Wednesday, October 31, 2012

VW T2 Bus/Kombi Production Ends After 63 Years

Right around this time last year I commented on the burgeoning European market for new, yes, new, Type 2 Volkswagen "Bay Window" Buses fresh off the factory line in Brazil. Brazil was the last place on earth where this endangered Kombi species continued to reproduce, and thanks to an entrepreneurial Dutch VW distributor, it briefly looked as if these majestic beasts would reestablish a healthy population in their natural European habitat. So it was with much sadness that I recently learned of their imminent extinction.
Last week, Motor Trend reported:
New safety regulations in Brazil mandate that cars built after January 1, 2014, must have anti-lock brakes and driver and front-passenger airbags. Redesigning the Kombi to meet the new standards would necessitate an entire ground-up redesign, something unfeasible and unnecessary when VW has numerous more modern replacements in its lineup to take the place of its classic van.

Unfeasible? Perhaps. Unnecessary? That's open to debate. I don't think any modern vehicle will ever replace the classic Kombis that have crisscrossed the Earth for 63 years, carrying generation upon generation of loving VW enthusiasts.

The last of these beautiful buses will be produced in December 2013 at VW’s Anchieta factory in Brazil. Tchau, Kombi. You will be missed.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Seinfeld's 1962 VW Split-Window Double-Cab Bus...

The finale of Jerry Seinfeld's web series "Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee" opens with the turn of a key and roar of an engine. The camera quickly cuts to an unmistakeable vehicle bumper and then flashes—just for an instant—to the spinning V-belt belt of an antique engine, and finally, we're confronted with an extreme close-up of the iconic (and iconically rusted) VW emblem. If there was any doubt about the identity of this mysterious monster, a voice-over from Jerry informs us that we're seeing “a 1962 VW split-window double-cab bus in dove blue, primer gray, and rust. The interior,” Seinfeld continues, “is gray vinyl and duct tape.” He goes on to reveal some interesting details about this particular vehicle and its unique history.

Each episode, Seinfeld picks his guest up in an automobile that he somehow likens to the guest's personality. That's the premise of the show.  When Jerry picks up his old Seinfeld buddy, Michael Richards (aka Kramer), he says "This is you, Michael," a metaphor, I wonder, for an old, nearly broken down thing of the past?

Much of the episode is filmed on the road, with Jerry and Richards reminiscing about the good ol' days. I found the '62 Bus to be more compelling than most of the episode itself, except for the emotional moment in the coffee shop when Richards recalls the infamous incident seven years ago when he responded to typical comedy club heckling with a long rant of racial slurs.

 I'll let you be the judge of the show's (and the Bus's) worth:

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Vanagon Road Trip: Bradbury Mountain State Park and Midcoast Maine

Campsite playpen/prison
We travel to Maine as often as we can. It’s our go-to destination for short road trips and coastal New England adventures. We recently loaded up the Vanagon and headed north for our longest trip of the summer, and our 8-month old son's very first Vanagon camping adventure.

We started the trip with two nights at Bradbury Mountain State Park, joined by our siblings from New York, Amherst, and Boston. The campsites were reasonably well-spaced and the empty site next door offered additional privacy. The campground had vault toilets (no running water or sinks) but there was running water and hot showers in a separate facility, free of charge for campers.

We enjoyed a feast of steak tips, grilled veggies, and local Maine beers on Friday night. Jacob was an excellent camping companion throughout the day and evening. His time was spent happily entertaining himself in the Pack ‘N Play, exploring the new and fascinating world of tents, and bouncing from one loving auntie and uncle to the next.

Jacob enjoyed his fresh avocado dinner
Our sleeping arrangements were the biggest question of the weekend, and ultimately we decided that Amanda and I would sleep in the upper bunk under the Westfalia pop-top, and Jacob would slumber below. The Pack ‘N Play fit perfectly in the Vanagon between the jumpseat (in upright position) and bench, with room to spare for Parker on either the floor or the bench seat. Miraculously, Jacob had one of his best nights ever, waking only once, briefly at 3am. I was terrified that his normal habit of frequent wakings and accompanying wails would disturb the whole campground, but the little guy proved us wrong. He had a great first night, and we all emerged from the Vanagon confident that camping with baby was going to be much easier than we imagined. Were our initial fears unfounded?

Our cottage at Glenmoor By the Sea
The next day we packed into the van—six adults, one dog, and one baby—and cruised over to Portland for the day. We enjoyed a dog-friendly outdoor lunch of plump lobster rolls on the docks of Portland Lobster Co., and spent the afternoon walking the charming streets of the Old Port before returning to the campsite for dinner and some R&R. Our second campsite meal included heaping portions of farfalle with chicken sausage, zesty tomato sauce, and loads of fresh mozzarella.

