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  • Writer's pictureFred Schlabach


I graduated from college in the spring of 1989. Trying to put off the inevitable of settling down to a 9 to 5 routine, I decided to take an epic road trip around the USA. My plan was to save up over the summer and head out for parts unknown on Labor day weekend. Figuring out the rest of my life could wait awhile longer.

Finding the right vehicle and traveling companion were my number one priorities. The search was on. I was thinking that a vintage Dodge A100 van or a first generation Ford Econoline would be great. Alas, there were nothing worthy for sale in my area and of course this was before Craigslist and Ebay Motors. Through the grapevine a family friend heard about my search and called to say he might have the perfect van for me. His brother in law was the property manager for an apartment complex in central PA and someone had abandoned a 1973 VW Westfalia van there. He said I could have it for whatever it cost to have it transported to his house. The only major problem with the van that he knew of was a bad clutch. I reimbursed him the $130 for towing fees and it was mine. Now, to get it home. The van would drive ok on level ground, but between Frank's house and mine were quite a few large hills. I needed to map out a route and be smart about my driving so I didn't get stuck halfway up a hill and have to back down. The method I came up with was simple. At the top of each hill gun the engine and get as much speed as possible, hoping and praying to make it up to the crest of the next hill. A bit of a white knuckle drive, but the van and I made it home.

1973 VW Westfalia van. Bad clutch. $130.

The first purchase I made was the Haynes manual for the VW Transporter . These are the best first tool to get when working on any vehicle. Every project you could ever think of is outlined and explained in great detail with photos and nice diagrams. Having never replaced a clutch, I got to reading. Being a rear engined vehicle, removal of the engine was required to access the clutch which seemed a bit daunting. Happily, with the help of the manual and a friend, the clutch replacement actually went quite smoothly. While the engine was out we replaced the spark plugs, wires, distributor cap and rotor as well as the fan belt and rebuilt the carburetor. Mechanically, the van was ready to go. This project was great on many levels. I got to learn a bunch of new skills on a vehicle which barely cost anything, so I really had nothing to lose.

After doing a bit of body work, I performed my first paint job. It was no masterpiece, but from 20 feet away looked ok. Sewing class from junior high came in handy when I made new covers for the seats and curtains for the side windows.

The best part of getting the Westfalia over some other van was the fact that it was already set up as a camper. It had a stove, icebox, cabinets, a table and the pop top. Through another friend I got a Westfalia folding hammock for up in the top and we were pretty much set to go.

By this time I had talked a friend of mine into going with me. We were slated to leave on the Saturday before Labor day and had planned out our general route with the understanding that none of it was set in stone. We were generally going to travel around the perimeter of the US, starting in the north and finishing up through the south as winter approached.

A slight curve ball...

That summer I was again working at the Toro distributorship as summer help in the parts department. At times in the previous 2 summers the owner had brought me into the main office to do some artwork for several advertising brochures due to my background in graphic design. This summer was no different and I found myself increasingly working in the office. In the middle of July one of the irrigation designers quit. I was called into the conference room and the job was offered to me. I explained that I was flattered by the offer, but that I had this trip planned for the fall. He offered that I could take the job, starting right away and still go on my trip, having a job to come back to when I returned. Having no other prospects on the horizon, I accepted. Mike and I would leave Labor day weekend and return by Thanksgiving.

Of course that trip is another story for another day...

1973 VW van after the road trip. First paint job.
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