If you’ve driven for a few years, you’ve probably had a close call or two. I can remember when I was in college and I was driving my Lotus Elan to Ann Arbor from Oakland County via two lanes and small towns. I was going through South Lyon I think it was, and as I went down Main Street, a pickup truck pulled out from the curb lane just as another pickup going in the opposite direction veered over the double yellow. I don’t think that I had a gap that was much more than a foot wider than the Elan. Had I not been driving such a small car I never would have avoided a really nasty accident and might have ended up hitting (or getting hit by) both trucks.
The specific small car I was driving also helped. Had I not been driving a Lotus, I might not have been able to thread the needle with such precision and quickness. Active safety actually exists. That isn’t, however, the worst thing that’s happened to me behind the wheel short of a wreck. I’ll start off the conversation with my own heart palpitating experience after the jump but what’s the closest you’ve come to disaster when driving?
I’m not talking about an accident or collision that you miraculously survived, that’s a question for another day. I’m talking about an accident or collision that you miraculously avoided. Something that might have left skidmarks on the pavement and in your pants. It can be something stupid a driver, including yourself, did. It can be mechanical failure. Climatic conditions, I’m sure, will play a part in some of your stories. Black ice, spins, torrential rain, rock slides. It’s quite possible that there was more than one cause of your near disaster. Driving a mechanically sketchy vehicle inappropriately for conditions (which is pretty stupid to begin with) and then trying something imprudent is what got me into trouble one day on Woodward Ave.
Disclaimer: long time ago when I was young and stupid. I was acting dangerously, it was terribly irresponsible of me and I urge you: don’t try this at home.
We had a 1967 split window VW bus. We needed transportation. I spotted it behind a hotel in Ann Arbor, they’d used it as a shuttle. Bought new at Howard Cooper VW, one of the oldest Volkswagen dealers in the United States. I think I paid them $400 for it in 1978 or ’79. It ran, that was about it. No heat at all, the heat exchangers were completely rusted out and even if they weren’t the ducts that were supposed to carry what heat they extracted to the passenger cabin were long since rusted out as well. Driving in the winter meant throwing a comforter in the dryer before a trip to heat it up and then layering it with a mylar blanket to trap some heat for our legs. The windshield washers didn’t use an electric pump, they had a rubber bladder you inflated with compressed air so in the kind of weather when you needed to use your washers a lot, you might run out of air.
How unsafe was it? Let me count the ways. To begin with it was dangerously slow. Wait a second, before we get to the 1st gen Type II’s safety shortcomings in terms of driving dynamics and components, let me remind you that it was designed before anyone had used terms like “crush zones” and “side impact barriers”, let alone “airbags” or even “shoulder harness”. The Bus is a cabover design, so you’re sitting over the front axle. All that’s between your knees and whatever is going to cripple or kill you is the front sheetmetal and the interior panel. It did have seat belts but in terms of passive safety it wasn’t anywhere near a Volvo or a Saab or even an American car from the same era. Padded dashboard? Machst du Witze. Also, it was pretty rusty, so whatever structural integrity it had when it left Wolfsburg in the mid 1960s was an afterthought by the malaise era.
Okay, so it was inherently a death trap in any kind of serious collision. Now let’s get back to slow. It had a 1500cc engine with single port heads and a 1bbl carb. It had 36 HP. Anybody that’s been near Detroit knows that southeastern Michigan is pretty flat and while there are some hills in that part of the state, for the most part there aren’t any real steep grades, certainly not on the Interstates. Major pucker factor when you’re driving on an Interstate and you’re slowing down going up a hill at full throttle and a semi’s front end is filling the Bus’s small rear view mirror. At the other end of the spectrum, 1st gear in a Bus is almost a granny gear, very low. It’s a great car to learn how to drive with a stick shift (please do not use the phrase “drive stick” in my presence) because it’s almost impossible to stall even if you dump the clutch. It allows a 36 HP engine to get moving with a fairly impressive payload, but it also means that it barely gets out of it’s own way when accelerating from a dead stop.
Speaking of dead stops, let’s talk about the brakes. Drums all around, no power assist. Those old buses don’t weigh much more than a ton, 2310 lbs, but that’s about 600 lbs heavier than a Beetle with brakes that aren’t that much bigger. Good for one stop, maybe. Then expect some brake fade. You youngsters that only have driven cars with 4 wheel disc brakes probably don’t know what brake fade is if you’ve never driven on a race track. Brake fade is interesting. The pedal gets mushy, the brakes don’t slow you down’ much and you start to smell things getting hot. Fortunately, with a top speed of about 60 mph, the ’67 Bus was never really going fast.
The steering and suspension was not that much different from when Dr. Porsche designed it in the 1930s. Porsche was a clever guy but with an old fashioned Ross type steering box and a 40 foot turning circle a first gen Type II does not handle like a Lotus Elan. Don’t get me wrong, before cadres of Samba lovers curse me in their fora, let me say that I love VW Buses. They’re a ball to drive, great fun but the first gen Bus was, after all, a rear engine vehicle with swing axles in back. Paging Ralph Nader. The tall boxy body and rear weight bias made it an additional handful in windy conditions.
All that running gear was obsolete when new. By the time we got it, the bus was mostly used up, but it was still a serviceable car for a young family for a couple of years. Well, that is if you kept the baby bundled well when driving in winter. I drove her mom to the hospital in it when she was in labor (three times, another long story), and it lasted until she was a toddler. Eventually, though, the steering box started to tighten up. I could still drive it but it got harder and harder to steer. I tried adjusting the steering box and changing the lube since we couldn’t afford a replacement. Besides, we were getting ready to move to Detroit and we were going to junk it after the move, which we did, sans engine – it had a highly regarded “AE” crankcase that became the basis for what became the Magic Bus, a ’72.
One of the last times that I drove the split window, I had to make a business trip to Detroit and stop at a wholesale customer’s shop on Woodward in Berkley. The brakes had started acting up. I think by the time I was on Woodward one of the dual brake circuits was bad. As unsafe as a 1st gen Transporter looks to us, I bet VW pitched those those dual circuit brakes as a safety feature in 1967. U.S. law didn’t require dual circuit brakes until 1968.
I was northbound and the shop was on the other side of Woodward so I had to make a U turn at a turnaround in the island in the middle of the boulevard. I pulled left into the turning lane and hit the brakes but not much happened. The pedal almost went to the floor and then got rock hard. Not a mechanic but I think that means the master cylinder wasn’t working properly. In any case, what remained of the braking system wasn’t retarding the speed of the vehicle very quickly. I frantically started to down shift some more to slow down and tried to crank the by then hard to turn steering wheel. I figured that I could scrub off enough speed and get the steering wheel turned enough to make the turn, which I did, almost. As I screeched around the “Michigan turnaround”, blew the stop sign and exited the turn, my right rear tire caught the outside curb.
This threw that side of the bus right up into the air. I was tossed almost horizontal on the bench seat and as I righted myself behind the wheel, the bus skidded sideways across three lanes of Woodward, all up on the left two wheels with the right side a good 18 inches or 2 feet off of the ground. It must have looked like Joie Chitwood was at the wheel. Providentially there happened to be a red light up the street and that there was no traffic in that particular spot on what is normally a very busy street. Finally, as the bus slowed down I managed to plop it back onto four wheels, and into a fortuitously located driveway for parking lot, where I stopped to hyperventilate for a while.
Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can dig deeper at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks – RJS