Thursday, January 31, 2019

1965 VW Bus Rescue: Digging a Kombi playhouse out of the woods after 44 years

The bus was left in the woods for more than 40 years, shown as I found it.

Kombi rescue. The VW bus was parked in the Alabama woods before it was 10 years old. Serving duty as a little girl’s shiny blue playhouse before the rust found residence. Years later, it became a makeshift storage building, home for discarded lawn mower parts and bushels of aluminum cans. Planted in a low spot between two hills, the castoff, split window bus was a landmark. Sucked into the dirt and leaning, the VW was a permanent family member. A family member 
saturated with cancerous rust from the belly up. The Volkswagen was dying. 

"Would you be interested in an old VW bus?" 
  The message appeared on my Facebook. An iconic VW. Could it be one of those window buses? 21 and 23 window VWs are gold mines. I didn't hesitate. 
  "Heck yeah!" 
  My soon-to-be deal was told to anyone who would listen. The owner sent me a couple of photos, which only ramped up my enthusiasm. It was not a window bus — but she said I could just make an offer. 
  Cheap? Yes. My kinda junk yard deal. Or junk woods deal as it turned out.

The VW sunk into the mud by a stream.
The 1965 VW Kombi sunk into the mud by a stream between two hills.

What is it?
  A 1965 VW Transporter Kombi. This model VW bus was a forerunner to the modern day crossovers and SUVs. The Kombi’s rear seats could be removed to haul cargo or remain in place to haul 7 passengers. This was before anyone imagined folding the seats into the floor. A true utility vehicle that appealed to those needing a multi-purpose work vehicle or an active family hauler. 
  (Editors note: Kombi means station wagon via the German translator on my Google search. I thought it meant combination. — Takeaway tip: Don't take German lessons from a guy in Alabama.)

VW Kombi bulkhead (wall) separates the front seating area from rear cargo/seating area. Notice the floor is gone!

Bus load
  Fifty years ago, VW Transporter models included the Panel Van, the Kombi, the Microbus, the Pick-Up and the Double Cab Pick-Up. VW provided a wide variety on the bread box bus assembly line. It took a while to wrap my head around the intricacies of these early VW Transporters. I grabbed a book, "The Complete Book of Volkswagens" by John Gunnell, to learn more about the VW bus.  

Confusing lingo
  Car and bus. Easy. Look deeper. The first VW model, the original VW Beetle, is known as a Type 1. The Transporter (VW Bus), the second VW model, is a Type 2. Here’s where it gets squirrelly. 
The first generation Transporter design (Type 2), built from 1950-1967, are identified as T1 (first gen) and had a split front windshield. 
  1968 thru 1979 model Transporters are identified as the T2 (second gen) design and feature a Bay Window type windshield. 
  The terminology is confusing to non-VW people. I could tell you more baffling details about the 1980-1983 VW Vanagon but I’ll stop here. Just keep your T1 or Type 1 conversations separated according to bus or Beetle. We’re just gonna talk about the VW bus now. 

The 1965 VW Kombi bus spent 40-plus years in these woods.
Jungle scene? No, just Alabama woods. The 1965 VW Kombi bus spent 40-plus years in these woods.

How did the VW land in the woods in the first place?
  This VW bus rolled onto the property of Steve and Janice Thomas’ house courtesy of an ex-brother-in-law. 
  “He bought it for the engine to use in a dune buggy around 1974,” said Janice. “Our daughter used (the bus) as a playhouse.” 
  Extra vehicles tossed in the woods were no big deal for Janice. Her husband, Steve, raced round track cars back in the 1970s. The VW bus sat out of the way and became a storage shed after the playhouse years. The bus disappeared into the greenery of the wooded Alabama property. 

Why not sell it back then?
  Demand was low for junkyard VWs in Alabama in the 1970s. Drivers were wary of traveling in these on highways because of their low horsepower and wobbly road manners, especially in high wind conditions or while getting passed by a tractor trailer. Die hard hippies and anxious teens looking for their first vehicle gobbled up the cheap buses. For everyone else, used, better handling transportation alternatives could be had for a few hundred bucks. Worn out Beetles and bus bodies sold for next to nothing. Junkyards sold them for $25-$50. Many were left to rot or given away like this one.

Front bumper in much better shape than the rear despite touching dirt.
1965 VW bus found sitting on the front bumper after sinking into the soft mud between two hills.

