Too Much the Magic Bus

Andrew Dederer
by Andrew Dederer

My friends frequently tease me about my automotive taste. It’s not my passion for stupidly expensive high-performance sports cars, or my weakness for brash, flash, trash. It’s my ongoing affection for supremely ugly yet practical vehicles that triggers their head-shaking scorn. Dude, you like a minivan? Luckily, I have a ready defense that usually shuts them up. I tell them that when I was a kid, our family car was a Microbus.

Few vehicles are as identified with a particular time and place as the VW type 2 (the Bus’ official name). The Microbus practically screams ‘60’s San Francisco flower power. Ours was from a later era, acquired sometime around 1973 in the heart of the Midwest. My dad bought VW’s people mover after our Chevrolet Vega overheated for the second time in a year. Style was not as high on his list of priorities. He was looking for a sensibly-priced car that could transport a family of four.

It was a run-of-the-mill Bus. (I drooled over the camper-vans in the owner’s manual). Its fabricators blessed the Bus with a dubious creamsicle two-tone white-over-orange that didn’t improve when my brother blew chow down the passenger side outside St. Louis. The interior was finished entirely in the hardwearing black vinyl that's come to define ‘70’s cabins. Although the material resisted all sorts of stains, the seats either scorched your butt– passengers wearing shorts left the Bus looking like they’d been attacked by a waffle iron– or sucked away all body heat.

Yank back the sliding door (a big thing pre-minivan) and you discovered three full rows of seats bolted to the floor. They were only slightly more comfortable than the church pews they resembled, but you could fit six adults in the back (we were drafted for every carpool going). There was even a large square luggage area behind the back seats, roughly level with the rear passengers' heads. (Cargo net? What's a cargo net?) The raised luggage area hid the bus’ Achilles heel: a 1.7-liter, four cylinder engine. In fact, the Microbus was little more than a Beetle with a big box on top. This led to a few “issues”.

Those of you familiar with the Beetle's climate control system know its effectiveness depended entirely on its passengers’ psychological suggestibility. Now imagine the SAME system attempting to warm a Microbus with roughly five times the interior volume. Now imagine that same Bus encased in snow about to face a dark, Midwestern winter’s morning. My mother still speaks venomously of battling frost-bite at the helm. Summer was little better. Mediocre ventilation (only the front windows rolled down) and all that black vinyl made the Bus an oven on wheels.

The VW Microbus earned the "bus" part of its name from its driving position as much as its utility. The machine's steering wheel fed straight into the floor and spread across the driver’s lap in open-spoked glory. Bereft of power steering, driving the beast required a distinctly commercial mindset– and not a small amount of brute strength. I can still see my mother, all five foot nothing of her, wrestling the beast round corners.

Another “bus” feature: the driver and front passenger sat on top of the front wheel-wells. The Car Talk guys have bemoaned the negative safety implications of this seat positioning for years, and they have a point. For the record, we survived our only fender-bender without injury to our knees (the ductwork in front of us took the hit, which didn’t help the nominal heater any).

The Bus’ sloth tended to relegate safety concerns to the back of one’s mind. There was no way to measure the vehicle’s zero to 60 time. Barring a tailwind, there was no way the bus could crack a mile a minute, Richard Nixon’s 55mph speed limit was as unbreakable as the speed of light. When we moved back from California, my eight-year-old brain finally realized the truth. We went over the Sierras and the Rockies hugging the shoulder as cars, trucks, semis, even CAMPERS flew by. Even at such a tender age, I sensed that something was not quite right with a vehicle that couldn't keep up with continental drift.

In [partial] compensation, the Bus got decent mileage: mid to low 20's. It was also one of the most dependable vehicles on the road. (Oh how the Volkswagens have fallen!) Aside from a dead spot on the starter (which led to some entertaining push-starts), Ye Olde Type 2 ran with minimal hassles to 100K before getting seriously cranky.

Our return to the Midwest spelt the end for the bus. My mother finally took matters into her own hands and traded in the Bus on something smaller. I have fond memories of the Bus. I see it as a child, amazed at all the things it could do; rather than as an adult, remembering all it couldn’t. Who says nostalgia isn’t what it used to be?

Andrew Dederer
Andrew Dederer

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  • PERTINAX PERTINAX on Dec 27, 2006

    I also have a '99 Chevy Astrovan Delivery that I bought from a florist that was going out of business. It is the perfect combonation of a car and a light truck; you can lock stuff up inside, has plenty of pep, and handles....acceptably. It has 182000 miles on it (half of them mine) and is still going strong!

  • Andy D Andy D on Jan 02, 2007

    heh heh, thanks for the Memories. Dad got his first bug in '57 when the train stopped running to Greenbush. About '64, he replaced the 54 Chevy Suburban with a '62 VW bus. I took my Driving test in a 65 microbus. I drove a bug until the late 80s. I liked the aircooled VWs. When they broke, they were easy to fix. Heat is for wimps, I rigged a small electric heater and a fan into the drivers side defrost duct. It kept my fingers from getting frost bite when I had to use them to defrost the windshield. I taught my wife to drive in a 62 Bug that kept eating fanbelts. A fact she still throws in my face 34 yrs later. 'Rene was one of the last people to make it off rt 128 during the blizzard of 78. She was driving a 66 bug.

  • ToolGuy Personally I have no idea what anyone in this video is talking about, perhaps someone can explain it to me.
  • ToolGuy Friendly reminder of two indisputable facts: A) Winners buy new vehicles (only losers buy used), and B) New vehicle buyers are geniuses (their vehicle choices prove it):
  • Groza George Stellantis live off the back of cheap V8 cars with old technology and suffers from lack of new product development. Now that regulations killed this market, they have to ditch the outdated overhead.They are not ready to face the tsunami of cheap Chinese EVs or ready to even go hybrid and will be left in the dust. I expect most of their US offerings to be made in Mexico in the future for good tariff protection and lower costs of labor instead of overpriced and inflexible union labor.
  • MaintenanceCosts This is delaying an oil change for my Highlander by a couple of weeks, as it prevented me from getting an appointment before a business trip out of town. Oh well, much worse things have happened.I also just got a dealership oil change for my BMW (thanks, loss-leader prepaid plans!) and this didn't seem to affect them at all.
  • Kwik_Shift_Pro4X Gonna need more EV fuel.