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A Bus ride to remember

Published in blog.hemmings.com

“Bus” was different and a lot of fun to drive…unless I got stuck in mud, sand, or snow. It was the late ’60s, Woodstock was happening, and everyone displayed the “peace sign.”All photos courtesy the author, except where noted.

Stuck in mud up to my 1965 VW Transporter’s hubcaps and angry, I was ready to sue the Volkswagen Corporation for false advertising. After all, wasn’t my VW supposed to “walk on snow”…and mud, too?

But I knew it was my own fault. Wanting to please my wife, Grace, and parents, I had pulled off a Texas highway on the way to Fredericksburg to look at Longhorn cattle, their horns extending four feet in each direction, munching grass in a field.

Confident my vehicle—a red-and-white, 11-window metal box nicknamed “Bus”—could handle the deep-rutted, muddy road, I barreled into a foot-deep quagmire that stopped us in our tracks.

“I think you’ve sunk into mud, dear,” Grace said, frustration and trepidation in her voice, as rear wheels churned furiously and sprayed gooey, brown wetness everywhere.

“Don’t worry, we’re all right,” I announced, confidently. Shifting into reverse and spinning wheels in the opposite direction, I stupidly dug our “grave” even deeper. Now all four wheels were buried.

Shoes disappeared and filled with cold, slimy goo when I stepped out. Waving frantically, I flagged down a pickup truck whose driver saw our predicament. We were lucky. He had a chain and winch attached to his front bumper. A few minutes later, he pulled “Bus” sideways, her wheels sliding through the mud and out of trouble.

That wasn’t the first time “Bus” and I got in trouble. When we lived in Tampa, Florida, our cottage was surrounded by sandy roads linking enormous orange groves. Wanting to explore one and perhaps purloin a little forbidden fruit, I proceeded down a long and winding trail…despite Grace’s warnings.

It didn’t take long before rear wheels spun helplessly in two-foot-deep sand. Making matters worse, around us were signs on trees that warned “Trespassers will be shot!” Fortunately, grove owners left old tires at roadside to burn and keep oranges from freezing. Placing a few tires under rear wheels, “Bus” gained traction and we beat a hasty retreat.

During the late ’60s, “Bus” took Grace and me on many adventures including frequent trips to remote, sandy beaches such as Piney Cove, about 50 miles south of Tampa, Florida.

‘Explicit rude gestures’
I don’t know why I bought “Bus.” Maybe I was nuts. But there she was on a VW used-car lot in the spring of 1968 and I had to have her. Grace and I were living in Austin and I was a graduate student at the University of Texas.

Perhaps what I liked was that “Bus” fit into the emerging hippie scene. Although she didn’t have many redeeming features, she had plenty of names including “minivan,” “microbus,” “minibus,” “transporter,” and even “hippie-mobile.” I had choice names for her, too, but they weren’t always so polite.

This underpowered, slow, and poor-handling vehicle started showing up in America in the early 1950s. Some had about two dozen windows, a cloth sunroof, and three rows of seats that allowed up to 12 passengers (including driver and luggage).

My 1965 VW Transporter never hauled an elephant, but it could seat 12 adults and luggage. Grace and I took out the back seat and built a box in which we stored camping equipment.

Others came as panel or delivery vans, and had no windows or rear seats. There was a flatbed pickup model, crew-cab pickup, and “Westfalia” camping van with stove, sink, beds, and pop-up roof, among other features.

“Bus” was different than anything I had driven. For one thing, I sat real close to the front split-windshield and high over the wheels. Not having a hood was disconcerting. Oncoming vehicles looked much closer. But at least I could drill down on highway potholes, dips, and bumps.

I never got used to being launched vertically when driving over almost everything. Unfortunately, those who rode “shotgun” suffered the most, especially a female professor I drove to class. She learned to buckle her seatbelt and hold the handle over the front passenger window. But that didn’t stop her briefcase from flying off her lap. We usually made one bathroom stop every five miles. She hated “Bus” because she ruined stockings or hemlines getting in and out of the high front door. (Like the movie car named “Christine,” I think “Bus” hated her, too.)

It took skill to drive “Bus.”

With only 53 horsepower and low gears that allowed a measly 60-mile-per-hour top speed (65 on a downhill with tailwind), I didn’t win many (any) drag races or pass cars very often. But when I did pass, I made damn sure oncoming vehicles were far away.

Passing a large truck usually resulted in hitting a wall of air head-on, slowing down and either pulling back or having a front-end collision. Not nice in a vehicle where your body was six inches from the front bumper. Angry motorists trying to pass were forced to sit on my tail and wait. I got used to frequent and explicit rude gestures, horn blowing, and verbal assaults.

Grace often played “interference” on long trips when we took two cars. When passing another vehicle, she would lead and sit in the fast lane until I could pull over. Or she would pass a car, pull in front, and slow down to enable me to pass her. The strategy worked but angered motorists who wanted to pass both of us.

Cornering was easy because the steering wheel was mounted in the same horizontal position found on passenger buses. But if I turned too fast, I could sometimes almost tip the top-heavy vehicle, especially if the rear swing-axle tucked a wheel too far underneath. I often ran the right rear wheel over sidewalks and curbs because I forgot how much vehicle was behind me.

