Rust, the bane of classic car ownership, always lurking in every paint crack or chip, biding its time until it can take root, spread, and infest the vehicle, slowly weakening and rotting all that is metal until only red dust remains. The challenge in prolonging the life of any car is preventing, stopping, and treating this vile metal eating pestilence. While engines can be rebuilt, drivetrains replaced, and electronics rewired, the frames around which the car is built sentence cars to the dog food can factory when plagued with severe rust. This is especially true for the unibody bus where separating the frame from the rest of the vehicle is extremely difficult. Although I did hear about one unverified story professing such a feat and have come across some rare cases of major frame rehabilitation, the extensive time and cost involved in such repairs leaves this option beyond reach for those of us without the welders, cutters, body shop equipment, and skills.
Rust is relatively easy to deal with on anything removable, fenders for example. If these parts are too far rotted replacement is always an option. However, when rust finds its way to the frame, it can spread rapidly and without notice, rotting the car from the inside. By the time you see rusty spots on your rocker panels, it is too late. Because of this, when I shop for a classic VW to restore, finding a fairly rust free bus is a priority. Interior condition comes second and engine or general drivetrain health third. The latter components are within my skill set to easily replace or rebuild over time. However, the body needs to be solid because rust requires large resources and even with treatment, is never guaranteed to stay away. As an example, a friend’s Ghia went through a few paint jobs until they finally stopped the recurring rust blisters.
I am always amazed at sellers who gawk in utter astonishment when I show up to look at their VW and proceed to spend hours looking at every nook and cranny and crawling underneath the car from one end to the other. They seem to believe that the MOST important feature of their vehicle is a recently rebuilt engine or transmission. But quite honestly I feel that if I did not rebuild it or do not know the reputation of the shop/person that did, the work does not matter. Rebuilds can die at any moment because somebody did something wrong or used cheap parts. The reason why I ended up with Big Blue was due to her PO taking her for a ride around the neighborhood to test the freshly rebuilt motor. He made it halfway before the engine, which he spent many long hours painstakingly assembling, seized! Body work tends, in terms of the effort and skill put in, to be a little more revealing to a buyer looking for the right clues. Is there body filler present, poor welds on replacement panels, are the seams straight, are the dimples in the correct spots, is the paint job of quality or a quick spray? These details, among others, will tell you something about what may be lurking underneath glamorous paint. The time and money put in the final touches will often indicate the effort given on earlier steps.
Spotting shody work can take a bit of practice and skill but, for the most part, I find bus owners that are not willing to put the money and time into their bus are not overly concerned about hiding poor craftsmanship either. There are the unscrupulous sellers out there of course but I would like to think they are in the minority and that most folks simply try to prevent/treat rust and keep their buses running as best they can within their means. But the saying “buyer beware” should never be far from one’s mind when considering a automobile purchase. I have two examples here. The first one is a bus I went to look over in VA while searching for Moby. The owner at the time knew what he had and, although I do not believe he was on an intentional path of deception (mostly because everything about this bus was there for the buyer to see if they wished), did nothing to enlighten the buyer on this bus’ history. This was also an example of what influence certain auction and flea market type websites have on asking prices.
This second example comes from a forum post I followed some time ago after a couple of young girls purchased this bus for $6900. According to their story, the engine blew a few days after they got the bus and their problems just multiplied afterward. They spent around $1000 on the new engine and tried to sell it again. Not sure what they got for it but they really should have looked underneath before they forked over the money in the first place!!
If you are searching for a bus or any other car, take your time, do your research, and most importantly, do not be afraid to have the seller look at you sideways because you spend some time getting dirty.