DISCOVERING THE COMBI NATION
In praise of the classic VW Combi - article and images copyright Magic Surf Bus.
Published in Motorhome Monthly, Sept 1998
Noun : mixture, blend, fusion, intermingling, joining, merging, association, institution, corporation, fellowship, league, union.
For most of my life the only thing I have hated more than football and soap operas was driving and everything connected with internal combustion engines. For various reasons (mainly financial) I didn't learn to drive until I was 26, and even then it was only through grudging necessity. My approach to driving was like that of a celibate towards fatherhood; it seemed that by some distasteful and unfathomable process you created something noisy, smelly, costly, stressful, and which sometimes went the way you wanted it to. As far as cars, driving, and me were concerned that was about it.
Until last year, when it changed forever. Now I like driving, look for excuses to drive, and find complete strangers waving cheerfully as we pass by on the road. I've learned about car maintenance at night school and I can read a Haynes manual without yawning. I can be seen wandering round Auto Centres cheerfully splashing out on tools and accessories, and I know the difference between a distributor shaft and a rocker gasket. On certain Sundays I can be found with car wax in one hand, a waxy rag in the other, and a proud paternal grin on my face. Why? Because now I drive a VW Combi and I love the smell of oil in the mornings.
I think the desire for a camper van was somehow implanted in me from birth - like a child version of Richard Dreyfuss in "Close Encounters" I used to draw them and make models of them with Lego and Plasticine. At Sunday school they taught me not to covet my neighbour's ass, but I sure as hell coveted my neighbour's Dormobile. Whenever they popped their stripy red and white top I'd tell my little sister the Punch and Judy Show was here: Innocently she and her teddies would wait in the road for crocodiles and sausages and stuff while I'd be snickering like Muttley round the corner.
During one sixties summer holiday my Dad also did a Muttley at Dover Customs; a brightly coloured Combi full of hippies was being turned inside out in the queue next to ours. I just felt sorry for the hairy but cheerfully clad young men (or ladies) and their little groovy bus. They seemed so upset as all their other-worldly goods were picked over by smirking blue and white hatted fascists - poor hippies.
The sixties are gone now (and many of the flower children of the sixties are now management consultants in their sixties) but the free living free loving image of the Combi lives on both in popular culture and in our minds. Hands up all you Combi owners who've heard "Are you going to paint flowers on it then?" countless times since you bought it. Now, hands up all of you who've felt a strange urge to actually go and paint flowers on it: see? I rest my case M'lud. The Combi is an icon of breaking away, dropping out, doing things differently, cocking your snook, finding your own way, and all with a faint whiff of hippy about it. There are many ways to say it but the bottom line is about freeing the spirit, just getting out there and doing it, whatever "it" may be.
Strange then, that we who plane across waves on some of the sleekest devices ever crafted should become so inextricably linked to the VW bus. This box on wheels has the aerodynamics of a Hovis loaf and the rich throaty rumble of a sewing machine. Downhill with a following wind it might touch 70 and at best you'll squeeze 25 miles to the gallon from it, and yet we surfers love it - it might drip oil, but we know it oozes cool, and air-cooled cool at that. It's a freedom trip - our board gives us freedom of the ocean and our bus gives us freedom of the road. Who cares if we don't get there just yet? Traffic jams - pah! Just park up, get the lid up, brew up, maybe even stop overnight, we'll get there eventually - that's real freedom of the road. And when we get to the beach? In the car park Mr and Mrs Everywhere from Everytown are dumping acres of expanded foam and mutinous little Everywheres from the back of Ford Jellymoulds, Volvo Slabs, and Tonka 4WDs. So you putputputter on by in your VW bus, park up, pull back the sliding door, calmly extract the stick, and stroll on down to the waves. You know from the laser beams on the back of your neck that the Everywheres are watching you, and you just know that they're all thinking two words. One of those words is "Cool" - the other is unrepeatable here.
Freedom's good, Cool's good, Surfing is life, so you decide to own a Combi but what next? Well firstly, an acceptance that you no more own a Combi than you own a cat. "Ownership" just doesn't apply - it's more like Care in the Community. Last seen behaving sanely back in the seventies, this poor time-warped little vehicle has been abandoned to cope with the post-millennial present - erratically it wanders the streets and byways making sudden stops, embarrassing smells and noises, and drawing odd stares from all but a few caring souls. Caring souls such as you, who shell out a couple of grand to buy it, then a fair bit more to keep it running. Like a foster parent or an animal shelter owner you take it in, clean it up, care for it, and eventually (often tearfully) you pass it on to another caring soul like yourself.
