The Fast and the Prettiest: Restoring the VW Bus

VW BusMark Machuszek didn’t intend to become a car restorer. The dusty Porsche languishing in a garage is what changed his life.

“When I was a teenager, my dad had a Porsche 356 that he bought from a neighbor and always intended to restore. He never got around to it, so I inherited the project. Porsches had a cult following back in 1976 – you saw a few of them around, but the fad for them was just beginning. My friends didn’t know what it was, but women seemed to like it – something about the sensuous curves of the car.

“It was a learn-as-you-go kind of thing, but it came out real nice. People asked who did the body and paintwork, and when I told them, they hired me to do theirs. I decided to do it as a business just as people started regarding Porsches as both an investment and a cool car. Eventually I moved on to Cobras, old Mercedes, and other marquees.

VW Bus“I decided to call my company Auto Magic when it was still in my garage in 1979. I couldn’t do it all myself and started finding like-minded people. I went to paint companies and asked which of their customers was the best painter, figuring they’d know. They recommended a guy who was working out of his garage but had million-dollar cars in there. He’s now a museum curator in the Northeast… it was a stroke of luck that I met him. He knew how to get the silkiest, shiniest finish.”

Machuszek may have gotten into his first business by accident, but he developed his next one by listening to his customers.

“After we got a lot of these cars restored, people wanted to keep them looking good, so I started a detailing business in 1979 to maintain them in pristine condition. We pretty much created the term. At the time, there was no such business except for car washes. Now we have close to a thousand clients…”

The most visible symbol of that business isn’t one of the Porsche 356s that Mark still cherishes, but a gleaming vintage Volkswagen bus that his detail crews use as a work vehicle. Machuszek recently bought a second one and has been restoring it with the same care given to the exotics. He is eloquent about the mystique of the old workhorses.

“The busses have been around forever, and there’s a kind of romanticism about them – they’re part of surf culture, and so many people had first dates and road trips in the old buses. With old VW’s almost all the parts are interchangeable, so you can use pieces of different cars and they’ll at least get you by. You can work on it yourself if you’re a bit of a handyman – duct tape and coat hangers fix everything. At just about any shop there’s someone who knows how to work on Volkswagens, because for so many mechanics it was their first car, the one that got them curious about working on vehicles.

“We use Volkswagen buses for our mobile detail service – the first one started out as a little disaster, rusted and dented, but now it’s a beauty. I bought it for $1,400 running, but I’ve probably put $6,000 into restoring it and it’s probably worth $12,000 now. That’s the economics of these cars – a low-priced good quality new vehicle costs $25,000, and in five years it will be worth half that. You buy a Karmann-Ghia, Porsche, or old VW and you can make money on the car. If you sell it after a few years you’ll at least break even. There’s a social benefits too – you can get involved in clubs, you can join charity events with them.”

Some restorers are purists about their vehicles, but Mark prefers to take modern safety standards into account. Old VW buses were notorious for being slow to both start and stop and for catching fire on hot days. Mark has these problems covered.  “We upgrade them so they don’t overheat. One of my buses will go 100 miles an hour, which is interesting when you are in something with the aerodynamics of a loaf of bread. I get strange looks when I’m going up the grapevine and I’m passing muscle cars in a VW bus.”

Despite owning Auto Magic and being involved in several other companies, Mark still makes time to work on the cars himself.

Porsche 914“Being the CEO in an office somewhere would be boring. I actually did 90 percent of the work in that VW bus myself. I got down on my hands and knees and sanded under the fenders, all the places most shops don’t pay attention to the way I want it done. Purists will know if you skip the details, and I want anyone who looks at it to see that we did the whole job right. Our name goes on every job we do, and I do it like I would for my mom or dad.”

These days, cars are designed to be disposable and are less exciting to work on. Will there be a next generation of tinkerers who go pro the way he did?

“The most exciting challenge now is converting vehicles from gas to electric – Porsche 914’s are particularly popular. We want Americans to get back to being hands-on while at the same time being intellectually involved. That’s the mindset of the people who invented the car as we know it in the previous century. We’re still in the Model T era of electric cars, but look at what they can already do! The fastest motorcycle in the world is electrically powered, and a Tesla roadster can pass just about anything else on the road. This is the future, and there are people in boardrooms and garages both trying to advance the technology.”

For more about Machuszek and his cars visit automagicnetwork.com.

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