NORMAN — When Harlan and Kelley Butler bought a 1967 Volkswagen Kombi bus in Waco, Texas, and brought it to Norman, they really didn’t know what they were getting into. The Hall Park couple and their Longfellow Middle School daughter knew it was a fun vehicle with an outlandish paint job. Even though the bus was over forty years old it started and ran OK. What they didn’t know was the seemingly magical effect it has on people. Everywhere they go random folks at filling stations and in parking lots are instantly attracted to the old VW.
The former owner tried to warn Butler that the questions, comments and requests for photos would never stop. “As I was driving slowly back from Texas with the bus on a trailer people in other vehicles were lagging alongside me on the interstate taking pictures with their phones,” he said. “I’ll take you for a ride in it and you’ll see.”
We’d driven a couple of blocks through their neighborhood in the bus just as two adult women were coming out of a home and onto the sidewalk. One lady looked at us driving by and immediately stuck out her hitchhiking thumb. Butler’s right. The bus is magic.
Recently he took the bus to a Veteran’s Day car show. A dozen biker dude vets in black leather pulled up on their Harleys.
“A 6 foot five guy with long hair came up and said ‘Man, I love this bus,’” Butler said. “The guy was about to cry and told me he’d lived in one just like it for two years after coming home from Viet Nam.”
The vet had traveled around California when his war was over and the bus was passport into the era’s hippie counterculture.
“He told me that bus had probably saved his life,” Butler said. “That’s one of the cool things about owning this.”
Thousands of VW Type two trucks were assembled in Germany from 1950 to 1967 and shipped to the U.S. market. The engineering is simple and reliable as with their sister vehicle the Bug. Engine sizes are 4-cylinder 2.0 liters or less and usually paired with a low-geared four speed manual transmission.
Butler’s bus has the familiar split windshield. Each side opens and stays propped forward for interior ventilation. The door glass slides sideways to open rather than rolling down.
Inside there are seats for driver and passenger up front and two rows of bench seats in back. It’s enough room to transport a nine-person commune. There’s no air conditioning and few passenger amenities. 65 mph would be top highway cruising speed.
Butler has had the bus refurbished to make it a safe and reliable vehicle. Parts are not difficult to find for the bus but the quality level varies. Both for price and durability German-made components are more expensive and better than those manufactured in China.
Since the bus had always been in Texas its body is relatively rust free. Butler has taken the vehicle to Ed Mullikin at Off Campus Foreign Car and Engine Service, 318 _ E. Gray to get it running at peak performance.
Mullikin diagnosed a few glitches that would have taken Butler a long time to understand and address correctly.
He’s also been instrumental in judging which parts to install.
“I’d take off for San Francisco in it tomorrow,” Butler said. “But we’d probably go by back roads like old Route 66 instead of the interstate.”
Probably most significant about the bus and what charms people right away is that it is a rolling work of American folk art. The former owner and his mother painted the outside of it using bright acrylics. Hippies around the country began doing these decorative jobs in the 1960’s so it’s not a unique concept but this example is particularly well-done.
There’s a lot of cute attention to detail and its obvious this art wasn’t done in an altered state of mind. I think. Large and small flowers, butterflies and miscellaneous happy creatures are the predominant visual theme. The word “love” in two foot high letters with the “O” as a peace sign emblazon its two passenger side center body doors.
Daisy petals were painted in circles around the front amber running lamps. An undersea craft suggested by The Beatles’ “Yellow Submarine” being embraced by a giant squid adorns a rear body panel. Tiny round white tiles were painstakingly glued in a pattern covering the entire front bumper that resembles reptile scales. Inside the roof has been lined with natural finish wooden slats.
This bus is breathtakingly groovy. The Butlers have added personal decorative touches to make the bus special to their family. The VW doesn’t get much tough duty; it’s mainly for fun around town. “The bus is perfect for taking our daughter and her friends to the swimming pool,” Butler said.
Have you seen a cool vehicle around town? Writer Doug Hill’s always on the lookout for future Dig My Ride columns. E-mail him at Hillreviews@hotmail.com.