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A VW Microbus Odyssey

Brian Hunt

This is the story of two brave young men and a 1961 VW Microbus.

The Beginning: Our story begins back in 1970 when Victor (Vic) Bresett and Brian Hunt were students attending Central Peel Secondary School in Brampton, Ontario. Great students? No. Great friends? Yes!

We were both anxious to shed the confines of academic monotony and tyranny, (sounds very literary, doesn’t it?) ending our formal educations and releasing us into the world of semi-adventurousness. Full adventurousness would be something like rowing across the Pacific!

The Plan: After graduation, we hoped to work for a year to save a thousand dollars each “to finance the adventure.” During that time, we would buy a suitable vehicle, turn it into a camper and drive it across Canada and back home. We even toyed with the idea of dipping down into the American West to California and back into Nevada, as Vic had relatives in Reno. I had worked at the local VW dealership after school and on weekends doing odd jobs, some service and keeping the cars clean. By graduation, I owned a 1957 Oval Window Bug.

My dad had owned three Bugs. We worked together to overhaul my Bug engine a few times, making me quite familiar with the idiosyncrasies of the VW. That made a Volkswagen Bus the likely choice for our adventure and the search was on.

The Find: In the early fall of 1970,  one had been spotted sitting beside a greenhouse in Brampton. It had been used as a delivery vehicle by a Florist or Market Gardener. This one looked pretty good, and after some negotiations, a price was haggled out. We paid $80 and got a sweet deal! Of course the seller told us  the engine had been recently overhauled, but everyone always says that, right?
My dad had a single car garage that had been used and abused by my various VWs over the years. He wanted to be able to keep his own car in his garage that winter for a change. Besides, this van needed to be repainted and Dad was tired of the inside of his garage changing color every time I painted a car.

Vic’s Dad was kind enough to offer the use of his garage. One Saturday in the fall of 1970, the 1961 VW Bus got towed to Vic’s dad’s garage, where it would reside until spring.

Background Info: This bus (officially known by VW as the Transporter) was a standard window van, known today by enthusiasts as the sought after “Splitty,” meaning it had the split front windshield. Engine Specs: (Same engine as Bug) 1192 cc or 74 C.I. / H.P.- 40 SAE / Electrical: 6 volt / Transmission 4 speed manual with a reduction box at each rear wheel. After scraping off some paint and investigating, we discovered it had been a “Bell Telephone” truck earlier in its life. It had a single bench seat in the front and the back area was completely bare.

The Build: The floor had many ruts, several holes, rust and had seen a lot of heavy use. We had no welding experience, so the tool of choice was the pop riveter. Aftermarket body panels for VW Buses were not available and body parts from the dealer were very expensive, if available at all. Lots of work had to be done and materials had to be scavenged. We toiled away through the winter in a single car garage with little-to-no heat working on the project. Vic’s aunt kindly offered to help. She did a tremendous job on the seat cushions and drapes.

We purchased new “blem” tires for just $13 each, as they had cosmetic imperfections but they were still safe and usable. All the panels were handmade or improvised. The outside was painted a dark blue from the “masters collection” (just kidding) of “Armour Coat” from Canadian Tire. Vic’s dad’s garage was a nice blue inside!

Vic did almost the entire inside cabinetry work, from closets to, a dinette, a cooking area with a stove that could be moved outside. The inside walls were paneled and it had linoleum flooring. It looked great! The front bumper came from a Beetle and a high school friend constructed a custom rear bumper for us. All-in-all, we were pretty proud of her!

You can’t go on a road trip without tunes, but with a six-volt electrical system, we didn’t have many choices. We were given a six-volt radio, I believe from a 1948 DeSoto. This thing was so big it was mounted to the floor and you could hardly hear the music over the hum from the tubes. I had a portable cassette player that ran on four “C” batteries. “Hey that’s six volts!” I wired that into the Bus’s electrical system, installed an external speaker and that’s where the tunes came from. We were finished and heading for Powassan.

Inaugural Run: The previous owner said the engine had been recently rebuilt, right? Well, after repairing a faulty valve in the fuel line, we were off. It was so slow!. Vic looked at me and said, “Well, we’re goin’ anyway.”

