Wednesday, January 27, 2016

The Resurrection of Marya's Bus

"She ain't dead - she's just asleep"
-Bob Dylan

Hal, Guardian of all Bus Pilots calls me on the phone one horribly bleak January day, gray wet skies almost black.  
"Do you need work?  I...know someone", he tells me rather mysteriously.

Enter: The Farmhouse
"There are strange things done in the midnight sun"

All things alive, including machinery, have a lifespan. 
 Mechanical contraptions out-rival soft humans when it comes to lying dormant.  They can slumber a long time, as long as there is grease in the works - as the Tin Man knows only so well.

I really enjoy waking the mechanical dead - to remove bolts installed decades earlier and breathe life into a sleeping antique, making it new and vital again.  It is a thrill...a long, greasy and frustrating one at that.

 A mysterious farmhouse, where suburbs sprawl and creep into former orchards
 A Bus is sleeping

A place of legend, owned by an artist couple that survived a Great War and even mightier Depressions, where eras pass and loved ones have moved on as well.  The old pastures are now paved-over.

Marya grew up on this farm, in a brief era before.  Too young to remember, a brand new 1970 Riviera Camper rolls down the dusty farmhouse drive.  Grandpa Willard just bought himself a Bus.
A mycologist, W.P.A. artist and philosopher, the Bus will soon be his beloved "home away from home".
"Dada" in 1973

Bus and family, 1976

"I love my Grandfather so much!!!", Marya gushes, and tells me childhood stories drenched with charm and emotion.  She is cute in her bubbliness, yet intelligent and earnest in her purpose.  Quite simply, to bring her Grandfather's Bus back to life.  

Sleeping for 15 years, sad after Willard's passing and lonely in a goat barn, Marya wants to revive this VW of childhood.

 circa 2001, deep in slumber
 An early Hal popping the top, clean those leaves please
2001 - all original Riviera

I am grateful for this chance to bring a Bus back to life, although it is a frigid rainy February in Portland.  Oh well bundle up, get busy you.  Marya guides me to the Farmhouse on the former outskirts of town, my Bus laden with a heavy compressor falling over on curves and a floor jack slamming around.  Oh great.

ENTER: The Bus
 The Bus is indeed sleeping this 40 degree day.  Dormant, tucked away in a corner of the barn and dusted with webs and straw, small piles of obsolete machinery, old poison paints on the shelf.

And goats; they clop around, climb over the door, straining and eager to see what the hell I'm up to with this old Bus.
 JAYYYYYYYYYYYY they call out frequently - the caretaker's name

A journey of a thousand miles starts with that first damned step, you know.  
The first step, really is to soak it all in.  Check everything, in logical order, and somehow a complete picture begins to form.  
It is very unusual for a 1970 VW to remain in the family for so long, especially a Bus that was delivered to Portland, OR and converted to a camper by Riviera Motors up in Vancouver.  It is a real survivor.  But of course no-thing is immune to the passage of time and the neglect of non Bus-Pilots.
There was a day (a sad day) when our beloved vintage VWs were viewed as merely utility vehicles, a cheap tractor to burn out and throw away once the kids have grown.  The only trouble was, they didn't die.  Built exceedingly well and in great numbers, Volkswagens continued to putter along, quietly surviving many changes in 50 odd years - due to their inherent quality in the face of all of this shoddy junk we surround ourselves with.  
Unless structurally damaged, an air cooled Volkswagen will never die.

The engine, filthy and sleeping in its neglect, will probably start.  Adjust the valves, set points and timing, change the oil - presto!  It fires up for the first time in years.  It is a very  exciting moment.
But she will not idle, no matter how much I fiddle.  I suspect the carburetor - and after a replacement she runs like a top for the first time in 15 years.  Marya is thrilled and terrified as she drives it around the Farmhouse loop, ancient brakes grinding under frayed tires.

The Bus was owned by her brother, briefly after Willard's passing.  "You look just like him!", she reminds me, smiling.
Alas, the doppelganger-Bob did not share my enthusiasm for basic maintenance.  I am irritated by rust damage that could have been prevented and a general lack of love.  Then I am reminded: they were thought of like bread trucks,wear it out, throw it away.  

Marya wants this Bus back on the road, let's do it right and keep it stock.  We are on the same page, and it's great.  Not only that, she trusts my judgement and experience, and that really means a lot.

 new brakes all around

 new German drums, get them while you can...

Not to neglect the wheels, Marya has them powdercoated, and BFG all-terrain tires installed.  Ready for the wilderness?

Before and after

how nice, I wish they were mine... 

new fancy powdercoated hubcaps too

 A new master cylinder later, Jay is helpful and we bleed the brakes, then we bleed them again because he was pumping the clutch pedal.
Although it is cold and dirty in the barn, I will miss the goats and the weird atmosphere of the old place.  It is time to drive this Bus!

 Volks Folks assistant mechanic at large, Gypsy

The Bus runs well, smooth and "powerful".  Time for the first tank of gas in over a decade.  Very luckily, there isn't much old gas in the tank, or any rust.
However, Marya is troubled that the Bus pops out of 4th gear, as well as an oil leak.  She wants it right, and I don't blame her.

