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Berkeley garage 'The Buslab' keeps vintage VW buses on the road

Steve Perzan has taken his Westfalia for repairs and upgrades to the Buslab for years.
Steve Perzan has taken his Westfalia for repairs and upgrades to the Buslab for years.
Alejandro Rosas/KQED

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If you're road-tripping through California this summer, you might spot the occasional Volkswagen Bus. Back in its heyday in the '60s and 70s, the iconic van was everywhere. Now, devotees of the classic German export invest time and money to keep their VW Buses ticking.

In Berkeley, The California Report's Rachel Myrow says there's a place called the Buslab that specializes in getting them road-ready again. 
“Here at the Buslab we're also known as the guys to call you and tell you it’s gonna cost a million dollars to fix your car,” jokes Buslab employee Sean Roberts.

He’s had a passion for VWs for 25 years. “Dude! I have so much fun,” he exclaims. "None of my cars have radios. So I listen to the engine. I listen to the wind. I listen to the road. I kinda go off to my own little world and just be me.”

Fans like Roberts say the Volkswagen Bus isn’t your average car, citing its roundish curves, spacious interior and cool vibe.

The story behind the invention of the VW Bus goes something like this: One day in 1947, a Volkswagen salesman by the name of Ben Pon walked into the Volkswagen factory in Germany. He noticed a customized Bug with the driver’s seat in the back and a flatbed in the front to move parts around the factory. At that moment, a light bulb went off in Pon’s head. He sketched out the Volkswagen Bus.

The evolution of the VW Bus is on full display at the Buslab. Parked outside, waiting to be restored, there’s the classic 1957 split window, and a 1973 model with sliding doors on both sides. There’s also a replica bus from the '80s TV show "Magnum, P.I."

Inside the Lab, a 1991 Vanagon sits on a lift. It’s getting a Subaru engine upgrade.

“We actually do a lot of Subaru engine upgrades,” explains Buslab co-owner Steve Perzan. He bought his first Volkswagen Bus after he left college in 1993, and he's been working on them ever since.

“It just makes traveling, getaways, weekend trips and longer vacations so much more accessible,” says Perzan. “Just the feeling of being on the road and that feeling of having that freedom is what draws me to it, and I think that’s what draws a lot of other people as well.”

There’s a strange, magnetic devotion some people have to Volkswagen culture. 

“It’s not like it’s smack or anything,” says Roberts. “But you know, you buy one and then you get another one and then you say, ‘This one is better than the other,’ then you take all the good parts of this one and put them on the other one and then another better one comes along and then you say, ‘I’m gonna grab that one,’ and then 20-plus years later, you got a garage full of parts and a wife who knows who the other woman is. She knows where all the money goes!”

Lance Larsen has brought his 1991 Westfalia Syncro to the Buslab for years. “It’s an addictive lifestyle," Larsen says. “The more I use it, the more I want to use it. I get in that thing and I start heading east or north and the world just slows down a little bit. And you put on a nice playlist and everything is good again and you get out of the rat race a little bit. It’s that escape pod. It’s pretty cool that way."

Larsen says he’s camped along dozens of rivers around the state. His favorite destination: the Eastern Sierra. “There is just a lot of open space, plenty of off-the-grid camping spots if you are adventurous and are willing to beat your van up a little bit to get there.”

Larsen says he and his family camp about 40 nights a year in their VW bus. Larsen says he’ll never sell it. And he hopes the next generation of his family will inherit his devotion to keeping the bus rolling, on the road.