The Story of My Bus

by Richard Atwell
(c) Copyright 2003-2011


That's me in the photos along with my dad and sister. My mom was the camera buff in the family, my dad was the VW buff and I seemed to have inherited both hobbies. I dug up these pictures from old photo albums to see at which point in time various parts of the bus has fallen into disrepair and decided it would be fun to write up how the bus came into my possession.

The Early Years:

white rock 1980 kamloops 1980 winter 1980 winter 1980 summer 1981
White Rock 1980 Kamloops 1980 Winter 1980 Winter 1980 Summer 1981
Tsawwassen 1982 Ferry 1982 Goldstream 1982 Victoria 1983 Victoria 1987
Tsawwassen 1982 BC Ferries 1982 Goldstream 1982 Victoria 1983 Victoria 1987

This bus has been in my family since 1980 when it was purchased from the original owner, Lothar Wohlbruck. He purchased it from Kessel Motors VW dealership in White Rock, BC. My dad previously owned a 1971 camper when he lived in England but sold it before emigrating to Canada.

He decided that he wanted another camper after taking a job in Kamloops up in the BC interior. Lothar had traded it in for another VW at Guildford Motors after a brief stint of ownership and that's where dad saw it on the lot one day. It was purchased on August 8, 1980 and the used sticker price was $10,995 CDN but the price was knocked it down to $10K and tax came to $400 (who remembers when provincial sales tax was only 4%!). At the time of purchase it had 32,000 km (20k miles) on the odometer and these days it has about 122,000 km (76k miles). It's hard to believe sometimes that it has only covered three times the mileage in 20 years that the original owner covered during the first two.

sales receipt

We used it to move some of our belongings from White Rock to Kamloops and my dad used it as a daily driver year round and took me camping as a kid. In 1982 we moved to Victoria, BC and the bus sat in the driveway uncovered for 6 years because my dad decided to bicycle to work every day for exercise. We lived in a house with an ocean waterfront and the weather wasn't kind to it:

Fortunately the body was undercoated for the BC winters so only the brake calipers and backing plates went rusty or so it was thought. Fast forward to March 1988 when I finally had my driver's licence and I took an interest in the bus (any car really). By this time we had moved to another house in Victoria where the bus was towed and it was garaged at last. The new house was further away from work and my parents shared a car while I took public transit or bicycled.

That year my dad tried to start the engine after sitting for 6 years. First we had to get a new battery from Sears because the original German Hoppecke battery was dead. It must have been dry and sulfated and Sears recycled the old one. We changed the oil and filter ourselves but couldn't engage the clutch to roll it out of the garage into the driveway.

Luckily, at my dad's office there was a woman whose father was an old VW mechanic and he came over to the house. Paddy, decided that the clutch cable was broken so he replaced it but it still wouldn't engage so he asked permission to drop the engine and discovered that the clutch had glued itself to the flywheel. Paddy replaced the clutch, cleaned the surface of the flywheel and changed the plugs which were really fouled and he replaced the rusted out muffler because it had a large hole in it. The original muffler setup was replaced with an extractor system. The EGR port on the exhaust was pinched off, it was also pinched off at the EGR valve on the air plenum and the rest of the pipe thrown away.

The engine went back in and it finally came alive but it was pretty rough and it made a loud ticking noise (can you guess?). Paddy said it was the hydraulic lifters and suggested we pour in a can of Rislone engine treatment. We did that and ran the engine until the noise abated and we were pretty happy but my dad still wasn't ready to register and insure it so he started it once a week until Dec of 1988 when the engine refused to fire and oil started leaking from the tail pipe.

Sunnymead 1988
Victoria 1988

My dad didn't have the Bentley manual and didn't know how to prep an engine for storage. We had it towed to the local VW shop, Ellis Motors, who told us the cylinders had rusted (needed re-honing). The engine also needed new piston rings and a couple new rocker arms and valves basically a top end rebuild that required the engine to be dropped again. This was really sad because the bus only had 58,000 km (36k miles) and already needed a rebuild but that just goes to show you cars need to be driven.

The Bus Lives:

One really big bill later and many lessons learned we insured the bus and began to drive it regularly for a year. In the summer of 1990 I was driving it to work every day for my summer job and once I started saving money I got the urge to own my own car so I bought a 1971 Super Beetle and drove it until summer of 1995. That was a great car and hardly cost me anything to keep running.