ENTER: My Shop
I am told of a harrowing drive down side streets by a mad-eyed white-knuckled Marya, driving this old Bus nearly 20 miles.  But other than the transmission, it all seems to work as it should.
Will that giant Riviera top fit into my humble garage?!!  Yes but only barely.

 extremely part-time associate Volks Folks mechanic, Randy AKA SLUGGO 

Thanks to Randy's help, we remove the horribly filthy engine and transmission, dripping with ancient ooze.  Yuck.
Marya decides to drive the 150 miles or so out to Central Oregon in the early spring, to Bend, Oregon and German Transaxle.  At $1500 for a rebuild, this is not a choice to be taken lightly.

In the meantime, I strip the engine down to a longblock.  I replace the main seal, set the endplay, and replace the clutch and oil cooler seals.  Hey why not.

Down to the guts, I realize the exhaust system is completely shot - and probably original.  Marya is annoyed at these mounting expenses, but unfortunately you just don't know what needs replacing until you take it apart.  Even the heater boxes are shot, old welds on the exhaust flanges that have failed and are full of holes.
 hidden under a clamp, these holes can cause exhaust to get into your heat vents
dead, RIP thank you for the 50 years of service

We find a good used set of Bus heater boxes somehow, and I spend the day rustproofing and painting them.  Good as new, better quality even.  Thank you 1960s Germany...

A nice tidy pile of brand new parts lies waiting, including a Dansk aftermarket muffler.  It glints and gleams in the sun, smiling and new.
Later, 6 hours later in fact, I am bloodied, raw and at my wits end.  The muffler, brand new, does not fit right.  It is a terrific fight but somehow by the evening it is all connected.  Words cannot express; maybe they'll find that wrench up in the tree some day.  Neighborhood animals: I am sorry for the words I used.

ready to install

Marya has arrived with the rebuilt transmission!  It has taken about a month, which is fine because I had a lot of neglect to reverse.  And a new starter to install too, not to mention old wiring to sort out.

painted black, with cheap plastic flanges, but appears solidly rebuilt

Take these CVs and drive axles (for example).
VW says they need cleaning and repacking with grease every 30,000 miles.  People don't do it - especially in this "throw away" age.  Then the CVs quickly wear out.

 disgusting, but somehow 3 out of 4 are from 1970
cleaned and ready for new grease - truly the most horribly messy job on a VW

While I'm there, I also remove the shift rod and shifter lever, replace all the bushings and grease the hell out of everything,  Some of these parts can only be removed with the transmission out of the Bus.

Running out of broken and worn out things, it is time to install the transmission and engine and get this Bus back on the road, dialed in and fancy.
But, testing the transmission, and it won't shift?@?@$@#$)%$
No, an hour later we discover that it's just brand-new and needs some working in.  After some shifting back and forth, it's all ok.  Sheesh.

former Volks Folks associate mechanic, Don

It is a good feeling to get it all back together, and an even better feeling when it all runs as it should.

Marya, excited and giddy as a schoolgirl, terrified as a first time barnstormer, turns the key and rumbles off into the sunset.  Purring like a kitten I hear her fade off into the distance.
I am honored to be part of this experience and the history of a family.  The Bus is now alive again after this great sleep.  She still needs a little welding and some attention to the interior, but with a little love will be a very special camper.

  Under the countless firs, surrounded by guitars and banjos and owls, deep into a starry Oregon night;
 and the clear mountain air is almost rarefied by that Volkswagen evening.


  1. You are a good person Bob! Patient too, only the trees know otherwise.

  2. Love all the pictures to go with the storyline. Fun read!

  3. Some corrections, if you're interested (no biggie if not):

    - The grandparents saw 2 world wars, not 1 (he was born in 1902 and she in 1904) so they saw WW1 too!
    - The "old lower pasture and apple orchard are now paved over." ;) I would say. Splitting hairs I know! But for all those who might see it, the apple orchard was a big part of many social gatherings and great memories.
    - Marya spent a huge part of her childhood as opposed to "grew up there." ? Or "more or less" grew up there? I grew up in NE Pdx. Again I want to share it with a lot of peeps and don't want them distracted from the lovely story you tell.
    - No need to necessarily change this part but just to be clear: my grandpa was a WPA artist, a US Forest Service worker and CCC corpsman, Bonneville Power artist/manager (in the last 25 years or so, which might not be worth adding), avid outdoorsman, yes mycologist (OMS member for the fun of hiking and mushroom hunting!) and definitely yes philosopher (and Marya adds world's silliest man and greatest impressionist). ;)
    - ..."and presto - it started up" for the first time in TWENTY-ONE YEARS (other than 5 minutes - between you and me - when my aunt's then-boyfriend got it briefly started as he wanted to "take it off her hands" in the year 2000 - before I found out about his plan!! Regardless, that was still 15 years earlier as you wrote already)!
    - This part might not be important but I bought the used heater boxes from a guy with whom I'm now FB friends: Lance Rutland. You and he probably know some of the same people. Point being, the vintage VW bus community in the greater Portland area is quite tight and the people easily befriend one another! :)


  4. Great story...great work! I'm in NE Portland too and could use some assistance with my Bus. I have a 1969 VW Bus that I have had since I graduated college(1996 yikes). If you are looking for more work and to share some of your knowledge let me know how to get a hold of you.
    Thanks, Kurt

    1. Thank you! I'd be happy to help.
      You can contact me at robertkoscikAThotmailDOTc0m
      I think it's important to keep these old Buses alive, for some reason. BTW I graduated HS in '87 so don't feel bad. Where did all this gray hair come from???