ANN ARBOR, Mich. — “It’s so cute!” a woman yelled from her bike as we passed her through an intersection, the 1967 Volkswagen Type 2 Samba’s air-cooled engine working as hard as it could to maintain a knackering 40-ish mph. I couldn’t help but agree with my vocal admirer — and there are plenty more out there on a warm summer day — but at the moment I was busy just steering this thing, trying to keep it from veering into anything that might mar its collector-quality appearance.
I’d always wanted to drive one, and Volkswagen had brought this beautiful Bus out from its collection for me to enjoy for a day. I felt like a child, giddy with excitement as though waking up on my birthday. The delivery driver — who seemed just as excited as I was — showed me around, pointing out the quirks of this old vehicle. This included how the windshield opens, how the air vents in from the roof, and how one must manually remove the wipers from their resting position before turning them on, lest they break. Mostly, we just fawned over this piece of history, despite its faults.
And there were some issues with this otherwise gorgeous relic. I was warned it’s not watertight, and I’m glad the forecast for my next day with this 21-window Microbus was mostly clear. The linkage for reverse is difficult to find, but I learned how to massage the shifter into the correct position. There was the odd paint bubble or crack. Many of the moving parts squeaked, especially the steering wheel and gear shifter. The pieces that aren’t supposed to move rattled instead. There’s no way I was going to even attempt to open the big fabric sunroof cover.
I’d have liked to, though, as it was warm in the cabin. There’s no air conditioning, but the little flange on the ceiling that directs in air from under the roof lip is supposed to either send it toward the front passengers or toward the rear. It didn’t seem to make a difference. Trying to remain cool, I had the windows open while I drove. For a while, I even had the windshield panes tilted up and open until I took a large insect to the face.
This thing seats nine, if some passengers are willing to share the longer lap belts, but I can’t imagine what a loaded Bus would feel like from behind the wheel. With just myself and my son, Wollie, behind me in a car seat, the rear-mounted 1.5-liter boxer-four and its whopping 53 horsepower struggled to push us down Plymouth Road. And we were pretty toasty in there; it would be quite the challenge to pilot this vehicle packed to the brim with tourists trying to navigate the Alps, the Rockies or, hell, even the steeper parts of Haight Street. One thing’s for sure: the scenery wouldn’t pass by too quickly to appreciate.
We looked cool, though. I in my mustache and “Bigfoot Lives” hat, and my son in his “Paw Patrol” pajamas, puttering around in this iconic cream-on-orange hippie-mobile. It even harkens from the same year as the Summer of Love. People stopped, stared, pointed, hollered and generally wished us well as we made our way around Ann Arbor. I smiled back through the sweat and growing fatigue, and gave the briefest of waves in order to get the hand back on the forward-canted, thin-rimmed steering wheel.
It’s not an easy car to drive by today’s standards (or possibly 1969 standards). It was easier to shift than the finicky transmission on the 1946 Jeep CJ-2A that I, my sister and my cousins all learned to drive at our grandpa’s old hunting ranch, but at least that Willys had some power and a smaller turning circle. I didn’t have to double-clutch the VW or fight the gearbox, which was good because steering this Bus required two hands and constant attention.
And just as this wasn’t quick to accelerate, deceleration was also a trick. Especially when I had accumulated some momentum, the lethargic braking required a measure of forethought. I was eagle-eyeing upcoming traffic lights as early as I could to give myself the distance needed to bring this thing safely to a halt. While city streets required a lot of hand work to get the Samba around the block, cruising in a 45-mph zone is a white-knuckle affair, especially when you throw phone-blinded jaywalkers and jaybiking cyclists into the mix.
Even before becoming more comfortable with the Samba’s relative limitations, it was impossible to deny the joy of this thing. And it was a joy shared with the community. Everyone could appreciate this Type 2 on some level, from the obvious gearheads to the Ann Arbor townies who lived through the ’60s and ’70s, to the toddler son of Autoblog alumnus Seyth Miersma, who gave the Bus an inspection when Wollie and I stopped on his street for a brief break in our drive. It’s a car that makes folks feel friendly. It’s a shame I couldn’t simply take each admirer for a ride.
Eventually, Wollie and I grew tired from the heat, vibration and, in my case, the sheer concentration required to mix it up with modern vehicles. We made our way back home, avoiding the highways that simply wouldn’t accommodate something with a 0-60 time approaching a minute and a top speed below the local speed limit. I barreled the Bus — as much as one could — back down Plymouth Road, arms tired, knuckles white, brow glistening and teeth bared in something between a grin and a grimace as the VW strained to go and strained to stop. Safely back in the driveway, Wollie and I continued to admire the Samba, which is almost as fun sitting still as it is in motion.
I can’t truthfully tell you that I wasn’t a little emotional when the truck came to haul the Samba away the next morning. Wollie insisted on watching it leave, and a neighbor even came outside to bid it farewell. The VW Bus was gone, but I had driven a vehicle I’d always admired. And my son now has an appreciation for a historic vehicle he might not have experienced otherwise. Even better, its presence brought genuine mirth and wonder not just to me, but to countless passersby. People love the Type 2, and now I know that love firsthand.
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