The Trip Begins: This story is being relayed some forty-four years later, so dates have been generalized. We left the beginning of June 1971 and had a goal the first night to reach Powassan, Ontario, south of North Bay on Hwy 11. My great uncle had a farm there, so it made sense to stop there if we needed help, due to mechanical problems.

The first leg was pretty uneventful. We woke up the next morning and the miles were rolling by with Vic at the wheel. I noticed a high-pitched squeal that seemed to come and go. We passed by North Bay and on to New Liskeard and Kirkland Lake. Other drivers didn’t appreciate getting behind a VW Bus, because this was the slowest vehicle ever built. Or it felt like it was! We decided that driving on less travelled highways would mean fewer vehicles lined up behind us. We took the northern route across Ontario.

The next day, we took off toward Kapauskasing. Just beyond “The Kap” is a small village called Hearst and past that is a section of highway about 130 miles where there is nothing but trees. No gas, no towns, nothing. Vic was at the wheel, rolling along quite nicely. It was a bright warm day. I was still hearing that high-pitched squeal, but it had been there from the start. All of a sudden the vehicle slowed down abruptly pulling to the right. It seemed the right front wheel had seized in the middle of nowhere.

We jacked up the vehicle and sure enough the wheel had seized. We had to get the wheel and drum off to see what was going on. The wheel and drum finally come off after about an hour. The top spring holding the brake shoes had apparently been rubbing on the drum and had finally worn through. The shoes fell out and jammed against the adjusting mechanism. That must have been the high-pitched squeal!

We had tools and some spare parts, but no brake springs. After scouting around we found a piece of an old fence. We cut out a piece of wire and wired the shoes back together, put the wheel, drum and bearings back in and were on our way braking only on three wheels. But three out-of-four ain’t bad!

We figured we could get parts in Thunder Bay, still about 200 miles away. We arrived in Thunder Bay on a Sunday and had to wait until Monday to check out the local VW Dealership. They had no parts for the old girl, but suggested Winnipeg should have the parts.

The Trip Part 2: The plan was always to take the road less travelled. That night we stayed at the beautiful Kakabeka Falls. Rather than take the busier Hwy 17, we headed toward Atikokan and Ft. Francis on Hwy 11 through The Lake of the Wood area, a very scenic and beautiful route. The van rolled along nicely, cruising at 50 mph, where the van seemed most comfortable. The only problem was that it kept popping out of fourth gear. We made a hook out of a piece of coat hanger wire and fastened it to the lower seat mount. Once into fourth the hanger got hooked around the shifter and  that solved that problem.

We cruised on to Winnipeg without incident. In Winnipeg we stayed at a legitimate campground and were able to get the brake shoe spring we needed. At our campsite we pulled the right front wheel and installed the new spring.

With only a forty* horsepower engine (*when new) small hills and headwinds become big problems especially if you’ve got cars following. This always seemed to enrage the drivers behind. We were used to the horn, the finger and odd obscenity when cars were finally able to pass us. The highway through northern Ontario was just two-lane blacktop until we hit the Manitoba border.

When we got to Portage la Prairie, we decided to head north and pass through Riding Mountain National Park, then moved on to Dauphin Manitoba. Here we headed west again through Yorkton and on to Saskatoon. For some strange reason, we decided to buy a canoe in Saskatoon and head due north to Prince Albert. We continued on to Prince Albert National Park, picked a nice little camp site and unloaded the canoe with plans of taking a canoe trip down a river and into a lake where we’d camp under the stars.

From there, we headed west to North Battleford, Lloydminster and Alberta. To save money we decided to buy a twenty-pound bag of rice. We got pretty sick of eating rice, I’ll tell you. I haven’t had rice pudding since! The little Bus was cruising along and we were enjoying the ride. Fuel economy was pretty good too, with almost 30 mpg and fuel was about 40 cents a gallon.

Trouble Ahead: We were into the foothills and the little Bus was working hard on those arduous uphill stretches. About 15 miles southeast of Dawson Creek (start of the Alaska Highway), we were straining up a long hill. I was behind the wheel and about three quarters of the way up I heard a knock coming from the engine. It sounded like a rod bearing! I immediately killed the engine and coasted to the shoulder. I knew from past experience that the engine should not be re-started. We both got that sinking feeling.

