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Old Timers, bus life since ’76

Old Timers, bus life since '76. Road trips from a different era.

Words/photos by Regina & Dietmar Blome. Article published in Advanture Magazine issue 07
Old Timers Bus Life Since '76

Let us recoin that phrase, Old Timers. No longer should it refer to the vehicle. The road which lays ahead of you has most likely been visited once upon a time by another road nomad, in a different era. We’ll pay homage to these Old Timers in a series of personal accounts from decades that have long passed. Here is a story about bus life since ’76.

Dietmar recounts, “In front of us stood a shiny paprika red, well-cared for on the outside, almost like new on the inside, modern camper. We wanted to buy it.

It has been around 40 years since we purchased our first VW bus, a T2 model. But here we are in 2015 looking at a very comfortable T4 California Coach. It comes with a comfort roof, is still young at 17 years of age, and nicely run-in with 140,000 km on the clock. But still, it is really expensive!”

“We looked a little jealously out of our little tent at the magnificent VW Bullis”

Regina posing by a VW classic in 1976
The first bus bought by the couple, a classic Volkswagen in 1976
Later on with a family, at St. Peter-Ording in Germany
Later on with a family, at St. Peter-Ording in Germany

There is not only a great amount of time between the purchase of Dietmar and Reginas two buses. There are thousands of kilometres, two children, three self-builds, two alcove mobile-homes, two pick-ups with detachable cabins and countless tent holidays. A passion for living with the means to be mobile gave their family the means to enjoy a good time around Europe.

“On our honeymoon in 1974, we drove our Citroën 2CV from northern Germany to the Algarve in Portugal. I remember it was around spring time and we were in the Cote d’Azur, with night temperatures of 0 degrees Celsius. We looked a little jealously out of our little tent at the magnificent VW Bullis. “At some point we have to have a bus like that too!” One year later, we bought a snow-white, four-year-old T2 petrol engine with double carburettors. The construction with glazed red poplar plywood, was also appreciated by the TÜV, although the hand-made bench in the rear did not quite meet the standard. So, officially it was just a two-seater. Our first summer trip was supposed to take us back to Portugal, but it didn‘t work out.”

Regina “Our dream country Portugal, this time a round trip with our self-developed T2 Bully, that is how it was planned in the summer of 1976 and yet everything turned out quite differently! We drove through France and into the heat of the Spanish highlands, arriving in Seville. In the middle of this lively city we found a parking lot in front of a large hotel and were persuaded to take a horse carriage ride. Arriving back at the hotel parking lot, we discovered that all the cars in our row had been broken into, including our Bulli. We had left the bus spontaneously to go exploring, just grabbing our cameras and leaving too much behind. Bags, my ID papers, even my make-up utensils, all gone!

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Stupidity must be punished, which was probably what the police thought at the time, from whom we received no help apart from referring us to visit the German Consulate. The next day we received emergency papers for a three-week stay in Spain. For us a passport was still required to enter Portugal at this time. There was not much we could change, so we headed towards the stretch of coast in front of the Portuguese border to go on vacation. We found what we were looking for near Huelva and Punta Umbria, a campsite on a dry lagoon with a restaurant and nice English neighbours in a small Bedford mobile.

Retro campervan and hippies in 1970's
We don't just love the style of the old vans, but Old Timers like Regina and Dietmar too!

an unforgettable experience on the Costa de la Luz in ‘76 … not yet frequented by many tourists at all

The next day we immediately drove to the beautiful sandy beach in the Bulli. After the first swim in the warm waves and a little sunbathing, an emissary from our extended family appeared. To our surprise he spoke German and it turned out that Juan was living with his family as a guest worker in Germany. Another member of his family, Manuel, was a truck driver who was married to a German woman. He invited us to dinner. We grabbed our towels and got to know the entire family. We reciprocated with a cognac for Juan, which we stashed in the bully for emergencies.

The procedures for the following days looked a little something like this; eating on the beach then drinking cognac back in the bus, swimming lessons from the eldest daughter, getting to know other family members and invitations to typical southern Spanish houses. Brothers, aunts and uncles, other grandmas and grandpas and lots of children. We have never experienced such deep and positive insights with such overwhelming hospitality. It was an unforgettable experience on the Costa de la Luz in ‘76, which was not yet frequented by many tourists at all.”

