VW Van Culture in Corvallis

Photo Credit: ALice Johnson

Photo Credit: ALice Johnson

Many believe that there are but two categories of van owner: youth soccer coaches and creepy dudes. There used to be the third category of hippies, but basically the last hippie van of note was the Mystery Machine, so these days it’s pretty much just serial killers. At least that’s what I thought.

I recently noticed that Independent Auto Werks on 13th Street in Corvallis seems to always have a VW van of some kind in the parking lot.

I went in and asked them about VW van culture in Corvallis. The two guys behind the counter looked at each other knowingly and took my card. Within a few hours, I started getting calls from
Willamette Valley locals who live and die by the van.

Alice Johnson learned to drive in a VW van. Her father was a professor who took students on field trips in a school bus. When it broke down, he got the family’s first of the quirky German vans in 1957. They then owned a ‘61, a ’67, a ’71, and a ‘77. The last of the vans was gathering dust in the garage when Alice reclaimed it. She first took it to Independent Auto Werks 11 years ago, and she’s still driving it today (and taking it there to be serviced).

“Dad’s greatest wish was to see his van back in commission,” says Alice.

Ed Epley bought his VW van in 1961. He was the first owner then, and is still the only owner to date. He still drives his ’61 classic around town. You’ve no doubt seen it, as he leads a 12-year-long (and counting) protest against the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that runs all year round in front of the courthouse in Corvallis.

“My ’61 Microbus is used to carry war protest signs to an ongoing vigil in Corvallis.” he says proudly of the workhorse vehicle.

Photo Credit: John Cuny

Photo Credit: John Cuny

Many of these local VW vanners meet up for camping trips through a group called the WetWesties. It’s an online forum for VW van owners from Oregon, Idaho, Washington, and up into Canada. They meet online for advice and announcements for the van community, and in real life for camping and partying with their vehicle of choice.

Westies refers to Westfalia, the town and company that made the German camping gear—usually including a pop-up tent on the top of VW vans. So a VW might be a Vanagon Westfalia, or a Eurovan Westfalia, or some other model.

“They’re all welcome at the WetWesties; we even have people showing up in Bugs. And we even have SOBs, which stands for ‘some other brand.’ We’re very welcoming,” says member Otmar Ebenhoech with a laugh.

You may recognize his work, as well. Ebenhoech cut two VW vans up and stuck them together to make his now famous Stretch Vanagon. The limousine-style VW Beast is his main vehicle, and he uses it to go camping with his Wet Westies pals, including at their annual gathering, which draws 60 to 70 campers to Nehalem State Park for a camp out of epic VWness.

To Ebenhoech, whose father bought the family’s first VW van in 1965, the “Westy” is camping. Heck, it’s life. And not just because he lived in one for seven years in his 20s.

“There’s sort of a special feeling about VW vans,” he says with a nostalgic grin. “It’s small, it can get places, but you don’t need to set up a tent everywhere you go.”

Ebenhoech’s an inventor and self-taught mechanic/electrical engineer, so having a versatile vehicle is a huge plus. That’s one of the reasons he sticks by the vehicles, which admittedly require tons of money in upkeep.

Speaking of the repairs to her father’s van, Alice Johnson says, “They told me, why don’t you just sign over your paycheck.”

Another reason Ebenhoech sticks with them is because they’re just too much fun. His current project is to take the innards of a crashed Tesla and put them in his Stretch Vanagon to turn it fully electric. The project is an ambitious first in electric vehicles that is blowing minds across the world.

Mystery Machine indeed…

You can check out the progress on Otmar Ebenhoech’s “Stretchla” at his blog http://cafeelectric.com/stretchla/, and you can visit the Wet Westies to join up or just get more information on the VW van life at http://wetwesties.org.

by Ygal Kaufman