How the Iconic VW “Light Bus” Rose from the Dead
It turns out you can’t go home in the same VW Bus again. But you can re-create it.
Believe it or not, brothers and sisters, the summer of 1969 went down 50 years ago. So, don't be surprised when the media starts celebrating the golden anniversary of man's first walk on the moon in July. Or in August, when we will all be invited to rise for 50th anniversary memories of the Woodstock rock festival, a badly run, unsanitary enterprise of slight musical interest that changed the course of a nation. Not really, but that doesn't mean you won't hear things like this bandied around all summer long. Prepare yourself, citizens, bloviation ahead.
For its part, Volkswagen has gone to the well of its hippie past with some regularity through the years, for inspiration and what might be called authenticity validation and top-ups. No wonder they gave an early nod to the anniversary of the famous festival by offering interviews with one Robert Richard Hieronimus, PhD, a.k.a. Dr. Bob. This muralist and right-brained academic designed and painted an original 1963 11-window Deluxe Volkswagen Microbus down on the commune where he lived outside Baltimore, Maryland, back in 1969. It came to be called the Woodstock Bus, because that's where they were headed with it, but it was originally created for a local band, The Light, to hit the festival at Max Yasgur's farm, which is why it was first known as the Light Bus.
With its potpourri of psychedelic visual cues and peace-making inscriptions in several ancient languages, the bus actually made it to Woodstock, where it was widely photographed. Cast in print then as now as an easy to grasp symbol of the movement of the moment, it even appeared in the album artwork for the Woodstock soundtrack.
Seen the bus was, but its artistic achievement has gone largely uncredited. Until now. A new documentary called The Woodstock Bus casts Dr. Bob—now 76, and still sporting ponytail and moustache—as the star of a reality TV quest to find the original Light Bus. The idea was, they'd somehow find a machine last seen in 1972, buy it, restore it, and then take it back to Woodstock. Along with Canadian producer John Wesley Chisholm, the eccentric Hieronimus speaks in our interview proudly of this early work and earnestly of the need for the return of the 1960s values—peace, love and understanding—the original bus was meant to transport. Pointing to an excellent scale model the men have brought along, he says, "The bus itself, you take a look at the various stories within it . . . it says, 'We are one people.' "
The author of several scholarly titles including the paranoia-inducing Founding Fathers, Secret Societies: Freemasons, Illuminati, Rosicrucions, and the Decoding of the Great Seal, a copy of which he gave me, Dr. Bob's work has been controversial among some of his university colleagues. "We weren't hippies," he insists, but a prize-winning mural he created that still adorns a building at Johns Hopkins University, one of many institutions with which he has been affiliated, along with other photographs of his work, suggest more than a passing familiarity with the hippie aesthetic, its intellectual underpinnings and chemical taproots.
The Woodstock Bus program—which goes live on July 10 on Curiosity Stream, a streaming and on-demand service launched by John Hendricks, founder of the Discovery Channel—was pitched initially as the search for the original Light Bus and its subsequent restoration. "We're looking for a bus that's covered in symbols, which is itself symbolic of a music event, which is symbolic of a generation so we're in deep with so many layers," said producer Chisholm.
But—spoiler alert—after six months of looking it turned out the bus didn't exist anymore. Which ultimately was not hard for Dr. Bob to believe. As he recalled, "We paid $44 for it. It was on its last legs when we got it. I mean, we put altogether three to four engines in it in [the] two years [we had it]. It just kept wiping out the engines. And then after we had the transmission replaced, we had a hole in the floor that was very large. It was no longer safe, so we covered it up with a piece of metal. But then after a while that fell apart. Then we had to say, 'You can't drive the children around in this.' "
After many dead ends and false leads, including a last desperate visit with a psychic who insisted she could envision the old van somewhere near Dayton, Ohio, they were forced to go to Plan B, finding and building a new bus, with the help of professional Microbus restorers, who'd ready the box on wheels for Dr. Bob and a team of artists to recreate the original artwork.
Finding a bus was an adventure in itself, owing to the countless window, door, and seating permutations of VW's Type 2 model, complicated by midyear running changes that made the spec of the original 1963 bus rare even before most had rusted themselves off the road. Then there were the runaway prices being asked for old VWs, with restored top-spec Microbuses often fetching six-figure sums and even sickly restoration candidates commanding $30,000 and more. To cap it all off, the first bus they sent for restoration, discovered in a field in Tennessee, turned out to be wrong in several key details. Months passed until they found the correct item in Palo Alto, California, with the restoration taken to Skinner Restorations in Vacaville, where a three-month refurbishment was completed in three weeks. Meanwhile, says Chisholm, "If you want a partly restored Volkswagen bus, I have one for sale right now because we sunk a lot of money into it before we realized it was the wrong bus."
Fortunately, Curiosity Stream and Dr. Bob's other funders—including VW, which pitched in to round out a Kickstarter campaign launched to fund the purchase and restoration of the bus—were persuaded to continue. The replica bus is set to debut at SoCal VW Week in June, and it will be driven to Woodstock from Baltimore in the beginning of August. Dr. Bob and the Light Bus will be there once again, with their messages of hope and unity. "I think that most important thing we're trying to do is we have made a foundation for a discussion on how to return to higher consciousness and work towards that as a group and work with diversity."
So, okay, here's hoping that message works better today than it did in 1969. And also that this time around, the Light Bus doesn't get lost. They're going to need it again in 2069 for the 100th anniversary of Woodstock.