10 years ago today, I bought a VW Bus

10 years ago today, I bought a 1966 21-Window Volkswagen Bus. Restoring a VW Bus had been a dream of mine since high school, when I attempted to restore a '69 VW Bug. In October 2005, the restoration project began. Since then, it's been through many shops and had quite a few folks work on it. You can read all about it in When is the bus gonna be done?

Since many long-time readers of this blog are familiar with The Bus Project, it seems fitting to give y'all a detailed update on where things sit today.

In June 2013, I mentioned I'd removed it from the shop that worked on it for six years. My biggest frustration with that shop was their willingness to work on it. They'd go through spurts of working on it, then let it sit for months. To make matters worse, when I'd email them, they wouldn't respond for weeks. Often, it'd take a couple emails and a phone call to get them to respond. I was pleased with the work they did as it seemed high quality. They also motivated me to go big and pursue other teenage VW dreams: a Porsche 911 engine and air-ride suspension.

Last year, the bus spent six months in a friend-of-a-friend's garage. I paid them to get it running and driveable. They created an oil tank, modified the gas tank, mounted the air tank, did some custom welding on the rear floor, installed the brakes, installed the steering and got the shifting linkage hooked up. It was refreshing to get weekly updates and text messages when things were finished. In fact, he almost got it running, but was unable to find a part needed to complete the "spark" process.

In December 2013, I moved it to a new shop, which seems to have all the necessary components to complete the project. They're vintage car restoration specialists and the owner estimated they could have it done by April 2014 (a.k.a. today). They'd also rescued a fair amount of projects: ones that sat at garages for years while progress stalled and owners lost lots of money. They began work on it and I enjoyed the daily emails with links to albums of their progress. It seemed like The Bus would finally be painted come January.

In early January, I received an email with a major roadblock. The subject of the email was Thickness of bondo on the VW bus. As I read the paragraphs below, I could feel my heart sink.

As you saw in the photos this week, we've had to repair three spots where the body work previously done on the bus was chipped. In all three cases and especially the roof yesterday, the thickness off the bondo is alarming. This could and probably will lead to paint failure down the road.

The way this usually progresses is that once you start driving the bus and road vibrations become an everyday occurrence, the bondo can start coming loose, sometimes in large pieces, from the body. We only see this happen in cases like yours where the body work has been performed elsewhere and we've inherited the job to "Finish" it, painting being the major component of our task. The problem, along with being my concern here, is obvious. We are reluctant to see you spend thousands of hard earned dollars to paint a bus that will surely fail later.

The options aren't great. The best route is to restrip the bus now and get it back to bare metal and start over. Doing the body work correctly would insure a thinner application of substrates (dura glass, bondo, etc.) and eliminate the possibility of cracking and spidering of the paint completely. By doing this, we can warrantee our work and know you are hitting the road without bondo so thick it can be measured with a ruler. As it stands, we frankly are reluctant to proceed any further with the paint process knowing that we would be doing you a huge disservice by so doing.

Shortly after, he sent me some pictures of the bondo trouble spots.

Bondo Spider

You can imagine my frustration when I received this email. Over the life of the project, I've spent more than $100K and I expected the body work to be "show car" quality. The shop that did all the body work knew this. The only thing I can think of is their definition of quality is a lot different from the current shop. The current shop estimates it'd be $17K to fix the bondo and get it ready for paint. The money part doesn't bother me (it cost me $10K to move it from shop 1 to shop 2 back in 2008), but they estimate it'll be six weeks to complete the process. They recommended I contact the BBB for the shop who did all the bondo because "they are an embarrassment to our industry". They also suggested we finish the mechanical and electrical portions of the job. I agreed that seemed like the best way forward.

A week later, they got it running, but discovered some new previous-work-quality problems along the way. The custom fabricated oil tank leaked like a sieve. From the video they sent, it appeared like it'd never even been pressure tested. They slapped on a new one from the Porsche they had sitting in the shop and voila - it was alive!

Progress continued through January. They removed the suspension, powder coated it and painted the bottom with good quality (3M) black under coating. At the end of January, Trish and I visited Sewfine to pick out the interior. We selected colors, fabric and were about to order everything when we ran into another roadblock. While talking, we discovered that the back seat won't fit with the current setup. The air tank is in the way, and possibly the raised floor. They suggested relocating the air tank or trying to find a smaller one.

The folks at Sewfine thought this was a pretty big deal and caused me to think the whole project might be delayed for several months. I emailed the current shop and was pleasantly surprised with a reply of "that shouldn't be hard to fix".

I'm not clear on the details of what happened at this point, but the daily-picture updates stopped flowing. It was six weeks until they started working on it again. They received all the powder coated components and started installing them. At the end of March, I visited the shop and was pleased to see the suspension, wheels, and engine installed. We talked about the body/paint work and I was disappointed to hear them refuse to paint it without sandblasting and re-doing the body work. They said they didn't want to put their name behind work that is likely to fail. They estimated a couple more weeks until they got it running and driveable.

That couple weeks passed. Since I received no email updates, I emailed the owner. He said they'd run into issues on another job and it'll be another week before they can get back to it. This shop is starting to feel like the one that did the body work in that it's very difficult to get them to prioritize my project over other ones. However, they've done great work so far. They send me a link to an album at the end of each day and things happen really fast ... when they work on it.

At this point, I'm resetting my expectations (as usual) to it'll be done in a few more months. I'm aiming for my 40th birthday this time: July 16th. I'm estimating it'll be 65K to finish it:

  • 10K: current bill
  • 20K: body and paint
  • 5K: wiring, windows and trim
  • 10K: stereo
  • 20K: interior

I could probably save 20K by having someone else paint it and doing the wiring and trim myself. I'm tempted to do this and repaint it if/when the bondo/paint starts to crack. However, I believe the current shop can get it running/driveable/painted by mid-June, so it's tempting to just pay for it.

That's the latest update. The project is still progressing and it still feels like it'll be done soon. When I bought the bus 10 years ago, I thought I'd drive it a lot sooner. Then again, my expectation was that I'd incrementally improve it through the years and eventually get to something spectacular. Now we're on the cusp of spectacularity. Stay tuned... :)

Posted in The Bus at Apr 10 2014, 07:11:14 PM MDT Add a Comment
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