What to do now? Since we were only about a quarter mile from the summit, we reasoned that the best thing to do was to see what was up ahead. We managed to hitch a ride from a local into the next village called Pouce Coupe. There was a small general store, a gas station and a few houses, but little else. There was a town park at the bottom a small road with a river running adjacent to it. The park contained several very basic campsites and they were free!

The nice thing was that Pouce Coupe was a downhill run from where our van was sitting. Vic and I hitched back to the van and came up with a plan to push the van about 100 feet at a time along the shoulder then rest until we reached the summit. Then we would jump in the van and coast down the hill the two miles into Pouce Coupe and down the small road straight into the park.

As we were pushing, a motor home passed by towing a Toyota Land Cruiser. He passed us, then pulled over on and got out. He walked back laughing asking, “What the hell are you guys doing?” We filled him in on the plan. He was an American fellow heading up to the Alaska Highway. He told us that if we could find some cardboard or something to put between the Bus’s rear bumper and his front bumper, he would find a spot to turn around and push the Bus to the top of the hill.

That motor home towing the Land Cruiser pushed us up the hill faster than we could have driven up anyway! We coasted right into the park, alongside a picnic table and were there for three weeks!

The Dilemma: We had our tools – no specialty tools but the basic hand tools – and the bravado to fix almost anything! After being there a few days many of the locals had heard our story and we got to know several of them. We had the tedious job of dismantling our Bus on a picnic table.

We were careful, but it was a dirty job and there were no showers. The only place to bathe was the river and it was only a degree or two above freezing. The problem was a rod bearing. The case was stripped down to the crankshaft, which then removed.

I took the crankshaft and hitched into Dawson Creek. There was a machine shop in town and I walked in there with the “crank.” The guys there were eager to help, but they were extremely busy with huge engines for logging and mining equipment. The foreman looked at the “crank” and laughed a little at its tiny size. He said they would try to take a look at the end of the day. Later that afternoon, they had turned the crankshaft and it was ready. They said that the engine had been stopped soon enough before any real damage had been done. It just needed to be polished and the oil passages cleaned. After the crank was polished, it was back to the highway and a hitch back to Pouce Coupe.

We could not get the bearings in Dawson, so we ordered them from Grand Prairie. They were shipped by bus to the machine shop. Over the three weeks we were camped at Pouce Coupe, we had made several trips into Dawson. After we picked up the bearings, we slowly started to reassemble the engine.

While we were working, an older guy drove into the park with a VW bug and set up camp. Our curiosity got the best of us. Perhaps this guy had some secret VW knowledge that can be gleaned! It turned out he had the complete factory VW maintenance manual with him. However, he was a German visiting Canada and making a trip across the country in his VW. His manual was in German and his English was very limited. He tried to translate passages for us, but really it was almost futile. The manual did help some.

We had now been parked for about two weeks and the locals pretty much know us by name. The RCMP (Canadian police) dropped by almost daily to touch base and see how we were doing. The local folks were very friendly and never hassled us; however, they were getting a little concerned. 1971 was the Centennial year for British Columbia entering into Confederation. The owner of the General Store asked if we were staying for “Canada Day.” The locals had big plans of holding a Centennial Celebration in the park, but I think they would like it if we and our Bus were gone.

Finally, the engine was back together and would fire, but not start. The issue was timing. The VW distributor is a two-piece affair. If the lower portion is installed improperly then a special tool is required to pull it out. We missed the timing by a tooth. We needed to get that lower part of the distributor back out. On our many trips into Dawson Creek, we had met an employee from the machine shop in Dawson. In those days, there were no ATV’s and many of the locals had cut down and shortened body-less V-dubs. They put on “mudder” tires and used them for hunting, fishing and running trap-lines in the wilderness areas. They were light so they didn’t sink into boggy areas and were very maneuverable on the rocky terrain.

