Dear VW Friends - This is a story I did for American Lifestyles Magazine Jan 2008.
Background: My background started in 1972. I was 23 at the time. I had my first mechanic's job after graduating from a 6-month auto mechanic school in New Hampshire. I tried all the different dealers like Chevrolet, Ford, etc. and when I went the local VW dealer, they hired me as a trainee. While there for two years, I learned allot about repairing VW’s. My other talent, so to speak, was cooking in restaurants. As a young man I learned that working in restaurants was good because you always had food to eat. So between 1972 and 1978, I worked on cars and I cooked in restaurants. I was a cook full time and was "Bingo the Clown" every Sunday from 1 to 4pm at a Ground Round Restaurant. Yikes!! (I have pictures on request). In 1979, I bought a new black Kawasaki 1000 LTD. My girlfriend and I sold everything we owned and took of into the sunset. We landed in Florida and since it was September, we decided to stay there. Only thing was my son Benny was conceived on that trip. So after a few months, we bought a car and drove back to Peterborough NH to settle down.
In 1980 I started a VW repair service garage in Peterborough NH. Only one big problem was there was no more air cooled VW’s anymore. They had all gone to VW heaven. So, I was forced to work on all foreign cars like Honda’s, Datsun’s, etc. After 2 years I closed my business. I found myself working at a Exxon station for little money. I was depressed and finally went home and told my family that were moving to California. No one argued with me and we were all very excited. Only slight problem was we only had about $2,800.00 for the trip. That did not stop us.
At that point I packed up my 1958 Blue VW Beetle with my wife and 2 ½ year old son Benny and headed to California. On the way we stopped in Conn to visit some people and after seeing the blue Beetle gave us $1,000.00 for the trip. I was totally confident we would make it now. 48 MPH was the top speed we had to deal with for 4,000 miles because of the 700 lb cargo we had in the rear seat or on the roof. This was before owning a roof rack was cool. This was necessary. We had two slight problems. One being a broken gas pedal. The other was when we went into a shopping center and then came out our car was missing.. Then we spotted it about 100 yards away. I forgot the hand brake and it coasted for a while without hitting anything.
My poor son was 2 1/2 stuck in a car seat for 8 days. On the 5th day my son cried “Please daddy” No blue Beetle today!! Finally after eight days we arrived in Southern California. I remember waking up in San Diego as my wife drove and one of the first things I saw was a beautiful VW Beetle going down the freeway. Yes!! We made it!! They were everywhere!! The sad part to this was after a couple months someone stole our beloved blue Beetle. Never to be seen again.
After arriving Feb 20 1982 I had two major jobs. The first being a counselor at Phoenix House a national substance abuse program based out of NYC. This work was very rewarding but, I had always had a dream to own my own business of restoring VW Buses and Beetles. No matter what job I had I was always working on my own or a customers VW after dinner.
In 1984 I joined a company called Digital Automotive Systems. This was a small start up sub chapter S corp. with family and friends being investors. My wife and I had some extra money so we invested and I started working there. Since I could not have my own business at that time this was second best. Unfortunately after two years we closed the doors.
I had become a close friends with Ric Erdman the president of DAS and after closing the company he offered to put up some investment money to buy and sell classic cars. The first thing that came to me was to buy VW’s but Ric didn't think there was any future. So, I started buy buying a classics like BMW 2002’s and a Porsche 914-6. Fun stuff for sure but my love was VW’s.
In the late 80’s the Japanese started to come over to buy VW’s for their companies in Japan. As we do here they also have small shops all over Japan working and restoring VW’s.
