Volksfest on a road less traveled VW bus owners gather to share stories of family, adventure and repairs

By Edward Russo

The Register-Guard

PUBLISHED: 12:00 A.M., SEPT. 29

These iconic vehicles are so loved their owners give them names.

The proud owners of vintage Volkswagen buses brought them on Saturday to “Volksfest” in Eugene, which organizers hope will be an annual gathering of VW aficionados.

Even the news that the last of the classic hippie vehicles soon will roll off a South American production line wasn’t a bummer for these enthusiasts.

Among the brightly painted buses parked next to each other at Alex’s Garage on Railroad Boulevard were “Rita,” “Junior” and “Sir Hank.”

VW buses from the 1960s and 1970s appeal to people for a variety of reasons, said those who attended Volksfest. The vehicles are simple, utilitarian and fun to have, they say. And for some, the buses are a link to their family histories.

“For me, it goes back to my great-grandfather,” said Danniel Majors of Eugene, president of the Oregon Bus Club. “We’ve had them in my house all of my life.”

“Rita’s” owner, Peg Gearhart of Eugene, has been a lifelong fan of Volkswagen Beetles and buses.

“I like that they are a classic throwback to simpler times,” Gearhart, 50, said. “They are simple vehicles.”

One of Gearhart’s daughters named the 1975 orange bus with the pop-up camper top “Rita” in tribute to the Beatle’s song, “Lovely Rita.”

A bicycle commuter, Gearhart mainly uses the bus for summer camping trips.

Showing her bus to a visitor, Gearhart’s affection for the vehicle is evident. The bus has an automatic transmission, which makes it rare among the air-cooled engine models, she said.

“No power steering,” Gearhart said. “It drives like a bus. And the seat belt doesn’t retract. You have to hang it up.”

The buses are renowned for their tendency to break down, although their simple engines make them relatively easy to fix, owners said.

“You go out on the road and you think, ‘Hmmm. What’s going to break?’ ” Gearhart said. “Invariably something will.”

Chris Godinez of Eugene bought his first van, “Sir Hank,” a 1979 bus, eight months ago.

“It’s like owning a piece of history,” he said.

Godinez drives the van only on weekends, using his Toyota Tacoma pickup the rest of the week.

Driving the bus is more enjoyable than the truck, he said.

“Everybody waves at you,” Godinez said. “They give you the peace sign. Little kids look at you and smile.”

VW produced more than 10 million Volkswagen Transporter vans globally since the model was introduced 63 years ago in Germany, although not all resemble the classic buses that were on display Saturday in Eugene.

VW recently announced that the last of the buses will roll off a production line in Sao Paulo, Brazil, on Dec. 31, but that decision won’t affect motorists in other countries, according to VW fans at the Eugene event.

The Brazilian-made buses are not sold in the United States because they do not have air bags and other required safety features, said Duane Stofan, president of the Portland-based Rose City Volksters, who brought his van to the Eugene gathering.

“We haven’t seen any of those buses in the United States for a long time,” he said. “For all intents and purposes, the VW bus died with the introduction of the Eurovan in the 1990s. Some people say they ended before that, in 1979, with the introduction of the Vanagon.”

That year, production of the classic bus in Germany halted because the vehicle no longer met European safety requirements, according to the Associated Press.

A VW plant in Mexico stopped producing the classic version of the van in 1995, leaving the Sao Paulo-area factory as the last one making the vehicle.

VW is pulling the manufacturing plug on the last of the buses in response to regulations mandating that every vehicle in Brazil must have air bags and anti-lock braking systems starting in 2014.

VW says it cannot change production to meet the law, according to the Associated Press.

Stofan, 42, says he likes driving his van because he can’t drive it very fast.

That’s a welcome relief to today’s electronically connected, fast-paced lifestyles, he said.

On a recent summer trip to California on Interstate 5, Stofan said his van was “pretty pushed around” by faster moving cars and trucks on the freeway.

So on the return journey to Portland, he took side roads.

“I enjoyed that trip so much more,” Stofan said.

“The whole bus culture forces you basically to slow down, and I think that’s therapeutic for some people,” he said.

Volksfest was organized by Steve and Lanny Olivier, publisher and president, respectively, of Eugene Magazine.

They also own a building that houses Alex’s Garage, which specializes in repairing Volkswagen and other European cars.

Many of the bus owners who showed up on Saturday belong to the Oregon Bus Club, which meets every Monday evening at Oakshire Brewing in the Whiteaker neighborhood. The group has a facebook page.

Majors said any VW fans, not just bus owners, are welcome.

“People compare and contrast their past and current VW stories and events, breakdowns and repairs,” he said.

“As a group, we sometimes help people with their problems, and then we discuss what our next event will be.”