Communal lifestyles, public protests, and innovations in fashion and music are hallmarks of the hippie movement of the 1960s-’70s. One of the biggest symbols of this American counterculture is the German Volkswagen bus. Local business owners Rita and Jason Ward from Little Green Booth, the Volkswagen-bus-turned-photo booth, and Bethany Carpenter of Panacea Brewing, ILM’s newest vegan restaurant and kombucha bar, are proving the VW community is still very much alive. Together they will host a car show and swap meet, Circle the Wagens, at Waterline Brewing on Saturday to celebrate the vehicle’s ongoing appeal.
The swap meet is a direct reflection of the simplicity of VW culture. “They aren’t as popular anymore because it’s hard to have a transaction where money isn’t involved,” Carpenter says. Participants bring spare parts sitting in their garage and trust the quality of another’s is equal to their own.
“People will help you pinpoint what part you need,” Rita shares. “It’s a really friendly community. People also like the conversation that comes out of swap meets, just as much as trading parts. It’s [great] to come together and talk about what you’re passionate about.”
Kindness is rampant within VW culture. Collectors reliably lend a helping hand in times of need. “People are willing to drop everything and tow you on the side of the road,” Rita says. “Everybody that owns a Volkswagen no matter where you are in life—what you’re doing, how old you are—will stop and do everything you can to help a fellow Volkswagen owner out.”
There are even Facebook groups in which folks can reach out when stranded on the side of the road. Fellow VW owners will coordinate help.
A lot of Volkswagen followers practice generosity outside of their tight-knit group as well. For example, Volkswagen enthusiasts Kyle Pennington and Jeremy Hardy are the founders of local nonprofit Vigilant Hope. Their nonprofit hosts a mobile shower trailer for the homeless community, and they hold public forums to talk about community problems not often discussed, such as food insecurity and racial injustice. They also have a coffee roastery on Lake Branch Drive and use their restored VW bus for coffee deliveries, in hopes of evolving it into a roaming coffee shop. Their renovated bus will appear at Circle the Wagens.
“What’s awesome about the Volkswagen community is it’s such a mish-mash of different cultures,” Pennington tells. “[A VW owner] can be a middle-class worker, a wanderlust traveler or even multi-millionaire, like Jay Leno. . . . You have the older hippie community still involved and the motivational force behind everything that’s Volkswagen now. But there’s a second wave of culture that’s into modifying and pushing Volkswagens to their limit.”
VW always has stood for travel, adventure and freedom. Today’s restoration projects preserve that mentality but also continue in the creation of movable art—and without spending a lot of money. “You can get a shell pretty inexpensive and then you just go to a swap meet or buy parts online,” Rita says. For Little Green Booth, Jason is teaching himself how to weld and has installed interior bamboo paneling. Hardy and Pennington’s Vigilant Hope bus was once a bullet-hole-ridden shell with seized-up brakes. Carpenter’s aunt and uncle, Art and Robin Hill, bought the Panacea Brewing bus to renovate and discovered it was the home to an entire family of rats.
All VW restorers engage in the same first step: Check for rust, see if the motor turns over, and buy the Volkswagen owner’s Bible, “How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive,” by John Muir and Richard Sealey.
In 2022 Volkswagen will relaunch the Microbus as an electric, self-driving vehicle— its first production since it was discontinued in 2013, due to safety concerns, including a lack of airbags and anti-lock brakes. The new bus will start at $70,000. VW’s Beetle, another iconic vehicle, has sold more than 22.5 million over the years. It, too, was discontinued in July 2019, due to a decrease in sales. “It brings a whole new level to [preservation,]” Rita says. “You got to hold on tight; it’s not going to get made again.”
Models are disappearing off the roads with their glory being confined to junkyards, backyards and garages. Revitalizing a VW helps continue the legacy of dying cars. For example, Little Green Booth has seats from a previously wrecked bus. “You want to keep the integrity of the bus,” Rita says. “You can create so much more than just a car you drive to the store.”
The community gets a boost from its car shows. Parents pass on their hard-working heritage to children; restorers get inspiration from others of their ilk. “You get immediate satisfaction, [thinking,] This bus is together because I did that,” Rita says. “You get work ethic out of it. It’s something for families to do that’s different, funky and productive.”
Born out of necessity for Wilmington to have its own VW car show (the closest are in Raleigh, Charlotte and Farmington), Circle the Wagens will feature a variety of vintage models. The Vanagon (a boxier, more reliable Microbus), Fastbacks (station wagon version of a Beetle), and hopefully a Thing (a small military-style vehicle) will make an appearance on Saturday. “It’s cool to see what types of models come out of the woodwork,” Pennington says.
Circle the Wagens prioritizes giving back and engaging with Wilmington nonprofits and businesses. All registration fees from the vehicles will be given to Wilmington’s award-winning nonprofit, DREAMS Center for Arts Education. DREAMS focuses on giving kids, ages 8-18, equitable access to an arts education. Food trucks will be onsite, and live music will come from Mike Blair and the Stonewalls. Boombalatti’s and Mother of Wild Flower House & Event Co. will operate out of their buses as well.
“We’re attracting such a crowd that remembers and resonates with the ‘60s-‘70s,” Carpenter says. “It’s not a fad; it’s sticking around forever.”