The magic in the Bus: One woman's push to restore classic car know-how

Fallon Taylor poses next to the “Light” Volkswagen bus she helped restore.

Fallon Taylor is not your typical classic-car restorer: she is young, talented and female. She is also an expert at what she considers a “dying trade,” which is repairing and restoring vintage Volkswagen Beetles, Karmann Ghias, and Buses, using old school tools and tricks to regain their former glory.

More than half of U.S. drivers are women, but they comprise less than three percent of auto service technicians and mechanics, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. The statistics are consistent with Taylor’s experience in the field: she has always been outnumbered by men in every shop she’s worked in, including her own.

Skilled in auto repairs since her late teens, Taylor turned her passion for cars into a lucrative business of preserving and rebuilding vintage coaches in St. Augustine, Fla. Largely self-taught, the East Coast VW Restorations owner often relies on her limbs and ears – not high-tech scanning and diagnostic equipment – to root out problems.

“I continue to improve, not by only through reading books and taking courses, but through trial and error,” Taylor says.

Her first exposure to a Volkswagen bus was as a child traveling the country with her parents. Her mom and dad spent some time living a nomadic and free lifestyle, and she spent many summers on the road with two siblings. She caught the auto bug in her late teens after performing basic tune-ups on her first car. She studied basic mechanical engineering and ran other businesses before starting a classic car restoration enterprise with her ex-husband in 2003. A few years later, she started specializing in Volkswagen vehicles after renovating a family’s beloved Bay-window camper.

“The couple was a complete 180 [degrees] from the clientele that were buying and fixing up classic vintage cars – the kind of cars that would be taken to a show on a trailer and then stored forever in a garage,” Taylor says. “Their excitement was a breath of fresh air [and] made the whole experience worth it.”

A completed bus restoration project by East Coast VW Restorations.

Thirteen years later, the 35-year-old restorer’s passion for Volkswagen has not waned. She has tackled hundreds of jobs, from repairing frames to complete reconstructions, including a complete rebuild of rare, Type 2 21-window. Her shop’s waiting list is currently 38 months, and the scale of projects can range from $45,000 to over $100,000, depending on the year, make, style and custom options.

Despite her extraordinary success, she still faces sexism in the industry. “The biggest frustrations I have are when … [people] don’t realize that I’m not just the girl who made the curtains for the bus. They comment, ‘Oh, that’s cute,’” says Taylor. “I tell them, ‘No, I restored the whole Bus.’”

Finding and investing in the right talent has always been Taylor’s most challenging obstacle in scaling her business. As cars become increasingly complex and connected, the labor force in skilled automotive services and classic car repair is dwindling. New drivers and budding mechanics aren’t as familiar with the parts that make up VW vans, like air-cooled engines and manual transmissions, and these numbers will likely continue to dip as the industry shifts towards electric, hybrid and autonomous cars.

Fallon Taylor poses a first-place plaque she received at the Lakeland VW Classic Show.

“Body shops nowadays aren’t doing metalwork much anymore. They are just replacing panels and painting them,” she says. Same goes with upholstery: “You just buy a seat cover, slap it on and call it a day. Nobody’s doing sewing like they used to.”

On top of that, entry-level automotive technicians are some of the hardest jobs to fill and the turnover rate can run as high as 20 percent. “It’s not like I can just put an ad in the paper and they’re knocking at my door,” Fallon said. “It’s really hard to find people and sadly, if I do, they are older, have been doing this for a long time, can’t do the physical labor anymore or want to retire soon.”

And Taylor finds some male auto mechanics do not want to report to a female boss. “They say, ‘There’s no way I’m going to work for a female, it’s not possible she knows what she is doing,’” she says. “And then they realize, after a few days of working with me, that’s not the case.”

Taylor hopes to promote a heightened interest in classic car restorations by sharing her decades of knowledge and experience, and encouraging and empowering younger mechanics, including more women, in the field. She continues to be actively involved in training all new recruits in her shop. Given her skills and the popularity of classic Volkswagen vehicles, there’s plenty of work to be done.

“It’s hard work, but it can be very gratifying and fun.”