I did my first restoration at home in my driveway. It was a 1963 Beetle Sunroof. I finished it and brought it to a VW Swap meet and with in seconds a Japanese buyer was at my car door. Then it began. Every swap meet and car show there were many Japanese buying VW’s. I struck up a good bond with the biggest in importers of VW’s to Japan. Mr Komori owner of Flat4 was and still is the biggest and most well known VW personality in Japan. He approached me and promised to buy up top 20 VW a month from me if I dealt with him exclusively. I agreed and my partner and I were very excited. We went to Japan to see what was going ion there. We learned that the people there loved VW Buses. This went on for about 5 years when the Japanese economy went south. As I did every week I faxed some prime choices to Flat4 and the reply was “Oh, we don't need that service anymore, sorry”. What!! I could not believe my eyes. After 6 good years I just lost my biggest customer. Well, I laid off 6 people and it was just me and my upholstery guy Jesse Quintana. Thanks to him I had patterns for may different seat covers and such. So, I started to advertise our stuff and people really liked what we had to offer. Mr Komori and I are still very good friends and I have personally restored 3 cars in his private museum in Tokyo.
1996 I started my web site www.classicvws.com. Suddenly I realized that if I put up pictures on this thing called the Internet that our work could be seen by people all over the world?? Wow! I was a believer right away. The first time we got 500 hits in a month I was happy. Now we get 20,000 a month. When that started to work for me people we dropping off cars to be restored. At present we have 8,500 sq feet and 7 employees. We restore VW Busses and Beetles and more. We mail order VW upholstery and classic VW’s a all over the world.
What vehicles were you around growing up? Parents vehicles? Mostly American cars were in my family. My dad was a nut for Buick's. I remember his 49 Buick he had and also the 1957 Super. He was a Buick man all the way.
I remember at around 11 years old going to the local junk year and sitting behind the wheel of some old American lead sled. I knew then I was a car nut.
What was your first vehicle? My first Vehicle was a 1962 Chevy Corvair. I did like Corvairs and owned probably 6 total through out several years. From 1969 to 1974 I had owned around 26 different cars mostly American. After working at the VW dealer I started to buy and trade VW’s. I traded a 1963 Lincoln Continental for a 1965 21 window micro bus. At first I was not happy with the trade because the bus was freezing inside. Being in NH the VW’s weren't the best for heat./
What was your dream vehicle then? Now? Then? Hmm I would have to say a Chevy Corvette was my dream car back then. Now I would have to say some rare VW like a coach built Rometsch or a nice Dannennhauer & Stauss. These are special made (coach built) by hand cars from East Germany that were on VW chassis’s.
First VW memory? In 1958 I lived on my Great Aunt’s farm in Merrimac NH and I remember my cousin coming up the driveway in a new black Beetle! She had a traded in here weird car called Renault Dauphine which was also a very small car.
How did you become interested in restoring? When I realized that the Beetles and Busses were disappearing I had a dream of having a place to make them new again. My dream was to have them enter in one end and leave the other end brand new.
Did you want to restore VW’s specifically? Yes, I have no desire to restore any other cars than VW’s.
Do you restore other vehicles? No, we only have this passion with VW’s. I like many other cars but these are my favorite’s.
What is different about restoring VW’s as opposed to other makes? Not sure since we only do VW’s. I am sure the process is the same. Working on other makes would create too many learning curves. ’I've paid my dues after 23 years of learning about VW’s.
What makes people feel so connected to VW’s (especially buses)? Probably most families had a VW Bus or two while growing up. This was VW’s station wagon that most families had. They remember going to school in them. They were cheap on gas and easy to fix. Hippy’s lived in many busses during the 60’s and early 70’s. Buses were popular because of all the people that you could put in them. (buses are either 7, 8, or even 9 passenger) I still believe the shortage of middle seats are because of all the hippy’s throwing them out so they could sleep in their buses.
Do people name their VWs? Not as much today as before. I do still hear it especially from original owners. Mostly women. It’s not a guy thing to name your VW.
Talk a little about them from a technical standpoint: Are they good vehicles? Reliable? Safe? I would say the cars were very reliable. If people went to the dealer or other mechanic and had the valves adjusted every 6,000 miles they would go over 100,000 miles. The good news about repairs were the price would not break your bank compared to the bigger American cars. If you were mechanical at all you could easily learn to repair them. There were many books out that showed how to repair these cars.