Night #2 with Jacob? Not good. We were up and down so many times that I lost track. At home, we let Jacob stir and cry for a few minutes until he settled himself back down to sleep. But at an open campsite, we had no choice but to quickly descend from our bunk to hush him back to sleep—again and again and again.

We found $1 oysters in Rockland and took a dozen back
to the Vanagon on ice. Jacob wanted a taste.
After a hearty but bleary-eyed breakfast of eggs, grilled ham, and NYC bagels, our siblings headed back home while Amanda, Jacob, Parker, and I traveled north for three nights of seaside cottage comfort at Glenmoor By the Sea in Lincolnville, ME. Here, with a bed, roof, and four walls surrounding us, Jacob returned to somewhat better sleeping habits and we rested soundly without the fear of waking an entire campground.

Outdoor jazz concert in Camden.  Parker was not a fan.
We spent this leg of the vacation exploring mid-coast Maine. In Camden we found fresh fish tacos from a harborside shack and explored the village’s many dog-friendly shops and bookstores. On our second day Parker lounged in the air conditioned cottage and we drove to the Farnsworth Museum in Rockland to enjoy the artwork of Andrew Wyeth and the impressionist paintings and etchings of Frank W. Benson.

On our last day in mid-coast Maine, we traveled a few miles inland for a hike in Camden Hills State Park, followed by freshwater relief in lovely Megunticook Lake. Dogs aren't allowed at the swim beach, so we instead opted for the public boat ramp on Route 52. Jacob took a dip too.

Recompense Shore Campground, site #159
The next day we rolled south on Route 1 for a final night on the Maine coast. We camped just outside of Wolfe’s Neck Farm at the beautiful Recompense Shore Campground, a short drive from the bustling shopping hub of Freeport, home to the L.L. Bean flagship store. On our way into the campground, we all cooled off in the saltwater tidal river before setting up the campsite.

With that fitful night of Vanagon camping still fresh in our minds, we decided to try our luck with Jacob in the tent. Parker had to entire Vanagon to himself that night, but I don’t think he was too pleased with the arrangement. He would have much preferred to join the three of us in the two-person tent, but our hands were full with a wild, rolling, crawling, squealing Jacob. He LOVED being in the tent and was immediately energized by that exciting new environment with its crinkly walls, soft mesh, and fluffy down sleeping bags. So much stimuli! When he finally settled down, he slept much better, spoiled by the rare, cozy night snuggled between mom and dad.

Swimming near Wolfe's Neck Farm
Camping with an 8-month old wasn’t without its challenges, but overall, I’d call our first effort a success. I look forward to many future adventures with a slightly older, better-sleeping little boy.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Vanagon Repair: Brake Master Cylinder

My brake master cylinder failed and I decided to tackle this replacement myself. I sourced the replacement master cylinder from for $46 plus shipping. While this isn't a German-made or OEM replacement, it is a well-reviewed, high quality Italian-made part.

I'm grateful for the step-by-step guidance in a very helpful post on  It's clear and thorough and the only weakness I found is that it lacked pictures. I'm more or less re-posting that guide below, adding or omitting details per my experience, with images from my recent removal/installation.

Brake master cylinder and fluid reservoir after removing the instrument panel
  • Phillips #2 and two flat-head screwdrivers (optional)
  • 7 mm wrench to loosen and tighten brake bleeders
  • 13 mm socket/ratchet with 10" extension
  • 11 mm open end wrench for the brake line
  • 22 mm wrench to replace the brake light switches (or one big crescent wrench)
  • 2 pints of DOT 4 brake fluid
  • Rags
  • 2 pints of rubbing alcohol

Step 1. Removing the Instrument Panel

Pull off the cover over the instrument cluster.Remove the 4 Phillips head screws. Reach behind the speedometer cluster and squeeze the plastic retainer holding the cable in and release that. This gives you more play in the instrument panel to unplug the main cable cluster. To be safe you should disconnect the battery when playing with the wiring (admittedly, I didn't).Then pull all switches, plugs, and wiring. With everything removed you'll find the master cylinder exposed with the plastic reservoir occupying most of the space.

Step 2. Draining the Reservoir of Brake Fluid
Put a hose and bottle on the bleeder of the left front caliper and open the bleeder while pumping the brakes. This worked well and drained all the fluid.