How I found it
  First generation, split window VW buses wrangled from the jungle, swamp or mountain top have occurred all over the world. This 1965 Kombi was uncovered in a combination of all three terrains. The wooded sanctuary between two small hillsides and bisected by a rainwater runoff ditch was not easy to reach. I clamored over, under and through trees, vines and bushes to get my hands on the bus. The driver’s side was buried in the mud inches away from a trickling stream. Scales of moss covered the slab sides on the boxy VW body in a sheet of fungus.  

Somehow all the glass remained intact. 
  “How did a stray B.B., baseball or tree limb not taken a swipe at the glass?” 
  Taking inventory of the good parts was quick. Tail lights? Check. Headlights? Gone. The front doors sag and their outer shells flap. An empty silhouette remains where the big, 14-inch round VW emblem was once mounted on the nose. Inside the worst damage couldn’t be overlooked. A dirt floor visible where the floorpan once lived. The headliner’s cardboard backing hangs down and touches the frame. A complete set of VW wheels, welded tight with 44-plus years of iron oxide, are a good thing, right? 
  “I wish you could have got it sooner,” said Ron Kidd. “Like, 30 years sooner.” 
  So much damage but it still looks cool. “Take a picture, it’ll last longer,” was my first though when I considered moving the bus. I want to move it, but how? 

Ground eroded by water on driver's side of 1965 VW bus.
Runoff rainwater eroded ground under driver's side of 1965 VW bus. 
My son, Joe, maneuvers a floor jack under the 1965 VW bus' front bumper.

Saws, a shovel and chain
  Tree cutting was inevitable. Shoveling the tires out of the ground, a given. Digging out the frame and jacking up the transaxle to free it was par for the course. The problem was trying to move it without damaging the body or breaking glass. I know there wasn’t much to lose, but my goal was to move it to my house in the same condition that I found it.
  My plan was futile. Imagine moving a china cabinet - full of mom’s prized dishes. You know you cannot move it without breaking something. Scratch that – breaking lots of things. During relocation of the 1965 VW bus I managed to add a nice twist, or, as they say in France, torque, into the body. 

Pull harder, but not...
  A gentle tug with the 2004 Chevy 2500 4x4 was followed by some strong arm tractor action, then back to the truck for more controllable oomph. The rear end/transaxle was pulling away from the body of the rusted VW when pulled with our tow rope/chain setup. The lower half of the bus body had no structural support to stabilize it. Moving along the uneven terrain and out of the woods would be cruel and unusual punishment to what remained of the VW carcass. To remedy that, one chain was attached to the transaxle and another to the front support bar under the dash, then snugged tight using a come-along. After all seemed secure and a bit more excavation from underneath the wheels, we applied more grunt from the 6.0 liter LS engine with Ron Kidd behind the wheel. That’s when we managed to yank loose the center support bar below the dash. The rear wheels moved back more than a foot, which caused the back tires to push the rear corner of the bus’ body up. Not a good look. No going back now.

The split window bus' bumper guards and hollow headlight buckets make for a mean and scary VW.

Getting it home
  Once the VW was pulled clear of the woods, a wrecker was called so it could make a careful trip home via a rollback. I asked the wrecker driver to take it slow and easy. No luck there. During his first maneuver out of the driveway, with the VW swaying high atop the wrecker, he pulled out too wide, causing the driver of a giant, oncoming truck to lock-up his tires. After the smoke cleared, I watched from behind as the erratic driver proceeded to hang the little VW in the wind at blistering speeds. Vigorous flapping and rust dust pelted my truck as I followed behind. Somehow, the remains of paper thin sheetmetal held on for the duration of the trip. 

Drop her off anywhere, just ease her down
  The unloading process was as smooth as a bouncy house at a birthday party. Against my protests, the driver demonstrated the shake, rock, shake technique to slide the VW off the wrecker. The windows convulsed. The body creaked and groaned. Bitter, death sounds were made as the VW Transporter lost the battle with gravity and it shrieked – metal against metal – down the bed of the rollback.

After being pulled, stretched, twisted and shaken the Kombi looks a bit worse than she did in the woods.

Home at last!
  Clearing out most of the junk that survived the trip inside the bus was my first priority. Then I scrambled to make the sad remains of the bus more pleasing for my neighbors. A bath was in order. I hoped that more of the original VW Dove Blue paint would show up after a good scrubbing.
  “Well, maybe the rust looks cleaner?”
  The bus sits. I have no grand plans to restore the Kombi. I pulled the front and rear bumpers for Keith Lively to use as templates for the Mega VW Bus build (Part 1 video, Part 2) that he is working on. Right now I’m savoring the adventure and happy to look out in the yard at the 54-year-old bus. Who knows how long the remains of the bus will last?
  “I better look at it again.”

