At 10 a.m. the convoy arrives. Twenty Volkswagens pull into a parking lot outside the Honolulu Zoo. Some patter in with that familiar, comforting VW rattle, while others roar up on teeth-gritting chrome exhaust pipes.
Washed and waxed, all are gleaming except for the handful of daily drivers, the trusty old classics still in everyday use. If cars had social lives, this would be date night—except it’s broad daylight and the occasion is the VW Club of Hawaii’s sixth annual Zoo Cruise.
There are Volkswagen enthusiasts all over the world, but Hawai‘i’s attachment to the brand is so deep and abiding that the cars have become an inextricable part of local culture. Only in Hawai‘i is VW to classic cars what Spam is to breakfast. If you think about it, there are some striking similarities: Both Volkswagens and Spam are dependable, inexpensive and fundamentally utilitarian. Both are also packed with grease. And while one comes in a shiny can and the other is a shiny can, both have a powerful appeal to local tastes that’s not easy for outsiders to understand. Hondas and Toyotas are also popular in the Islands, but the German-made VW ruled Hawai‘i’s roadways long before the Japanese imports became cool. And that appeal endures. As a Mainland transplant to Hawai‘i and a car lover myself, this intrigues me. So I’ve come to the Zoo Cruise to investigate.
The first thing I notice is that the drivers park in groups. There are purists with their faithfully restored vintage Beetles, microbuses and Karmann Ghias. There are the Frankensteins with their souped-up, chrome-wheeled monsters. There’s the bad-boy club of dune buggy racers. And there are the unpresuming owners of the daily drivers, puttering around as if it were still 1963. This self-segregation seems to be practical—the cars with chrome and custom paint jobs park in the sun to gleam in their full glory, while the daily drivers pick the shade of a giant banyan tree, bird droppings be damned.
As soon as the engines shut off, the parking lot fills with lawn chairs and the conversations begin. The driver of an unassuming, classic 1950s-era Beetle with a turbocharged, high-performance engine hiding under the hood casually notes his zero-to-sixty acceleration time. Unimpressed, the owner of a 1960s-era Franken-bug, replete with every possible shiny bell and noisy whistle, says, “Yeah—where’s your cup holder?” This compels a historical purist to point out that cars from the 1950s and 1960s did not have CD players. The good-natured exchanges go on like this all day.
I join the crowd inspecting the fleet. Hiding among the cluster of faithfully restored classics are a handful of sleepers—cars that are meant to look stock but have zero-to-sixty times that rival VW’s high-performance cousin, Porsche. There are also a few original gems that have survived the years relatively untouched and are still crawling over the Pali just as slowly today as they ever did. I stop to admire one of these, a 1978 champagne brown VW van. It has more than a hundred thousand miles on it, yet it barely shows its age. “I found it sitting under a tree in Kailua,” says owner Mike Roth. “It belonged to the pastor of a nearby church who never drove it.” After some simple maintenance, Roth drove it out from under that tree for just $100. For an unrestored thirty-eight-year-old car, it seems to be in remarkable shape. Then Roth points out the heavily rusted roof. Sap from the tree damaged the paint and rust set in. I ask what it would take to ﬁx it.“Lots of cutting and welding sheet metal,” he says. “But it’s hard to find guys in Honolulu to do work like that.”
For a gearhead, working under the hood of a VW is simple. If you can turn a wrench, you can pull an engine out of most air-cooled models. Disconnect four bolts, five wires, the fuel hose and the throttle cable, and you can remove the motor with a floor jack. “Classic VWs require a lot of work, but it is simple work,” says Rich Carvalho, who manages a body shop. “There is no mystery to them. You learn fast.”
The bodywork, on the other hand, is a different matter. Everything made of metal will eventually rust, and that’s especially true on a group of islands in the middle of the salty North Paciﬁc. A single surf run to the North Shore when the waves are up will earn you a corrosive sheen of aerosolized sea spray that can kick the oxidation process into high gear. Your hippy grandfather’s iconic VW camper might still be on the road, but it’s not going to be in mint condition without the loving care of someone with serious grinder skills.
Wandering among the classic cars, I marvel at some of the details, such as an original, hand-cranked sunroof and a lacquered wood luggage rack mounted piggyback to an engine hood. I wonder out loud where such straight-from-the-factory authenticity comes from, and I’m told I should talk to Alex Chang, who is believed to have near mystical powers when it comes to procuring vintage Volkswagen parts and accessories. I find Chang relaxing in the shade, and I tell him I’ve heard he is a master VW restorer. “I’m more of a master hoarder,” he says. “Part fanatic and part hoarder.”
