“A Keeper”

1966 Volkswagen Bus Riviera Camper

Only the persnickety and the purist among us can’t relate to the Volkswagen Bus, the classic counterculture icon. Recently, an all-original, rusted-out old camper was parked in a tony section of Naples, Florida, sparking the imaginations of passersby who tried to imagine the stories embedded inside it.

With some investigation, the owner is found to be a local fellow named Clay Freshauer, and an interview is set up at his residence.

"Volkswagen – turning owners into mechanics for over 50 years."

The iconic bus is parked on grass off the driveway, its rusty body with plenty of patina but still wearing its original paint layer. A tune by the California ska punk band Sublime plays through the outdoor speakers of the house as Clay emerges. He’s tall and his long, blond hair gives off a hippie-surfer vibe; in his hand he’s holding a cold beer – the spitting image of a VW bus owner!

The house is elevated about ten feet above ground level, providing space beneath for automotive treasures.  Several things catch the eye – a few modified VW Beetles, one fastback, partially covered; there’s a Suzuki GSX-R 1000, the “king of sportbikes,” with a turbo installed. Clay says he’s modified everything himself.

Clay Freshauer, proud owner – and mechanic.

Clay’s father was a Volkswagen mechanic who modified cars for customers, sparking interest and curiosity in his son. Clay got his first car, a Volkswagen Beetle, at the age of fourteen, before he was the legal age to drive; he completely disassembled and restored it, but he never got it running. He owned two more Beetles before he had his license. Finally of age, he fixed up a 1974 Beetle and started driving.

Following a disastrous fire that claimed the home of Clay’s father, who lived in Texas, Clay brought his dad to live with him in Naples. Knowing that his dad didn’t like to fly, and aware of his attraction to Volkswagen, Clay secretly acquired the bus one winter. Clay figured, what better way for his dad to tool around the country and visit the son who lived in Wisconsin than in a Volkswagen Bus Riviera Camper? “It’s reliable,” he says, “he could sleep in it on a road trip, and if something went wrong, he’d more than likely be able to jury-rig it and continue his trip.”

Engine compartment of the VW bus – where the magic happens.

Clay purchased the bus from a bicycle shop owner in Melbourne, Florida, and made the four-hour drive back to Naples in it himself. On the trip home, the bus had a very low top speed and halfway through the generator died. Fortunately, he’d brought a spare battery to charge his Garmin GPS device and, using his mechanical abilities, he was able to power up the electrical system for the remaining length of the trip.

Clay restored the bus over the summer, while his father was in Wisconsin. He rebuilt the transmission and the engine, installed a Porsche 944 suspension, Porsche 912 brakes and wheels all in the hope of finishing in time to surprise his father on his return. Sadly, bad luck struck again – Clay’s father died from heart failure while in Wisconsin.

Home away from home on road trips to car shows and music festivals – always with a spare battery.

It’s been three years since his father’s passing and Clay has finished restoring the bus. Most of the car’s original interior, such as the wood cabinets and the original headliner, is in good shape, a result of the car being stored inside an old Volkswagen dealership for years prior to his purchase. The exterior was not quite so lucky – the body is covered in superficial rust but still displays its original dub blue paint. Clay wants to preserve the state of the body and not repaint it. He says, “Any girl can wear makeup and look pretty but if she can look pretty without makeup, she’s a keeper.”

Clay’s taken the bus on road trips, to car shows, and music festivals, always with his handy spare battery, and he uses it as a beach cruiser when he goes surfing on weekends. He’s put stickers on the windows to remind him of the places he’s been, but the most special memories the bus holds for Clay are of his father. He has no plans to sell it.

Volkswagen Bus Riviera Camper, the classic counterculture icon.

Pointing to the bus, he says, “This one’s a keeper.”