Thursday, November 7, 2013

First Cars (November 7, 2013) -- My 1969 VW Camper

In full-Hippy mode with my 1969 VW Camper (June 1973) -- note
the VW Squareback station wagon in front of my Camper.  We were a VW family!

I have written elsewhere on The Prism about the intimate love affair Americans have with their cars and the role vehicles play in our life experiences and memories.  There are many ways to define and look at "first cars" and their meaning to us.  For examples, see the "First Cars" tag in the "Posts By Topic" list to the right.

In 1973 when I was nearing graduation from college, my father came across a VW pop-up camper that was being offered for sale. He has always had a love for VWs and the "Bus" in particular. Hands down the favorite family car he had was the VW Bus he convinced my mother they had to have in 1961-62 when we were living in Salem Depot, NH.  My youngest sibling had just been born and the green Studebaker Scotsman station wagon could no longer handle my parents, four children, and one dog.

It took a bit of convincing and more than one test drive for my mother to agree that the VW Bus with its no-hood, right-on-top-of-the-road feel and stick shift was what she should be tooling around in, but it soon became a much-loved car that took us (several years later) to a new home in southern New Jersey (where sadly it had to be parted with when it succumbed to years of NH winter salt and fatal rust infections).

And so it was that while I was not even looking for a VW Camper, my father found one and decided it would be a good thing for me to have -- and I will be forever grateful for that!  I could hardly speak when he mentioned it and we drove by to have a look and test drive.  It was in excellent condition and we purchased it.  I immediately took pride in its ownership and carefully cleaned and waxed it to a high shine.  It was almost obligatory to add a four-speaker (front-and-back) stereo cassette tape system and so it was installed in short order.  The interior woodwork was in near-new condition as was the fold-out bed and cushions, the folding tables, closets and storage bins, curtains, ice box, and the pop-top with canvas bunk and screening.  

I drove the Camper my last year of college and took it on backpacking trips to the White Mountains in New Hampshire, to the Jersey shore, to visits to friends in Boston, on ski trips in the Poconos, on an aborted attempt to make it (with tickets) to the "Summer Jam" rock festival at Watkins Glenn Grand Prix Raceway in July 1973, and back and forth to live in northern Colorado for nine months after graduating.  

Me and my camper at the trailhead beside "The Pemi" off the "The Kanc" in NH (Oct. 1973)

It broke my heart when I returned from Colorado to enter graduate school back in NJ and found -- weeks before my program started -- that I was a couple of thousand dollars short of the funds I needed.  I sold my beloved Camper for $4,000 and two weeks later got a Teaching Assistantship that paid me
. . . $4,000 and provided me with a tuition break. 

[On a very sad note, one of our intrepid Summer Jam sojourners is being laid to rest this very day in Boulder, Colorado.  RIP David!!]
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Photos of me with my 1969 VW Camper from my personal collection.

To see some great photos of a 1969 VW Camper exactly like the one I owned, go here.

To learn more about the Pemigewasset River ("The Pemi") in New Hampshire, see the Wikipedia article here

For more information on "Summer Jam," the performers and the conditions at the event site, check the Wikipedia article here AND you really need to see this Summer Jam site complete with photos, a 9:19 minute "awesome" (as we now say) video that captures the feel of the event, more Summer Jam links, and a photo in the video of what my ticket looks like!  We never got off the main highway, which was turned into a parking lot party, and eventually turned around for home "bummed out" as we said back then and holding several of the 150,000 tickets actually purchased for the festival and, sadly, completely unused; but 450,000 others without tickets did get to see an historic festival.

For more about the Kancamagus Highway ("The Kanc"), see here and here.

Crying image published by JDDel Guy and released to the public domain under license allowing non-commercial use.
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Copyright 2013, John D. Tew
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  1. Like you, I adored my first car, a Borgward station wagon, a lot like a VW squareback, except the shift was on the column. I worked for a lawyer while in college, and the Borgward belonged to one of his clients, who was moving to Australia to work as a hand carver at a museum. I got the car and whatever was left in the house for $100. There was a place in Revere, Massachusetts, that worked on Borgwards; he advertised in newspapers all over the US to get parts, including the driver's side window he put in mine.

  2. I haven't known anyone who doesn't treat their first cars preciously. With our first cars, we experience a lot of "firsts" too. The long list starts from being a first-time car owner, down to a lot of first fun adventures and first places you reached while driving it. It's sad that you had to part with your first car. By the way, what type of car are you driving now? Did you stick with a VW or have you fallen in-love with a different one?
    Arlyne @ Spartan Toyota Scion

  3. We now have two Toyotas -- a 2003 Prius bought in December 2002 and a 2007 Prius.

  4. Thanks for sharing your story, John. It can be hard to forget the euphoria and excitement of having your first car. Especially if it's one that you've had since forever. Anyway, I’m sorry about losing David. It’s just a shame that he could no longer go camping with you. All the best to your other road buddies!

    Rhonda Burgess @ Bob Dunn Hyundai