By James Brabenec, Fort SillFebruary 16, 2012
FORT SILL, Okla. (Feb. 16, 2012) -- In 1980, when "Betty" turned 10 years old, Spc. Joe Dees entered the world. Little did either know down the road they would enter into a relationship that may last the remainder of their days.
The 168th Brigade Support Battalion Soldier said ever since his toddler years he's helped his dad restore Volkswagens. Now, he's working his first, Betty is a 1970 VW bus he bought online in January for $1,800.
"The old VW guys, like my dad, say the classic cars have a personality and character, so that's why you give them a name," he said.
Dees drove to Fort Worth with a friend to pay for Betty and drove her to Fort Sill. She was part of an estate sale of a woman who had recently died. The woman, he learned, drove the bus the majority of the years she owned it.
However, the name came from another source. Dees said the woman's friend, who watched over her property after she entered a nursing home, came up with the name. That friend talked to Dees and told him the bus was purchased in 1976 and the woman drove it for about 30 years until she was no longer able to drive. Although the bus, associated with the hippie culture, didn't have near the pizzazz of her other cars -- such as new Buicks and Cadillacs -- it remained a favorite for most of her driving years.
"I believe this is why Betty's kind of dinged up, because she had a senior citizen driving her around," said Dees, speaking of Betty like he would a close friend. "She probably has other stories to tell, but I'll never know them all. So I get to invent her past and what she witnessed during her travels."
At nearly age 42, Dees said Betty could have been anywhere and done all kinds of things. Despite the glamour of some of her contemporaries -- Jennifer Aniston and Jennifer Lopez -- the years haven't been near as kind to this four-wheel diva.
Betty shows her age with body rust, chipped paint and scratches, missing ornaments and a big dent near the driver's side taillight. Her upholstery has rips and even her motor when started emits an uncertain pa-dump, pa-dump, pa-dump sound like she would rather park her tired chassis and watch the world drive by. But Dees insists those blemishes are part of what makes her special.
"She'll never be a show car, but that's part of the charm of an old car -- she shows some age," he said. "Compare that to those celebrities who get all the plastic surgery, and they end up looking weird. That won't happen with Betty."
Not that Dees doesn't get offers. He said one person offered to paint her up like the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. He's also considering painting it in some odd color schemes that tie in to the hippie motif. Those paint jobs would be temporary until he decides what color the real coat would be. He said VWs are about having fun and that's definitely a destination he intends to head toward with Betty.
He said the majority of the work will happen at the Fort Sill Automotive Skills Center and that restoration usually takes one of two routes. If he cannot get a space to park it, his "rolling project" will have to begin with making it road worthy. He noticed the brakes were sound on the trip north and no brake fluid is leaking on subsequent visual inspections. Steering also seems to be functional, though he will likely address this later too. For now, Dees focuses his attention on the transmission, because Betty is stuck in second gear.
"All work has to be carefully planned out to allow time to reassemble whatever I'm working on so I can drive her home," he said.
Should he get a parking space and not have to drive Betty, he can shift to a static restoration where he can tear the bus down completely and store all its parts in boxes. Work then progresses from one end to the other.
Betty's crown jewel, the VW chrome emblem under the windshield is missing, but the paint, less oxidized where the lettering once was, reminds all of her lineage.
Someday, perhaps, a new shiny emblem may again grace the front end, but he said there's likely a good reason he can't see what the bus will look like when his restoration ends.
"I don't think I'll ever be done with it. This work is one of those things where the journey is better than the goal. Like the Buddhists say, 'It's better to travel well than it is to arrive,'" said Dees, borrowing the quote from "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,"
his guide and inspiration.
Drawing also from the wisdom of his father who restored 10 to 15 VWs, he said his dad often painted his restored cars back to their same assembly line color. For Betty, her faded, sky blue color is a ghost of her former vitality. Like that wispy earth-bound spirit, Dees is uncommitted about Betty's eventual beauty.
Instead, together they will just roll along and see where they end up.
Editor's note: This is the first article in a series detailing Joe Dees' work restoring Betty and offering information on car maintenance and restoration work people can do at the Automotive Skills Center.