Wednesday, 30 May 2012

VW Story (continued)

VW Story

Chapter Two

    After Doortje and I came back from New Guinea at the end of 1970, we stayed on her parents' dairy farm in Gippsland, Victoria, until we were married in May, 1971.  We began to think about buying a car and looked in car yards in Sale.  I recall that the best we came across, for utilitarian country driving, was a Ford Falcon station wagon, but we hesitated, possibly because we couldn't afford it.

    Doortje's father made enquiries among farming friends, and an engineer in Traralgon told him about a VW Kombi that we should look at.  We did.  It was a panel van, not a Kombi, a dove blue 1957 model with 1200cc engine, only fourteen years old.  And yet it was sitting in the middle of a paddock, being used to store hay bales!  It was empty when I saw it, but grass seed had sprouted in the grooves of the floor!  Despite this, it was in quite good condition, with no rust and perfectly driveable.

    We bought our first Type 2 Volksie for $150, which can be put into perspective - Doortje's engagement ring cost $250 and that was really the last of our money!  After we drove it back from Traralgon, I did a grease and oil change and cut and polished the paintwork.  It looked like new and everything worked mechanically.

    The earliest photos of the van show that it had non-original turn indicators installed above the headlights, so I now assume they were on it when we bought it but were not original, as I'm sure it had turn semaphores mounted on the "b" pillar aft of each door window, presumably disconnected.  I did add decent truck-type rear-view mirrors on the doors.

    After we cleaned out the interior, I built a bench seat sideways opposite the barn doors.  This converted into a bed by pulling the seat on side runners towards the doors and folding the seatback down towards the wall.  I've never seen this arrangement since, yet it enabled the area above the engine compartment to be permanent storage space, undisturbed by changing needs in the "living space".  The mattress covers, aka seat covers, and a curtain covering the space under the seat, were made by Doortje's Mum out of red velvet!  Our own little den of iniquity!

    I also fitted a removeable masonite screen in the space behind the front seat occupants' heads, so the two parts of the vehicle were completely separate.  The screen was decorated on the "inside" by my rendition of Aquarius and Pisces combined.

    A couple of weekends before our wedding, we went for a drive to East Gippsland, but were just passing under the old rail bridge at Stratford when the motor blew up, or at least broke some rings and lost interest in proceeding any further.  We limped back to Sale and had a Repco changeover motor installed in time for our honeymoon.  It seems that sitting in a paddock for a considerable length of time had produced rust rings in the cylinders.  At least reconditioned motors were not expensive then.  I believe motors were reconditioned by Volkswagen in their factory at Clayton in Melbourne, where all our Volkswagens were built.

    The blue van proved its worth on our honeymoon.  We drove along the east coast of the continent with no definite destination in mind, staying at Lakes Entrance, Eden, (detoured to Canberra), Sydney, Port Macquarie, Coffs Harbour, Ballina and Byron Bay, finally calling a halt at Surfer's Paradise (where, among other things, we played mini-golf!).

 Relaxing on the trip north up the east coast.

    There is something special about touring in a Type 2 VW.  Without a bonnet, the road seems "in your face" as it disappears underneath, and the higher seating provides better views than a sedan.  Up front there is no engine heat that normally builds up on a long trip, and the floor of the van has no tailshaft or exhaust pipe under it to heat up the bedding and make it impossible to sleep.  With the rear hatch open, the top of the engine compartment is an ideal bench height.  Travelling with food supplies and bed space included in the deal induces feelings of cosiness and contentment.

    We made more than one trip to Adelaide, nearly 1000km from Sale, during winter months and often in the small hours of the night, enough to prove that the headlights were awful (six volt) and the front of the vehicle leaked lots of cold air at more than walking pace (no engine to warm it up!).  Average speed was generally about 80kph but could improve with tail winds or downhill!

                        *               *               *               *

    At the end of  1971 I applied for a job with the new Commonwealth Teaching Service, and was appointed to teach at Berrimah Primary School in Darwin.  Because fares were paid, we set off in January 1972 on the Ghan to Alice Springs, and then drove up to Darwin.

    Before we left on the trip I made a mounting bracket to bolt to the front bumper, to hold a water bag!  This was before we had anything insulated to keep drinks cold.  We probably had a spare fan belt as well, as a concession to driving in the Northern Territory, and a vulcanising kit to mend punctures, but not much else.  For pumping up tyres, I had a double-action hand pump which worked beautifully and was made in Australia!  I've still got it.  To pump up a 15" VW cross-ply tyre it took 100 strokes to raise the pressure 4lbs/sq inch, something I know from experience.  Five hundred pumps was enough to make a flat tyre useful.

