Even the people behind the Brubaker Box didn’t quite know how to position the people mover. Was it a minivan before the term took hold? A surf wagon? A camper, sports car, station wagon, economy car? Whatever its designation, it had a strange sort of appeal, and now 40 years after it was discontinued, that appeal has a pair of Californians itching to bring back the fiberglass box on wheels.
“They’re almost like a mythical creature or a unicorn,” said Tomo Bullum, one of the two entrepreneurs behind the project. “A lot of people know about them, but nobody’s seen one in person.”
Just as Bruce Meyers took inspiration from the Southern California surf culture for his Meyers Manx, Curtis Brubaker looked to the beaches after setting up his design studio in Los Angeles and decided to design a vehicle that catered to that market.
Brubaker, who had studied at the Art Center College of Design, spent some time working on the Lear Jet design, and designed small cars and Cadillac interiors for GM before settling in Los Angeles, mocked up a one-box design with sloping windshield and backlite and enough room inside for surfers to stuff their boards. Rather than compromise the box’s structural integrity with too many doors, Brubaker — along with designers Todd Gerstenberger and Harry Wykes — included just one sliding door on the passenger’s side and one removable roof panel. Its box beam construction and integral roll bar no doubt helped stiffen the body, and in the name of safety he relocated the gas tank to a more central position. Composite beam-like bumpers mocked up as wood planks invoked the woodie wagons long preferred by surfers.
Like Meyers, Brubaker designed the Box to mount to a Volkswagen Type 1 chassis, though Brubaker also added various bits from other vehicles — the windshield from an AMC Javelin, the backlite from a Chevrolet El Camino, the side glass from a Chevrolet Camaro, the taillamps from a Datsun pickup — to complete his design.
Unlike Meyers, Brubaker didn’t intend to sell the Box as a kit car. Instead, his business plan called for selling complete vehicles for $3,995. In 1972, with the mockup complete, he then raised about $160,000 to put the design into production, took out a patent on the design (D228632S), and even leased a 17,000-square-foot building to begin assembly. However, when Volkswagen decided not to sell new chassis to Brubaker, citing liability issues, Brubaker instead bought a handful of brand-new Beetles to strip down and build back up as Boxes. He built three before calling it quits.
One of his investors, Mike Hansen, still thought the Brubaker Box still had legs, so a few years later he organized another company, Automecca, and reintroduced the Box as the Roamer SportsVan. This time, Hansen offered what everybody nevertheless still called the Brubaker Box as a kit in a number of different configurations, from barebones fiberglass panels all the way up to conversions based on customer-supplied Volkswagen chassis.
Despite the burgeoning late Seventies van movement, the Automecca venture only lasted a little longer than the original Brubaker Box venture. According to Georgano, no more than 1,500 Roamers were built, but Bullum and his partner in the venture, Dale Davis, said Hansen built no more than a couple dozen.
Of that grand total, Bullum and Davis recently acquired two. “I’ve been a big fan of this thing forever, so one day when a buddy called and asked if I’d ever heard of something called the Brubaker Box, I told him just tell me where to show up and I’ll be there,” Bullum said. That one, which came out of a garage in Anaheim, California, had never been built up from its kit version.
Then, according to Davis, they followed a tip to find another one sitting in an actual swamp in Florida. “It had been on the road and regularly used by the father of the seller about 20 years before,” he said, adding that he and Bullum have reason to believe that it may be one of the three original Brubaker Boxes. (The other two are reportedly both accounted for, with the Ark II Box currently undergoing restoration.)
Their original plan was to just replicate a few parts for other Box/Roamer owners, Davis said, but the feedback from owners and would-like-to-be owners proved immense, so the two decided to go ahead and replicate the entire 11-piece kit with the blessing of both Brubaker and Hansen.
“They’re 100 percent behind the project,” Bullum said. “They can’t wait for it to take wing.”
While most of the original molds for the kit do exist, Bullum said they’ve long since been rendered unusable. So instead, they have already begun the process of creating new molds from some of the Anaheim vehicle’s parts and intend to disassemble the Florida vehicle to make the remaining molds from its parts.
As with the original Box/Roamer, Bullum and Davis intend the reproduction version to sit atop a Volkswagen Type 1 chassis. However, Davis said they’d like to make it adaptable to other vehicle platforms too, noting that they’re encouraged by Volkswagen’s upcoming electric vehicle platform and the company’s plans to let outside parties build bodies for that platform. He said the two are currently working with students at the Art Center to play with the design to see how it could adapt to different platforms.
They’re also still gauging the market to see how many of the initial inquiries they’ve received are serious. One way they plan to weed out the tire-kickers is with a crowdfunding campaign, set to go live later in April. “There’s a big difference between tooling up for a few dozen and a few hundred kits,” Bullum said. They expect to know better how much the kits will cost and when they’ll be available by the time the crowdfunding campaign starts.
For more information on the replicas, visit Driven.co.