My first car was a white 1971 Volkswagen Westfalia Camper van. A Bus. The van started its life out with my family and served 3 generations before its eventual suicide in 1998.
In ‘71 my Grandparents started a European tour off with the purchase of a new VW Bus in Germany. At first the factory tried to pass a red one off on them but they waited an extra week for the white one. After a couple of months of touring they packed up the van and had it shipped home on a freighter. Once back in LA the van started its 10 year service to my grandparents.
Later that summer of ‘71 my folks borrowed the van and we used it for a family camping trip. We spent a week on the East side of the Sierra Mountains just south of Mammoth when I was four. My parents slept in the attached tent and my three sisters and I packed into the assortment of beds in the van, including the two cots (one in the pop–up and one across the front seat. One night while roasting marshmallows by the fire, my sister Carla’s marshmallow caught fire. She waved it furiously to put out the blaze but the marshmallow left the stick, flew across the camp and struck me in the right eye, sticking to my face still ablaze. I can still remember later that night that I sat in the front of the van with my mom who packed my eye with butter and showed me all the stars of the Milky Way. That was my first memory in life.
Twelve years later after many road trips with my Grandparents to places as far off as Alaska, my parents bought the van and replaced my Grandparents’ van with a new Westafalia van. When I received my license at 16 my first car was the van. As a high school surfer, a van was a very practical car. We made countless trips to San Onofre for weekend surfs. I traveled up and down the California coast visiting friends and seeking out waves. Even at home there were times that I would sleep in the van above my favorite surf break just so I could wake up and hit it at 5am. Not too many people thought the van was very special, but a few of the parents of the girls I dated were keenly aware that the van was NOT just a car!
Once during my junior year of high school a spontaneous party broke out in the van. We were all meeting at the school to go somewhere (anywhere to have some fun and drink beer). Since no one had a good idea, we just just ended up partying in the van. All 14 of us. People were pounding beers in the back while others were making out in the front. The cops even came by once but we had all the curtains closed and they did not notice that the bus was sagging on its suspension.
The summer of ‘84 I finally had real girlfriend. I took off to Puerto Escondido by myself that year to surf for 5 weeks but when I got back she was waiting for me. My magical moment (or not so magical) of losing my virginity was in the back bed of the van. I got the girl home so late that her Dad made her break up with me the next day.
In ‘85 I left for college and was van–less for many years. I owned a Subaru wagon for a few years but in 1993 when that exploded I bought the van from my parents. I had quit my job that year and was planning to travel around the world. I started it out with a trip up the California coast to Canada and Vancouver Island. My fiancé Helga and I also made many trips to the mountains in the van. There is something great about not knowing where you are going until you get there. Because you’ve always got a place to sleep, the van is a great way to travel, that is, if you don’t mind a maximum speed of 55 MPH (downhill with a tailwind) or it doesn’t bother you that a strong gust of wind can make you change lanes unexpectedly.
Helga and I liked the van so much that I made sure to tell my Grandparents that if they were ever going to sell their ‘82 Vanagon to let me know. After my world travels my Grandparents gave Helga and I the newer van and we sold the trusted old Bus. I couldn’t part with the attached tent however. It had gained the nickname Shangri la and I still have it today. We sold the van to a friend at the beach in San Francisco, named Kelso. He used it to go camping with his girlfriend and to take his Oakland inner city kids to the Mountains for the first time. When I sold the van to Kelso I warned him that the fatal flaw of the Volkswagen was that it air cooled with a propensity to overheat and catch fire.
Less than a year after I sold the van, and after 23 years in my family, the white bus caught fire on the 580 freeway in San Leandro. It was explained to me that the entire vehicle went up in flames. Even the front seats and fiberglass pop top were ablaze. To this day it is suspected by my family that, after the sadness of leaving the Brady family, the van was too sad and committed hari cari. No matter the cause, the bus has faded into legend and provides my friends and family many fond memories of my First Car.