Sunnymead 1990 My SB 1990
Victoria 1990 Cedar Hill 1990

Not long after the resurrection, we noticed the bus had a lurching problem (can you guess?). The gas pedal felt soft and caused the bus to buck back and forth. Sometimes we would sit stranded at the side of the road, have to wait a few minutes, start it up and nurse it home. Sometimes it took a long time to get home even though Victoria wasn't a big city.

The local VW parts store, Bow Wow, said it was probably the fuel filter and $14 later we had a new filter on and a lot of gas everywhere. The first time my dad tried to change it, the tank wasn't empty and gas ran down his arms and they turned red. Using rubber gloves and plugging the gas hose didn't seem obvious at the time to him.

The bus was working perfectly again but not long afterwards the bus started to do the same thing and continually purchasing Bosch filters was becoming expensive so we made a few attempts at installing a re-usable filter and finally found a small glass one that we could view and easily clean on the fourth try. If you go this route, know that you can crack the glass if you over tighten the ends and you'll need to protected it from rocks with a section of garden hose or something better. We managed to find a great place in the body to hide the filter and keep it protected. When we take all the precautions, these filters work great.

fuel filer #1 fuel filter #2 fuel filer #3 filter #3 parts glass filter
Attempt #1 Attempt #2 Attempt #3 Attempt #3 (parts) Success

We also installed a valve to shut off the flow of gas to the filter and the next time it bucked and stalled we checked the filter and saw rust particles in the gas. It only took a little bit of rust to choke the filter and cause the bus to stall. The prognosis from the mechanic was that the gas tank had rusted on the inside from sitting by the ocean so long and fixing it meant dropping the engine ($400) and the cost of a new gas tank from the dealer (I don't want to remember how much that was). Drop the engine a third time! This was the same mechanic who rebuilt the engine and could have dealt with the tank and the same time but that's the nature of mechanics: they do little in the way of preventative work. Needless to say our hearts fell.

Tofino 1991 Victoria 1993
Tofino 1991 Victoria 1993

We decided to live with the problem and keep changing the filters. We figured at some point all of the rust would have to come out. We did this for two years and it had started to look like the majority of the rust had come down and we had become pretty good at roadside cleanings. I had a little toothbrush for cleaning the filter, two small wrenches and a flat plastic bucket for washing the filter in and storing tools which continued the smell of gas. I still have this kit at home. We could go about 2000 miles before having to clean the filter and we continued to use the bus on an off to make sure it never sat idle again. I used it for moving several times and also helped friends move their belongings. One time we fit a single bed mattress on the inside that ran vertically between the seats up to the shifter.

Mission 1995 Mission 1995
Mission 1995 Mission 1995

In 1995 I was hired for another summer job in Surrey, BC. I transferred my beetle insurance to the bus, used it to move there and drove it as a daily driver for that summer. While at UBC one night, the bus was vandalized in one of the parking lots. Someone had keyed the driver's side twice. I took it to ICBC but they would only pay to paint half of the bus. I thought would look stupid so I never had it repaired. This was the second time one of my VWs was attacked in Vancouver. The first was in 1993 when some kids broke the passenger vent window of my beetle while it was parked in an alley behind a friend's house in Coquitlam. I'm not very found of the crime level in Vancouver.

I sold my beetle later that year because my dad wasn't using the bus, we were short of parking space and it didn't make sense to own both and use them so little. The beetle never gave me any trouble except for the one time that fuel pump leaked and the generator went out. I wanted to remember it in the great condition it was in so I cleaned it up by buying a new front bumper to replace the rusty Mexican unit (with another Mexican), bought some L54D Marina Blau touch-up paint and put it up for sale. It was for sale for several months before a UVic student took interest in it. I sold it for the same amount I bought it for but lost money on the nice stereo I installed.

Texas and Bust:

I had no other vehicle from 1995-1997 but found that I didn't really need one and got around by bicycle. In the fall of 1997 I received a job offer from a small company in Texas. I decided I couldn't afford a car in US funds with my CDN savings, deplored the idea of a car loan and so I decided to use the bus once again for moving and drove it from Victoria all the way to Texas.