One thing that made them safe was the speed they went. You weren't flying down the freeway at 90 mph. With a good back wind maybe you could get over 60mph. The buses especially had to have reduction gears to help the small engine push it. I was driving a 1958 deluxe bus just last week to a OCTO meeting (Bus owners meeting every 4 months or so). The 36hp engine along with the reduction gears I could go 65 mph on the freeway.
Why were the buses created in the first place? There were so many uses for the VW bus. There were family cars called station wagons. There were work trucks and vans. There were so many companies that used them for many reasons. Many companies used them to deliver of all sorts of products. Basically like you see today just picture in Europe and here in the US VW buses everywhere. They were cheap (around $2,100.00 in the 60’s).
Many big companies bought VW Buses that were converted into Fire Buses. They came equipped with hoses, tools, etc. Anything you would need to put out a fire. They also cam with a portable VW engine that pumps the water. All you need is a supply of water. Many companies were very far from a fire stations.
Buses were also converted into Ambulances. Most Bus collectors have one in their collections. The back door drops down instead of up. This alloys the stretcher to load easier.
I had a really cool VW Ice Cream Bus. It was from Holland and was one of 50 made for the DeBeer Ice cream business. This was the last remaining one by the original family. When it arrived in California Susie and I filled it with ice cream and gave it away at the VW shows. It was a blast. (I've included a picture of it.) It’s fun to see the kids faces when they ask “how much mister?” and they hear “it’s free”.
Charlie Hamel is one of the biggest Bus nut in California. His collection consists of Ambulance, Fire bus, Panel bus with 400 original miles, etc. The best of the best! Charlie is making a “brand new” bus with all original sheet metal he has searched for. The crazy part is that it’s in his attic. No way to get it out. He calls it his NOS (New Old Stock) Bus.
Charlie Hamel and Eric Copeland run the OCTO (Orange County Transporter Organization) http://octo.org/ meetings. This is where about 500 buses show up at a high school parking lot to show off they buses. Only 1967 and older are allowed in. These run about 6 times a year.
Explain generations of buses and what makes them unique. The first generation was what’s know as “the Barndoor Bus”. 1950 to 1955. “The Barndoor Bus” referred to the large door on the rear of the bus. (most people think it’s the side doors that make it a barndoor but it’s the large rear door.)Inside the big door was a engine, spare tire, and the gas tank. Looks a little weird to see someone at the gas station pouring gas in the engine room. Probably had a few fires from that. There were pick up trucks made. After 1958 there were two models. One is a “Single Cab Pickup” and the other a “Double Cab Truck” Same as now more people and less bed space for cargo.
1951 was the first year for the family station wagon. There were a number of models then. Cheapest was the Kombi. It is a 6 to 9 passenger bus with seats but no fancy stuff like a headliner or inside wall panels.
Then there was the next model up called a “Standard Micro” Now you have a 6 to 9 passenger with a nice cloth headliner. Nice decorative panels through out. More quiet and comfortable and also warmer.
Then you have the 6 to 9 passenger “Deluxe”. From 1951 to 1963 there were two deluxe you could get. One with a sunroof and roof windows known as a “23 window”. The other is the same car with out the sunroof and roof windows. This is called a 15 window Deluxe. In 1964 they stopped using the two rear corner windows which made the 23 window to become a 21 window. Same for the 15 window became a 13 window deluxe.
The Deluxe model had nice aluminum molding around the body separating the two tome colors. The bumpers also had moldings to dress them up. The deluxe came with a clock. (That hardly worked). If your really cool you will have aluminum beauty rings on the wheels.
