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Kings of the Road
by Missy Sheehan & photos by Turner Photography
While the hey of tricked-out vans has passed, local enthusiasts are keeping the tradition alive with their movable beasts.
You have to admit, there’s something undeniably cool about cruising around in a van — your favorite tunes cranked up, the windows rolled down, and your best friends in the back. I’m not talking about your mom’s old minivan, though. I’m talking about those vans you see on the road that just make you say, “Wow, check out that sweet van!”
I’m talking about those brightly painted Volkswagen Transporter vans so iconic of the 1960s hippie culture and those extensively customized panel vans straight out of the 1970s rock ’n’ roll scene with their elaborate airbrushed murals and floor-to-ceiling shag carpeting. Those vans inspired their own subculture, known as “vanning,” in their day. Back then, vans, better known as “shaggin' wagons,” were inexpensive, versatile means of transportation for those looking for groovy times on the road.
Although vanning culture faded out of popularity in the ’80s and ’90s, the subculture surrounding the van is still alive to this day. While the heyday may have passed, there are still plenty of folks out there with sweet vans keeping the vanning tradition alive in their own unique ways.
‘A Party on Wheels’
During the warmer months, you might catch a glimpse of Hagerstown resident Brian Caron cruising around town in his 1967 Volkswagen Samba bus — distinctive for its 4-foot sliding ragtop sunroof, 21 windows, and bright yellow and white paint job. “The ’67 that I have is the last model year they made them with that classic VW ‘V’ shape in the front of the bus with the split windows,” Brian says of his van, which he calls Ol' Yeller. “It was the last year for that iconic Woodstock look.”
Brian, who works as a digital production operator at Tri-State Printing in Hagerstown, is no stranger to owning a Volkswagen. “I’ve been into buses since I got my driver’s license — my first vehicle was a bus,” says Brian, now 42. He bought the Samba, which had already been painted and restored, in 2002.
While at first glance the bus might look the same as when he bought it, Brian has added his own touches to the vehicle over the years, including building an upgraded engine, doing some suspension work, and putting in a new transmission. “It’s not a real performer, but it’s a lot more performance oriented now than just a classic stock configuration VW,” he says, adding that VW vans have always been notorious for being underpowered.
While the bus doesn’t have heat or air conditioning, Brian has added some extra features like custom wheels and a new stereo system complete with CD player and iPod input. “It’s kind of like a party on wheels,” he says. In fact, Brian has used his van to ferry friends and family to weddings and other special events where someone wants to make a grand entrance. “People like it because it’s different,” he says. “It’s not your typical stretch limo.”
Derek Kretzer’s van might not look all that flashy at first glance, but the Hagerstown resident’s white 1982 Volkswagen Vanagon Westfalia — complete with a pop-up roof — has everything he needs to travel comfortably and cheaply — whether he’s using it for everyday driving, camping, or touring with his bluegrass band, The Plate Scrapers.
The van, which Derek nicknamed Thurston VanGo, sleeps four. The roof pops up into a nook featuring a foldout bed, plus there's another foldout bed on the bottom level, the 27-year-old says. The van also features a detachable propane cooking stove, an ice box, cabinet storage space, and a swing-out table, as well as captain’s seats that swivel around to face the back of the van when parked. “I can basically take it anywhere and just set it up and pop the top up and it’s pretty much ready to camp in,” he says.
Derek made some changes when he bought the van a little over a year ago, the coolest of which was converting it to run on used vegetable oil in addition to diesel. “It’s great because it’s basically free miles,” Derek says. “I don’t pay anything for the grease — I get it free from restaurants that use it in their fryers.”
The van had been partially converted to run on used vegetable oil when he bought it, but Derek added his own touches, such as an upgraded filtering system. He also installed a button on the dashboard that allows him to easily switch over from diesel to vegetable oil fuel and swapped out both the engine and transmission.
“People are always surprised the van can run on used grease,” Derek says. “And I get tons of smiles and thumbs up when I’m driving around just because it’s kind of got that, you know, hippie van kind of look.”
'A Travel Machine'
Like Brian and Derek's vans, Jason Kauffman’s 1966 Volkswagen Camper is quite the attention getter. Aside from its dove blue paint job and split windshield, the van features cargo doors on both the driver and passenger sides, which is how it earned its Double D moniker. The vintage van also has two striped, cabana-style tents that attach to each of the side doors. “It’s got a very 1960s beachy feel to it,” says the 42-year-old from Waynesboro, Pa.
Owning a Volkswagen isn’t just a hobby for Jason. He owns Waynesboro Auto Sales and runs a shop there that specializes in restoring vintage air-cooled VWs. “All I’ve ever owned and worked on are VWs,” he says.
Aside from installing safari windows and updating the interior with a full-length bed, cabinet storage space, and colorful custom-made curtains, Jason says he hasn’t changed his Camper van much since he bought it about ten years ago. “It was the same condition it's in right now,” he says. “It’s all original, though it was painted once back in the ’70s. I’ve kept it classic. It’s an antique.” An original 1966 Pennsylvania inspection sticker on the windshield and a matching 1966 license plate complete Double D’s vintage look.
Jason says he’s won awards at VW shows all over the East Coast with his van, and it was even used in the 2009 movie “Taking Woodstock,” though it’s far from a pristine showpiece. “It has faded paint, dings, a little rust here and there, and the interior is not perfect, but it’s cozy,” he says.
He’s not afraid to take Double D out on the road along with his wife, Bonnie, and their four kids either. “We go camping and do all kinds of stuff in the summer,” he says. “I’m not afraid to take my van into the woods or mountains.” In 2011, Jason took his van on an 8,500-mile trip across the country with a group of fellow VW van owners, hitting all the national parks along the way. “She’s a travel machine,” he says. “That’s what she was made for.”
Too Cool for School
From the outside, Will Sutherland’s contribution to the vanning tradition looks like just an old school bus taking up space in the backyard of his Shepherdstown home. The interior of the bus tells a different story, though.
Purchased from an IRS estate sale last year, the 1997 Blue Bird International bus has been completely transformed on the inside. “My goal was to turn it into a camping cottage,” says 30-year-old Will, who, aside from working as an audiovisual technician at the Hollywood Casino, has been into woodworking since he was a kid. After removing the seats from the bus and cleaning it up, Will added interior lighting, laminate wood flooring on both the floors and walls of the bus, a custom-built sofa and table, and even a wood stove.
While the bus feels like a cozy mountain retreat, it doesn’t have a bathroom or kitchen, and everything in the bus can be battened down within a few minutes when Will wants to take it on the road. “I took it to a Halloween party last year and had a bunch of people on the bus,” he says. “It was a lot of fun.”
Will also uses the bus as a guesthouse, which he rents out for $40 a night through Airbnb.com, an online marketplace where people can list or book accommodations in unique venues all over the world. “I’ve had tons of people want to stay in the bus,” he says. Guests from as close as Richmond, Va., and as far as Pakistan and Nepal have stayed in Will’s bus since he started renting in out in December. “It’s cool to see everybody enjoy the bus because that’s what I intended it for,” he says. “And I’ve met so many cool people.”
While not technically a van, Will’s school bus is certainly reminiscent of the vanning culture of the 1960s and ’70s. “There were tons of hippie school buses back then,” Will says. “I consider myself part hippie and part country, so it’s a product of both ideals I guess.”