Stopping the beast wasn’t a problem. I never went fast enough anyway and low gears enabled me to downshift and use the engine to brake.

Every ride an adventure
Every ride was an adventure in “Bus.”

The vehicle invited me to look at the world differently. It was so anti-establishment. Other drivers and pedestrians either gave us the finger or the “peace”/victory sign. It was cool.

Because “Bus” was so much slower than anything else, I never felt the need to “keep up.” The vehicle sat higher than most cars and offered a commanding view of the road. There were many sensory feelings, too, that I didn’t experience in other vehicles…mainly because there was virtually no insulation. The rear-mounted engine was buzzy, gears whined constantly, and the suspension/tires made me acutely aware of the road’s idiosyncrasies.

Wind noise made it seem like we were going much faster. The vehicle’s constant wandering across lanes when buffeted provided adrenaline-producing close-ups of other vehicles and their passengers. It was wind that almost put “Bus” in the Chesapeake Bay on a trek from Maryland to New Jersey.

Once the world’s longest continuous over-water steel structure, the Chesapeake Bay Bridge offered incredible views of sky and water…as well as strong, gusty winds that hit “Bus” with a vengeance. Hammered to starboard, steering wheel jerked from my hands, she flew across two lanes of traffic on her way to the guardrail. Only a hard-handed, powerful pull on the wheel averted disaster and a flight to the water 75 feet below.

Long, steep hills were the car’s nemesis…particularly those that climbed their way through New York State’s Adirondack Mountains and the Catskills. My ancestors used oxen to pull wagons over the latter when they settled and built a farm along the Hudson River. I had 53 horses pulling my wagon, but they didn’t do much good as “Bus” huffed, puffed, and wheezed her way upward, traffic building behind us and frustrated motorists blowing horns.

Rainy weather, especially the kind experienced on Florida highways during hurricane season, meant windows leaked and wipers gave up in heavy downpours. Forget about staying warm when weather turned cold. “Bus” had no radiator, of course, and it took forever for hot air to flow from the rear-mounted engine to front vents. I blocked the van’s rear heater duct to divert hot air to the front. But even that didn’t help. So we over-dressed and had blankets ready to throw on laps. The defroster didn’t help, either, which meant driving with nose against ice-covered windshield and staring through a three-inch-wide gap.

“Bus” was all about fun and adventure. She could take us anywhere.

But that didn’t matter. “Bus” was about adventure…and fun.

Grace and I outfitted “Bus” for camping by removing the rear seat and building a large storage box in its place for our tent, sleeping bags, cooking equipment, extra clothing, blankets, and portable potty. When loaded to the gills with food and gear, we were self-sufficient and enjoyed hiking and fishing at remote locations where tall ground clearance was required.

“Bus” was our faithful moving van, too. We packed her to the gills with clothing, furniture, and cats, and traveled from Texas to New Jersey and return. Later moves took us from Austin to Tampa and from there to Washington, DC.

During our time in Austin, we drove Grace’s parents to President Lyndon Baines Johnson’s ranch near Fredericksburg. I don’t know how they endured the bone-shaking, noisy ride. But a highlight was spotting LBJ at the wheel of his enormous white Lincoln convertible. Grace’s father, Charlie, urged me to “speed up” so we could get a closer view of the big man, who held a beer can in one hand and steered with the other. Downshifting and putting the pedal to the metal, I managed to position “Bus” behind the Lincoln. Then LBJ floored it and the Lincoln jettisoned ahead. He must have pushed a dashboard button to open the ranch gate, under which the big car catapulted. He waved as the gate closed and I was forced to stop. Although I disliked the man, he sure gave me a fun chase.

“Bus” took us everywhere
While living in New Jersey, we took weekend trips in “Bus” to see Amish farms in Blue Ball and Intercourse, Pennsylvania, visited Maryland farm country, and traveled to our family’s ancestral homestead in Catskill, New York. While searching for the family one evening, we were stopped by a school bus with flashing lights that blocked a narrow road. A herd of dairy cattle was being moved from one side to the other by a lanky young man wearing overalls. He walked to my open window and thanked us for being patient.

“Are you looking for someone?” he asked.

“Yes, we’re trying to find our family farm,” I said.

“What’s your name?” he asked.

“I’m Jim Van Orden,” I said.

He held out his hand to shake mine and said, “Welcome. My name is Jim Van Orden.”

Inviting us to his house, he introduced us to other Van Ordens. The next day, he showed us the family’s burial plot and original house overlooking the Hudson River.

As much as I liked “Bus,” I outgrew the little van and her quirks. But she taught me a lot…like how to drive defensively and enjoy motoring in the slow lane. I also learned how to adjust valves, time an ignition system, replace clutch and brake cables, and other maintenance tasks.

The young man who bought her liked the tachometer I installed as well as handmade wood air scoops attached to the vehicle’s sides to improve engine cooling. He was heading to college and needed a vehicle that could haul his belongings. “Bus” was just right for him.