Step 3. Removing the Clutch Master Cylinder Filler Tank Hose (for MANUAL Vanagons)  
After removing the filler tank hose
On the upper right side of the tank there is a pipe leading to a fitted 3/8" braided rubber hose going to the clutch master cylinder that needs to be worked off. Put a rag under to collect any fluid here. I was able to simply work it off without any tools or prying. If that's not possible, try using a pair of pliers to gently start twisting the hose. Flat screwdrivers may also help to pry it off. Be careful doing this because if you break the plastic pipe within the hose, you will need a whole new reservoir. After it's free, plug the hose prevent any brake fluid from leaking out while working.

Step 4. Removing the Brake Lines
Have a rag under both of the brake line to catch any drips drip. If you pumped the fluid out (Step 2) there should be minimal amounts easily captured on a rag. Loosen the two metallic brake lines going to the front and rear brake circuits. One brake line is on the center right side  and the other brake line is on the closer end of the master cylinder sticking out at you. The nuts are 11 mm.

Step 6. Removing the Old Brake Master Cylinder
With the two break lines and braided hose removed, all you have left is the two, 13 mm master cylinder anchor nuts. Use your ratchet and 10" extension to get at them, located at the back of the master cylinder, deep into the dash. A magnetic ratchet or wand is helpful to catch the nuts. Finally, disconnect the brake light
New brake master cylinder and old
wiring from the two switches on the bottom of the master cylinder and take it away.

Step 7. Prepping the New Master Cylinder for Installation
Switches: You may want to replace your brake light switches at this time. I should have, but didn't have replacement and didn't want to delay the job any further. I simply installed the old switched on the new master cylinder.
Detail of original VW brake master cylinder
Filler tank: Remove the plastic brake fluid reservoir from the master cylinder by by prying it from the rubber grommets. If yours, like mine, is full of brake line crud, you should clean that out. Rubbing alcohol works really well. Swish the alcohol around in the reservoir until the grime washes away. Wait a bit for the alcohol to evaporate before snapping the reservoir onto the new cylinder. Make sure there is a new seal (which should have come with your new cylinder) between the master cylinder and the brake booster.

New master cylinder positioned for installation
Step 8. Installing the New Brake Master Cylinder
Angle the new master cylinder (and reservoir) over the pushrod coming out of the booster. Ensure that the pushrod inserts into the master cylinder shaft. Loosely apply the 13mm anchor bolts. Connect the brake lines, ensure that the threads are aligned, and tighten them down. Connect the braided rubber hose. Tighten down the anchor nuts. Fill the reservoir with new DOT 4 brake fluid and pump the brakes a few times to
get fluid into the system.

Step 9 Bleeding the Brakes
It is absolutely imperative to get all the air out of the brake circuit. Otherwise, the brakes will be mushy and not operate efficiently. To bleed the brakes, you need an assistant. While you lay under the van at the rear passenger side wheel, have your friend/assistant apply slow, steady pressure to the brake pedal and HOLD it 3/4 of the way to the floor. BEFORE he releases the pedal, close the bleeder valve. Repeat the procedure until the flow of brake fluid is clear and shows no sign of air bubbles. Proceed to next bleeder valve. Repeat the process once you have cycled through each bleeder. Watch the fluid in the reservoir to ensure continuous level of brake fluid.  If it drops below the "min" line, you'll introduce air to the circuit! You MUST follow this bleed order:
  • Right Rear
  • Left Rear
  • Right Front
  • Left Front
Good luck!

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Vanagon Gear from Etsy

vanagon onsie
We enjoy supporting the creative and talented craftsmen and women on the Etsy marketplace. In January we purchased a batik Vanagon onsie from the seller, AppleJaxie. It finally fits Jacob, just in time for our upcoming road trip to Maine.

When my tattered wallet finally broke down a couple weeks ago, I turned to Etsy for a replacement. I particularly liked Backerton's handmade, full-grain leather wallets, which are thin by design but very functional. He prints a wide variety of old-timey images on the wallets, and while I liked many of the options, I had a custom design in mind. To my surprise, Backerton was willing to apply my imagea Vanagon blueprint, of sortsat no additional charge. I'm very happy with the results!
vanagon wallet

I'm considering making a t-shirt or hoodie with this same image, which took a good deal of effort to track down and a more time to print, scan, and enlarge. I'm now happy to share them with the Vanagon world.

