by Chris Quilter
Firmly convinced of the superiority of my driving skills, I’m a lousy passenger. Drivers generally put up with my involuntary gasps, Vulcan death grip on the grab handle, reflexive tromping on a nonexistent brake pedal, and other emanations of distrust. I assume they also are convinced of the superiority of their driving skills. I love it when they’re right.
My brother Matt, for example, inspires such confidence that I can work on this column while he is driving, without giving him the benefit of my constant vigilance. We are on the home leg of a weekend road trip to San Francisco, where a gathering of the gene pool celebrated the 75th birthday of cousin Jane. Matt’s wife and constant copilot Patty is up front, and my big lug of a brother Patrick and I are lolling around in a back seat that would put most limousines to shame.
Matt is a smooth operator—the fuss-free driving skill I value above all else—by necessity. He drives Volkswagen Vanagons (he owns several), a model not sold here since the early 1990s. The main thing they have in common with the even older, uber-cool VW vans you still see around is a lack of oomph. It will cruise steadily at 70…on level ground. Anything resembling a hill—we managed the Grapevine at a majestic 48 mph—requires strategic planning and a zen-like acceptance that you are driving a tortoise incapable of jack rabbit starts and other bursts of speed.
A Vanagon is a Teutonic application of the “form equals function” formula, which gives it the aerodynamics and aesthetics of a shoebox, but also the utility. It’s cavernous inside, a feature we put to good use in San Francisco by ferrying mass quantities of relatives from here to there. We left San Francisco with a load of five men over six feet tall and two mid-sized women, all of whom had head and leg room to spare. After disgorging cousin John in Brisbane, and brother Charlie and his wife Ann in Burlingame, the original four headed home via the Pachecho Pass highway south of San Jose.
It’s a beautiful stretch of road that winds through rolling hills before condemning you to the endlessness of the I-5. Matt and Patty have driven it often in his beloved Vanagon Syncro Westfalia all wheel drive camper on their way to and from Syncro Fest, or the rival Syncro de Mayo rendezvous, where other true believers gather annually to swap stories and spare parts, and engage in off-road obstacle course challenges in a state park near Hollister dedicated to that purpose.
Matt tricked out the Syncro with so many off-road bells and whistles it could climb the side of a mountain, as I found out on a white knuckle ride. The view from the top was tremendous. The look of disbelief on the faces of the kids in a “serious” off-road Jeep was priceless. Matt was nonchalant. By then, he had a couple of “best driver” notches in his belt and his name on the coveted Syncro Cup. Despite an improbable photo of the Syncro fully airborne, he swears these prizes are won by the slow and steady, not the swift.
Last May, they were on a part of the Pachecho Pass Highway that qualifies as the middle of nowhere. It was the dead of night. There was no moon, no signs of civilization, and no cars in sight when the Syncro’s engine died and all its lights went out. Can you see yourself steering safely to the side of a winding road while driving blind? I can’t either. To make a long story fit my word count, he and Patty hopped out of the Syncro unscathed and watched it fill with smoke, burst into flames, and burn to the ground.
Two months later, in the golden glow of a hellishly hot afternoon, they couldn’t figure out quite where it had happened, and—minus what I imagine was a major pang—they have recovered from the fact that bad things can happen to the best of us when we get behind the wheel. If that’s the moral of the story, I prefer to take my chances with a smooth operator.
Laguna local Chris Quilter wrote this column in a 1988 Vanagon Wolfsburg Edition on the I-5 on July 1.