“Imagine watching your kid snuggled up in her hammock as you kick back with a beer from the comfort of your new (well, not exactly new), beautifully restored VW van. I mean, what’s not to love?” Depends on whom you ask. We interview founder Kip about the newest member of the Fireside family: a 1970s VW Westy that’s got plenty more miles in the tank.
What’s the story behind the van? Why did you decide to do this?
The reasons were twofold: We camp a lot, and it just looks like so much fun to have a family in one of those things. And it seemed like it would work as a sweet marketing tool for Fireside. That said, the drawbacks were numerous with the biggest one being, perhaps, that the van is 45 years old, and may or may not break down every time we drive it.
You’re going to have to paint a better picture because this van sounds like a headache on wheels.
Ok. Imagine a dark hunter green exterior with a tan interior. Gorgeous birch wood on the floors, walls, and headliner, with seats that are made out of vinyl (on the sides) and a kind of tweed on top. We consider it a VW Westy (short for Westfalia) because we added a pop-up top on it. When the top is “popped” you can stand up in the middle of the van for wardrobe changes and whatnot, and it also creates a kind of attic where the kids can sleep. It’s a dream. You should have seen it before—it’s had a complete metamorphosis.
To whom do you owe this transformation?
A Ventura-based company called VDub Classics whose sole objective is restoring VW bugs and buses. They started a little while ago and they can’t keep up with demand. There are six guys who each specialize in a different aspect of restoration—interiors, paint, engine work, etc. If you ever watch any of those Discovery shows, like West Coast Choppers, it’s a little like that. Just a good group of dudes, hanging out in a garage, bullshitting and fixing up cars.
Smells like teen spirit. Sounds like you’ve gone through this process before.
Yeah, I’m a little addicted to older cars. I bought my dream car when I was 21—a 1989 FJ-62 Land Cruiser. It was pretty beat up when I got it. The engine was running at about half of its power and the interior was totally shredded. I found a guy who taught me how to do a paint job, how to fix the dents and dings. Then I learned to fix the engine. Had to put in new fuel injectors, vacuum tubes (which were a pain in the butt), a new suspension, air filtration and intake system, and an all new interior.
You did your own interiors? That’s badass.
Actually the cost of leather is not so much, if you get it out of Oklahoma. We just put in new leather interiors in our current car, a Toyota Highlander. I bought the leather for $900 and did it myself. If you pay someone to do it, it can cost around $5000.
Ok, we’re listening.
The thing about old cars is that their engines are so simplistic. There’s room under the hood for you to be mobile. Nowadays there’s so much plastic to rip off and electronics to deal with. It makes it much harder to repair. Every time you turn around you’ve got replace an $800 computer. Old cars don’t have that. They’re mechanical. You can think through it. You can buy these books that walk you through how to repair every single crevice of these cars, which is great. If you have the time and the right guide, you can learn it from the ground up.
What’s your favorite thing about the van?
The hammock cot that we’ll be able to rig over the front seats. I can’t wait to put our baby in it and see her sleeping up there. It’ll look kind of like this. A close second would have to be the fact that there’s a back bed so you can sleep inside the van really comfortably. It can sleep five people but I’m not sure you wanna… I mean, you hear stories all the time of four adults sleeping there. There’s also an ice chest that has drainage that goes down to the street so you don’t have to worry about leaks. There are curtains, which I got yesterday, and bay windows that open up and provide ventilation. And electricity. I mean it’s like a home. Except for the holes.
Yeah… You can see the road. Under the accelerator. And the brake. The pedal linkage actually goes through the floor. It’s not a perfectly cut hole so you can see the highway whizzing by below you… And it’s got small tires so you feel the bumps and the cracks. When you’re going 60, it’s like Mach 1 up in there.
Is that the worst thing?
Well, maybe the worst thing about the van is also the best thing about the van in that it’s going to break down. Like a lot of old cars will do. So reliability is gonna be a big factor. But that’s part of the charm, part of the journey. It’s the aspect that lets you say, “We broke down here but we figured it out. Here’s how…” Stories come out of that.
That’s a very rosy view.
You don’t even think about that these days, driving around in a new car. But it’s top of mind with an old car. If something breaks, that’s gonna be the story of the weekend.
What would you say to someone who wants to get an old car and fix it up?
Don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty, to dig into the details and figure it out. Remember, these cars are simple. You can do it yourself as long as you have a positive attitude going in. If you just keep taking it into the shop, you’ll get murdered on price. Just keep in mind that these cars aren’t going to go 80 miles per hour on the freeway and feel like airplanes. There’s going to be bumps and you’re going to go slow. The drive itself can be more at the forefront of your mind instead of the actual destination. If you love that, do it.
If someone out there wants to do what you’re doing, are there any red flags?
I don’t think you can call out any one thing. I mean, most folks know that VW engines have a reputation for being fickle. I don’t think you can eliminate any one thing. If you have a 1970 bus that’s still running, it’s not a lemon. It’s been around for 45 years. It’s past the lemon stage, right? So there’s not gonna be any one red flag. They all have their quirks, their character.
Where are you taking the van first?
We’ve got a few camping trips coming up, but no big journeys yet. Mostly it’s going to be about entertaining ourselves and getting to know one another over the next couple of months.
You and the van, you mean?
Ha. Yeah. I guess so…
Does it have a name yet?
Not yet. I think the name will probably come once it does a few things to us.
Wanna see where old Westy takes us? Follow Fireside on Instagram. #vanlife