Summer of ’79: Volkswagen Vanagon road test

The 1979 Volkswagen Vanagon Type 2 and the 1979 Mercedes-Benz 280SE are both icons of their heyday.Jeff Jablansky

The 1979 Volkswagen Vanagon Type 2 and the 1979 Mercedes-Benz 280SE are both icons of their heyday.

Summer is basically here, and—as we’ve said, time and time again—it’s the prime season for a road trip.

Recently, I planned to spend a couple of days in Los Angeles with my friend and colleague, Kevin, much of it behind the wheel of two rental cars from Relay Rides. Much like Airbnb, Relay Rides is a peer-to-peer rental service that allows individuals to share their cars with one another. (Also like Airbnb, Relay Rides is deemed illegal in New York state, deemed a similar threat to the rental car industry as Airbnb is to the hotel industry.)

1979 Volkswagen Vanagon Type 2

Unlike Hertz or Avis, there are no vehicle categories at set prices, and the rental fleet is as varied as its members allow it to be. You name it, and for a set daily rate, you can generally find it—even from defunct brands like Oldsmobile and Mercury—although many Relay Rides are new cars with low mileage, often belonging to commuters. That means everything from a decade-old Pontiac Sunfire convertible to a showroom-fresh BMW M4 is up for grabs.

And grab we did. With a daily budget of $100 each—roughly what you might pay for a Ford Mustang V-6 convertible in peak summer season—we plumbed the depths of Relay Rides’ vast assortment of vehicles available in Los Angeles. Our plan was to meet at a coffee shop in L.A.’s trendy district of Silverlake for an official unveiling of each other’s choices.

The result? We outdid even our wildest expectations.

After spending several days trying out Mercedes-Benz’s newest van, the Metris, I wanted a classic van experience, so I went for a 1979 Volkswagen Vanagon Type 2. I’ve spent time with plenty of up-to-date, modern vans, but never with the iconic “VW Bus.”From my laptop screen, it looked like a steal: cheeky looks, room for seven, and a classic air-cooled engine with an automatic transmission, with none of the actual hassle of owning one. Let the ad-van-tures begin, I said.

1979 Volkswagen Vanagon Type 2 interior


1979 Volkswagen Vanagon Type 2

When I reached Sunset Junction, Kevin was already outside and waiting, hardly able to believe what I had brought. Ditto, I thought. Was there magic in the air, during the summer of ’79? Slowly and noisily, we found out.

(Lyrical amendments with apologies to Bryan Adams.)

The icon: 1979 Volkswagon Vanagon Type 2

Ain’t no use in complainin’
When you’ve got an old Type 2
Spent my evenings sittin
’ in traffic
And that’s when I met you, yeah

My experience driving the world’s most iconic van began in a most surprising way: at highway speed.

I wanted some time to get to know the Volkswagen Vanagon Type 2 (T2, Combi, Van) that makes everyone who sees it smile. The exterior was in fairly good shape for an unrestored Van, and it even had a (taped-on) racing stripe. The interior was a vast expanse for such a short, narrow van, with room for seven occupants and luggage.

I made sure to arrive in time to collect the 36-year-old van at LAX airport before evening traffic began, so that I wouldn’t be thrown head-first into the world’s most congested commute with only 60-something horsepower at my disposal.

How wrong I was. Traffic was moving at 55 mph, and I was expected to keep up. The thing you instantly notice about driving the Van is that it requires a lot of effort—and this is hardly my first time behind the wheel of a classic car. On the elevated 105 freeway, crosswinds immediately pushed the Van to and fro, even with the windows closed. (Air conditioning? Who needs air conditioning when you can sweat your way home?) Acceleration was brisk to 20 mph, and then virtually nonexistent. The braking point was vague, until it abruptly wasn’t. Ride quality was fairly soft, but imagining cornering exercises was a theoretical nightmare. Time not spent thinking about the angle of an upcoming hill or curve is used to mitigate the opportunity of becoming a human crash zone. The T2’s only saving grace on the highway was the unexpectedly smooth automatic transmission, a unique feature paired with the T2’s largest engine offering.

Most moments on the freeway were spent in the right lane with both hands white-knuckling the narrow steering wheel. This being California, however, no one seemed to mind, and we got the thumbs-up and massive smiles as we just concentrated on maintaining 40 to 45 mph.

That was our modus operandi for the next two and a half days: eliciting positive reactions while mostly suffering, ourselves. Everywhere we went, making noise along the way, people seemed to take note. In the Hollywood Hills, the Little Van that Could climbed its way up to Mulholland Drive and take in the full view of the city, although steering through some corners was best accomplished while humming a prayer. In Santa Monica, it fit in with the surfer crowd—who seem to have upgraded to Subarus and late-model Hondas. There are moments that we almost forgot we were driving a van old enough to be our uncle—most of them below 25 mph—although they were definitely fleeting.

At only one point did the Van’s engine refuse to turn over. (Not a great moment for a rental car.) Left alone, perhaps to breathe a sigh of relief, it gurgled to life and kept going. The sound of its start-up was rumored to have woken an entire neighborhood, for an early-morning photo shoot, but what did we care? We just imagined that it was still 1979, and that every car was like our lovable, loathsome Van.

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