    From Darwin, we drove the van "down the track" on weekends to Berry Springs, Howard Springs or out west.  When the wet season ended and every day was sunny, I had the bright idea of turning the van into a convertible.  I cut off the section of roof above the front seat, leaving the reinforcement that connects the windscreen to the b-pillars behind the front doors, and the reinforcement across the roof in line with the b-pillars.  With the masonite screen fitted behind the front seat, the cargo space of the van was still fully enclosed.  I shaped a rod to fit across the gap to help support a canvas cover which could be clipped on when needed, like a tonneau cover.  It was possible to unbolt the side window frames and lift them out of the doors so that the doors were pillarless (and had no windows).  We drove the van like this for the whole dry season, and I can remember Doortje standing up with her hands on top of the windscreen to feel the rain on her face, when the wet started again.
 On Casuarina beach, showing the VW's convertible nature.
   One day we went for a swim at Casuarina Beach where it was possible to drive onto the beach when the tide was low.  We drove around a headland and set up our picnic in a small cove.  Later, when the tide turned, we realised we'd need to be sharp to get back around the headland before it was too late.  We weren't sharp enough, though, because I got bogged in sand that was already affected by the incoming water.  After removing anything we valued, we could only sit and watch as the tide rose higher.  When it was half up the wheels, my brother Lester who was with us, declared that unless we got the battery out the car electrics would be ruined if it became submerged.  Desperately, he managed to break one of the battery leads to get it half out, then with renewed grip, tore the battery out with brute force!

    At its highest, the tide came about three-quarters up the side of the van.  Lester went back at low tide with our policeman neighbour and they towed it home in the early hours of next morning.  While I was at school, Lester removed the spark plugs to flush the cylinders and restored the battery to its usual place, so that when I came home in the afternoon, the van was going again!

    However, various rust issues materialised from then on!

                        *               *               *               *

    At the start of 1973, Doortje, Jackie and I moved to Finke on the Ghan railway route, north of the South Australian border.  With only 75mm annual rainfall, the van would not suffer from too much additional rust. 

    Unfortunately, unseen depredations continued from the sea dousing.  The most interesting of these was that the accelerator cable broke and when I pulled the broken pieces out, they were disintegrating.  Somehow, it never occurred to me to order a new cable and then not use the car until it was installed.  Instead, I found some fishing line and plaited a thick cord from it.  I attached it to the accelerator arm on the carburettor and ran it out of the engine compartment, along the side of the van and up to the driver's door.  I inserted a long screwdriver in one of the holes exposed along the top of the door where the window frame had been removed, and attached the fishing line to the screwdriver which acted as a lever.  To drive, it was necessary to rest my elbow on the door and push the top of the screwdriver forward to accelerate.  Voila!  One drawback was that the fishing line stretched and the length often had to be adjusted.  Holding the screwdriver in a set position for any length of time, changing gears and steering with one hand while driving over corrugations, was another drawback, tedious to say the least.

    We only drove the van to Alice Springs once in 1973.  It was 90km of rarely used goat track to the Stuart Highway at Kulgera, it was hot, and we didn't relish the idea of breaking down.  It would be at least 24 hours before anyone would realise we hadn't arrived in Alice and then come to the rescue.  The motor gave up the ghost without warning, halfway to Kulgera.

    After realising our predicament, checking our meagre emergency supplies,and trying to get Jackie back to sleep, we calmed down enough to start searching for the cause of the breakdown.

    There were no electrics!  It only took a few moments to discover that the battery earth lead was not attached to the chassis, the bolt worked loose by corrugations and lost.  There was no complete circuit enabling the coil and spark plugs to operate.  A makeshift connection soon had us back on the road.  We breathed a sigh of relief that something had not been irretrievably broken or rusted out.

After Daniel was born, we resolved to buy a new car in Adelaide in December.  Even the mighty VW didn't like being dunked in the sea, and it would more than likely continue to periodically produce faults as a result, ably assisted by that harsh environment.  Nevertheless, we loved motoring in the van and decided to buy another one.

We sold the 1957 van to a railway fettler at Finke for $40.  It was probably a shame not to give it to him for nothing, but he reckoned it was money well-spent.  It did have brand-new accelerator and clutch cables!

                        *               *               *               *

There was high demand for new VW Kombis at the end of 1973.  We had to take what we could get, and although the local dealer had none, he located one on the northern side of Adelaide.  Just before Christmas, Dad gave me a lift to pick up our brand new Kombi.  It was yuck yellow, known, I believe, as chrome yellow.  The dealer left a bunch of flowers on the passenger seat as part of the deal!  This was my third and as it has turned out, last new vehicle.  The Kombi cost $3,500 at a time when, for example, a Holden Kingswood cost around $3,000.  At that time, Kombis were put together at the Clayton factory from imported CKD kits but with about 60% local content.