Chang’s obsession with VWs began when he was a teenager and his grandmother gave him her Volkswagen Beetle to drive when he got to college. He drove it until it died. Then he bought another. And another. Now he has an impressive fleet of five VW vans and Beetles from the 1960s, and he has turned what some (my wife) would consider a troubling obsession into a part-time business. He runs a small shop called Island Vee Dub that specializes in hard-to-find original parts. He acquires them with determination, ceaselessly haunting swap meets, web exchanges and online forums in search of hubcaps, ashtray pulls, mirror arms, stainless steel gas tank clamps and whatever else might turn up. Looking for those special fluted headlight lenses for your 1966 Beetle or that set of triple chrome-plated door handles for your 1957 bus? Chang is your man. But once you’ve got the parts in hand, the rest is up to you. “Learn to do it yourself” is his credo.
Part of the appeal of VWs is that their simplicity makes it possible not only to resurrect an old clunker but to transform it into something that fits your personality. Step away from the straight and narrow of factory specs and you enter the tricked-out, highly customized world of the Frankensteins. With their glittery paint jobs and low-profile tires, the Frankenstein VWs outnumber all the other types of car at the Zoo Cruise. The most striking among them is the subset of dune buggies. With paint jobs as loud as their exhaust pipes, dune buggies are the four-wheel version of a chopped Harley-Davidson. They are the ultra-minimalist yet highly styled remains of a VW Beetle, with plenty of surf culture in their DNA.
The dune buggy concept is credited to Bruce Meyers, a California surfer, automobile mechanic and boat builder. He found a solution to the troublesome metal body-work problem: He eliminated it. Drawing from his experience building fiberglass boats, he bolted a fiberglass body to the stripped-down, shortened chassis of a VW Beetle. Cheap, easy to maintain and immune to rust, Meyers’ lightweight dune buggies could traverse soft sand where even four-wheel-drive trucks sank to their axles. After adding roll bars for safety and mounting surfboards, you had what many a 1960s teenager considered the ideal surfmobile.
Bans on beach driving did not extinguish their popularity. “As soon as I saw the raw mechanicals and the open, low cockpit I bought one on sight,” says Byron McMahon, a dune buggy devotee. Today the vehicles are less of an off-road surf machine and more of a working-class dragster. The fiberglass body takes six hundred pounds off a stock 1960s Beetle’s curb weight. A backyard mechanic can coax extra horsepower out of an engine with the right parts. More power plus lighter weight equals rocket-ship acceleration. It’s no surprise dune buggies earned a bad-boy reputation.
The half-dozen dune buggies at the Zoo Cruise are obviously street racers. Like motorcycles, their engines are not hidden by superfluous hoods or cowlings. Squatting for a closer inspection, I examine exhaust pipes sprouting from engines and capped off with chrome turbochargers, no mufflers involved. Some of the buggies even have wheelie bars—shopping cart-size rubber wheels extending a few feet behind the vehicle. With so much horsepower and most of the engine weight in the rear, it doesn’t take much to get the front wheels sky-high. The wheelie bars are there to prevent Mr. Leadfoot from stomping the entire car over backward.
While admiring the dune buggies I meet Todd Matsumoto, who might or might not have drag-raced dune buggies in his youth. “Sandy’s was the place to be on Saturday night,” says Matsumoto, now a responsible adult. He’s referring to Sandy Beach Park on the east side of O‘ahu, which is adjacent to a long, straight strip of semirural county highway. “It was more packed at midnight on Saturday than at noon on Sunday,” he says. “Cops would come, scold people, then leave.” And as soon as the police turned the corner, the races would resume.
This mischief, Matsumoto thinks, led to a ban on dune buggies from Honolulu County roadways. It took two decades and some artful lobbying to get them street legal again, and Matsumoto deserves partial credit for the 2004 rule change. Kicking back in his lawn chair, he tells me how his“VW sickness” originated. “I swapped my stereo for a rusted out bug,” he says. “The thing smoked all the way home.” He stripped it down to the frame and restored it. Then he sold it and bought another, sold that one and bought another one—a cycle that continues to this day.
“Mint condition, buggy, factory spec, sleeper—I’ve owned them all at some point,” Matsumoto says. “But I quit with the buggies after I wrecked two. I’ve got a family now.” Matsumoto believes that the unifying tenet of Hawai‘i’s VW culture is that of acceptance—there are so many nuances when it comes to VWs, you need friends, preferably a bunch of them. It occurs to me that this is much the way Hawai‘i’s nuanced, multiethnic local culture seems to work.
Late in the afternoon, as the shadows cast from the cars grow long, VW Club of Hawaii officials award prizes, hand out plaques and donate the proceeds from the day’s event to the Honolulu Zoo. Lawn chairs go back into cars and the drivers discuss which way the convoy should drive home. Some suggest taking the freeway, but Matsumoto has another idea. “Maybe we can swing by Sandy’s tonight,” he says. “You know, see what’s up?” HH