Tuesday, June 7, 2016
The Automobile and the Counterculture during the 1960s in America: Hippies and the VW Microbus
The Microbus, Cars, and the Hippies
What is of particular interest is the overlap of worldviews that took place between a car culture in America that had reached its zenith during the 1950s and the counterculture of the subsequent decade. Both car culture and hippie ideology espoused freedom; however, one had its origins in design, color, standardization and industrialization, while the other was based on transcendentalism, shamanism, free love, and drugs.
One contemporary view of hippies and the automobile is that it was hippies who ultimately “killed the car,” or at least killed the kinds of cars that people once loved during the 1950s and early 1960s, but any discussion of hippies is bound to be superficial unless one incorporates obvious social complexities.4 Hippies were mobile, and some hippies did own cars, vans, buses, or motorcycles.
Sociologist John Robert Howard, a keen observer of the hippies during the late 1960s, not only dated the appearance of the term “hippie” to sometime in the Fall of 1966, but also classified hippies into four various distinct groupings – visionaries, freaks, midnight hippies, and plastic hippies.5 According to Howard, the visionaries articulated a coherent ideology that was opposed to the automobile. Visionaries inverted the values of their parents and substituted voluntary poverty for wealth and status. In contrast, freaks were druggies who did not figure much in the automobile story, with the exception of their hitchhiking up and down California’s coast highway 101 and catching rides in battered vans. A Newsweek reporter described one such van as having an “interior green with a purple dashboard and curtains and rugs strung throughout. A set of copper bells jingles intermittently.”6 Midnight hippies, however, undoubtedly owned cars, and perhaps are most relevant for our discussion. Midnight hippies were older, typically in their 30s, and bridged a world between the straights and the hippies. Often they were academics, working in a world of tolerant ideas, but they still had functions in everyday life and a steady paycheck. Finally, Howard labeled a group of hippies “plastic.” These were individuals who joined the movement without a deep commitment, ostentatiously wearing beads but without committing their lives to “transformation by example.”
Although not “true believers,” midnight and plastic hippies undoubtedly drove cars that were different. These cars tended to be older, unusual, and often decorated. Little has been written on this topic beyond commentaries on the VW Combi or the “Majic Bus.” . Painted in psychedelic colors, often fitted with a mattress in the back, the Type 2 or Transporter, was produced as a split window VW bus until 1967. Underpowered, hippies often replaced its VW logo by the peace symbol.7 One former hippie remembered that
From 1964 until the mid-70s, there were an assortment of unusual cars that came into my life. I think back on these as “hippie cars.” They were acquired as part of dope deals, abandonment, and other unorthodox means and never really belonged to anyone in the sense of title, insurance, etc. A major consideration was the amount of unexpired time on the license. The first was a Saab Station wagon with a 2 cycle engine. One of those Saabs that you poured a quart of oil in the gas tank to make a 2-cycle mix. I think it made about 8 trips from Ohio to San Francisco, northern California and back. Then came a baby blue Nash Rambler 2 door coupe, a 1954 Hudson Hornet and a 52 Buick Special. The Buick was dark brown and called the “Roach.” The Hudson had more room in the back seat than any car ever, was green, and of course was called the “Green Hornet.” I also owned collectively a Volkswagen bus with 2 hinged doors on both sides. . . .
Somewhere in between all these cars was a 50-ish BMW motorcycle. A 500cc vertical single cylinder. . . .The Beemer was slow and slow. It ran 62 mph flat out. It lasted six years with absolutely no maintenance at all! Hippies didn’t seem to own tools.
It’s easy to see what this assortment of vehicles had in common. They were 10+ years old when cars lasted five and were undesirable in a pre-energy crisis 70 mph interstate world. The little Nash and Volvo were the epitome of automotive counter culture. The Beemer’s name was “stodgy.” The Volkswagen van went to California and back on the interstate and was passed by every other car on the road. The Hudson was in that automotive limbo of being a car that wasn’t made anymore and the Buick – well it was Buick.
