Air heads unite for a 1,700-mile cruise

For the past 19 years, groups of intrepid air-cooled Volkswagen owners have set out on a 1,700-mile journey along the Pacific Coast, driving south from Washington State to the U.S.-Mexico border. Since its inception, this “Treffen Cruise” has been organized by Airhead Parts—a Ventura, Calif.-based distributer and manufacturer of components for air-cooled Volkswagen models.

Volkswagen of America decided to get in on the fun this year, joining the California leg of the trip with two rear-engined cars from the company’s history—a 1967 21-window Bus and a 1974 Type 3 Squareback. In a year when Volkswagen is introducing new offerings to its SUV lineup in the American market, these older cars serve as a bold reminder of VW’s multi-passenger vehicle history on this side of the Atlantic.

One of those new models was also along for the ride. Volkswagen of America provided the Treffen Cruise with an all-new 2018 VW Atlas as a support vehicle. Piloted by enthusiast mechanic Bob Ellis, and stocked with tools and spare parts, the car followed behind the parade of Treffeners to provide roadside assistance for anyone who would require mechanical help along the way.

With two of the Volkswagen of America historic fleet on their way to the West Coast, two members of the Volkswagen Experiential Marketing department had to travel cross-country to serve as drivers on the special, ten-day trip. Sean Maynard and I were the lucky ones who somehow convinced our bosses to let us go, promising photos in return for the once-in-a-lifetime voyage.

After picking up our cars in San Francisco, we had about 200 miles to get used to old gearboxes and no air conditioning as we drove north to meet the group in Garberville for our first day on the trip. The next morning, we were greeted by a group of over 30 cars lining Garberville’s main drag, waiting to begin the day’s journey. After a quick team meeting conducted from Airhead Part’s “Big Blue” Bay Window Bus, we set out through the Redwoods with a host of Bus, Beetle, and Karmann Ghia models.

Road work ahead provided our first stop of the day, as our troop waited for road workers to allow traffic to head south down the one-lane road.

Emerging from twisting roads through the trees, we came upon the first of many beautiful vistas for the trip—a gorgeous overlook of the Pacific Ocean and a popular stopping point for Treffen Cruises past.

After stopping for lunch, we continued to drive down the coast. Roads carved ribbons into cliffs high above the ocean below. The line of colorful cars snaking behind in the rearview mirror was a sight to behold. Fog gave way to sun, contributing to the stunning view, but then the first hiccup of the trip arrived.

Accelerating out of a corner, the Type 3 I was driving began to sputter and lost power. I pulled it to a safe stop on the side of the road and attempted to refire with no result. Something was wrong that my limited mechanical abilities were unable to fix or diagnose, so I sat on the roadside (with a beautiful view and no cell service) waiting for help to arrive.

Soon enough, Bob came to the rescue in our support Atlas. Some mechanical magic and a few short minutes later, he’d diagnosed the problem as a fuel pump failure, something we couldn’t fix in the field without a spare.

A tow truck was called and we arranged for the Type 3 to be brought to Santa Rosa where we were staying that night. Before long, we arrived at dinner with the rest of the group, a little late because of our delay, but still able to order before everyone else’s food arrived.

While I was disappointed to have to give up driving the Type 3 for the time being, its fuel pump failure was a bit of a blessing in disguise. With one fewer car to drive, I was now allowed the opportunity to ride on the next legs of the trip south, meeting other Treffeners who had far more experience with this trip, and old Volkswagen vehicles than I did.

First, I started off as a passenger in our 21 window, driving through wine country before we crossed the Golden Gate Bridge into San Francisco.

Our stop for lunch, turned into quite the spectacle, with local VW owners and enthusiasts joining the travelling caravan for a few hours. Local news stations turned up and found many Treffeners eager to share their love of Volkswagen and driving in these special cars.

