Like much of the Summer of Love, one of the most famous Volkswagen vans in history had a moment in the sun, only to be lost in the ’70s. But thanks to its original painter and a Canadian documentarian with a detective streak, the magic bus will hit the road again ahead of Woodstock’s 50th anniversary.
Artist Robert “Dr. Bob” Hieronimus was only 26 years-old when he was commissioned to paint a “magic bus” for Bob Grimm, a musician in the Baltimore-based group Light. The year was 1968, and the magic bus was a Volkswagen Type 2 van decorated in a psychedelic style. The group planned to drive their trippy wheels on tour and to the 1969 Woodstock Music and Art Fair.
Bob Grimm in the Light bus before Woodstock, 1969.
Hieronimus took six months to conceptualize and complete the Light bus, which he festooned with cosmic symbols, archetypal motifs and words in ancient languages. He earned $1,000 – “a mega fortune back then,” he notes a half-century later – and bought a ticket to the three-day music festival in Bethel, N.Y. However, when he heard that 50,000 people were planning to attend, he decided to peace out instead.
Little did he know that Woodstock would draw nearly half a million people or that his ‘63 van would become a Woodstock icon. An Associated Press photo circulated widely in newspapers and magazines across the nation helped immortalize the VW art bus as a symbol of the 1960s counter-culture movement.
Hieronimus says the van symbolized the Summer of Love like no other vehicle. “The bus is really about being one people on one planet,” the Baltimore-based artist Hieronimus, who is also a symbologist, added. “We all have the same divine spark of the cosmic creator inside of us.”
With a 40-horsepower air-cooled engine, the Type 2 bus wasn’t built for speed. But it was inexpensive to maintain and easy to fix, plus it could transport a load of people, making it the ideal ride for highway-bound hippies. “It was a real people’s car,” the artist says. “It represented freedom.”
It wasn’t until 2017, as the 50th anniversary of Woodstock approached, that Hieronimus and Canadian documentary producer John Wesley Chisolm teamed up to track down the psychedelic van and restore it. But there was a problem: Grimm and Hieronimus couldn’t remember where the bus was located.
Using researchers, detectives and, per Hieronimus’s request, a psychic, the pair set out on an exhaustive six-month search to find the elusive bus. Thanks to the generous support from Volkswagen and the greater Volkswagen community through a Kickstarter campaign, they were able to fund and document their painstaking journey.
“We searched from the top of New Jersey to the bottom of Arkansas,” Chisholm says. They stopped at virtually every Volkswagen junk yard and talked to as many Volkswagen mechanics as possible, hoping to pick up clues along the way. Unfortunately, the trail was too cold.
In early 2018, they decided to switch lanes and create an exact replica instead. After one false start, they found an 11-window, non-walk-through, 1963 Type 2 microbus with a split front window shield that was an exact match of the original.
They recruited a team of restoration experts across the country to help make their vision a reality. Everyone involved was passionate about the project, and many volunteered their time and services to the cause.
Robert Skinner, who owns Vacaville Auto Body Center in California, and his team rebuilt the 55-year-old vehicle engine, transmission and transaxle. The cargo flooring and the inner and outer rocker panels were all gutted and exchanged. At one point, to help maximize efficiency, the shop had eight-foot scaffolding on either side of the bus, so teams could simultaneously work on its bodywork and mechanical system.
“We had three weeks to do a three-month job,” says Skinner, a Volkswagen restoration specialist. “We wanted to build a solid foundation that would allow Light to live on for another 50 years.”
Primed for painting, a transport took the bus up to Maryland where Hieronimus and five artists recreated the esoteric imagery in six short weeks. Hieronimus even required that the painters learn the symbolism of the bus inside and out with written assignments and readings.
“On every side of the bus is a story—many stories—and the stories all point to unification, working together and a higher consciousness, which is what Light really is all about,” says Hieronimus.
After one more trip through East Coast VW Restorations in St. Augustine, Fla., for interior and exterior detailing, Hieronimus and Chisholm unveiled the reincarnated Light bus earlier this month at a VW bus owners’ gathering in California. Chisholm will release his documentary, titled “A Bus Called Light,” this summer.
Meanwhile, the groovy van will travel around the country, leading up to the Bethel Woods Music and Culture Festival in August. “The bus just brings joy and smiles to people’s faces. Everybody wants to be on the bus and along for the journey,” Chisholm says. “Whatever your dream is, wherever you want to go, the bus will take you there.”
After the 50th anniversary of Woodstock, the guiders of the Light bus hope to find it a permanent home where it can serve as a public reminder of a long-ago Summer of Love.