These things became part of the lifestyle with constantly changing affects. The Nash Rambler ended its’ days covered with concert posters from the Avalon and Fillmore Ballrooms. The Hudson’s swan song was a short stint as a demolition derby car since no one could get a title for it.8
A similar sense of the cars that hippies drove was described by Peter Jedick in his fictional account of hippie culture and life in Kent, Ohio during the late 1960s:
Like I explained before, everything back in the 60s was kind of communal: our weed, our food, our albums, even our automobile. The vehicle of choice was purchased the previous spring from Murph’s older brother for $25, $6.25 apiece. Not bad, huh?
So what if it was a huge rusted out ’59 Chrysler New Yorker. The price was right even though its V-8 engine sucked up gasoline like elephant drinks water. What the hell, gas was only a quarter a gallon.
The Chrysler did look a little out of place on a campus filled with hippie vans, Corvairs, and Volkswagen beetles. We tried to compensate by decorating it with those yellow plastic stick-on flowers that were in vogue at the time. We put them on the floor panels, the trunk, the hood, even the roof, but all it did was make it look even more obscene.
Did we care? Hell, no. We were the trendsetters, not slaves to the fashion dictates of the age. We were confident that once our contemporaries saw the advantages of our ride they would want one themselves.
After all, the Chrysler seated six comfortably, ten if necessary, started on a dime and best of all, no car payments. What more could a college kid ask for?9
Perhaps the quintessential vehicle associated with the hippies was Ken Kesey’s 1939 International school bus that he converted into a camper for his “Merry Pranksters.” One observer described it as “the original psychedelic bus, the precursor of the wildest transit system ever unloaded on the world’s roadways of rainbow colors and blaring music and long-haired men and women packed together with their necessities. . . ”10 The “Bus” reflected hippies’ high priority for sound, as described by Tom Wolfe in his classic The Electric Kool-Aid Test:
Kesey gave the word and the Pranksters set upon it one afternoon. They started painting it and wiring it for sound and cutting a hole in the roof and fixing up the top of the bus so you could sit up there in the open air and play music, even a set of drums and electric guitars and electric bass and so forth, or just ride. Sandy went to work on the wiring and rigged up a system with which they could broadcast from inside the bus, with tapes or over microphones, and it would blast outside over powerful speakers on top of the bus. There were also microphones outside that would pick up sounds along the road and broadcast them inside the bus. There was also a sound system inside the bus so you could broadcast to one another over the roar of the engine and the road. . . . There was going to be no goddamn sound on that whole trip, outside the bus, inside the bus, or inside your own freaking larynx, that you couldn’t tune in on and rap off of.11
Hippies not only drove cars, they also owned tools and fixed them. Perhaps the most significant development in do-it-yourself automobile repair post-WWII was the consequence of an engineer-turned-hippie’s efforts to teach everyday folks to repair their VWs. In 1969, the first edition of John Muir’s How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive: A Manual of Step by Step Procedures for the Compleat Idiot appeared, and its 5,000 copies quickly sold out. By the 1990s this clearly-written and well-illustrated repair manual had gone through 16 editions, and became the first of a series of eclectic publications from John Muir Publications. Muir’s intentions were simple: to enable those who had previously thought of themselves as mechanically challenged to perform everything from regular maintenance to the rebuilding of a VW engine. Muir, educated at California-Berkeley in civil engineering, had held a series of technical jobs for much of his working life, but found himself in Taos, New Mexico in the late 1960s and the owner of John’s Garage. Beginning with the writing of simple instructions for a woman to grind valves, Muir and his third wife Eve compiled a manual that featured the remarkable illustrations of artist Peter Aschwanden. Throughout the narrative, Muir inserted bits of philosophical wisdom, including the following:
While the levels of logic of the human entity are many and varied, your car operates on one simple level and it’s up to you to understand its trip. Talk to the car, then shut up and listen. Feel with your car; use all of your receptive senses and when you find out what it needs, seek the operation out and perform it with love. The type of love your car contains differs from you by timescale, logic level and conceptual anomalies but it is “life” nonetheless. Its karma depends on your desire to make and keep it – ALIVE!12
To this day, no automobile repair manual is as clear or as easy to use for the shade-tree home mechanic than How to Keep your Volkswagen Alive.