Regina and Dietmar got a taste for the road and many trips with the VW T2 followed. To Burgenland in Austria, to the French Atlantic coast, to Venice and to St. Tropez. The next year, 1977, they dared to travel to Greece along the Yugoslavian Mediterranean coast and around Albania. What would be quite a journey to prepare for today, was nothing less than a serious adventure to undertake back then.

A mechanic working on a retro VW campervan bus Old Timers Bus Life Since '76
The simple mechanics of older Volkswagens make them popular choices still to this day. Although easy to repair, parts are now very expensive and getting harder to source
A hippie sat in a retro campervan
Dating back to the 1970's, you could find examples of high top and pop top campers. The headroom on this classic Toyota allows you to stand up completely inside.

Dietmar “During a routine inspection in the winter of 1980, it was found that at least one cylinder had barely any compression left. It would be better to exchange the engine. Optimistically thinking that we were now well equipped, we set out on our annual trip to St. Tropez over Easter, something around 1500km one way. We were no more than 50 km from the finish at the French seaside town that we love so much, when the gearbox dismantled itself! Fortunately there was a junction to a small town right by us, and we rolled up to Daniel Molinengo‘s workshop. The friendly mechanic immediately recognised the serious damage suffered by our bus and was able to help that day.”

Regina “Madame and Monsieur Molinengo, who were not much older than we were back then, will always be remembered for their incredible hospitality. Not only did they immediately book us a room at the local train station hotel, but they drove us there with all of our luggage and our slightly hysterical dog. I remember I had to quickly collect some cans of dog food. Over the aperitif, we discussed how to proceed.

Pretty quickly, a new gearbox was out of the question. We started to call workshops in Marseille and Toulon hoping to find a used-like-new gearbox … it would definitely take a week at the least to find. A week in this mini-town called Le Luc, cut off from the world with just a train station forming its centre. Containers in which Moroccan guest workers lived stood on the tracks of the station. They came to the hotel to eat in the mornings and evenings, spreading a North African exuberance. There was only Moroccan food on offer, but we were thrilled despite our vacation frustration. Everything was new to us! Unfortunately, I felt sick every evening after dinner which I could only blame on intriguing ingredients and the completely new-to-me spices. Gluttony on an exotic level. After four days of quiet life, just walking the dog in the sun and eating as much as we liked, we received some good news.

Read Old Timers, Bus Life Since ’76 and more stories like this in the latest issue of Advanture mag

In Marseille there was a suitable used gearbox for our bus. Molinengo fetched it and completed the install that same evening. The next morning we were sitting in good anticipation at breakfast when bad news arrived. On the way to the hotel, the “used-like-new” gearbox had also died! First horror, then the consolation that it could have been worse if it happened to us on the way to the coast, after leaving the hospitality of the Molinengo’s in Le Luc. Staying in a hotel with half board was too much for our vacation budget, and without our bus we were homeless. There was only one way out. A taxi was booked with the last francs in our purse. Bags and dog food were reloaded and off we went down the serpentine tracks to the coast, which felt like a journey through hell.

We rented a dank mobile home on a campsite just south of St Tropez, instead of enjoying nature in our Bulli under a pine forest. It took a little convincing, but my sister in Germany agreed to bring us a new gearbox. I think she wanted to come with her boyfriend anyway. All‘s well that ends well, and it worked! The installation went smoothly back in Daniel Molinengo‘s workshop, however the bill was a strong surprise! Only the final installation of the new gearbox had been calculated. The preparation of it, organisation and the trips to Marseille had mounted up. Back home in Worpswede after finally having had a vacation in the VW … we discovered that I was three months pregnant.”

Dietmar “Despite the new engine and transmission, our trust in the beautiful bus was massively disrupted. In addition, we were expecting our first child and now needed at least one more approved and safe seat. A friend recommended a Toyota workshop to us, where he saw a red HiAce campervan. The price was several thousand Deutschmark less than a new VW bus. So we decided on the Japanese build in early 1980 and were happy with it for over 8 years! The expansion was of course a bit more demanding because we soon needed two approved seats in the rear. The twin sliding doors were practical so that gas and water could be supplied from the driver‘s side. In good time before the birth of our daughter in ‘84, we had a Reimo high roof built and installed. Nice, uncomplicated trips now took us mainly to France, to Brittany in particular.”