Our lunch stop was easily one-upped by the reception we received in Pacific Grove. The town shut down several blocks for Volkswagen parking, and we were greeted like heroes in a parade as we drove through the streets.

Already, after just our first day of the trip, we were starting to get a sense of just what these cars, and journeying in them means for the enthusiasts who love them. Honks from other cars on the road were common—not because we were in the way or doing anything wrong—other drivers just wanted to say “hello” and their appreciation for a group of familiar, yet rarely-seen cars. Each stoplight was the occasion for a short conversation through open car windows. It turns out that almost everyone has a story about an old Volkswagen Bus, Beetle, or other, similarly vintaged car.

After our stay in the Pacific Grove/Monterrey area, the next morning was a special one as our caravan took to the sands of Pismo Beach before starting the day’s travel in earnest. It’s not often that you get to see so many Bus, Beetle, and other air-cooled cars in one place, but the sight of such a fine array in front of the ocean is truly one to behold, even with the hazy, Northern California morning mist is in full effect.

By now, we were starting to get to know some of our traveling companions better, and I spent time riding in other Treffeners’ cars, getting to know more about their passion for air-cooled Volkswagen models.

From Pismo Beach, I was the passenger of Tom Summers, a veteran Treffen cruiser who was making the journey this year in his ’62 Transporter that he converted into a camper. Tom currently lives in Imperial Beach, Calif.,—the south-westernmost locale in the continental United States—but he is seldom home, living a life of travel throughout North and South America.

Tom’s Bus represents the freedom of movement and joy of new experiences he cherishes in his itinerant lifestyle. It’s clear that the 70-year-old’s Volkswagen serves as more than just a way for Tom to get from Point A to Point B, however. The car is as much a part of the trip as the destinations. By forcing him to take slower, less-traveled roads on occasion, Tom’s Bus allows him to see the places highways don’t usually pass, to connect with his journey in a way that’s not possible from the seat of an airplane.

Those connections extend beyond the road and stops along the way. Tom has found a community of friends and likeminded travelers through his Volkswagen voyages. In fact, Tom had a special passenger along for the ride on this Treffen Cruise—a Cocker Spaniel mix named Alaska he was babysitting for friends from the VW community.

When Alaska’s owners were about to travel overseas, they asked Tom if he would look over the gentle Spaniel while they were away. He was happy to do so, but worried that his plans to complete the Treffen would discourage them from leaving the dog in his care. His plans were no deterrent. It turns out that roadtripping was actually the perfect pastime for Alaska while her owners were abroad. Since a puppy, Alaska has grown up in a roaming Volkswagen Bus, meeting friendly new people and scents along the way. The Treffen Cruise would be much more welcome to her than dozing at home all day.

More great stops for our roving caravan included the famous Saint Louis Obispo Farmers Market, and an incredible street festival of all things VW in Ventura—the home of Airhead Parts. In Ventura, we also picked up the now-repaired Type 3, allowing me to drive the final two days of the trip to the border.

There was a larger crowd of cars than usual in the diner parking lot on the morning of our final day of Treffen. Lots of local Volkswagen owners had come to join the group for our last short trip south. When we reached the border, there were more than 50 cars with us—locals parked alongside the hardcore enthusiasts who had driven all the way from the Canadian border.

After our stop at the end of the road, we turned around and headed north a few miles to join the San Diego Aircooled club’s annual picnic where even more cars were gathered. Greeted once again like heroes, we shared food and conversation with other Volkswagen lovers, many of whom are from or have deep personal connections to Mexico, proving that love for these cars transcends borders.

The beautiful day and great company were perfect accompaniments to our journey’s end. Through our ten days on the road, we’d seen some beautiful places and cars, and met a host of new friends from around the country. As one of the Treffen organizers was fond of saying, “It’s impossible to be unhappy when you’re behind the wheel of an old VW.” It’s true. With faces sore from smiling and arms tired from waving to passersby, we headed home, eager to return for more Treffen adventures in the years to come.