    Before going on to Victoria and then back to the Territory, we made some modifications to the Kombi.  First, Dad and I lightly sanded the roof and then painted it white, down to the gutters.  We felt that the yellow was a bit dark for Territorian heat and the lighter the better.  There was no air-conditioning in those days.
    Then from a wreckers, I got a middle-row bench seat out of a VW Microbus, complete with the proper VW nut and bolt sets that slot into fittings in the cargo floor. (The term Kombi relates to "combination", that is to carry cargo or passengers - it came with all side windows but only the front bucket seats and was therefore a cross between the Microbus and Panel Van).  We also bought an external mesh sun visor.

    While in Victoria, Doortje's father was keen for us to have a bull bar and windscreen protection, so friends of his welded up what I would call a chook bar (it wouldn't stop much else) out of galvanised water pipe.  At least it didn't weigh too much and enabled us to fix some bird wire between it and the sun visor for protection against windscreen damage.  The bird wire made it a little more difficult to concentrate on the potholes and we abandoned it a couple of months later.  Oncoming traffic or any traffic was much rarer on the bush roads of central Australia in the early seventies than now.

    I sewed up five pairs of curtains for all the rear windows, including the sliding door.  They had curtain wire spring threaded through both top and bottom hems and attached to cup hooks to stop them flapping when windows were open.

    When we got back to Adelaide, we found there had been record levels of rain in the north and we had to wait for the Stuart Highway to re-open.  The day we headed north through Port Wakefield and Port Pirie, it was only to discover that the bitumen road was closed south of Port Augusta because Mambray Creek was in flood!  We decided to return to Adelaide where Doortje, with Jac and Daniel, would take up the offer to fly back to Finke with Bob Smith of New Crown Station, who was in Adelaide with the station Cessna for a few more days.

    Next day the road was again open and I headed off to get the Kombi to Finke.  I reached Pimba without mishap, had a snack and beer at Spud Murphy's, and then headed west to Kingoonya.  The Kombi danced and skidded all over the chopped up road until I reached a long stretch of water that I knew would test man and machine.  Half way along it, with negligible traction and darkness falling fast, I swerved over the windrow and parked where I could at least get out of the vehicle without standing in mud and water, and decided to try again in the morning.

    After intermittent sleeping for a couple of hours, I woke to the patter of rain on the roof, and determined that I should drive back to Adelaide in time to catch the Cessna flight.  I drove on adrenalin back the way I had come, this time in the dark!  I arrived at some ungodly hour in Adelaide after an unforgettable night drive.  We all got safely to Finke except Bob's son, Andrew, who was happy to give up his seat for me and wait till it was safe to drive the Kombi north.  It extended his holiday in the big smoke!

    Being conscientious, I wanted to be in Finke for the start of the school year.  As it turned out, mine was one of the few schools in the Centre to start on time with all staff present!  To top that off, two weeks later I was asked to accept a promotion and move to Papunya as Principal.  Without much warning, we were packing the Kombi again.

    The country was still very wet and still rain around.  Going north to Alice we waited in a convoy at the Finke River until the water subsided, and then the Palmer crossing was barely passable, but the Kombi was equal to the task.  Next we were stranded in a motel in Alice for more than a week waiting for the roads out west to dry out.  We eventually arranged to travel in convoy with three other vehicles also going to Papunya, and after last minute shopping and arrangements, we set off in late afternoon.

    There were no four-wheel-drives amongst us, but a grader was stationed between the Derwent and Dashwood Rivers in case we needed it.  I don't remember all the details of the trip.  From Alice to Papunya is about 240km and it normally took about three hours for the drive.  Our introductory trip took until nearly midnight.  At the Dashwood causeway, the water was halfway between knee and hip as Doortje walked through, lit up by headlights in the dark, and carrying both Jackie and Daniel.  When my turn came, the Kombi got through without problem.  Things on the floor got a bit wet.  We were amused to note that among our worldly goods were two tennis racquets!  I can only assume that the rationale for passengers walking through the water was to lighten the load but in retrospect it's a bit strange.  Experienced men were leading operations.  When she asked the pastor how long he had lived at Papunya, Doortje was shocked at the reply "Seventeen years".  In those conditions!