Both the profile and front/back images are available for download in high(ish) resolution. The blog limits the upload size, so contact me for larger versions.

vanagon specs blueprint

vanagon specs blueprint

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

How NOT to Road Trip with a Dog

Last summer we enjoyed a 5-week, 9,000 mile cross-country road trip with our beloved dog, Parker. It's not an exaggeration to say the entire trip revolved around his needs. The presence of our furry family member determined where we camped, what activities we pursued, and how much continuous driving we could do at any given time. We don't have air conditioning in the Vanagon, but we made sure that Parker was comfortable, happy, and hydrated at all times. Regular stops to allow him to stretch and relieve himself were part of our daily road trip itineraries. If there was any possibility that these most basic needs could not be met, we would't have traveled with the dog to begin with.

vanagon road trip dog
A happy road trip companion.
Below you'll find a horrifyingly accurate infographic to illustrate how one should never take a canine (or any other animal) on a short or long-distance road trip. The story itself isn't breaking news, but the infographic sheds new light on its sordid details. I'm still utterly disgusted by Mitt Romney's treatment of the family's Irish Setter, Seamus. Twelve long hours on the roof of the car in the summer heat on Interstate 90? The infamous road trip occurred the same year that Romney left Bain & Company to co-found the private equity investment firm, Bain Capital. In other words, I'm sure he could have afforded a lovely, posh doggie spa or kennel for Seamus. Instead, he strapped him to the roof for a diarrhea-inducing ride of terror.

This infographic from the Animal Legal Defense Fund outlines the anti-cruelty laws in each of the jurisdictions the Romneys passed through that would clearly prohibit such a rooftop journey. As Lanny Davis wrote for Fox News, “This is the ultimate Purple Issue — it cuts across Republicans, Democrats, blue states, red states, liberals and conservatives.”

Download a high-resolution version of this infographic for your blog or website.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Vanagon Mysteries Revealed! Take a Photo Tour...

We finally got around to updating the Take a Tour! page on the site.  If you've ever wondered what the heck a "pop-top" actually is, or how these vans could possibly sleep four adults, your questions have been answered with a comprehensive photo tour of our 1990 Vanagon Multivan interior.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Tuckerman Ravine Inferno Road Trip, 2012

On a balmy 75° afternoon, I once again enjoyed the strange springtime ritual of loading my ski gear into the Vanagon for a weekend on the snowy, upper reaches of Mount Washington. Parker was my copilot and by 8:30pm, we connected with friends at Flatbread Pizza Co. in North Conway to enjoy some of their always-delicious and creative offerings. The topic of conversation was John's imminent race in the Tuckerman Inferno Pentathlon.  This year, I was there only for race support, along with Tim and Syrah, while John planned to tackle all five events himself. They include: 8-mile run, 6-mile whitewater kayak, 18-mile bike ride, 2.5-mile mountain hike, and finally, a slalom race in the Left Gully of Tuckerman Ravine.

John had a strong finish in the road race and after a difficult transition into his cold-water kayaking gear, he disappeared around the first bend of the river. Tim, Parker, and I returned to the Vanagon and made our way to the kayak-to-bike transition, and there we waited. And waited. And waited. Just as we were beginning to seriously worry, John appeared, but not from the river's edge as expected; he instead strolled down from the parking lot behind us. Shortly into the kayak race, he became lodged on a rock and while attempting to free the boat, lost his paddle (a borrowed carbon fiber paddle!to the fast-moving current.  Down the river it went, never to be retrieved. A sympathetic bystander witnessed the incident and drove John to meet us at the finish line.

Discouraged at the obvious disqualification but not yet entirely brokenhearted, John decided to continuehe had, after all, trained for many monthsand complete the remaining three pentathlon events. His spirits were lifted as soon as he launched into the bike race! It was a beautiful, mountainous course winding through scenic Pinkham Notch to the base of Mount Washington. But luck was not on John's side that day. About one hundred yards into his ride, the rear tire exploded as he crossed a gravelly section of rugged New Hampshire road. And that truly marked the end of John's 2012 Inferno efforts.

While the race wasn't meant to be, the weather was unexpectedly exquisite. We decided to make the most of the afternoon and after packing our ski gear into the Vanagon, we set out along that very bike route to the start of the Tuckerman Ravine trail.

It was a sunny, hot, and sweaty ascent. Only Parker was brave enough to seek relief in a churning pool of frigid meltwater. Due to the extremely warm temperatures and growing number of natural hazardscliffs, waterfalls, crevasses, and dangerously undermined snowpackski routes were limited. The slalom race was happening in Left Gully, so we opted for Hillman's Highway, a longer run just left of the bowl-proper. Parker remained steadfastly by our side as we gasped and sweated up Hillman's steep bootpack.

