April 15th, 2020 ~ Vol. 90 No. 15
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Looking Back - John Kinnear
Adventures with Hershey the Microbus
Looking Back
John Kinnear photo
Passenger side of Hershey
Everyone has fond memories of their first car. My very first set of wheels was not your average jalopy and it had an interesting story behind it. It was a 1971 Volkswagen Van that I named Hershey and was a special home-made camper. Unlike the old pop-top Westfalias, Hershey was a Type 2 delivery van that was converted into a small home on wheels by a father and son who were carpenters.

I should preface my microbus story by explaining why I chose this vehicle. When I was 24 I met the woman I wanted to spend the rest of my life with. I had moved to Calgary in 1972 to be with her and to find work after being laid off at Coleman Collieries where I was working with my father as a draftsman and surveyor.

My life-partner choice, Lorraine, had recently separated from an abusive husband and had two girls aged 10 and 14. It seemed logical to me, as I began my journey with them, that to go camping and exploring as a family would be a great bonding opportunity.

If this isn’t unusual enough, I should also tell you that I did not get my driver’s license until I met Lorraine. Somehow it just wasn’t ever on my radar. I had no interest in being out there at 16, using my father’s 56 Pontiac or my brother’s 59 Cadillac on a Saturday night. I was kind of different from most guys I guess.

Hershey was a pretty unique vehicle. He had a fold-down back seat that made into a bed that actually fit my six foot four inch frame. It was also equipped with a two burner propane stove and a 3-way fridge, both of which were positioned behind the front bucket seats. The propane tank was actually in a storage compartment that opened to the outside. This tank proved to be Hershey’s undoing. More about that later.
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What really made this van special was the eight by eight tent extension that attached to the sliding door side of the van. The carpenter’s son had it built for him in Mexico where he took that van for its maiden voyage. The tent attached to the top of the van, clipped along the sides around the sliding door and was held up with poles and held down by pegs. The poles were stored in the homemade front bumper which was a three inch steel pipe.

Before Hershey went to Mexico the carpenter’s son had it rigged with two separate burglar alarms. In one case every door had a small spring-loaded plunger button that was hooked to that hilarious VW horn. Meep! Meep! When a door was forced open, with the alarm set, the plunger would extend, complete a circuit and the horn would sound repeatedly. The second was an odd little rectangular device hidden under the passenger seat. Inside it was a horizontal pendulum that was sensitive to motion. When it was set and the van was rocked, as in someone trying to break in, the pendulum would bounce up and down, complete a circuit each time it bounced, and sound the horn. Meep! Meep! Despite both these systems being in place, the van builder’s son told me that some Mexican banditos still managed to break into his van and steal his camera.
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For five years we travelled all throughout Western Canada as a family in Hershey. Those were much simpler times. We were young and didn’t need a lot to enjoy the outdoors. I never had a mechanical issue to speak of with him, except for a little vapour lock problem for which older VW’s were renowned. Air-cooled Volkswagen engines, especially the smaller ones like mine, tended to really heat up when you stopped on a hot day and then it would not start. What got us finally rolling again was a good old-fashioned push start and me popping the clutch. I can still hear the girls groan when I would say: “Guess what? I need a push.”

The girls recall me slipping in behind a transport on the highway now and then to use the dead spot (low pressure zone) directly behind big trucks to reduce the van’s resistance, save gas and keep my speed up. This is known as drafting and is not a trick I would recommend trying nowadays. I don’t think I have the nerve for that kind of monkey business anymore. Hershey struggled with grades like going up the Creston-Salmo Cutoff but going down the other side with Hershey taken out of gear made for a wild ride.

They also remember that the gas heater did almost nothing in winter and that the front defrost was almost non-existent, which necessitated continual scraping of the windshield from the inside on cold winters days. Oh yeah, there was one more annoying thing and that was no block heater! I ran 5- weight-oil in the engine in the winter just to get the damn thing to start.
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The history of the VW van goes back to 1947 and they have now has gone through 7 type classifications and many styles variations. There are VW vans from the 1960’s that have 21 or 23 windows in them. 23 windows! Good grief! It’s a wonder there is any metal in them at all. They are called Sambas and are a really sweet-looking van. I photographed local realtor Randall Whiteside’s 1967 11-windowed splitty van back in 2011 as he prepared to go into the July 1st parade in Coleman. It is a fine-looking bus sometimes referred to as a Kombi and Randall still has it. Splitty is a term used for VW’s that means the front windshield is split into two pieces.

Recently I noticed two almost identical Vanagons parked out in a field by the Burmis Tree with for sale signs on them. Vanagons are known as Type 3’s and were produced from 1979 until 1991. They can be air-cooled or water-cooled and can be gasoline or diesel-powered. The pop-top Westfalia is a variation of the Vanagon. Brazil was the last country to stop making VW’s in 2014 but they have recently been reintroduced by Volkswagen. There are some pretty fancy modern versions of the VW van out there right now like the Atlas and an electric job called the I.D. Buzz. All the bells and whistles but I bet not one has a pendulum horn alarm!
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I.D. Buzz’s have what they call a modular electric drive kit (M.E.D.) that maximizes their electric drives. The first VW’s in North America in 1950 had 30 horsepower engines in them. The I.D. Buzz sports 369 horse power from the electric motors on all wheels and is the seventh generation of a concept that started with a sketch on a napkin in 1947 by a Dutch VW importer named Ben Pon Sr.

For me it was just so much fun rattling down the road in old Hershey with his modified bottle muffler growling like a Harley Davidson. I taught my youngest daughter Kelly to drive the four-speed stick shift in the K-Mart parking lot and I showed her how to spin doughnuts there in the winter time. I had Hershey for five years and then something happened in 1978 that changed everything. That something was a nightmare I had one night from which I awoke, sobbing. My wife pressed me to tell her what it was about until I finally relented.

It went something like this. In the nightmare Hershey quit on me half way between Coleman and Blairmore, but it wasn’t because of a vapour lock. It happened late at night and I set out to get a tow-truck. While returning to the van with the tow-truck driver I noticed in the distance that Lorraine had somehow gotten it running and was coming towards us, on the wrong side of the road, with no headlights on. There was a head-on crash with another vehicle. The propane tank behind the front seat exploded and the van burst into flames. That’s when I woke up in tears.

When she heard the story my wife said to me, “You might as well polish old Hershey up and put a for-sale sign on him because I am never riding in that van again.” So I did just that. I sold old Hershey and went right down and bought a brand new 1978 Ford F-150 pickup from Metro Ford. It was black with red interior and I loved it. I put on chrome running boards, running lights, a grill guard and Yosemite Sam mud flaps. I called him Ten G because that’s how much he cost. Ten Grand. I added a camper and we restarted our exploring in a lot nicer digs. Sometimes I think back to what little space there was between Lorraine and I and that VW front windshield… no seat belts, no air bags. I now realize that nightmare was an important message.
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April 15th, 2020 ~ Vol. 90 No. 15
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