Retro Volkswagen kombis parked on the beach at St. Peter-Ording in Northern Germany. Old Timers Bus Life Since '76
Retro Volkswagen kombis parked on the beach at St. Peter-Ording in Northern Germany.

Regina “1982 Brittany, Pleherel-Plage, Cap Frehel. Good friends lured us to the north coasts in Brittany in the summer, with long-term consequences. In midsummer when it is teeming with tourists, Brittany is and would remain our favourite area of ​​discovery. Back then with our little son Tim and dog Ede, there was great freedom to be enjoyed! We could park our bus in the dunes, frequently finding like-minded young parents as neighbours. We were in the middle of nature but still on a campsite. There were free water sources and a supply of food from the local region … only the sanitary facilities were scary from what I can remember! Luckily we had an outside shower and a small toilet rigged up in the HiAce. The surrounding places were partly within walking distance and the daily rhythm with toddlers was open and uncomplicated. When we were tired after a long day on the beach, 5pm would be nap time for our youngest. We would have a small walk from 8 pm, sometimes the adults enjoying a wine, and milk drinks with a straw for the children. Highlights included hiking to Cap Frehel, carefree swimming on the flat beach at low tide and contact with French families. Even with two children a little later on, Pleherel Plage remained our destination for some time. That was until we discovered southern Brittany on a trip in ‘88.”

A red VW T4 California coach
The latest campervans from VW take inspiration from the previous designs, but offer a more comfortable and practical camping layout overall.

The Blome’s would see a small number of new vehicles over the coming years as they searched for something suitable for the small family. Frequent mid-length road trips were the focus, and finding a suitable camper that was fun, and safe to travel in, was key.

Dietmar “A little more comfort and a little more space for four people saw us welcoming an alcove design mobile home. Our first attempt was a setup on a Mitsubishi L300 and we didn‘t like it for long. The vehicle was quite weak and we found the ride in the rear seating group too dangerous for our children. That forced us to promptly change to a new Bürstner A520 as early as 1990, a rather compact but fully equipped alcove mobile on a Fiat Ducato. Our children had their own cosy sleeping place in the roof, and we parents had to build our bed every evening. But that was soon over when our children preferred to sleep in tents at the holiday resorts we stopped at.

Over the years, driving on the autobahn felt like it became more risky. Heavy trucks were filling our roads and at some point we got the idea that we didn‘t want to let the children sit “back there” any longer. We also needed a second car with the larger camper. An ingenious solution would be a pickup for everyday use and a demountable cabin for travelling. Our first purchase in 1995 was a let-down, a used Opel Campo which had some faults, so soon after we opted for a brand new Mitsubishi L200. Well, we needed to sell the cabin to help pay for it. Inevitably, there was a summer vacation in a tent which followed, but also with obstacles. Upon unpacking the tent which we bought by mail order, we discovered that the fly ended 1 metre above the ground … An old-fashioned and cheap tent from the supermarket saved our vacation. So we were looking for an affordable pickup cab with immediate effect. A year later we found a dealer in the Netherlands who imported American cabs. For around 15,000 DM we got a set-up that was sufficient for our purposes, but without a bathroom, and without a large overhanging bedroom. Soon the time came when our boy no longer wanted to travel with us and our daughter would prefer to sleep in a tent with friends. Regina and I moved our vacation from the campsite to our sailing boat, which has been in the nearby harbour since 2001, and is still there to this day.”

The eleven-year-old pickup finally got too expensive with repairs and rising diesel prices. A small self build was enjoyed in a Peugeot Expert for some more years, despite it having no headroom nor bathroom.

Dietmar “Later in 2015, my second year as a pensioner, the temporary arrangement would finally be over. We discovered our paprika-red VW T4 in the yard of a friendly dealer near Hamburg.

Back in a Volkswagen, and so much more comfortable than what we remember from back in ‘76. But with the same feeling of freedom, independence and totally relaxed travel that we remember from the old days. As always, several kilometres leads us to Brittany and back each year, which we can now discover in peace and with a level of luxury. So it feels.” AM

Advanture magazine issue 07
This article first appeared in Advanture mag issue 07. A coffee table style print magazine for the adventure vanlife culture.