Too Much the Magic Bus

Andrew Dederer
by Andrew Dederer
too much the magic bus

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?

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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.

  • Dukeisduke Yikes - reading the recall info from NHTSA, this sounds like the Hyundai/Kia 2.4l Theta II "engine fire" recall, since it involves an engine block or oil pan "breach", so basically, throwing a rod:"Description of the Safety Risk : Engine oil and/or fuel vapor that accumulates near a sufficiently hot surface, below the combustion initiation flame speed, may ignite resulting in an under hood fire, and increasing the risk of injury. Description of the Cause :Isolated engine manufacturing issues have resulted in 2.5L HEV/PHEV engine failures involving engine block or oil pan breach. In the event of an engine block or oil pan breach, the HEV/PHEV system continues to propel the vehicle allowing the customer to continue to drive the vehicle. As the customer continues to drive after a block breach, oil and/or fuel vapor continues to be expelled and accumulates near ignition sources, primarily expected to be the exhaust system. Identification of Any Warning that can Occur :Engine failure is expected to produce loud noises (example: metal-to-metal clank) audible to the vehicle’s occupants. An engine failure will also result in a reduction in engine torque. In Owner Letters mailed to customers, Ford will advise customers to safely park and shut off the engine as promptly as possible upon hearing unexpected engine noises, after experiencing an unexpected torque reduction, or if smoke is observed emanating from the engine compartment."
  • Dukeisduke In an ideal world, cars would be inspected in the way the MoT in the UK does it, or the TÜV in Germany. But realistically, a lot of people can't afford to keep their cars to such a high standard since they need them for work, and widespread public transit isn't a thing here.I would like the inspections to stick around (I've lived in Texas all my life, and annual inspections have always been a thing), but there's so much cheating going on (and more and more people don't bother to get their cars inspected or registration renewed), so without rigorous enforcement (which is basically a cop noticing your windshield sticker is out of date, or pulling you over for an equipment violation), there's no real point anymore.
  • Zipper69 Arriving in Florida from Europe and finding ZERO inspection procedures I envisioned roads crawling with wrecks held together with baling wire, duct tape and prayer.Such proved NOT to be the case, plenty of 20-30 year old cars and trucks around but clearly "unsafe at any speed" vehicles are few and far between.Could this be because the median age here is 95, so a lot of low mileage vehicles keep entering the market as the owners expire?
  • Zipper69 At the heart of GM’s resistance to improving the safety of its fuel systems was a cost benefit analysis done by Edward Ivey which concluded that it was not cost effective for GM to spend more than $2.20 per vehicle to prevent a fire death. When deposed about his cost benefit analysis, Mr. Ivey was asked whether he could identify a more hazardous location for the fuel tank on a GM pickup than outside the frame. Mr. Ivey responded, “Well yes…You could put in on the front bumper.”
  • 28-Cars-Later I'll offer this, offer a registration for limited use and exempt it from all inspection. The Commonwealth of GFY for the most part is Dante's Inferno for the auto enthusiast however they oddly will allow an antique registration with limited use and complete exemption from their administrative stupidity but it must be 25 years old (which ironically are the cars which probably should be inspected). Given the dystopia being built around us, it should be fairly simply to set a mileage limitation and enforce a mileage check then bin the rest of it if one agrees to the terms of the registration. For the most part odometer data started being stored in the ECU after OBDII, so it should be plug and play to do such a thing - this is literally what they are doing now for their emissions chicanery.