The fellow we met had several of these “bush-buggies” and advised us that if we could get the vehicle to his home, he would get the engine running and checked over. One of the other campers was headed up the Alaska Highway in his Ford pickup. He was a High School teacher from Ohio and he was happy to tow our Bus to Dawson Creek. I’m sure the townsfolk were glad to see the last of the VW Bus, so they could begin to get ready for their celebrations.

Once we got to Dawson, the mechanic adjusted the valves, tuned up the engine and fixed the distributor. He wouldn’t take any money so a case of beer (the universal currency) was offered and accepted. We were finally back on the road!

The Trip Part 3: After our long stay in Pouce Coupe, we learned that the Alaska Highway has a lot of hidden dangers. In those days most of it was unpaved and flying gravel is dangerous on curves. Plus, driving continually on the gravel can ruin tires. Large animals crossing the highway were also a real threat. We planned to only travel the Highway as far as Fort St. John, then turn off and head south into the BC interior. The Bus was running well, the sun was shining, all seemed right with the world.

The next few days were enjoyable, as we took in the beauty of northern BC. Then, Vic was at the wheel when all of a sudden, the left rear dropped down almost on the road and we once again headed for the shoulder.

The left rear wheel had come off the drum and jammed itself up in the fender. I had that wheel off the day before, but when I put the wheel back on, I just finger tightened the lug bolts. Oops! We jacked up the Bus and Vic worked to free the wheel. It was really jammed in there, but eventually it relented and agreed to come out. Feeling pretty stupid, I walked back up the almost deserted road looking for the lug bolts. Eventually four of the five were found. Three almost in a little pile together.

The wheel was reinstalled – properly this time – and we were back on the road. The Yellowhead Highway between Prince George and Jasper was very scenic and the Van was doing okay. Now back in Alberta, we travelled south down the fabulous Hwy 93 between Jasper and Banff. We had the courage to take the old girl up Mount Edith Cavell, at almost 11,000 feet. In first gear it kept going, as long as we didn’t stop. The compression was way down. It could get up to speed on the straight and level, but on a steep hill, it would back you down through the gears pretty quickly. South of Edith Cavell we were cruising along with not much traffic. Life was good!

North of the Columbia Icefields as we were rolling along, approaching a long steep grade, we passed a guy on a 10-speed bike at the bottom. Then we started up the long grade. There is a car about a quarter mile ahead moving quite slowly. We were hesitant to slow down, because we knew we would never get the speed back up. All of a sudden this guy hit the brakes and stopped in the middle of the highway to watch some big horn sheep. There was no choice; we had to stop too. While we were sitting there, the guy on the 10-speed bike passed us at about 5 mph. Finally, the old guy in the car decided he’d seen enough and started off. This is a steep grade. Vic tried to pull away but we don’t have enough power.

The engine must have been down to 20 horsepower. Fortunately there was no one behind us. The only way to get going was to feather the clutch and start across the highway, let the clutch out, then turn up the hill. You could see the “speedo” pointer bouncing off the peg as the Bus ever-so-slowly started to pick up speed. We were gradually catching the guy on the 10-speed! He was going 5 mph, the Bus was moving about 7 mph.

When we finally reached the summit, we turned off the engine, shifted to neutral and coasted downhill for the next 7 miles. The one event we had planned to take in on the trip was “The Calgary Stampede,” so we headed back east to Calgary. We had a great time there and decided to visit the “Badlands” at Drumheller, Alberta, to take in the dinosaur exhibits.

In Alberta in those days, there were small parks scattered throughout the province. It had been constructed as a “make work” project during the Depression. These parks contained an open sided pavilion with tables, wood cook stove and several sites where you could camp overnight or picnic. These parks were all free to use! Vic had an idea to cook us a nice chicken dinner. The large cook stove had three fire-boxes. Vic got a good fire going in the outer two and used the middle one like an oven to cook the chicken. It was one of our best meals – a real treat compared to basic food and lots of rice.

Then we crossed back into BC and cruised, enjoying all Nature had to offer. They took in Radium Hot Springs, the gorgeous Okanogan, Kamloops and Penticton. The Bus was using lots of oil by now. We were buying re-refined oil and refilling our own containers with it. By the time we reached Vancouver, we were getting 50 miles to a quart of oil. The back of the Bus was black with oil stains. She was an environmental disaster!

