Restoring VW Beetles, Buses ... And Dreams

Sep 17, 2017
Originally published on September 17, 2017 7:59 am

The "Dieselgate" scandal may have dented Volkswagen sales in the U.S., but demand remains strong for two VW products: classic Beetles and vintage buses. Collectors are pushing up prices of both. A small body shop in Williamsport, Md., has played a part in that. Cooker's Restoration & Fabrication takes vehicles that look like they're headed for the scrap heap and turns them into showpieces.

Owner Bob Cook says he started paying attention to cars at an early age and was doing full restorations by the time he was 19. His day job was building houses, but he would come home and work into the night on old VWs. When the housing market collapsed in 2009, he bought this little shop in Williamsport and started restoring VWs full time. Word of the shop's artistry spread, and now he has a 2-year-long list of vintage VW owners waiting for him and his small crew to work their magic.

That magic was on display recently at Cooker's annual open house. In front of the shop, satisfied clients and VW fans mingled and admired perfectly restored cars. One gem is a midnight blue 1964 Beetle owned by Georgine Casper, from Edison, N.J.

Casper's love of VWs goes back to her teenage years in the late 1970s.

"I actually had auto mechanics in high school," Casper says.

Her then-boyfriend Mike, now her husband, had a VW bug back then.

"I always admired Volkswagens," Casper says. "His brother had one. He had a '65. You know, in the winter, when it didn't start, I'd be the one out pushing it. And I said, 'I want a Volkswagen.' My mother said, 'You don't need a Volkswagen.' I said, 'I want a Volkswagen.' "

So she bought two, the midnight blue '64 and a 1969 Beetle for $600. She says the floorboard on the '69 was so rotten that you could almost put your feet out through the bottom. Her mother was not pleased.

"She looked at the two of them. She was like, 'Oh my god, what did you do? You spent your money on these junks. This is not Sanford and Son's junkyard,' " Casper says. "She was like yelling, and everyday, she'd come home and say, 'Look at this junk.' And I'm like, 'It's not junk.' Because to me, it wasn't. It was a diamond in the rough."

Ultimately, Casper, who became an office manager, not a mechanic, couldn't do the restoration herself. So she asked Cook and his crew to make her dreams for her car come true. Now Casper's '64 Beetle shines like a diamond with four chrome wheels as the setting.

To make this happen, Cook and his crew take the cars apart and restore them piece by piece, either to their original condition or to a modified version. Casper's car is an understated hot rod with a high-powered engine and roll cage.

The other specialty of Cooker's is restoring vintage VW buses, like Alvin Ziminsky's. He brought his to Cooker's from Cherrytown, Pa. "I found it in a barn near Frederick, Md., in '95. Paid $100 for it."

"It was like $2,600 new in 1964," he says. Asked what his $100 purchase might be worth today, Ziminsky says, "Probably nearing $150,000."

In just the past few years, the market for vintage VW buses has skyrocketed. Rusted-out buses that people used to pay to have hauled away now sell for $20,000 or more. Why are they in such demand? Partly, it's just their great design and simplicity. And partly, it's the stories that go with them, Ziminsky says.

"You can't go anywhere without getting stopped and talked to," he says. "You're on the road, people almost crashing into you, trying to take pictures. I got scared because people were like driving with one hand and snapping pictures while they were beside me."

David Abruzzi has a story, too. It's attached to his 1960 VW Single Cab that is part VW bus and part pickup.

Abruzzi drove it to the open house from Paw Paw, W.Va. The pickup belonged to his grandfather, who used it on his farm in North Dakota in the 1960s.

"He died in 1974. It was pulled into a barn, and it sat there until 1987," Abruzzi says. "I went up and, with the help of a great uncle, got it running and drove it all the way back to New Mexico."

It sat for 27 years in the New Mexico sun until Abruzzi brought it to West Virginia, where he lives now. "People were stopping by my house and said, 'If you're going to restore it, you've got to take it to Cooker's,' " he says.

Abruzzi says he has a vivid memory of something that happened one day when the truck was being used to haul sod.

"I thought it would be fun to get up in the bed and throw pieces of sod on [my grandfather's] back," Abruzzi says. "He says, 'If you do that again, you're going to get a whuppin'. And you know, being a 5-year-old and that's your grandpa, what do you do? You do it again. I do not remember the spanking, but I remember my grandma making him apologize to me because it's not the thing a grandpa ever does."

Cooker's repaired the rusted spots on the old pickup, matching the original faded blue paint that covers 80 percent of the vehicle. It's more valuable with the original paint on it. But, for Abruzzi, the truck's monetary value isn't the point. What's priceless for him is his grandfather's name and address still stenciled on the doors: W.E. Skalicky, Battleview, N.D.

NPR's Les Cook contributed to this report.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

In the town of Williamsport, Md., there's a small body shop that's built a big reputation restoring old Volkswagens. And as NPR's John Ydstie reports, it's also preserving some fond memories.

(SOUNDBITE OF METAL CUTTING)

JOHN YDSTIE, BYLINE: Bob Cook owns this shop called Cooker's Restorations. He says he started paying attention to cars when he was 10 years old. And when he was 14, he talked his older brother into buying a car.

BOB COOK: He wanted to get a rabbit. I'm like, why would you want to get a rabbit? So I talked him into a Beetle. He bought the beetle. Literally, the day he brought it home, I started wrenching on it. I was 14. I couldn't drive a car, but I wanted to work on a car.