Buying a Combi isn't always easy, because no true Combi lover really wants to sell one: you could wring the tears out of "Volksworld"'s small ads if you really tried: many of the entries evoke images of tragic separations and emotional farewells. "Reluctant Sale", "Sad Sale", "New baby forces sale" (despicable little parasite - how dare he!), "Student loan forces sale", "Much loved honeymoon vehicle" (check the suspension) and so on. Be prepared to see people weep if you buy one from the small ads. Alternatively you could get one from a dealer, more costly perhaps but at least you won't have to prize a blubbering ex-owner from the rear bumper. Dealers will service them and offer some guarantees (they have to by law), and if they've been around for a while they'll know their stuff. Don't dismiss dealers out of hand - most of them are dedicated people, and anyone who devotes their life to keeping Beetles and Combis on the road can't be all bad.
Once you've parted with your wedge, the real fun begins because you have to drive it. About a week before you plan to pick your bus up, spend an hour each day stirring a two foot stick in a bucket of sand while bouncing up and down on one of those old armchairs you see dumped in hedges. This will help you get used to the gear shift. Next, smear grease across the shoulders of your favourite T-Shirt - it's going to happen when you stick your head out of the sliding door so best prepare yourself. Spend some time with a Mensa quiz book too: working out how to make the bed up, and discovering what all the buttons and levers on the dashboard do will then be a doddle for you. If you're lucky, by your first winter you will find out two essentials about the heating system: a) how to switch it on, and b) the fact that no heat comes out of it - and you thought air-cooled was just referring to the engine! Similarly, an RYA Level Two Certificate in Windsurfing is essential - anticipating and responding to gusts is vital for steering in a straight line on windy days. If you're planning to go on surfari in the South West, learn to drive one-handed: waving at all Type 2's and Splitties is compulsory. Some nutters will even wave at you across 6 lanes of Motorway, but waving at the square-edged Type 3's is very much optional as most of them don't wave back. I've often wondered why this is so, and I think it's because they paid a lot more for their bus than you did, and they bought it from the Friendly Caravanning and Camping Club Magazine rather than the Exchange and Mart so they're not hippies and don't have to do that silly friendly waving nonsense. I love all that waving stuff - it brightens up your whole day when total strangers pass by on the road waving like complete loonies as if to say "Look! We're complete loonies just like you! We bought one too! We're not total strangers, we're all part of the gang! Isn't it fun!". Mind you, if they're waving really hard it's worth checking in your mirror that the smoke's still coming out the exhaust and not off your brakes - that happens sometimes too.
Actually, joking aside, I much prefer driving a Combi to a car: the view from up there is great ("you can see our mobile house from up here!"), and that extra few feet of height gives you a whole different perspective on the world. The seats are upright and comfy, there's acres of legroom, you can lean on the steering wheel, the steering's light, the flat front shades you from the sun, and you can get a drink of water from the tap whenever you want one! Motorways are much easier - if fuel economy matters you're not going to go much above sixty, so everyone else does the overtaking. You can see half a mile ahead and half a mile back so you can spot trouble half a mile off. People tend to stay off your rear because they can't see round you, and if you stay at least 3 seconds behind the car in front you'll be OK. With the engine in the back it's quieter, and even when it's wet you're above the worst of the spray. As long as you wait 'til your going downhill before overtaking, and remember your aging engine is pulling at least 3 times the weight of a hatchback you'll have no trouble at all. Mind you, you'll have to get used to watching out for height barriers at supermarkets - you have been warned!
Eventually as you chug and putter and wave your way across the kingdom in your beloved bus you soon come to realise that you do not possess a Combi, it possesses you. Be prepared for irrational impulsive (and expensive) episodes in your otherwise ordered existence, as your bus does a Mr Spock mind meld and says things in your head. Things like "lower my suspension", "make me peppermint green", "tint my glass", "wax me again", "lower me even more", "chrome, I must have chrome" and so on. In my case I trudged out into the snows of Easter to make a slightly longer table for it and the bloody thing abducted me! Seriously folks, my watch went haywire, I experienced lost time, and that gorgeous pouting Agent Scully was nowhere to be seen. A fortnight later I was found in a trance-like state covered in strange lesions and bruises, a sticky brown substance under my fingernails and an odd metallic implant up my nose. The brown stuff was varnish and the implant later turned out to be a self-tapping screw - I have this vague memory of small pale wide-eyed beings tapping on the windows, but it was probably my kids begging me to come in and feed them. Oddly, my bus now sports more interior pine than the whole of Norway, and I just haven't got a clue how it got there - serious weirdness!