Jody Potter
— Junkyard Life


Inside the Kombi is a mess of rusted-through metal. The floor is gone and the shell is unstable.

Below the dash and split window in the 1965 Kombi the center post separated due to a feeble attempt at holding the bus together with a central chain connecting transaxle to center post.

1965 VW Kombi chassis i.d. plate on right-side of overhead air vent. Type 23 Kombi.

Sekurit VW glass.

Lettering on VW Kombi driver's door could be a clue to a previous role as a work-a-day company vehicle.

Rear bumper on 1965 VW Kombi eaten away by rust.

Rust, moss and dirt surround VW bus rear wheel.

I don't know if I will ever see an early VW bus in the woods like this again. It was a good day.

1965 VW Kombi vehicle i.d. plate behind right-hand front seat. Code 013 for middle and rear seat option. Code 31 Dove Blue paint visible.

Behind the wheel look at the 1965 VW Kombi. One side of Safari glass came loose from frame (but still intact) during transport.

Do you have a classic or muscle car barn find? Send us details and we’re on the way!  Send emails to Jody Potter at or Ron Kidd at

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Cars in Yards: 1956 Chevrolet Bel Air, a Mystery Theater Rust Opera with three pedals

Inside we find an automatic indicator on column but three pedals on the floor.

Welcome to Junkyard Life’s Mystery Theater. Tonight’s Rust Opera shall begin with a mystery car — one 1956 Chevrolet Bel Air that we stumbled upon. “What makes this a mystery?” you may ask yourself or the Rust Opera attendee seated to your right? 
  That is weird that in a theater you are more likely to speak to someone you don’t know seated on your right. 
  Silence! Your Junkyard Life Mystery Theater Host Jody, Keith and Ron are about to tell you. 

  There were many 1956 Chevrolets sold. That is no mystery. This handsome fellow represents a mere shadow of the man he used to be. Behold, opera fans… this one is a two-tone, four-door Bel Air hard top. Likely the most expensive car on the dealer lot. Second only to the Nomad wagon and the new kid on the block, Corvette, then in only its third year of production. 
  This example was missing a few pieces lost in the hands of time, but otherwise a rather complete car. Four-door hard tops are very cool.

So, where is the mystery? 
  Before you leave (sorry, no refunds) allow us to present the mystery…

But this 1956 Chevy was somehow equipped with an automatic transmission indicated on the instrument cluster AND also a manual transmission indicated by the three pedals which appear to be of factory issue.

This Bel Air was equipped with an AM radio (now missing) and all the proper Bel Air trim. Notice the Bel Air emblem is hiding a speaker and a well-placed clock? Notice anything weird, Junkyard Life Mystery fans? 

  Look carefully. It seems upon close examination that this ’56 Chevy was somehow equipped with an automatic transmission indicated on the instrument cluster AND also a manual transmission indicated by the three pedals which appear to be of factory issue. Explain!

The hard top gives the 4-door a sporty profile.
The four-door hard top is a beauty despite rust. The remaining stainless trim has withstood the test of time plus the hard top gives the 4-door a sporty profile. What's inside intrigues us most.

Get what you...
  Couldn’t decide between the two, so they got both? Wait a minute. You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes you just might find… you get a three-speed. (Editor’s Note: Apologies to the Rolling Stones. Ron just says things without checking for copyright issues.
  With that three-speed and a Power Glide, does that make it a five-speed? 
Drop us a comment below. We have a theory about this transmission madness but we want your input.

  Goodnight for now, Rust Opera Junkyard Life Mystery Theater and shoebox Chevy fans. We leave you to wonder which came first. While you are wondering, also imagine the bright contrast that the red or orange dash (Sierra Gold?) had with the two-tone paint. For that matter, what color was it actually? We love the hidden fuel doors on the 1956 models. Actually, the entire car has a presence and a prestige all of its own. These cars are still around and if you have the resources to rescue, please do! 
Ron Kidd
— Junkyard Life

A total of 103,602 Chevy Bel Air 4-door hard tops were built in 1956. That accounts for just 6% of the 1.6 million Chevy passenger vehicles built for 1956 model year. How many do you see today?

Do you have a classic or muscle car barn find? Send us details and we’re on the way!  Send emails to Jody Potter at or Ron Kidd at