By Lois Grace
Mendocino County, in northern California, is considered the U.S. capital for pot-growers. But when my parents bought 40 acres there in 1963 or 1964, Dad just wanted the land for a “ranch” — his own getaway spot where he could escape with Mom, myself, my two brothers and occasionally my sister. And, once he had this land, he discovered it would be mighty handy to have a pickup to run up there and back every couple of weeks, because he was always hauling or building something. And, because Dad had been a longtime Volkswagen fan, the battered blue 1959 Single Cab Transporter he found seemed perfect. The sides folded down! It had a small engine, which meant great gas mileage! It was cheap to fix because (and maybe best of all) Dad knew how to work on VWs! In October 1967, 8-year-old Vernon came to live with us.
Obviously, Vernon had a rich history before Dad bought him, and his dents and missing pieces only hinted of his adventures. Not content with just one lower side door (to access the treasure chest underneath the bed) a former owner had cut another hole on the opposing side. This hole was covered with sheet metal and fastened down with one side of a hinge. The other side of the hinge was welded to the truck body below for a secure latch. His tiny round glass taillights were still there, enhanced by a pair of big plastic reflectors attached above them. In those very early days Vern looked as if he’d been ridden hard and put away wet. In other words, he’d lived a tough life.
Dad always made sure Vernon ran well and was in tip-top mechanical condition. The trip to the ranch was a 200-mile trip, one way, and spending time along the roadside when he could be at his place digging wells or pulling out tree stumps was not in the plan. Vernon suffered the occasional breakdown, but Dad would just pull over and replace the clutch cable, or whatever was ailing, and they’d get on home. Vernon never let anyone down, and in the years of those long trips to the ranch and back he was the reliable Blue Bomb.
Once up at the ranch, things tended to be a bit less predictable. If it was rainy, and Vernon sat for a while, there’d be a puddle on each side of the cab floor when you got in. The windshield flanges were badly rusted, and water would run freely under the rubber gaskets meant to keep it out. While driving, the flow was even worse: Many times we rode up to the ranch with Kleenex stuffed firmly into the rusty gap. When the Kleenex couldn’t soak up any more rain, the water ran out and over the dash onto our knees. At that point we’d wring the Kleenex out the window and stuff it back in for another few miles. The wipers were also mostly ineffectual in any real rain, owing to VW’s old 6-volt electrical system.
Even more unpredictable was the local population. Because this was (and still is, supposedly) one of the biggest marijuana-growing areas of the country, the folks who lived there tended to be protective of their turf. Imagine yourself as an overall-wearing, shotgun-carrying, pot-grower living in the hills around Dad’s ranch and you see this blue Volkswagen coming up your dirt road.
The fact that Vern was a VW truck and not a Chevy or a Ford meant that its driver might be one of you! Your first thought might be “COOL! Another dude to help with the harvest!” But actually seeing the driver, your second thought might be, “Wait just a cotton pickin’ minute...” when you notice it’s some guy and his wife and the kiddies riding and shrieking in the back.
In the ’60s, our family faced both scenarios, and the second one is the contact you hope to never have. In that instance, rain was falling lightly and Dad was driving us up to a ridge behind his property on a dirt road. He decided the road was getting more and more slippery, so he stopped to turn around and we were suddenly confronted by the overall-clad Hill Man carrying a shotgun. Dad waved to the guy, and the guy charged at us and shouted, “You’re not going any farther on THIS road!”
Dad quickly agreed and said “Nope! No, you’re right, we’re not! We’re turning around!” As he wheeled Vernon into a turn, the truck’s rear end slid off the muddy road and into a ditch. The ditch was running with about a foot of water coming off the hill, and we kids climbed out of the muck and stood on Vern’s back bumper, for traction. It worked great and Mom and Dad scurried off. They even remembered to stop and pick up us kids.
My older brother, Bruce, liked collecting old cars and had nearly restored a 1930 Model A Coupe when he discovered the Crosley. He found he could park two Crosleys in the space it would take to house a Model A Ford.
We all enjoyed our time at the ranch, but Bruce had a building there and stored many of his collector cars and parts in the building. He began buying Crosleys at an alarming rate and getting gobs of spare parts for them in the process. At some point Bruce had a bunch of parts he decided to make into a “dune buggy,” designed and built for scrounging around Dad’s 40 acres.
Now, you might think that after the shotgun incident we would be leery of wandering too far up any unknown dirt roads. And to be honest, we were. But Dad’s 40 acres were still HIS, and most locals respected the boundaries.
Bruce took the chassis and two transmissions from his Crosley pile and an engine from a Renault 4CV and somehow cobbled it all together to make the vehicle. The two transmissions were mounted one directly behind the other, so the “dune buggy” was really more of a tractor than a vehicle. He began driving us around on the dirt roads we weren’t afraid to explore. This mutant creature had two seats at first. He later added a third seat, between and slightly over the rear wheels.
We soon found out that only small people could ride in that third seat, or the dune buggy would tip backward. It wasn’t my favorite spot to ride anyway, because the rear wheels would spray whatever you were driving through all over you.
Once the dune buggy got to the ranch, it lived in the car building with Bruce’s other treasures, ready to have fun whenever we went there. The dune buggy got to the ranch the same way all the other cars and stuff got there: on Vernon’s bed. With Vern’s sides folded down, and two planks propped up against the rear end of his bed, the buggy was pushed and pulled up onto the ramps and then onto Vernon.
With this odd-looking contraption riding piggybacked, Vern went north again. My brother and a couple of his friends followed to unload it. We all knew neither the dune buggy nor Vernon would be going anywhere very fast, so Mike (Bruce’s friend) got the brilliant idea for a “fake fast photo.” And to this day, it remains the only picture of Vernon and the buggy speeding.
But Vern’s main duty was to Dad and whatever Dad needed him to do. He pulled stumps (with a chain and trailer hitch on his rear bumper) and cleared land on that acreage, making way for a family to build a house and later move in once my Dad sold a 5-acre parcel.
Because Dad’s place was a 40-foot prehistoric mobile home without running water, he built an outhouse for the woods. Poor Vern got the dubious honor of carting our A-frame outhouse 200 miles north. I would be very surprised if people weren’t snapping photos of this odd rig and its “skipper” all the way up Highway 101.
Vernon has had a rich and varied history indeed. His life with my family reads like the memoirs of an eccentric uncle. The Kiles, and now the Graces, have owned him for all but 8 of his 55 years. The family that had him before Dad had also put him through many unique experiences, and it showed. It’s easy to look at Vern and remember all the great times we had with him. Trouble is, my memory doesn’t dispense them all at the same time, so I am sure you’ll be hearing more. Every Volkswagen has a story; all you have to do is listen. VWCA
Lois Grace | firstname.lastname@example.org
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