Fifty years ago a small town doctor went out to find a sports Mercedes for his wife. Instead, he and his son came home with a special short wheel base Mercedes limousine, the 600 swb. Mercedes built them for 20 years in this size and in extended limousine Pullman models for heads of state around the world. Only 2700 were built in total over the entire span of years. Mercedes had engineered this car to be the finest technology of any car.
The doctor passed away in the early 1980’s and on the day of his funeral, his son pulled the car into the garage after the funeral and sealed up the door. It then sat there untouched until the house was put up for sale in early 2018.
The garage backed up to an alley, and now there are fences lining the alley…..fences that were not there 34 years ago. With the combination of a tiny garage, a narrow alley, and a heavy Mercedes with no air in the suspension system, the extraction was quite a feat. We gathered up six able bodied men (well, not exactly!), four gojacks, and a flatbed truck driver who used his pulleys to help get it out at the right angle.
I have a very distinct memory of the first time that I wanted a VW bus, even though it was forty-five years ago. My brother and I were at Montgomery Volkswagen, on Hungerford Drive in Rockville, Maryland. We climbed inside a brand new refrigerator-white VW bus, on the showroom floor. I guess part of the appeal was the simplicity of design. But to a twelve-year-old, I think it said ‘freedom.’ I remember thinking, “Man, when I’m sixteen, I’d love to drive this van to California with my brother.” I’m not sure what the appeal of California was at that point, but it sounded great. I remember that instantaneous feeling of desire. I just loved that bus. And I guess I’ve wanted one ever since.
When you’re younger, you’re confident that all the things you wanted will somehow be in reach. And then, later, age and experience teach us that we can’t have everything.
This year on Father’s Day, my twelve-year-old son Cameron and I went to the Antique Car Show at Sully Plantation in nearby Chantilly, Virginia. We go every Father’s Day. If you like old cars, it’s a great tradition. The year before, we were at the Hershey Car Show and missed buying a really neat antique car. A car enthusiast from Turkey saw the car just minutes before we did, and he’d bought it on the spot. It was a Ford Model T taxi cab. It was totally authentic, with all the correct taxi accessories of the 1920s. And we missed it by about two minutes.
So we tried to learn our lesson. When we got to the Sully show, we went straight to the ‘cars for sale’ area. We didn’t want to miss out. And then it caught my eye. A classic VW bus. This one was a camper, and it was nice. Original too, with all of the interior surfaces intact. Now, on a VW bus camper from the ’60s, ‘originality’ means the interior panels look like the fake wooden paneling in a basement rec room, one in need of remodeling. But that’s how it’s supposed to look. So even though it looks kinda bad, it’s good. We collectors and enthusiasts want that ‘bad’ looking old stuff, because we appreciate authenticity and originality.
The bus was priced reasonably. It wasn’t perfect, but we don’t want ‘perfection.’ Nowadays, more and more Americans realize that you can always restore an old car, but you cannot make it original again. The Europeans have known this for a long time. They appreciated originality long before we did. So now, if you pull an old car (or bus) out of a barn, and don’t even wash the dust off of it, it’s a very desirable ‘barn find.’ And it’ll bring crazy money.
We found Jerry, the owner and seller of the bus. And he told us about it’s particular history, and it was a very intriquing story. That made the bus all the better. It wasn’t just a bus, it was a bus with a story. A bus with a history. So we struck a deal on the spot.
I was torn. The bus had potentially tremendous resale value, but I’d always wanted one. I was of two minds. Do I keep it, or sell it and make some money? Well, my son influenced that decision. He loved the old bus. Instantly. Clearly, in his mind, this bus had found a home. We’d found and bought the bus together, father and son, on Father’s Day. How could I possibly consider selling it? How crass. Bad dad.
We went to Jerry’s house to pick up the bus a few days later. We’d just given him a deposit at the show. I’d driven buses a couple of times over the years. And I’d forgotten what they’re like. The front axle and front wheels are underneath the front seats, so they steer and handle differently! When I was a teen ager, and into my twenties, I’d owned and driven one VW Beetle after another. But the bus drives completely different from a Beetle. And driving the bus home down the George Washington Parkway was no picnic, either. Especially since everybody else on the road was in a big hurry, and I either couldn’t or wasn’t brave enough to drive faster than about 45mph. So you feel like a little old lady.
And then we got home. Now, my daughter is fourteen. She’s never liked old cars. You could show her a gorgeous antique brass era car. Or a stunning muscle car. A full classic roadster. Yuck! She’d rather have a brand new Prius. One year, when Cameron didn’t want to go to the Pebble Beach Concours with me, she used his airline ticket to go with me instead. Good thing that Cameron can be a boy’s name or a girl’s. So she got to go to the absolute finest car show on the planet, in a gorgeous setting…and even that experience didn’t help her appreciate old cars. I’d gotten to the point of no longer asking her, “Hey, look at that gorgeous car. Do you like it?”
And then I pulled the bus into our driveway. “I want it.” I was stunned. “I want it for me and my friends.” Yes, she was claiming it. Putting dibs on it. It was an immediate reaction. She immediately claimed it as hers. Well, the die was now cast. I could never sell the bus. I realized…this one’s a keeper.
When I wrote the book on Apple, I had no idea that I’d end up spending three years on that project. But do you know what? It was a great experience. I met a lot of interesting people and heard fascinating stories. That experience was actually a continuation of a journey I’d started on in 2004 when I attended a sheriff’s auction and bought one of the very first Apple computers. It was most likely the first one that Steve Jobs had sold to an individual, from his garage. It was a phenomenal experience investigating the history of that machine, finding leads that went back forty years, tracking down the people originally involved in its creation. I think that was something I might have paid to experience. It was that good. I think I’ll remember hearing those stories years from now, just like my memory of the bus in the showroom forty-five years ago.
So the bus had a story, and the original paperwork still existed to support that story. As with the Apple story, there were also some really colorful characters involved. In this case, though, unlike the Apple story, I’ve woven a tale around that source material. I’ve taken the interesting history of the bus and put a story together for my son. It started with Father’s Day, and it became a story from father to son. And he has not just listened, he’s helped me with the story. It’s amazing what a bright twelve-year-old can come up with. It’s almost scary. It’s an age where, in many ways, they are already a young adult. So we’ve created this story together, and now we want to share it with you. If you like old VW buses, you’ll probably like this story. I guess you must, or else you probably wouldn’t have gotten this far. Also, if you dig the ’60s, I think you’ll like this story.
Who’d enjoy Hippie Van?
Is it for guys and gals in their fifties who have a soft spot in their heart for vintage buses? Sure. Might it be a story for twelve-year-old boys and girls? Well, I don’t think it’s as sophisticated as a Harry Potter book, so it should work for some twelve-year-olds. It certainly could be a cool book for a dad to read with his son or daughter. Because that part’s been tested. My son and I have tried that out. And it’s been good. I hope it’s as good for you.No Comments. Continue Reading...