                        *               *               *               *

    A couple of months later, the roads were all washed out again, as we had unseasonal rain in May.  We needed to go to Alice Springs and that trip was not without incident.  The starter motor wasn't working but we weren't too worried about this as it was easy enough to give the vehicle a bit of a push and then drop the clutch in second gear.  The motor would start at the first "grab" of the rear wheels.

    On the Tanami road there is a wide black soil plain on Milton Park station east of Narwietooma, and on this trip the road was sodden and slippery.  At one point the Kombi lost traction and forward motion was possible only with Doortje and I both pushing and the rear wheels spinning with the engine idling.  I had to be very spry because as soon as the wheels showed any sign of getting grip, I needed to leap through the driver's doorway and get at the accelerator (or clutch) before the engine stalled; then repeat the process when the wheels began to spin again.  By good luck as much as anything we avoided the situation of having to use a starter motor that didn't work (where to push-start the motor would have been nigh impossible without traction).

    When we reached the bitumen of the Stuart Highway, we found a line of vehicles on both sides of the Charles River which was running a banker, about knee-deep.  There were 4-wheel drives that were unwilling to attempt the crossing but we were only hampered by the risk of stalling in the middle with no starter motor!  As it happened, the teacher from Haast's Bluff came along soon after and towed us through with his Landcruiser ute.

    Back in Papunya, with the starter motor pulled apart and laid out on newspaper on the kitchen table, it was obvious that due to the travel conditions of January, the offending accessory had been packed hard with mud preventing movement of the drive pinion, and only a thorough cleaning was needed to get it working.

A trip to Tnorala (Gosse's Bluff) in 1975.

    At Papunya, I made a large wooden box the width of the Kombi and shaped to fit between the the middle-row seat and the engine compartment.  The top of the box was flush with the top of the engine compartment, forming a good-sized bed.  With a mattress on it, the kids had a place to sleep on long trips, and there was more than a cubic metre of storage space in the box.

    We kept the Kombi for two years and made lots of bush trips in the Papunya region, to Yuendumu, Glen Helen, Ormiston Gorge;  out east to Ross River and Trephina Gorge, and a memorable trip through Tyler's Pass, driving along the rocky creek bed in those days, to Gosse's Bluff (now Tnorala).  By this time (late 1975), Andrew was six months old and we bought a Toyota Coaster bus to convert into a camper that five of us could fit into.  The Kombi was sold to a teacher in Alice Springs.

                        *               *               *               *

    Towards the end of 1980, our family of six moved from Lajamanu to Alice Springs, and on the spur of the moment, bought another Volksie as a town car to save driving the bus all the time.  That car was a 1973 Type 3 station wagon.  It had a twin carbie 1600cc motor and was yuck yellow, sorry, chrome yellow.  It was a very nice car with plenty of power, excellent gear box, and plenty of room for six of us (sleeping toddlers were quite comfortable in the rear space over the engine cover).  It felt solid on rough roads.

    The kids remember that VW as our rally car!  We were picnicking south of Alice Springs in Roe Creek and I took some of the kids for a drive on the sandy tracks along the river to get firewood or something.  I must have been hamming it up a bit because they reckoned we were rally driving!

 On the road to Uluru.  Not broken down - engine in back!

    In mid-1981, Doortje's mother was staying with us and we decided to go for a Sunday drive to Uluru.  (Despite what most tourists imagine, that was a 900km round trip, including 500km of corrugations and sand in those days).  With seven in the car, we left Alice at daybreak and reached Uluru in mid-morning, spending the day there.  We left again in late afternoon, and I switched on the headlights at dusk.  After dark, while making good progress, I noticed the lights were growing dimmer.  When we reached Erldunda at the Stuart Highway, we really had no headlights.  I didn't quite understand what had happened and thought we would wait till daylight, even though I had to work on Monday.  There was no accommodation available at Erldunda.

Seven of us slept as well as we could in the Type 3!  It was a long cold night.  It was impossible to move much to get comfortable.  Next day, with 200km to travel, we slowly lost power the further we progressed.  By the time we drove through the Gap into Alice, I could barely keep it in third gear, and we limped home.  The electrics had been powered by battery power alone until it was flat, because the generator wasn't working.  It was the old story - dust and grime seized up the brushes in the generator so they made less contact as they wore out, and only a good clean was required.  Nevertheless, it was impressive that the VW did actually get us home, even though behind schedule!

Another trip to Uluru, this time camping.

When we went back to living in the bush we sold the "town car" and, succumbing to fashion (and good sense - with a young family), we bought a diesel Landcruiser.  In the future, we were to make only one more trip in the outback in a VW.

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1 comment:

  1. Rob,

    A fabulous adventure.

    Thank you.
    David Nightingale.