The VW Doctor Is In
In a tin shed that somehow survived California’s massive fires in Sonoma Valley, Gary Freeman keeps old VW Beetles and vans—the cars that defined the counterculture of the 1960s—chugging along. This is not merely an act of nostalgia: they can sell at auction for more than $200,000.
By OWEN EDWARDS
Photography by ANDREW SULLIVAN
In 1909, as Model Ts rolled off Henry Ford’s revolutionary assembly lines, the great man told his sales force: “Any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants, so long as it is black.” In a similar sense, Gary Freeman, in his small, always-busy auto shop in Sonoma, California, will repair and reanimate any car of any color, so long as it’s a vintage Volkswagen.
I have bicycled past the two-bay garage of Sonoma Volkswagen almost every day for more than a decade. I have seen old Beetles that seem well past their “crush by” dates and VW buses that look as if they’ve done way too many treks to Burning Man, all waiting for attention. Over the course of weeks or months, these derelicts reappear looking as if they were just off showroom floors.
The first VWs were built in 1937 at the urging of Adolf Hitler, who wanted a Wagen for the Volk (the people).
Gary Freeman’s long intimacy with Volkswagens began in the early 1970s, when he was taking pre-med courses at the University of California Santa Cruz, and bought a Beetle because, he says, it held its value longer than American cars. “I bought the car for $2,000, and 10 years later it was still worth $2,000,” he says. His thoughts about the future, however, did not encompass a medical career. “I hated pre-med,” he remembers. So Freeman dropped out of college.
While he was looking for a way to make a living, a friend pointed him toward a busy repair shop near Los Angeles. Somehow, with no experience, he managed to get a job by saying he’d work for free, and immediately proved that the price was right when he was told to install new spark plugs in a Mercedes and had to ask the boss, “Which end goes in first?”
Most of the shop’s work happened to be on VWs, so Freeman’s learning curve steepened quickly as he struggled to understand those hard-working little rear engines for which the Beetle was famous. He left that job after only a few months and began migrating northward, gig by gig, his allegiance to the West Coast’s growing swarm of Beetles now formed and firm. This was in the early 1970s, which meant that Freeman was almost on the ground floor of a car that would come to define a generation.
Since early on in the history of automotive design, certain cars have glowed with the aura of art. Anyone who has ever gone to a high-end show of amazing machinery at Pebble Beach or Amelia Island will know that no Picasso inspires more passion than, say, a 1930s Alfa Romeo or a 1950s Mercedes 300SL gullwing; or, for that matter, any Delahaye at all. Although vintage VWs have never attained the exalted status of these classics, they have played a significant part in America’s post-war history.
The old VWs were infamous for lacking power—their idiosyncratic rear engines developed around 40 horsepower, maybe an eighth of the oomph produced by American muscle cars of the day. To get to the top of a steep hill, I had to reach the car’s maximum speed of around 70 mph on the way down the hill before it.
The first VWs were built in 1937 at the urging of Adolf Hitler, who wanted a wagen for the volk (the people). The war interrupted civilian production, but the German army’s equivalent of the Jeep was actually an early version of a Beetle (later recreated and called “the Thing” in the U.S.). The civilian car, saved from oblivion by an enlightened British officer for use by the Allies’ occupying troops, didn’t arrive in the States until 1949, when a grand total of two Beetles were sold.
But that lonely pair predicted trouble ahead for Detroit’s giant gas-guzzlers. In Barry Levinson’s 1987 film “Tin Men”, the director sets his story in the late 1950s—the golden age of the tail fin. His aggressive metal-siding salesmen all drive Cadillacs, but their business is dying because of a Congressional investigation, and every now and then a cheeky little VW Bug zips across the screen, an omen. By the time the movie showed up in theaters, Beetles and their camper-van siblings were all over the place, propelled by a famous Doyle Dane Bernbach ad (“Think Small”) that Advertising Age magazine has called the greatest advertisement of the 20th century. At the car’s zenith in 1971, 1.3 million units rolled off of VW’s assembly lines. By 2003, when the very last Beetle—now preserved in the aspic of the Volkswagen museum—was produced in Puebla, Mexico, well over 20 million of the plucky Bugs had come and sometimes gone.