We had developed a morning ritual. When ready to go, we would jump in and turn the engine over to get rid of the oil that had collected in the cylinders overnight. Then we removed all the spark plugs that were now fouled with oil. We replaced the plugs with a second set of dry ones. We started the engine and it usually started up, but there was quite a bit of smoke. We would dry the first set of plugs to get them ready for the next start.

Vic’s uncle was living in Vancouver and we planned to stay with him for a while. He had a lovely new home, just finished in a prestigious area on the north shore, just off the road to Deep Cove. When we arrived, Vic’s uncle was still at work. It was a beautiful neighborhood and he had a brand new concrete driveway. Our oil-stained VW microbus looked like Eddie’s RV from “Christmas Vacation.” Vic’s uncle arrived home from work and was not impressed. He suggested we park it on the street, so the oil wouldn’t mark his drive. In hindsight, we can’t blame him.

The Trip Part 4: After a short stay, we took the ferry to Vancouver Island. Once there, the destinations were Victoria, Nanaimo, Port Albernie, and Long Beach. The Bus was still the oil burning situation and we were unsure how it would react to the ferry trip. We got loaded and headed over to the Island. The trip took about an hour and a half, so we figured we should try to get down to the car deck early, just to make sure the Bus would start up okay.

Before the official announcement to start the vehicles, we started the van. BIG mistake! Two guys from BC Ferries rushed over, yelling “Your car’s on fire! “Your car’s on fire!” Smoke was filling up the car deck area fast and we had to shut it down. The ferry guys were understandably upset. By this time, we had a “For Sale” sign on the Bus, but it was hopeless.

The last destination on Vancouver Island was Long Beach on the western side of the island. The park was not officially open, but we drove over non-public gravel and rock-strewn logging roads. There were very steep grades with no guardrails, but fabulous views of the huge fiord below. The old girl made it just fine. We had a great trip on the Island and the Bus was not getting any worse. Back in Vancouver, we met a fellow who had a small Volkswagen repair shop. This shop was a one-man operation and he lived above the shop. We were very low on money and couldn’t afford to overhaul our Bus again. He suggested we work for him during the day and he would pay us back in parts and labor to overhaul our engine. This seemed like a fair trade.

Vic and I worked on customer cars in the daytime, doing maintenance and small jobs. We could work in his shop in the evenings on our engine with his tools and assistance We slept in the Bus, parked in his lot. When we disassembled the engine, we discovered that we didn’t pay attention to the positioning of the ring gaps when we put the engine back to together in Pouce Coupe. Now that we knew our mistake, we got the engine rebuilt and it purred like a kitten. It was ready for the long trip home.

Still, the old girl had one last surprise for us. We started her up early one morning in August and waved to the shop owner. Vic went to put it in gear and the shifter fell right over on the floorboard! The shift linkage had rusted completely through. We couldn’t go anywhere! Back into the shop, back on the hoist. The shop owner cut parts of the shifter tube away until he found where it had rusted through. Then Vic held the shifter in neutral while the owner welded the linkage back together. Success! Down off the hoist, back on the road. We were off  and hopefully headed for home.

The Trip Part 5, Homeward Bound: We were headed east. Money was thin, so it was a direct route through southern BC, straight across the prairies and back into Ontario. Still a thousand miles to home but she was running fine. Our diet was mostly peanut butter sandwiches by then. The old Bus ran like never before: 60 mph was easily hit and maintained! The old girl never let us down. I guess she knew she was headed home and “the Great VW Microbus Odyssey” was coming to a close.

We were gone for about three months and put more than 9,000 miles on the old VW. The initial investment was only $80.00. We don’t remember the total investment, but it was less than $500.00. The Bus stayed around Ontario for a while. There was more fun ahead and a few more interesting adventures as well. Eventually, around 1978 or 1979, it got reincarnated once again. The body was removed, a custom homebuilt shortened chassis made and the engine swapped out for a 1600 cc unit. A pickup-box was added, a boat rack and a tow bar. It became an off road buggy called “The Bushwacker.” All-in-all it was quite an adventure! We took in the majestic beauty of the landscape and met some great, interesting people along the way.

Brian Hunt's Parts List