The Ham Van / by Sid Beck

I never, ever look on Craigslist for anything.  In fact, for some reason, it has been a very strong conviction of mine to never look at cars on Craigslist due to the overwhelming amount of hype that high school teenagers would create about their new “whip.”  It always went something like this: “Bro, I’m for sure thinking about buying this car!  Check it out.  Perfect interior, some bruises on the outside but nothing a little wax couldn’t fix…and dude check this.  This is the best part right here: “Aftermarket suspension, air intake, and exhaust.  Mechanic says it adds upwards of 50hp.  $2100 OBO.  Need to sell quick…moving…” Of course, most of these “KILLER DEAL”s fall through and the kid has to end up telling his friends the car that he was “checking out next week” has sold or, in some cases, didn’t have a transmission.  Regardless, with observations like these filling the pool of uncertainty sloshing around inside my relatively thick skull, I took a dive into the unknown, and for what other reason than procrastination.

 Isaiah and Pete discussing the best way to travel to Mars.

Isaiah and Pete discussing the best way to travel to Mars.

 Pete taking a picture of Mars...

Pete taking a picture of Mars...

I’ve always had a dream of owning a Vanagon because I grew up in one, I sliced my head open in one, I cried in one, I watched my dad fix one, I watched my dad fix one, I watched my dad fix one…  I looked up VW Vanagon with any price range (can’t a college student dream?) and much to my demise I ran into three pages of one dollar ads for used Toyota Corolla’s from “BERNIES CAR DEALER***AFFORDABLE CARS HERE.”  After sifting through the mounds of the same exact add from Bernie I ended up finding a few Vanagons within the $2,000-$10,000 realm within the greater Seattle area.  I scrolled through photo after photo of some mediocre oldies until I reached the “Nearby Areas” section.  For those who are unfamiliar with Craigslist (myself included)…well… these cars were not “nearby.”  The word ‘diesel’ caught my eye in one particular post because I know that, if I’m looking to buy a cheap car, diesel engines are super reliable because Top Gear says so.  I clicked into the post and found an assortment of cars this guy was trying to sell, the 1983 Vanagon included.  Buzzwords that caught my eye in the description were, “Joy to drive…runs great…good fuel economy.”  All things a college student (Def.: someone lacking in money) loves to hear.  I called Cornell up, talked to him about it for a bit, asked a few basic questions, and hung up.  I consulted my dad who said it looked like a rust bucket…and went to bed. 

 Isaiah snagging a pic of a lake with near perfect reflections on the way to Forks.

Isaiah snagging a pic of a lake with near perfect reflections on the way to Forks.

When I woke up (Sunday morning) I realized that (with some friends telling me “This is just something you have to do…”) this was an opportunity that I couldn’t pass up.  I called Cornell three times throughout the day each in two hour intervals, because I didn’t want to seem like I was super desperate…That probably didn’t work due to the message I left on his phone telling him how I had thought about it more and I “…REALLY, REALLY hope you didn’t sell it yet…” He answered on the third time.  I asked him about electronics, rust, leaks, and then proceeded to tell him that I couldn’t pay full price (He was looking for $1800; my current bank balance was at $913).  I asked what was the lowest he would go and he said $1200 so I said, “I can guarantee I will buy it if it functions properly,” he said, “Sounds good to me,” and I took my $400 ski boots back to REI, got enough to buy the car and some gas, and hit the road to Forks, WA (or better known as the filming location of Twilight, or even better known as nowhere) with Isaiah and Pete 3 days later.  After an overly priced Ferry ride, some stupidly beautiful views, and 3 hours we made it to Cornell’s house. 

Throughout this journey to Cornell’s house I had my phone on airplane mode to save battery (RIP the IPhone 6 I lost at sea) and wasn’t receiving any calls.  When we showed up I knocked on the door, he came out, we shook hands and he lead me over to the van where he proceeded too tell me that, “I tried to call you to save you a trip out here…” Fortunately that statement went in one ear and out the due to my utter infatuation with the beauty, full of potential, standing in front of me.  It turns out Cornell had stored a drum of water in the car and before we came, while he was moving it, the drum had rolled and smashed the slider door, rendering the door relatively useless, and spilling tens of gallons of water into the car.  All of this was the least of my worries.  It drove, as my 30-second spin around his neighborhood had showed me, and that was all that I cared about.  Oh, I forgot to mention that, before I test drove it he said he thought I was a pretty straight up guy who was going to treat the car with care and give it a good home (truth be told) and he would sell it to me for $600.  At that point nothing mattered, I was buying it.  Even if it went up in flames on the way home (which it almost did thanks to a stuck break) it would be one heck of a story.  I told Cornell everything sounded swell and I would love to purchase it off of him.  We settled up and drove out. 

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 Isaiah and Pete being more productive than the car's owner in the break 'fixing' process.

Isaiah and Pete being more productive than the car's owner in the break 'fixing' process.

About 3 minutes into the journey we came to find just how underpowered this car really was (68hp brand new).  I decided to pull over at a gas station and pump up the tires, throw a quart of oil in, grabed some fuses at (Oh-Oh-Oh!)O'Reilly's and to see if that did anything.  The ride felt better and it was slightly faster but it still seemed just too slow.  It was only about 15 minutes down the road that we realized the cloud of smoke coming out the back wasn’t just exhaust but it was from the breaks as well.  We turned around, I called my dad who gave us some insight as to what the problem was, and we found a mechanic who packed so much chew in his lower lip I could hardly see his nose.  He offered his wisdom which was, “There is nothing much I can do,” and then told us we could use a path of gravel behind his shop to take off a tire and see if we could fix it ourselves.  We tried, and we couldn’t.  There were three options, the one that involved spending money I immediately ruled out and the other two were to drive the car back to Cornell’s and ask for the money back OR to drive the car until it spontaneously combusts.  We chose to brave the elements (feeling like Dora the Explor--no) and prayed over the front right break, multiple times as we powered down the road at a top speed, downhill, of 60mph. 

Thankfully, from the heat, or God’s grace, or both, the caliper slowly released and the disk was able to cool down as we drove.  While ‘zooming’ down the road we came to the conclusion that if the breaks were used, they would seize up like they had done earlier, and the car still had the potential to burn.  We quickly deemed the breaks as 'useless' and only had to tap them 4 times from 30 minutes outside of Cornell’s house to the “Ham Van’s” current resting place, outside my dorm in Seattle, WA (a four hour drive). 

Waking up the next morning I realized how much potential this car really has and how unbelievably lucky I am to be able to call it my own.  It is an absolute dream.  I am beyond thankful for Cornell and his generosity along with friends who wanted to join me on this treck into the unknown.

What’s next?  Well…the breaks are the first to get fixed, then the muffler that constantly leaks and spews fumes into the cabin, and then I’ll probably replace some belts, a couple wheel bearings, suspension bushings, transmission (at some point, right?) slider door mount, shift nob, engine… 

In the words of Bill Murray from What About Bob?  "Baby steps." 

If you want to keep following the story and progression of the car, feel free!  Check out @thehamvanagon on Instagram!

Happy Driving! (hopefully)