I’ve been obsessed with motorized methods of propulsion since the years just after World War II, when my father let me ride into town on the running board of the family’s hulking La Salle at the age of 7. I was one of those annoying kids who could name every make and model of American car, and later, when I got interested in sports cars (which I raced as an amateur) with more exotic European machinery.
When the hippie movement took off (peaking more than 50 years ago during 1967’s “Summer of Love”), VWs became the hippies’ vehicle of choice. Look at almost any photo of that period where a musical group or its groupies are in transit, and you’ll find them standing in front of a VW bus, a vehicle that seemed designed with dowdiness as its first principle.
My own intimacy with Volkswagens began soon after I got out of the military, around the same age as Freeman’s first encounters. After owning a string of MGs (fun cars to drive but a veritable Battle of Britain to fix), I opted for dependability and bought a new, moss-green Beetle convertible and drove it contentedly for several years. The Beetle had a personality that took some getting used to. There was no fuel gauge, for instance, only a lever near the accelerator pedal that opened a reserve gas tank, giving one an anxious 25 extra miles or so. Driving from New York to see my parents in Florida required, back then, crossing some empty stretches of Georgia where gas stations were sporadic, and having to switch to reserve was not reassuring. (See “Deliverance.”)
VWs of that vintage were also infamous for lacking power (their rear engines developed for around 40 horsepower—maybe an eighth of the oomph produced by American muscle cars of the day). To get to the top of a steep hill, I had to reach the car’s maximum speed of around 70 mph on the way down the hill before it. By the time I reached the crest, I’d be lucky if the little Bug would be managing 30 mph. That Beetle may not have been as sleek, fast, and chick-magnetic as my MGs, but unlike those brittle Brits, it always started.
When the hippie movement took off (peaking more than 50 years ago, during 1967’s “Summer of Love”), VWs became the hippies’ vehicle of choice. If you look at any photo of that period where a musical group or its groupies are in transit, odds are you’ll find them standing in front of a VW bus, a vehicle that seemed designed with dowdiness as a first principle. In my case, I have a somewhat wry recollection of that little bus.
In the late 1960s, when I was living in Europe, I headed for Nice from Paris with two friends in a rather beat-up bus. While driving into a village, we stopped at a bridge to ask some locals about restaurants, but they took offense at our poor French and brusquely waved us on. On our return, when we saw the locals still chatting, we decided to reciprocate—the two of us not driving dove under a blanket in the bus’s roomy back end. Three men arrived, only one man left. To this day, I imagine children in that village being terrified by stories of the two American ghosts still hiding somewhere up in the woods.
Freeman may not fix up vintage Alfas and Ferraris, but he still deserves credit as a kind of art restorer, since at auction some old VWs can take on an old master’s luster. Especially valued is the sun-loving model known as the 23-window bus. In 2014, one of these glamorously glazed critters went for $235,000 at a German auction; a few years earlier, a vintage 1963 had been scooped up for $217,800 at a Barrett-Jackson auction in Orange County, California.
One may wonder if this bus was a VW van or a Van Gogh, but even with an engine that breathes hard on steep hills, the many-windowed bus is, for some, a many-splendored thing. Six-figure VW buses are very rare, but there’s still profit to be made on more mundane examples. Pointing to a just-revived campervan on his lot, Freeman mentions that it was bought by a German customer who intends to ship it back to its birth nation. “The price pretty much doubles as soon as the buses get to Europe,” he says. As we speak, a new-fangled electric version of the bus is on the drawing boards at VW. Called the ID Buzz, it is scheduled to appear sometime after 2020 (with the U.S. version scheduled for release in 2022).
Just over 40 years ago, after three years working for a garage in Santa Barbara, Freeman bought a ’61 VW van for $100, loaded up his box of tools, and headed for Oregon via some camping-out time in Big Sur. Stopping for gas in Sonoma, 50 miles north of San Francisco, he noticed a repair garage with several Beetles in line for service, and immediately knew he didn’t have to get back on the road.