The bus was running fine and the filter changes were down to a minimum so we took it to the mechanic for a pre-trip inspection and he replaced the brake pads, the rear wheel cylinders and the brake fluid (all original and 19 years old!). The engine was given a tune-up and oil change and I can't remember what else because I misplaced the receipt for it during my last move. Other than that one lost receipt, I have the complete maintenance history all the way back to the original owner's purchase date. (Update: I found the receipt!!!)

I needed to replace the windshield because a long crack had developed from the lower corner on the driver's side and I didn't want to get stopped at an inspection station or by local law enforcement. I had a local glass shop replace it and they called to say there was heavy rust under the windshield and they wouldn't warranty it for leaks. I didn't have time to get the rust fixed because I was leaving in a couple of days and I never got a chance to see the extent of the rust before I picked up the bus from the glass shop. They either re-used the old seal knowing they didn't have to provide a guarantee or used a new seal that didn't seal against the rusty but at the time I was unaware of future consequences and had a departure deadline to meet.

Before leaving on the trip, I asked a friend at the BCAA (local AAA) office about registering a Canadian vehicle down there and he called a AAA rep in Texas to ask them. They said it was no problem so we drove the bus down taking the long way along Hwy 101 to San Francisco, I-5 to LA and I-10 all the way to Austin. It was a really nice trip and my dad had a lot of vacation built up so it was easy for him to leave on short notice.

Our trip had been mechanically uneventful up until when we were about to leave LA. We stopped at a gas station and found that we couldn't start the bus. We waited a while and eventually the bus started and we were on our way to Palm Springs. When we arrived in PS the bus died a second time at a traffic light. After we got it going I dropped dad off at our hotel and made my way to the closest gas station which luckily was only a block away.

The tech at the gas station was nice and took a look in the engine compartment and noticed that the ground cable was corroded. VW used an bare braided cable and with the intake vents above, water drips onto the battery and the cable rusted to the point that only a few rusted strands were connecting the body to the battery. We replaced the cable with an insulated one and charged the battery overnight. In the morning we were ready to roll.

When we left Tuscon, it started to rain heavily and this continued all the way until Austin. Dad was riding in the passenger seat and he noticed that the carpet was starting to get wet. At that point you have to assume either the windshield seal wasn't fit properly, it wasn't a new seal, the glass shop had opened up a lot of rust holes during the installation or all of the above. Great.

We made it to Austin a little wetter than desired and I used bus for a month as I attempted to get it registered locally knowing my Canadian insurance was only going to be valid for 30 days after taking up residency. I went down to the local tax accessor's office and almost got it registered when a supervisor noticed an error in processing and told me I had to import the vehicle first. The process for any vehicle less than 25 years old was like so:

I got screwed by that BCAA advice and I kicked myself for not looking into the details myself. Unfortunately in 1997 there wasn't a lot on the web that explained what to do like you'll find now. Can you guess what happened next? I received the letter from VWoA's compliance department in Auburn Hills, MI but they had made a mistake. The letter said NON-COMPLIANCE at the top. It said the speedometer was in kilometers and had to be readable in miles (ok, I can fix that); the brake warning light had to be labelled BRAKE in letters at least 1/8" high (US vehicles don't have that, but ok whatever), and the emission system didn't comply with the US EPA standards for 1978.

The last part was the major mistake. My engine was labeled non-catalyst in the driver's door jam and there was an EPA compliance sticker in the engine compartment on the inside of the lid. I called VWoA and got the run around from several phone support people. First they faxed me loads of information on registered vehicle importers. These are the people who bring in Ferarris and other expensive cars from Europe and make them US compliant. Needless to say the fees they charge are Ferarri priced not VW priced!

Knowing the letter was wrong, I fought them on the phone and had to resort to writing a very long letter. I made several investigative demands about their compliance process and the nature of the stickers on my vehicle trying to put the burden of proof on them and I eventually received the correct letter to great relief.

