How to drive a vintage VW through modern L.A.

3512a web.jpgWhat better way to visit the Southern California landscape (coming from Wisconsin in late winter) than in a vintage vehicle?

That’s exactly the question Old Cars Editor Angelo Van Bogart and I asked ourselves when planning an editorial adventure to the land of sun, waves, and rust-free cars.

The search for an old car rental began on the web, and there weren’t any attractive listings, outside of high-priced rentals, like, 1959 Cadillacs, from businesses that mainly specialize in exotic rentals: Vipers, Corvettes, etc. Though renting classics seems like a decent business in England, it doesn’t appear to be booming in the U.S. yet.

3512b web.jpgAnd then I found Vintage Surfari Wagons through a Google search.

Vintage Surfari has been around just over a year, and is the brainchild of Bill and Diane Staggs of Aliso Viejo, Calif. (in southern Orange County). The couple has two Volkswagen microbuses they rent out, both pop-tops. We used the tan 1979 bus, but they also have a sharp-looking orange 1973 model available.

Their company’s goal is to help you relive the ocean surfing (or forest hiking) and camping experience of your past ‘ or the one you’d always intended. Both buses are set up specifically for camping, whether it be in a mountain forest by a cool stream, or on the sand alongside the crashing surf.

I didn’t want to relive any such experience, but I did think it would be a blast to take a VW microbus for a drive in Southern California.

3512g web.jpgBoy, was I right … and wrong.

The vans were in beautiful shape, both with VW’s 2.0-liter air-cooled four-cylinder engine, and manual four-speed transmission. Our 1979 van was fuel-injected, eliminating the need for any ignition-and-gas-it scenarios ‘ it started with ease each time.

And while the FM reception was spotty, I did have the iPod ready to go with mini-FM transmitter, and the player was packed with vintage songs (Grateful Dead, Pink Floyd, The Police) and jam/rock bands (Keller Williams, Cake, 311, Smash Mouth) to carry the theme. We could’ve used some Beach Boys and Beatles as well, I suppose.

So with our disco-era van ready to go, we bid Vintage Surfari’s Bill farewell and hit the road. (We stopped briefly for carne asada tacos at Pedro’s roadside stand, and then we were really on the way.)
3512c web.jpgOur first assignment after getting the van was near Temecula, a city not too far from Aliso Viejo ‘ if you take the gorgeous, and mountainous, Ortega Highway (State Route 74).

As I got readjusted to driving stick for the first time in over a year (my next car really needs to be stick again), we began our hillclimb in the late afternoon sun.

Most of you, probably, are already aware of what was next. Nope, not the lack of acceleration in the hills, but the constant buffering of our high-profile, non-aerodynamic microbus in the crosswinds (I’m convinced we were even getting hit by some wind that didn’t actually exist).

And, of course, there was the lack of acceleration going up hills … but the views were all excellent, especially from the turn-outs we used frequently to allow other, faster, vehicles to pass. (Some were in such a hurry as to pass us on the incline across a double-yellow stripe before we could get to a turn-out ‘ hey, thanks for endangering everyone, buddy.)

Eventually, we made it to the peak. While it was still light out, even. And that began our descent down the winding, twisty road to the Lake Elsinore side of the mountains. Which uncovered another concern about piloting vintage vehicles among modern traffic ‘ poor maneuverability.

Though acceleration was no longer a problem, we still had to utilize many turn-outs because the microbus’ handling was so outdated. I had to leave it in a lower gear and almost stand on the brakes sometimes to handle some of the tight turns. (Remember, this is a 25-year-old vehicle that had poor acceleration and maneuverability in its own time. The van did not break down once or give us any mechanical  fits ‘ other drivers did.)

3512d web.jpgWe did make it to Temecula for our story (look for more on Dave Bowman’s petroliana collection, and his rare 1961 Chrysler 300-G with floor-mounted three-speed manual transmission, in a future issue).

On the way out of Temecula’s wine country after dark, it took me a few miles to find the headlights’ bright switch. But then, everything was easy. Except for the late-night chill. But the bus did heat up gradually, with the lauded VW heating you may have heard about.

A stop for gas gave several people the chance to ask about the bus. That, actually, became a highpoint of the vintage rental. Good-looking microbuses are apparently rare enough that, when you stop somewhere, it draws people out of the woodwork with questions and stories of their own. If you don’t want to be social, go low-key and rent a Chrysler.

The next morning, we were in Riverside for an appointment at Kiwi Indian without trouble, and then on to Sherman Oaks for lunch and a date at Casa de Cadillac.

We were then running behind, and had to jump on the interstate to get from northern L.A. County to southern Orange County in a hurry ‘ never easy, and all the more daunting in a VW bus.

3512h web.jpgLet me just say that Interstate 405 was the wrong choice. After quite some time in stop-and-go, but mostly stop, traffic, we were advised by a local (Thanks, Randy!) to try I-10 to Route 57 (it makes no sense mileage-wise on a map, but I’ve no doubt it helped immensely). We returned the van a few hours late, and were in turn late for a dinner appointment, but everyone understood (perhaps because of our L.A. freeways neophyte status).

Our time in the van was a blast. Unfortunately, we never had a chance to make it to the ocean with it, but the mountain trip was amazing. And the view of everywhere was much different from a 1970s VW bus than from a new Sebring.

Later, on the same night we returned the bus, we were treated to a ride in another old car ‘ a 1937 Cord phaeton. What a difference four decades make. But that’s a story for another time.

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