I bought Bernie from a Volkswagen mechanic in Laramie, Wyoming. He had immigrated to the U.S. from Germany and received his training at Volkswagenwerks de Wolfsburg. It was his personal vehicle and he was willing to sell it to me because he thought “we” would be a good “fit.” I’m serious. His name was Klaus, and he wasn’t going to sell that bus to just anyone. In the end, I let him down, Klaus I mean. But I think he sold me Bernie because he wanted to rescue the 1968 VW Bug that I owned at the time before I started chopping off the fenders and making it into a dune buggy. I think I paid $2,500 for him.
Bernie was a camper conversion. An aftermarket makeover done by “Sun Campers” out of Phoenix, Arizona. I know that only because there was a plaque with their name and location proudly riveted on the inside above one of the windows. Basically, the bench seat in the back folded down into a bed. They called them Z-benches because of the way they folded. There was a sink and cabinet along one wall, and a table that folded up to the bench for eating. An icebox completed the retrofit. I added another cabinet that hung on one of the two doors and put a camp stove there. It had an awning on the side and a special bed extension tent that hooked on to the back door creating more sleeping area. The interior was all done in a light oak paneling.
Bernie and I got along famously. We camped out with the kids, took trips to Disneyland, trips home to visit the folks both in northern Wyoming and New Mexico. We put a lot of miles on him, and the only real mishap we had before the “fiasco” was the cable broke on the accelerator pedal going up a hill. The engine kept running, but there was nothing to signal the carburetor to accelerate so we started rolling backward. I spliced the broken cable with some wire and made it into to Santa Fe.
You could truly keep “VeeDubs” going with the tool kit that came with every vehicle. A multi-use lug and socket wrench, a pair of pliers, and a reversible tip screwdriver. A little wire and duct tape helped. Also a full set of metric sockets would come in handy. And if you did happen to break down on the side of the road, anyone in a Volkswagen of any type would stop and ask if you needed help. Some people, who had owned one in the past, would stop to tell you how this or that happened to them and how they remedied the situation.
The starter solenoid went out once and you had to climb under Bernie, and hit the solenoid with a hammer in order to start him up. As soon as I could afford it, I bought him a new one.
The “fiasco” started innocently enough. I just wanted to get Bernie an oil change and I could save some money by not taking him to the Volkswagen dealer were Klaus worked. So I took the bus over to a local mechanic who would do the work cheaper. A lot cheaper. When I picked Bernie up, I noticed oil leaking from the head gasket on the driver’s side. Not to worry, I was told, takes a few hours to seal up the new gaskets. Gaskets which are held in place, not by bolts, but by a snap clamp over the head cover. Don’t let all this high-tech mechanic talk throw you. Bottom line, Bernie was noticeably leaking oil. We headed out that Sunday for the mall in Fort Collins. It was only a 45 minute drive and Laramie didn’t have a mall at the time, so we did this often. They had an Arby’s. We didn’t have an Arby’s in Laramie. We’d drive there, to Fort Collins, and go straight to the Arby’s.
There’s this little red oil light, referred to as an “idiot” light on the dash, on the bottom of one of two instruments on the panel; the speedometer. “If that light comes on,” I was told by Klaus, “get over on the side of the road immediately and turn off the engine.” What that little red light meant was you had lost oil pressure and the engine is about three seconds from seizing up. An air-cooled engine, like the Volkswagen, runs very hot. Without lubrication to the parts its over very quickly.
While parked at the mall in Fort Collins, I noticed a literal puddle of oil under the bus after we got back from shopping. I panicked, as I normally do, engines and I don’t get along well. Being that is was a Sunday, there weren’t any mechanic shops open either. So I bought a couple of can’s of oil, put them in the engine, and headed home. About 12 miles outside of town, crawling up a hill, I noticed the red light was on. I couldn’t tell if it had just come on, or if it had come on a while ago and I just hadn’t seen it. Oh shit.
The accepted way to climb a hill in a VW bus was to go as fast down a hill as you could coming up to a hill, or speed up on the level before you reached the hill to help you get up at a reasonable speed. It all depended on how many passengers you had with you at the time, or luggage.
I pulled Bernie over to the shoulder and I heard the engine seize. It’s an unmistakable sound. Kind of a klunk bang sound. Then silence. I waited a few minutes, knowing the worst but hoping for the best, and tried to turn the engine over. Nothing. Bernie was toast. (To Be Continued)