What’s not to love, right?
VW buses are adorable – even when their age shows, they’re all beat up (those dings add character!), or they don’t even run.
You’ve had a crush on them since forever and have always dreamed of owning one and living in it and traveling the world. Who hasn’t?
That’s what I’ve been doing for the past 40-ish years. I’m on my second VW Bus. My first one was a 1968 that seemingly broke down every other day and got towed away at a really low point in my life. The 1971 that I now live in, The Escape Pod, picked me and that’s a story for another day, but she’s been my home off and on (mostly on) since 1996.
In the year 2020 is it really viable to own and live in a vintage VW bus?
I don’t think I would go out looking for a VW bus to live and travel in 2020. There are a few good reasons why and I’ll list them below. I’m listing the cons first so we can end on a happy note.
The Not So Good Bits:
They are now a vintage car collector’s item. Which means their value has gone way up and the days of finding a bus under a grand are almost next to nil. Vintage car enthusiasts are restoring the old vans and selling them for 40-grand and up. And these are not buses that you would drive in everyday traffic. Because one scratch just ruins the whole restoration vibe and value.
They have become expensive to maintain. My old-school VW mechanic just raised his shop rates to $180 an hour. When I first started going to him 20 years ago, he was charging $40. Everyone has to live and pay and provide for their employees so I don’t begrudge him his rates. But I really have to think twice about getting work done. I always have to ask myself if I can do the work myself.
They seemingly break down all the time. Usually in the middle of nowhere. This really does depend on how well the bus is taken care of, how good your mechanic is, and whether or not you can work on the bus engine yourself while out there, in the middle of nowhere. These vans were designed to be easy to work on, and they are. It’s just, how much of it can you handle?
They shouldn’t be driven over 50-miles per hour. The engine, if it’s an original 4-cylinder VW stock engine, just can’t handle speeds. So consider life in the slow lane and can you live with that? Yes you will see the older VWs driving down the road at 70-mph, but they are either holding a different engine, like a Suburu, or the driver doesn’t know what he is doing.
The other item you have to consider with speed is the van tipping point. At higher speeds on winding or windy roads there is a higher chance of tipping over. It’s the weight balance with the way the body sits on the chassis. A lot of new drivers have no idea how easy it is to tip one of these things onto its side.
Because of the small engine, it’s not a good idea to carry a lot of weight. The old VWs really can’t handle it. Think about how many people could fit in a transporter with the seats in it and multiply that by an average weight, say 150 pounds. Maybe 900 pounds of stuff … and forget about towing anything.
It is knuckle biting to drive in modern traffic. Maybe if you are used to modern driving styles it won’t be as bad as it is for someone like me who just likes to toodle along. The other aspect of this is braking. VWs can NOT stop on a dime. The driver always has to leave AT LEAST a car length, if not more, between them and the car in front of them. As soon as you do that, someone swoops in to fill that space. Then the driver has to fall back again. It’s really a headache. And then in California where I live, pedestrians also create problems by walking out into traffic, not realizing that a vintage VW driver can not stop for them.
The Good Bits:
VW Buses are magical. They really are. I truly think that they are the first tech, low as they are, that you can make an energetic connection with. I know that may sound crazy, but there it is. The longer you own one, or live in one, or travel in one (the same one), the more it becomes an extension of you.
They have their own personality. There are girl buses, boy buses, neutral buses, gender fluid buses. They can be cranky or happy and you can tell which they are on any given day just by looking at them. They will laugh at you. Sometimes when you can’t start a bus, all you have to do is say please and ask it nicely. They really are a freak of nature.
They fit into any parking spot. They are as easy to park as any car. They look bigger than that – as they are built on a Beetle chassis so they have a small footprint.
They are great for car camping and day trips. With the sliding door extending the inside to the outside the world is your living room. This is one reason why the surfers love them so much.
As far as build outs go, there’s not all that much you can do. Living in a VW Bus is the quintessential living minimally. About the only way to build out a VW Bus (I’m talking a tin-top like mine) is to take out the seats and put in a bed platform. Storage under the bed and hang a storage hammock or two and you are set to go. Easy-peasy.
They get ok gas mileage. Gas mileage in my VW is around 22-miles per gallon. The lighter (in weight) that you can keep the bus, the better your gas mileage will be.
They are easy to drive. If you can learn how to drive a stick, then you have it made. It’s almost like driving a compact car except that the driver and passenger get to sit up high. Well, not as high as it used to be because of all of the SUVs on the road these days.
Windows all around! Up with the sun every morning. No need for a clock!
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I’m sure there are more pros and cons to becoming a new vintage VW owner. I love The Escape Pod, but in my day the buses I bought were only ten and twenty years old. If you can think of anything to add to either of the lists, or if you have questions about the pros and cons of living the nomadic life in a VW bus, post in the comments below!