Impulsively tarting up the inside is only part of it though, and you mustn't begrudge spending on essential repairs and spares. Remember, you've bought a second home and a fun vehicle for about a fifth of what you'd pay for a new brum brum, so budget for the extras that will keep it running. Tyres and exhausts aside, allow for brake shoes, heat exchangers, MOT work, bodywork, and regular servicing. Be aware that the older ones guzzle fuel and a full tank will set you back a fair bit for around 200 miles travel - it's not a great idea to commute in them as mile for mile it will cost a lot. Fortunately spares don't cost a lot and they're more widely available than you might think - you can have a reconditioned engine fitted for around £800 all in, so if you don't buy a wreck you should be able to cope with the normal wear and tear.
If you don't know anything about engines, I'd strongly advise finding out a bit - an evening class at your local college is a great starting point, especially if they let you work on your own vehicle. They did at mine and it was excellent - I knew nothing about engines last summer, and now I can do a basic service, change the front brake shoes, and have a good stab at fault-finding. I'm no expert but at least I feel happier about driving a vintage surf bus around, and I can begin to understand what the bloke at the garage is telling me. If you're not a mechanical wizard, the next essential is to seek out a good local VW specialist. Some advertise in VW mags but many don't - the best thing to do is ask other Beetle or Combi owners where they go and you'll soon be on the right track. The best ones have often spent a few years doing up Beetles and Buses for pleasure and have made a lasting business of it. They're usually friendly people, and may even be surfers too, so most of the time you'll be well-served, even if you still have to pay them for parts, labour, and VAT! If you find yourself dealing with one of those humourless "Don't tell me about it I've been in this business 30 years and I've seen it all before" types, just walk away. These people are known as miserable old gits, and you find them in every walk of life - if they can't show a bit of spark about their job they're not worth bothering with. Somewhere nearby there'll be a cheerful, pleasant, cool VW specialist, so go and find them instead.
Of course, the quickest way to plug into the VW subculture is to go along to a VW event: the Volksworld Show at Sandown Park, The Run For The Sun, The Type 2 Owners' Club Meet, and the Stafford Bugfreeze all spring readily to mind. Two odd things immediately hit you at these happenings: The amount of surf-clad folk you can see so far from the ocean, and the fact that the car park is as much an attraction as the trade stands inside. In fact a VW meet is one of the few places where anyone would feel comfortable about hordes of roving hippies, surf-bums, and youths in baggy clothing checking out the inside of their vehicle all day! Much as I like the trade stands, it's noseying in other peoples' buses and beetles that me and my crew enjoy best - you get some really good ideas, and the whole setup is all very friendly. When I pulled into one Bugfreeze with a smoking back brake, the guy in the bus behind was so concerned that he parked up next to me and offered to fix it once it had stopped being white hot - helpful or what?
Being a Combi owner has gone a long way to restoring my faith in humanity, and me an old git pushing 40 too - if keeping old buses going makes people get out more, drive safely, surf waves, wave at surfers, fix each others' brakes, and talk to complete strangers whenever they meet, it can't be all that bad can it? Folk who drive Combis don't take life or themselves too seriously, and I think that's the key - it's about freeing the spirit and peeling off the labels that society sticks on us. My advice to anyone who has the chance to drive one is go for it; if you buy wisely you won't regret it and you will weep on the day it has to go. It will give you many special moments - I just love arriving at my favourite beach in it, parking up along surfbum alley and slouching in the passenger seat to check out the waves while Mr & Mrs Everywhere fuss and faff and fiddle about in the carpark down below. I will never forget chugging down the M6 to the Bugfreeze in convoy with five other buses, a beetle, and "I Wanna Be A Hippy" playing on the stereo - sheer magic!
Just like the hippies before us, we surfers are seen as free spirits by the rest of society, and the VW Combi is a powerful icon of that sense of freedom - every time a VW bus turns up at a beach and surfers tumble out, somebody somewhere watches and says "That's cool, that's different, that's real freedom: I want some of that", and they get a board, catch a wave, and change their life. It happened to me, and it probably happened to you, and now we owe it to those about to surf to keep that image alive.
The Combi nation isn't hard to discover; you get a board, drive a VW bus, find a beach, catch a wave, and free the spirit. That's all it takes, and it's what we surfers do best, so get out there and do what you can to keep it safe for the future.
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