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The Corvair-Powered Microbus

The Robinson family in their suped up micro bus circa 1967.

by John Robinson

I loved that bus. It was one of the coolest vehicles I could imagine, and I should know; I was crazy about cars. At the age of seven I could identify most every make and model on the road. I’m certain my dad Fuller felt the same way about the 1963 Volkswagen Combi, or Microbus. It was a fully-outfitted model, complete with more windows than my little sister could count and possessing an expansive canvas sunroof that could be slid open in such a way that the effect was reminiscent of a large, opened sardine can. Not only did the bus come safari-equipped from the factory in West Germany, but my dad –ever the mechanical tinkerer- endlessly worked and schemed at customizing it himself. Such modifications were to make the bus even better equipped for our family road trip camping excursions. Fuller couldn’t leave anything mechanical alone; he was ever gripped by the desire to re-engineer.

It’s June of 1967 and we’re rolling through New Mexico. My siblings and I are lounging in the meticulously designed and constructed plywood bus-top camper box which Daddy built. It was like a tiny little low-ceiling room affixed to the roof of the bus, which we kids accessed through the partially opened sunroof and a hatch in the bottom of the camper box itself. The box had little windows through which we could wave at the truckers, and best of all a portion of the roof consisted of a snap on and off canvas panel. So yeah, the four of us would hang out the top of this camper box as we sped down the highways of the USA. Today, parents would be jailed for allowing such behavior, but there you go. Most of the activities in which I engaged as a kid would be considered highly incorrect by today’s standards. Oh well.

The bus, which was two-toned white and “Mouse Grey”, had other memorable Robinson features such as a folding table, reading lights, storage boxes, and a narrow bunk which opened into a little bit wider narrow bunk for my parents. Fuller even sewed individual curtains for all of those windows. Especially neat was the galley box which opened antique-desk-style to the rear when the back of the bus was opened, the overhead door lending a bit of shade and shelter to the happy cook. There were myriad cubby holes and compartments in the galley, everything in its place. The look of the bus with the galley unfolded in the rear, the double doors on the side open, produced the uncanny look of a two-bit wiener stand, and once in a parking lot on the California coast a man approached and asked my dad as he cooked lunch, “Gimme two hot dogs with the works”

One thing with which the bus was not well endowed was a powerful engine. I think the little motor was rated at 49 horsepower, and proved woefully inadequate for transporting a family of six and assorted camping gear, including the aforementioned plywood contrivances. In fact, on those long grades in the Rocky Mountains we fairly crawled, joking that we could get out and walk alongside just as fast. This recalls bumper stickers of the era such as “Zero to Sixty in Fifteen minutes” and “Never Get Behind a VW Bus”. Anyway, this lack of power, this blemish on an otherwise stellar vehicle, got my dad thinking.

In the weeks following our return home from yet another shoestring budget, VW bus tour of some distant part of the US, my dad began conferring by phone with our cousin Andy who lives up the Shenandoah Valley. Andy was the soft-spoken mechanical genius of the family who engaged in things like building airplanes and racing cars, and since Fuller is no slouch in the mechanical department either, the two made headway in planning something big. And that something big was a heart transplant –engine swap- for the bus.

Volkswagen engines at the time were air-cooled; there was no radiator or liquid coolant system. To make the bus repower project a little more feasible, Andy and Fuller sought another air-cooled engine for the replacement. Their search narrowed with the realization that a Chevrolet Corvair engine just might be made to work.  Some readers will recall the forlorn Corvair. Consumer advocate Ralph Nader succeeded in getting this unusual automobile off of the American road due to significant safety issues. Hmmm. Anyway, especially attractive was the fact that the Corvair engine was suitably powerful for the intended project, possessing over twice the horsepower as the original Volkswagen “sewing machine.” Fuller predicted, ”It’s gonna’ run like a scared rabbit!”

A used Corvair engine, extracted from a recent arrival to a Waynesboro junkyard, was obtained and the project commenced in earnest. The work was carried out in the old barn on Andy’s farm, and Fuller spent endless hours in collaboration both on the phone and on forays up the valley. Such a project is not for the faint of heart. Some of the fun challenges to the puzzle included things like modifying the engine compartment to accept the much bigger “mill”. And then there were issues like mating the existing bus gears and transmission components with the Corvair engine, and then all sorts of things like alternators and electrical systems and heater and battery and airflow and fuel tank and supply lines, and other things which personally I can’t even imagine.

Well, the dream was coaxed to fruition, and it worked amazingly well. As a kid I was fortunate to witness the delightful creativity and perseverance necessary to carry the project to completion, and I took it to heart. And Fuller enjoyed tooling around in the mild-mannered looking bus with secret powers, while planning his next project, his next adventure. It was only for a fleeting few years that the Corvair-powered bus was a part of our family, but for me it still evokes fond memories.

I especially miss hanging out of the top of that roof-mounted camper box.


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