In the meantime, my bus had been sitting in the parking lot of my apartment and the managers wanted me to move it. They made their intentions clear by putting a "you will be towed" sticker on my windshield that doesn't easy come off as a deterrent for parking there. The previous management had given me permission to park my bus there and gave me a packing tag. At the time they had 85% residency and did anything to attract renters but once the management changed, the new managers started enforcing the terms on the lease and I had nothing in writing. The bus battery was dead at this point and I had no charger and I didn't think to use my AAA membership so friends from work helped me push my bus to another parking spot that the management said would be fine.

Slightly depressed about my bus not starting and the importing headaches that still awaited me I let the bus sit at the apartment for 2 years. I couldn't believe this was happening again after all the bus had been through. It still only had 93,000 km (58k miles) on it but it seems it was meant to suffer in life like poor old C-3PO. Time went by and I got stickered again by the management. By now I'd figured out to use GooGone to remove the residue from the sticker.

Austin 2000
Austin 2000

The management insisted that I move the bus off the property but it wouldn't start and I didn't know where to put it so I had it towed to work after I got the permission from my company's building manager and there the bus sat for another 1 1/2 years like an albatross around my neck. People at work didn't know who it belonged to except for a few. Some people thought it was being lived in by some employee because I had the curtains closed and some cardboard boxes stored inside. Even the CEO had a big chuckle on seeing my bus in the parking lot during a tour of the building. When it was explained it was mine he couldn't believe I had driven it all the way down from Canada and it had been sitting here for years. He was Canadian also. Basically no one thought it would ever run again and I was wondering if it ever would either. Because of the import restrictions my only option was to scrap the bus, sell it for parts or surmount all of the problems and red tape. Either choice was unpleasant to contemplate so I just ignored the problem some more.

The Resurrection:

I had a great friend at work named Joe who used to bug me about getting the bus running again. I told him that it was fuel injected and he said it would be no problem for him. He used to work in his dad's mechanic shop fixing rental cars they owned and had gone back to school to study computer science. He still knew a lot about cars and drove an older Porsche 911. He figured it couldn't be that foreign to him and we finally decided to get together one weekend.

To prepare, I came the prior weekend and bought a new battery because the old one was totally dead. History repeats itself again. The new battery cranked the engine over but there was no sign of the engine firing up. A peek under the bus confirmed that the valve Dad and I installed to cut off the flow of fuel in order to change the filter was indeed open. I removed the valve to see if any fuel was coming through the other side: no fuel. I removed some of the hose and took a look at it and it turned out that the fuel lines were clogged with some black tar. I had no idea what it was at the time but after a little research it figured out that the gas I left in the tank all this time along with the heat had turned it into a black sludge.

All those years of changing the fuel filter only to be faced with pulling the engine again and changing the gas tank except this time no replacement tanks were available. The only choices were to have the radiator shop boil it out or try to clean it myself.

The next weekend Joe came over anyway because he really wanted the challenge of trying to start the engine. He confirmed my own findings about the fuel lines so we ran to the local Pep Boys down the road got some 5/16" hose and ran it from the pump to a spare gas can. We didn't know where the sludge had found its way to but we were hoping it had been completely contained behind the fuel filter.

external fuel tank
Austin 2002

We changed the fuel lines on his recommendation and sure enough they were old and cracked. Anytime you disturb old lines by bending them you have to replace them. We also purchased a can of starter fluid and used it to help get the engine started. With they key in the ignition, we primed the fuel rail by deflecting the flap in the air flow meter and after six or seven start attempts the engine started on it's own and a lot of rust blew out of a big hole in the muffler just like before all those years earlier.

After only a few minutes the engine quieted down but I could hear a stuck lifter or two. We turned off the bus, put the gas can inside and ran the fuel line through the side window to the can so we could drive the bus around the parking lot. We had a co-worker who showed up later hold the can in the backseat and went for a drive. We hadn't even done a lap of the building when we noticed how fast the engine was consuming the gas and we panicked so we returned back to the spot where we started from. Joe concluded that the tank was still clogged and because of the pressure regulator return line we were just filling up the tank with more gasoline. At least the bus was working.

Joe had a house and we set a date to trailer the bus up to his backyard to remove the engine in order to take the gas tank out. I mail-ordered a fuel tank restoration kit from the local POR-15 dealer. I didn't know anyone who had tried it but it seemed worth a shot. You can see how it turned out by looking at the pictures on my website.

