Collector of the Week: Dale Petertson

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Dale Peterson, of Manson, WA, sent in the story of his 1963 VW 23-Window Samba Bus:

My experiences with my 1963 VW 23-Window Samba Bus would really have to start with its precursor, which was a 1959 VW Panel Van. I started driving it at 15 years old when on trips with my grandfather to the cabin on Hood Canal, WA. We made the trip frequently, as it was necessary for my grandmother to escape the dreaded pollution in Seattle and live in the clean air on the Canal. The trips were long—not for reasons of traffic or ferry boat schedules, as would be expected today—but for the fact the bus had just 36 horsepower.

My grandfather was a professional house painter, so his paint-soaked VW Bus had a heady smell that only a young teenager could love. Being a child of the 1960s, I was steeped in all manner of euphoria by breathing in hours of exotic fumes before we arrived at our destination. By age 17, the Bus was mine.

It may seem counter intuitive, especially for a sports-car-minded chap, but I maintain to this day that most of the finer points of driving skill and finesse are better learned by driving the under-powered and handling-challenged VW Bus. When highway driving, drafting was the first principle to be mastered. The VW Bus’ stunning lack of performance made the technique of finding the “rabbit”—a semi rig—necessary. Drafting is all about snuggling up behind the largest semi at speed and letting the clean air behind envelope you like a down comforter on a feather bed. Being in the zone is the art of maintaining momentum, feathering the gas and exact placement behind the semi.

My 1959 VW Panel Van Bus finally evolved to the 1963 VW Samba as a result of a rollover on the way to skiing at Snoqualmie Pass. The rollover turned out to be just incidental to our day of skiing. The people in the cars behind us were kind enough to stop and extract my best buddy. The rollover had ended up with him standing on my chest through my broken driver’s door window, and I was on the other side in the soft snow. Our helpers were from church caravan of 50 or so, and they had the VW Panel Van Bus upright and back on the road before the State Patrol knew what happened. We reconnected the battery, tied the driver’s door shut and had a great day of skiing.

Refusing to fall victim to the Darwin Awards, I eventually matured and mutated—in one big jump of evolution—to the 1963 VW 23-window Samba Bus.

Luckily, by the time the Samba Bus came into my life, driving limitations and extremes were thoroughly explored and it was time for college. The first big shock was the dramatic power surge of going from the 36 horsepower of the 1959 bus to 40 horsepower in the Samba Bus. The second shock was that people seemed to appreciate the Samba Bus more than the beater VW Panel Van. Most people, including the ladies, would see it and smile. And, my goodness, all that light. Going from a Panel Van to a 23-Window Samba with full sunroof was like driving onto “The Sound Of Music” set from the Dark Side Of The Moon. Everybody wanted a ride, and the full sunroof was fun in the sun—and a major rush for passengers at speed. It was also a very effective and immediate air freshener to rid the bus of any exotic fumes. I moved on, grew up some, and vehicle tastes changed. I did evolve to sports cars. Like many, I guess I keep a photo of my seminal vehicle of youth on the wall as a reminder of simpler times and the rites of passage to adulthood. Yeah, I’m lucky to be alive.