Junkyard Find: 1983 Volkswagen Vanagon Steal Your Face Edition

Murilee Martin
by Murilee Martin

I usually don’t pay much attention to VW Transporters in the junkyard, but I have a friend with a Vanagon (he’s an industrial designer and decided that this VW— which I believe to be one of the worst motor vehicles ever built— says positive things about his sense of style and appreciation of good design) who needed a bunch of parts for his hopeless project van. So, when I found this ’83 at a Denver self-service wrecking yard, I grabbed a few bits and took some photos.

In the decades before too many chili dogs and cigarettes killed Jerry Garcia, Deadheads would follow the band around the country in various hooptiefied motor vehicles. While most of them drove stuff like battered old Detroit pickups and random members of the K-Car family, some followed archetypal hippie tradition and toured in Volkswagen Transporters. This is such a van.

The skull-and-lightning-bolt artwork from the Grateful Dead’s Steal Your Face live album became the centerpiece of 900 billion emulations, variations, and permutations, on stickers sold in Dead show parking lots as well as homemade VW van paint jobs.

This van has two Steal Your Face Skull stickers that I could find, and I’m sure there were more.

The “Free Tibet” sticker might as well have been issued to all Vanagon owners back in the late 1980s.

I pulled the left front marker-light lens for my friend’s van, but couldn’t figure out the other items on his wish list.

He needs some component of the engine cover, or maybe it’s the radiator puke tank. Anyway, I couldn’t decipher his cryptic text messages, so he’ll need to go back and get that part himself.

Because, like, life is all a circle, maaaan, I happened to be crawling around in this van on the same day that I and 1,325,809 other Colorado voters chose to legalize marijuana in our state. While I hadn’t been firing up a bowl of Hickenlooper Haywire in a Chong-sourced four-footer prior to seeing this van, I still managed to be impressed by these homemade quasi-Hawaiian curtains. How many times had these curtains absorbed the strains of the Dead’s disco anthem on a crappy cassette deck during their lives, I wondered.

Well, it was like the ghost of Owsley Stanley himself appeared and told me I needed these genuine Deadhead curtains for my decidedly un-hippie Dodge van, so I bought the complete set for five bucks.

Murilee Martin
Murilee Martin

Murilee Martin is the pen name of Phil Greden, a writer who has lived in Minnesota, California, Georgia and (now) Colorado. He has toiled at copywriting, technical writing, junkmail writing, fiction writing and now automotive writing. He has owned many terrible vehicles and some good ones. He spends a great deal of time in self-service junkyards. These days, he writes for publications including Autoweek, Autoblog, Hagerty, The Truth About Cars and Capital One.

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  • Crazymike Crazymike on Nov 30, 2012

    If you for some reason go back to that yard, and they are still there... I could use the RH mirror. Or the left, or both. I'm using one hose-clamped to the rollbar for Scrubby's rear-view and the RH one on my super-towing Vanagon has got that terminal floppy mirror syndrome.

  • Pwrwrench Pwrwrench on May 08, 2018

    I see in the photo that the instrument cluster is gone. No surprise to me,back when I went to the self serve dismantlers I never saw a Vanagon with a cluster still in it. Crazymike, Get a new aftermarket side mirror(s) disassemble the swivel joint and coat it with J-B weld. Reassemble and install on door adjust as nec. No more flopping and vibrating. OEM mirrors have been unavailable for about 15 years.

  • Grg I am not sure that this would hold up in snow country. It used to be that people in snow country would not be caught dead in a white car. Now that white cars have become popular in the north, I can't tell you how many times I have seen white cars driving in the snow without lights. Almost all cars are less visible in a snow storm, or for that matter, rain storm, without lights. White ones become nearly invisible.
  • Douglas I have a 2018 BMW 740e PHEV, and love it. It has a modest electric only range compared to newer PHEV's (about 18 miles), but that gets me to the office and back each day. It has a small gas tank to make room for the battery, so only holds about 11 gallons. I easily go 600 or more miles per tank. I love it, and being able to take long road trips without having to plug in (it just operates like a regular Hybrid if you never plug it in). It charges in 75 minutes in my garage from a Level 2 charger I bought on Amazon for $350. Had an electrician add a dryer outlet beside the breaker box. It's the best of both worlds and I would definitely want a PHEV for my next car. 104,000 miles and ZERO problems with the powertrain components (so far).
  • Panther Platform I had a 98 Lincoln Mark VIII so I have a soft spot for this. The Mark VIII styling was not appreciated by all.
  • Grant P Farrell Oh no the dealership kept the car for hours on two occasions before giving me a loaner for two months while they supposedly replaced the ECU. I hate cords so I've only connected it wirelessly. Next I'm gonna try using the usb-c in the center console and leaving the phone plugged in in there, not as convenient but it might lower my blood pressure.
  • Jeff Tiny electrical parts are ruining today's cars! What can they ...