Youngsters who inherit old VWs often “do horrible things to the cars,” Freeman says. In one case, a kid was putting carpeting in his Bug, and rather than cutting the material to fit around the emergency brake, he simply sawed off the brake handle and laid the carpet over the wound.
In a failing chinchilla farm just south of town, the farmer had converted a large barn into live-work spaces, and Freeman moved in among the chinchillas to begin working on the motherlode of VWs in the area. Two years later, he moved his operation 30 minutes north to the village of Glen Ellen, where he has been ever since, in a corrugated tin shed stacked floor to ceiling with enough spare parts to bring new life to VWs languishing in garages and backyards all over Northern California. There’s no mistaking the funky shop for a surgeon’s operating theater, but patients who enter here always seem to leave in good health.
This long tenure nearly came to an end in 2017, when wildfires spread south from the village of Glen Ellen and came within a few miles of the garage—and Gary’s house. As of this writing, both remain uncharred. Tucked in just behind a general repair station, Freeman runs what he calls a “buy, fix, and sell” shop. Though dollar amounts on a given transaction may be small, the profit margin is good. He mentions buying a badly neglected Karmann Ghia for $100, getting it running, and selling it for $600 or so. There are 10 sleek little Ghias in the area, he says, that are brought to him for occasional TLC. The Karmann Ghia was a car I didn’t much like when it was introduced in the U.S. in 1959—it seemed to lack personality, and looked like a poor man’s Porsche. But in the years since, the car’s stripped-down Italian styling has looked better and better to me, and a couple in Freeman’s shop, with Necco Wafer color schemes, have been very tempting.
For many classics, the biggest problem is finding replacement parts. (A neighbor of mine, a former Navy machinist, restores old Norton motorcycles, and he has to make a lot of the engine parts from scratch.) Freeman doesn’t face this problem. Perhaps because so many Beetles were made, and so many were parted out, getting bits and pieces for the relatively simple rear engines is not difficult; whatever he can’t find in the packed shelves of his shop he can now ferret out in the vast flea market of the internet. Apparently, he has yet to be stumped in a search for an organ replacement.
Basic Beetles, the most common of vintage VWs, abound on sites like Craigslist and eBay. In most cases, people have inherited them and let them sit, and they don’t ask a lot of money to get them out of the driveway. Sometimes, Freeman says, the grandchildren of the original owners “do horrible things to the cars.” In one case, a kid was putting carpeting in his Bug, and rather than cutting the material to fit around the emergency brake, he simply sawed off the brake handle and laid the carpet over the wound.
At any given time, Freeman owns about half of the dozen or so of the cars in his lot. When I asked him what he drives, a nearby mechanic piped up: “The one with the most gas in the tank.” Though he contracts out the body and paint work, Freeman can make the most decrepit machine into what he calls a “daily driver.” Fully renovated, an old Beetle can sell for at least $15,000.
Pointing to a two-tone (blue and rust) early 1970s Bug parked next to his shop, Freeman says there are times when he renews the engine and electrical system but leaves the paint alone. “I’m driving this one up to the Sacramento swap meet in a couple weeks, as is. A lot of first-time drivers just clear coat a car like this. I get the motors going, but the kids like the rust.”
Looking at the lineup of future work at Sonoma VW, it seems likely that the Beetles and buses of earlier days may live on, and then live on some more. What was once an odd little car with the engine at the wrong end is now an Art Deco treasure. There is such affection for the Bug that VW was finally moved to bring out a retro version in 1997 (with a larger motor, now in the front end). At the time, I was a car columnist for GQ, so I was given one of the first new Bugs in California to test drive. I wrote then that when going down the street in one of those retro models the enthusiasm was so spontaneous that it was like walking a giant puppy. The “new” Beetles, now longer and slightly sleeker, are still at VW dealers, waiting to be driven off. But if you believe in authenticity, with the expert help of Gary Freeman you can sport around in a fully alive original. With rust or without.