What year or generation do you most often restore in your shop? Mostly from 1956 to 1967. We currently are doing a 1952 Standard Micro. This bus is unique because it was ordered special with sunroof. No roof windows just the sunroof. The VW Museum in Germany will send you a so called “Birth Certificate” for your car. You need to write to them with your chassis number and pay around $15.00 to get them to mail you a nice copy. This bus lists a sunroof in the option column.
Do you have a favorite year/model of the bus? I like them all. For sure older is better for me.
Talk about degrees of restoration: Are most people purists? (They want the correct parts for the particular model and year of their vehicle) Some customers like the older buses but not the performance. So, we offer an updated engine and transmission. This give them the beautiful old look with drivability. The freeways are a little intimidating for buses and it’s nice when they can keep up with traffic. (somewhat) ha ha.
Of course there are the purists that want it as it came out of the show room. I like this because this is how I remember them. I'm 58 and I grew up with these cars so, I know how they should be.
When you look at the customer that is buying these cars they're not all collectors. There’s all different people buying them because that’s what they owned in the past.
What is West Coast’s approach to restoration? Do you believe authenticity is most important or are you willing to put different parts on a model to make it more functional, beautiful, or safer? I think we covered that. I like both, original and also semi custom.
Does the approach depend on the owner you are working with? Sure they are the customer that is paying me. I only advise and I try not to dictate.
I've read that you offer owners a CD of the restoration process. We believe in documentation. This way the customer can be assured that we are doing it correctly. We even put it out there for our competition to see. We have open houses every June for all to come and see our work
You obviously take great pride in your work. What has made West Coast Restorations so successful? One of the biggest reasons I believe is that we are a “one stop shop” Some places advertise restorations but they farm out most of the work. There are allot of great mom and pop restoration shops all over the US. I'm not the only nut case trying to make a living at what I love doing. We are lucky enough to be on our 22nd year.
Do you get buses from all over the country? Do they ship them? Yes, they come from all over. I am restoring a 1952 barndoor” from Germany right now. Most customers are right here in the US.
How long does a typical restoration take? Well, it can be done in 6 months if that was the only one being worked on. With the back log we have now it is a 2+ year job. We have 7 people working here. Two in the body shop, three in the upholstery shop and 2 mechanics.
Talk about the order of a restoration: In one photo series, I noticed a bus goes from faded red to silver to light blue to yellow with gray swirls to cream, and then to the final shiny red and white. What is going on in these stages?
The faded red is the original old paint. The silver is the car in bare metal after having all old paint removed. Now we can see what is going on with the body. There no hiding when the car is bare metal. Then to light green which is “etching primer” This needs to be applied soon after the car is bare metal. After all the metal body work is completed we use this high quality yellow primer/sealer. When you see the yellow primer with black speckles that means that area is ready for final block sand and paint.
Most popular color for exterior? Interior? Original Original Original. VW had the greatest colors and this is one of my biggest thing to tell owners. Why would you want a purple and white bus when you can have a sealing wax red/chestnut brown combination?? It baffles me sometimes.
What is the main motivation for people? Do they drive these vehicles regularly or are they more of a collectible/hobby? Most people just want a piece of the past. These are not daily drivers for most. Certainly there are the rare breed hardcore that drive a vintage VW every day and wouldn't have it any other way. These are the real VW people if you ask me. When I need to run to Los Angeles I would rather jump in my GMC truck for lots of reasons. The freeways are not a great place for these vintage buses with the 80–90mph traffic. But for the after work around the beach or the weekend shows and drives it’s the greatest feeling.
Susie my wife runs the office and has her own line of small tote bags. http://www.classicvws.com/sale/classicseatbags.htm. She makes them out of VW upholstery material. She saw some cuttings on the floor one day and though of making a bag from it. She lines them with the same headliner material used in the cars. People love having them around to reminds them of there VW. She has sold over 700 of them in the last couple years. What makes them so special is the fact she makes them at home with here sister Phyllis. While they are out in the garage with the industrial sewing machine I'm in the house in control of the computer and the TV!! Aren't hobbies great??