We cleaned the tank, put in back in the bus, installed the engine and drove the bus back to my house. The lifters quietened down right away and I spent the next 6 months getting to know my bus intimately. Having never worked on a VW before as I let the local mechanics take care of my beetle I learned to work on it with the help of the internet mailing list. I've replaced all of the wear items and learned how to diagnose some of the common problems.

Now the bus ran like a top and you'd never know it had jumped through all of these hoops. I'd learned more about this vehicle in a short time than I had during the many years of driving VWs and I vowed never to let it fall into disrepair again. It's sometimes hard to believe that before this I had never even changed the oil myself.


Austin 2002 Austin 2002 Goodbye Texas 2002
Austin 2002 Austin 2002 Leaving Texas 2002

With the corrected VW letter in hand, I was able to get TX license plates and insurance. Prior to that event I had decided that I wanted to move to California so I read up on the smog testing program made moving arrangements and hit the road in the bus hoping with a modicum of confidence that I wouldn't break down in the middle of nowhere. I chickened out and bought my first cell phone.

The trip was a blast. I drove 745 miles the first day from Austin all the way to Lordsburg near the NM/AZ border. I spent the night in a $20 motel that was actually pretty good and got an early start the next morning. Two other friends of mine were also moving to CA but they left Austin 12 hours after I did. Because they didn't sleep over night we knew we would pass each other on the road but we didn't know where. Keep in mind that I'm going 65-70mph max and they are going 80-100mph in a new model Honda.

We kept in touch wherever there was a digital signal and I finally got a call from them that they weren't too far behind me. I pulled over to get a sandwich at Subway because I was starving and when I called them back they had passed me over and had almost reached Palm Springs. It was about 100F outside and I raced to Palm Springs to catch up with them to have dinner forgetting about the temperature.

We met at an IHOP and I checked the temperature of the fan shroud with the palm of my hand. Wow, was it ever hot. I think I overdid it. I checked the fan belt which looked loose and I was able to pull the belt around the pulley because it had stretched so much from the heat. I definitely overdid it. At this point I decided that long trips in a VW in foreign climate zones and temperature and pressure gauges go hand in hand.

An hour later we finished dinner and checked the temperature again. It was hotter than before: heat soak. So, I ended up waiting a while for the engine to cool down before I continued. I needed the break anyway. I took it much easier the rest of the way through LA until I got to Santa Barbara around midnight. Unfortunately, there was a big soccer tournament the next morning and all the hotels were "full" so I closed the curtains and camped out in the parking lot of a nice hotel. The coastal air was much cooler than the desert temperatures of Palm Springs and the engine was cold to the touch by the time I stopped. I checked the odometer and I had driven another 745 miles that day.

Santa Barbara 2002
Santa Barbara 2002

The next day was a much more leisurely drive for me. I drove up Hwy 1 from Vandenburg AFB to Santa Cruz and took Hwy 17 over the hills to San Jose to stay with friends for six weeks while I searched for the perfect apartment. I was working in Sunnyvale and drove the bus to work each day. It ran like a top even after the long trip so I was pretty relieved I had a reliable vehicle to use. I passed the smog test on the same day I visited smog referee so I was finally set.

San Jose 2002 Sunnyvale 2002 Sunnyvale 2002 Sunnyvale 2002
San Jose 2002 Sunnyvale 2002 Sunnyvale 2002 Sunnyvale 2002

There and back again:

I drive the bus to work all the time. The bus is still very low mileage and I'm sure there are plenty of good driving years left in it before the engine needs refreshing. The next big challenge was to get it painted and restore it to its former glory which I've documented on the website. It took me six months to find a painter familiar which VWs that I could trust and afford. I'll tell that story another time but to summarize, I drove it back to Canada for repairs.

I used Custom Car Colors located in Shawnigan Lake, BC.

Redding 2003 Olympia 2003 Port Angeles 2003
Redding, CA 2003 Olympia, WA 2003 Port Angeles, WA 2003

This is the bus as it appears today. Finally restored back to original condition both mechanically and in appearance. The story continues...

Shawnigan Lake 2003 Victoria 2003 California 2003
Shawnigan Lake 2003 Victoria 2003 Redwood Forest 2003

06/24/03 - Created
09/08/11 - Fixed broken photos, added translate button, updated footer