Think of the cars that define particular eras and places in California. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Hummer and Elon Musk’s Tesla. The Kustom Kulture streamlined babies famously written about by Tom Wolfe and the lowriders of East Los Angeles and San Francisco’s Mission district. The virtue-signaling Priuses of the aughts and the beat-up Model Ts that carried the Okies to the Central Valley during the Great Depression.
All speak of different Golden States. Yet none of them unite our multiple tribes like Volkswagen’s Type II, better known as the VW Bus, which Governor Gavin Newsom should deem California’s official vehicle.
This is the only tin can on four wheels that can take you from the desert to the sea to the Sierra and look stylish throughout the journey; that found fans among stoners and homeboys and suburbanites and beach bums; that in the present day is one of the few classic cars sought by baby boomers (who want to relive their glory days) and millennials (who want to glam up their social media accounts) alike.
As the former owner of three Buses and the current owner of one (an aqua 1968 nicknamed the Jam Van because my wife used to sell her fabulous habanero and sage jellies out of it at farmers markets), I maintain that the Type II is the vehicle that best represents the California dream in its totality. Always sleek. Never pretentious. An eternal movable party.
And now—owing to the fact that everyone wants one—they’ve become as unaffordable as a two-bedroom in the current housing market.
It’s little surprise, then, that Volkswagen will update the Bus for 2023 as an all-electric model. The so-called ID Buzz is already getting great reviews—after a test-drive, Top Gear’s head of car testing, Ollie Marriage, enthused that it was “so relaxing, so upbeat and laid back, a mobile living room with a changeable view, able to move but in no hurry to go anywhere.”
It sure looks like a good time (sadly, COVID-19 restrictions stopped me from spending a couple of days with one). The boxy, memorable chassis remains, as does the two-tone paint job. You can move the seats around so as few as two or as many as eight people can sit inside. Double sliding doors offer a gorgeous vista once you park, while sunroofs in the front and back make driver and passenger feel like they’re floating through life.
And while my ’68 Bus putters along with its 57 horsepower, the new Buzz boasts 369. That’s more than the 2005 GMC Yukon I drive daily. And my Yukon is a beast.
I’m sure the ID Buzz will become a bestseller. The upgrade is too significant to become a flop like the mid-1990s update of the VW Bug, which suffered from Volkswagen’s lackluster engines of that era and too much reliance on nostalgia. And no way will the German conglomerate mess this one up at a time when there’s peak enthusiasm for VW Buses of all types and #vanlife has become a hashtag turned lifestyle.
But let me now stand athwart history for a second and yell “Nein!”
Because this newbie just can’t compare to the original—it gets the charm of its grandpappy all wrong.
The thing is, the Buzz is too perfect. Its steering wheel looks like a futuristic Duplo block rather than the basketball-hoop-size knobbed circle of yore. The Buzz features an automatic transmission instead of the original stick shift, which just so happened to have a complicated reverse gear that served as an inadvertent anti-theft device.
Those are just some of the inconvenient (yet lovable) attributes of the Type II that all the hype for them ignores. More built-in mess-ups: They had no air-conditioning, could barely top 65 miles an hour going downhill with gale-force tailwinds, and always broke down. Always.
That’s another thing that makes them so emblematic of California: underneath the glossy facade of the Type II existed an automotive fraud.
Yet…the fraud is what made Buses so darn enjoyable.
The horn on my current Bus once decided to blare nonstop for about an hour while I was stuck in traffic on the 5 Freeway. Another time, while my friends and I, in suits and dresses, were on our way to a banquet, the hinge on the Jam Van’s pop-top suddenly snapped, and my passengers had to take turns holding down its handle.
Random, inconvenient times when my Bus wouldn’t start or died en route to somewhere important? Too many to remember.
And yet I do!
Wonderful anecdotes were made from those temporary headaches. I doubt they’ll happen with the ID Buzz—and that’s a shame.
Then again, part of what has always dragged down California is olds like me trying to encase the state in amber. So why shouldn’t the new VW Bus be unbreakable and powerful?
This can be the ultimate triumph of the ID Buzz: to hearken back to California’s glorious past while offering an exciting, reliable present.
Will I buy one? At about $40,000 a pop, probably not. But I look forward to seeing them become as ubiquitous as older models, seeing a new generation of the Endless Summer bloom up and down the coast and beyond.
And despite my reservations, I still want to drive one. Just one request, Volkswagen: Can you have the ID Buzz stall on its own every once in a while? Just to keep everyone honest.•