What time do you wake up? When my wife starts yelling at me. Usually around 8am. That sounds awful when my shop opens at 8am. But, my guys know why they are there and don't need me to tell them. (that early ha ha)
What is breakfast? Breakfast is me and Susie and what ever friend/customer that is around at 10am at a local diner called Kimmies in Fullerton. One of Orange County’s best breakfast places.
What is lunchtime like at the shop? Does everyone eat together? Most days they go off in 2 or 3 groups to eat. Some stay and eat whet their wives made them. They get one hour and spend the second ½ hour sitting in the warm sun and talking about VW’s.
Fridays we have a Barbeque with Alex the head of the upholstery shop cooking carna asada and fish for everyone. It never surprises me when friends and others show up at that time. Hmm.
What is the atmosphere at the shop? It’s awesome. We have a very clean shop with beautiful VW’s all around. The walls have nice vintage garage signs and hanging toys. Kids love coming to the shop ( My grandson especially) to see the VW’s and my small toys in the glass case. When my grandson comes to visit he has to get inside every VW in the shop. He loves them already. The shop has the classic rock radio station on and people are working hard and talking. I love that so much. My top guys have been there for over 10 years. I make sure that I pay them good and make a happy work environment so they will not leave. We have virtually no turn over employment.
Think about not only am I doing what I love so, is most of the staff at the shop. Rafael has been with me 9 years and he is the shop Forman. After working on VW’s all day he will go to another shop and work on his own projects. Lots of people have projects that they work on after hours. I remember being like that in the 70’s.. Guess I'm getting old because I would rather be home watching the world news after work.
What other hobbies do you have besides restoring vehicles? Hmm, I've always had a interest in photography and do take allot of photo’s. I would guess that I have over 5,000 pictures of various VW’s. And this is before digital cameras.
If you weren't doing this, what career would you have? Oh Boy.. I think that I have always wondered who the heck would hire me if this wasn't doing this?? This is my motivation for working so hard. I don't want to do anything else. Well maybe play poker for a living would be fun. Move over Doyle Brunson!! Heh heh.
Favorite stage of the restoration process? After paint!! This is the hardest part to the entire job. It is also the most important part. After that it’s pretty easy to get instant gratification. When the boys are on it you will see progress every day and that’s exciting. But, when it’s done I get a lot of joy seeing the owners reaction to the car.
Best reactions from clients? Most surprising reactions? When Janet Foley picked up her 1971 Super Beetle that was once owned by her father. She actually laid rubber when she took off so fast to show her dad the car. Here is a link to her car. http://www.classicvws.com/foley's.htm.
Do you own any VW buses? No, I wish I did. I do have a couple that I have not been able to let go. One is a 1951 Rometsch Coupe. It’s the only one known to exist. It’s a coach built body on a VW Beetle chassis and the body is formed in aluminum. http://www.classicvws.com/sale/1951coupe.htm.
What is something most people would not know about VW buses? How many verities there are.
What goes on at the meets for VW buses? Is it a tight community of people? The VW people are the best!! Always willing to meet new people. Not hard to approach at all. The shows are a great place to show off your Bus but, I think it’s more of a social thing for me, especially.. Every 6 weeks there is a swap meet for all classic cars =called The Pomona Swap Meet. There is a section for VW’s only with cars and parts for sale. I've missed maybe 4 since 1986. I go there for the social event more than to buy VW stuff. I'm one of the old times now and there are quite a few of us. We are the ones going to these swap meets for over 23 years.
You live on the west coast, home of nice weather. Where is your favorite place to be? I lived in New Hampshire until 1982. After making this move I would not go back to cold and snowy weather. Somehow I landed in classic car heaven which is Orange County California. It’s all here. Nice weather, nice cars, lots of cruise nights where people gather on a week night at a local drive in restaurant to again look and talk.
I hope you enjoyed this story. I had fun with it myself...