New Life In The Scrap Heap

By Gaynor Strachan Chun
 

Three VW Restorers Find Beauty In All The Unexpected Places

By WILL CALLAN

Amid mounting turmoil over Volkswagen’s diesel emissions scandal, the company has made an announcement that should help to re-polish its old, culture-defining image. At the Frankfurt Motor Show a few weeks ago, VW revealed that by 2022, its legendary van would be making a comeback, in fully-electric and semi-autonomous form.

Photo: Volkswagen

In “The VW Doctor Is In,” an article from our latest issue, Owen Edwards starts a half century before “Dieselgate” to track VW’s originally fraught, eventually iconic, and deeply social history. He considers the brand’s present-day popularity through a profile of Gary Freeman, who, out of his two-bay garage in Sonoma County, California, turns Beetles and vans well past their “crush by” dates into “daily drivers.”

The good news for current and aspiring vintage VW owners across the U.S. is that Freeman isn’t alone in his enthusiasm.

This re-animated Bug is destined for a Sacramento swap meet, without the usual like-new paint job. Freeman has found that sometimes young buyers like the rust, a patina of heroic longevity. “They just clear coat over it.” Photo: Andrew Sullivan

From Science to Craigslist

Take Gary Alexander, the part-time science teacher at Ridgeview Middle School in Round Rock, Texas. When he’s not helping 6th graders discover the wonders of nature, the goateed, incense-burning Alexander roots through the garbage for appliances to sell on Craigslist and scours the nearby suburbs for all-but-abandoned VW vans, which he restores and sells at a significant markup.

It takes a well-trained eye and a supporting network to locate these collector’s items, especially as Alexander and fellow enthusiasts pick through the discontinued model’s remaining numbers. Alexander relies on word-of-mouth and Craigslist postings to keep his business running. It may be his persistence that, in part, imbues the finished pieces with their character.

“Cars have no personality anymore,” he told Reporting Texas. “[The vans] are inanimate objects, but they have personalities and quirks.”

And Junkyards

That VW charm is what drove Jamie Orr, owner of Orchid Euro in Pottstown, Pennsylvania, to rescue a “Harlequin Golf” from certain demolition in a California junkyard. Orr buys and sells rare VW parts for a living. Last June, he received word that a ‘96 Harlequin Golf—an extremely rare version of the classic sedan that sports a different color for each piece of the body—was sitting on the brink of oblivion in a lot in Newark, California.

Photo: Jamie Orr/Instagram

With only a few photos to analyze and a five-day time limit (Orr had to preempt the Harlequin’s appointment with the car crusher, but be back home in time for his wife’s Lasik surgery), Orr began collecting vital parts and tools for his clown car revival. In an Instagram post, he exhaustively listed his needs:

“Things that I know need fixing: oil pan has a hole, fuel tank has a hole, coolant and brake fluid gone, battery terminals cut off, no seats, back window smashed, fender smashed, fender bolts gone, unknown motor, unknown gearbox, and who knows what else. There are probably no keys. There are definitely no wheels.”

Arriving in Newark later that week, Orr got to work on the almost-forgotten Harlequin, and, with the help of about a dozen social media followers, who showed up in person to lend a hand, restored the car to its road-ready heyday. The polychrome collector’s item, far from rusting in the trash pile, would live to drive another day, at least the 3,000 miles back to Pennsylvania.

“And I’m Like, It’s Not Junk”

Like Orr and Alexander, Bob Cook finds opportunity in what’s been passed over—in his case, turning clunkers into sparkling showpieces. Since Cook started restoring VWs full-time in 2009, at Cooker’s Restoration & Fabrication, in Williamsport, Maryland, demand for his rejuvenating touch has grown into a two-year waiting list.

During open houses, past and future customers gather round to admire Cook’s work and trade stories about their VW love affairs. Speaking with NPR, Georgine Casper recalled being castigated by her mother for what she, the mother, saw as her daughter’s senseless Beetle obsession—first, for giving someone money for the thing (actually, for two), and second, for trying to drive it.

“She was like yelling, and every day, she’d come home and say, ‘Look at this junk,’” Casper told NPR. “And I’m like, ‘It’s not junk.’ Because to me, it wasn’t. It was a diamond in the rough.”

Listen to any story—from a fresh owner, a long time collector, or the restorers themselves—and you’ll quickly get the impression that classic VWs, if properly cared for, can last generations, developing layers of memory as they rumble on.