Hillman's Highway is split by a band of rock three-quarters of the way up, and we decided to stay right on the narrower and steeper of the two paths. By the looks of it, that side had not been skied all day and our efforts were rewarded with soft, fresh corn snow from top to bottom.

As the shadows lengthened we knew it was time to hike out. Skis, boots, and packs returned to our achy shoulders, and we steadily trudged three rocky miles down the Tuckerman Ravine trail, where Ruby the Vanagon patiently awaited our return.

Hillman's Highway, above HoJo's
After some cold beer, music, and R&R at the Vanagon, we all piled in with visions of 20oz brews and heaps of chili-topped nachos at our favorite post-Tucks establishment, Moat Mountain Smokehouse and Brewing Co. Once again, Moat didn't disappoint. The tall beers were the prefect medicine for my stiff, bruised shoulders and the nachos helped replace some of the days' countless burned calories. From Moat, we returned to the Wildcat Inn and Tavern, where spirited discussions continued into the night. Eventually John, Tim, and Syrah retired to their rooms and I joined Parker in the Van. We spent the night in Westfalia comfort under the steady pitter-patter of rain in a far corner of the inn's parking lot.

I'm already looking forward to Tuckerman adventures next spring, when we'll go early enough in the season to enjoy the twists and turns of the John Sherburne Ski Trail all the way to the parking lot, altogether avoiding that long, painful hike down.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

On the Road Again!

Ruby the Vanagon was garaged back in January after the clutch slave cylinder failed, and like sad Volkswagen tears, hydraulic fluid wept from the engine. Our final drive home through sections of stop-and-go city traffic was a struggle, as I could only muscle the van into second and fourth gears, and finally, no gears. Once home, Ruby sat abandoned for three months while my time was occupied with other pressing responsibilities, our now 4-month-old son, among them.

I finally reached the point when I simply could not stand the site or thought of that disabled beauty any longer. Taking advantage of our AAA membership, we had our beloved vanagon towed to the experts at Greg's Repair Service in Natick, MA.

Greg always gives his vans a bumper-to-bumper exam upon arrival, and not surprisingly, he brought some other issues to our attention. The good news is that I had diagnosed the clutch problem correctly, and the slave cylinder is fortunately a much cheaper repair than an actual clutch replacement or, worse, a transmission problem. The bad news is that Greg discovered that our brake lines were rotted and the rear brakes were thoroughly trashed. We've never had any brake work done on the vanagon and we can only guess at how long those brakes were in use prior to the 13,000+ miles (up and down mountain passes) that we've put on the van. I certainly wasn't about to take any chances on brakes, especially with the addition of our newest road trip passenger, baby Jacob. We added new brake lines and a complete rear brake job to the to-do list.

Greg also discovered that the horn was no longer functioning. That's a job I'll tackle mylself, along with a cracked glass headlight assembly. I'll search around theSamba for a replacement. Lastly, he commented on our loud, rattling exhaust, which could be much improved with new "Y-pipe" gaskets and hangers. We added the exhaust work to the repair list too.

In the end, a relatively cheap and simple visit to the mechanic ballooned into something rather costly, but there was nothing frivolous about these repairs. Ruby the Vanagon is now running extremely wellmuch quieter, smoother, and most importantly, safer than ever before. Adventures await.

This weekend, Ruby and I are driving north to the Inferno Race at Mount Washington's Tuckerman Ravine. Hopefully we'll enjoy better weather than last year, when my good friend, John, and I were members of a five-person Inferno race team on an unseasonably cold and icy April day. This year, John is making his first solo bid at the grueling pentathlon and I'll be providing race support during the running, kayaking, biking, hiking, and skiing portions, before I enjoy my own turns in the bowl. Good luck, John!

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Updates—Life and Vanagon

In the time since we last posted, our lives were forever changed. On December 2, we welcomed our first child into the world. Just a couple of weeks later, we loaded him into the van for a trip out to the frigid winter coastline of Massachusetts's North Shore, the first of many vanagon travels for Jacob.

Jacob and mom, his first beach visit.
Poor, old Ruby the Van hasn't seen much love recentlya drive here, an errand therebut no major trips. The last time out, we struggled to make it home and upon closer inspection, I discovered the telltale signs of a failed clutch slave cylinder. In warmer, less weary days, I'd definitely get my hands dirty and try to work my way through this repair/replacement myself, but it's winter and I'm busier than ever. This job will go to the trusted Vanagon experts at Greg's Repair Service.

Once we're back to smooth-shifting bliss, winter and spring adventures await. Jacob's car seat cuts into the sprawling bench seat territory that once belonged to Parker alone, but I think he'll get used to our new road trip companion.