YDSTIE: When he was 16, Bob bought a Beetle of his own.

COOK: You know, I wrenched on the rades (ph), the engine - everything about it - put interior in it. And then it really started snowballing.

YDSTIE: By the time Bob was 19, he was doing full restorations. His day job was building houses, but he'd come home and work into the night on old VWs. When the housing market busted in 2009, he bought this little shop just outside Williamsport and started restoring Volkswagens full time. Word of the shop's artistry spread, and now he has a two-year-long list of vintage VW owners waiting for him and his small crew to work their magic. That magic is on display today at Cooker's annual open house. In front of the shop, satisfied clients and VW fans mingle and admire perfectly restored cars. One gem is a midnight-blue 1964 Beetle owned by Georgine Casper. She's from Edison, N.J. And her love of VWs goes back to her teenage years in the late 1970s.

GEORGINE CASPER: I actually had auto mechanics in high school.

YDSTIE: She took it for two years and thought she'd be an auto mechanic. Her boyfriend, Mike - now her husband - had a VW Bug back then.

CASPER: I always had my Volkswagens. His brother had one. He had a '65 that - you know, in the winter, when it didn't start, I'd be the one out pushing it. I said, I want a Volkswagen. My mother said, you don't need a Volkswagen. I said, I want a Volkswagen.

YDSTIE: So for $600, she bought this car and another one, a 1969 beetle.

CASPER: The '69 - the floor was so rotted, you could almost put your feet out the bottom. And I brought them home. And she was - she looked at the two of them. And she's like, oh, my God, what did you do? You spend your money on these junks? This is not "Sanford And Son" junkyard. She was yelling. And, every day, she'd come home, and she's like, look at this junk. I'm like, it's not junk because, to me, it wasn't. It was a diamond in the rough.

YDSTIE: Ultimately Georgine who became an office manager, not a mechanic, couldn't do the restoration herself. So she asked Bob and his crew to make her dreams for her car come true. And now Georgine's '64 Beetle shines like a diamond with four chrome wheels as the setting. To make this happen, Bob and his crew take the cars apart and restore them piece by piece either to their original condition or to a modified version. Georgine's is an understated hot rod with a high-powered engine and a roll cage. The other specialty of Cooker's is restoring VW buses like Alvin Zeminsky's. He brought his to the open house from Cherrytown, Pa.

ALVIN ZEMINKSY: I found it in a barn near Frederick, Md., in '95, paid $100 for it.

YDSTIE: Zeminsky says he didn't get around to restoring it because he was busy raising a family.

ZEMINSKY: And then I met Bob and brought it here and had him give it the royal treatment.

YDSTIE: Yeah, no kidding. Describe what it is.

ZEMINSKY: It's a 1964 21-window deluxe bus. It was the most expensive bus they made. It was, like, $2,600 new in '64. It's kind of turned around big time now.

YDSTIE: So you bought it for a hundred bucks. And what's it worth now?

ZEMINSKY: Probably nearing 150,000.

YDSTIE: Wow. In just the past few years, the market for vintage VW buses has skyrocketed. Rusted-out buses that people used to pay to have hauled away now sell for $20,000-plus. So what's the big deal? Why are they in such demand? Partly, it's just their great design and simplicity. And, partly, it's the stories that go with them, says Zeminksy.

ZEMINSKY: You can't go anywhere without getting stopped and talked to. If you're on the road, people almost crashing into you trying to take pictures. And I got scared because people were, like, driving with one hand and snapping pictures while they were beside me.

YDSTIE: David Abruzzi has a story too. It's attached to his 1960 VW single cab. It's part VW bus and part pickup truck.

DAVID ABRUZZI: It's been in the family since about 1965.

YDSTIE: Abruzzi drove it here from Paw Paw, W.V. The pickup belonged to his grandfather, who used it on his farm in North Dakota in the 1960s.

ABRUZZI: So he died in 1974. It was pulled into a barn, and it sat there until 1987.

YDSTIE: Wow.

ABRUZZI: And I went up and, with the help of a great uncle, got it running and drove it all the way back to New Mexico.

YDSTIE: It sat for 27 years in the New Mexico sun until Abruzzi brought it to West Virginia, where he lives now.

ABRUZZI: People were stopping by my house and saying, if you're going to restore it, you got to take it to Cooker's. And so that's how it wound up here.

YDSTIE: Did you ever see your grandfather using it.

ABRUZZI: I did. Probably one of the most vivid memories was - I probably was about 5 years old. And he was working on a granary, and it was full of sod. And I thought it would be fun to get up in the bed and throw pieces of sod on his back. And I got the first one. He says, if you do that again, you're going to get a whooping. And, you know, being a 5-year-old - it's your grandpa - what do you do? You do it again. I do not remember the spanking. But I remember my grandma making him apologize to me because it's not the thing a grandpa ever does.

YDSTIE: Cooker's repaired the rusted spots on the old pickup, matching the original faded blue paint that covers 80 percent of the vehicle. It's more valuable with the original paint on it. But for Abruzzi, the truck's monetary value isn't the point. What's priceless for him is his grandfather's name and address still stenciled on the doors - W.E. Skalisky (ph), Battleview, N.D. John Ydstie, NPR News.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: To see photos of the restored VWs, go to npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.