Happy Campers: Tom Petriken

This is the story of Big Red, an antique VW bus that helped Tom Petriken conquer a fear of driving, after he upgraded her from years of improper upkeep (someone actually let the poor thing sit idle for four years). It’s a story of traffic stalls, expensive repairs and DIY workmanship. And it has a happy ending. 

tom petriken van life

Why did you initially want a VW bus?

Before Big Red, I didn’t drive or have much of a desire to own a VW bus. I didn’t get my license when I was 17 like everybody else. To be honest, getting behind the wheel was something that scared me. Over the years, I collected so many negative thoughts about driving. That changed pretty quickly once I met Big Red for the very first time. I didn’t just see a VW bus, I saw the next chapter of my life. I remember peeking through the windows and letting my imagination run wild. Looking back, I see that Big Red helped me conquer my fears.

tom petriken van life

When you bought her, were you expecting to put in so much work?

At first, I was very naive when it came to Big Red. I had no idea what I was getting myself into with purchasing an antique car. She is more than 40 years old and has several past owners. Most of the repairs that I have done with my bus are from fixing their mistakes and their lack of upkeep. One owner let Big Red sit for four years while he was away at college and another one tried using Nissan Pathfinder parts for the fuel system. It wasn’t long until their errors came to haunt me. On one of her maiden voyages, I pulled up to a red light and everything shut down. I turned the key but the engine was still silent. All of my attempts to revive the bus were useless. When the traffic light turned green, I looked into my rear view mirror and saw a line of cars behind me. Sometime between that moment and pushing her off the road, I realized I was in way over my head.

tom petriken van life

Did you do all of the repairs/upgrades yourself?

Unless you have years of training or experience, its best to leave the heavy repair jobs to the professionals. Without the guys over at Mike’s Imports in Point Pleasant, NJ, my bus would be sitting in the driveway and rusting away. They brought my bus back to life and fixed problems that I didn’t even know about. Without maintenance, the engine compartment was a fire hazard waiting to happen. Not to mention the brakes, muffler, and sway bar were a few drives away from falling off. Not only did these mechanics get me back on the road but they made Big Red safe.

While the garage focused on the mechanical work, I concentrated on the cosmetic repairs. My girlfriend Margeau and I replaced the flower power curtains with a yellow plaid that resembled the original pattern. From there, I’ve done everything from hooking up the sink to redoing the interior with oakwood.

tom petriken van life

What skills did you have to learn for that?

Restoring Big Red is like fixing up a boat or a house. There’s such a wide variety of mediums to work with. Wood, rubber, cotton, vinyl, plastic, aluminum, and steel are some of the materials that I’ve encountered. My girlfriend taught me how to sew so I could mend the curtains and upholstery. I also became pretty comfortable using snap and grommet tools.

When I got Big Red, the plywood interior wasn’t original. The previous owners cut the pieces too small so they didn’t fit quite right. I had little experience cutting wood so I went to Home Depot and purchased some scrap pieces so I could learn. When I was confident with my new skill, I traced the patterns onto the new wood. I used cardboard to fabricate the areas that were too short. Since I didn’t have the originals to copy, this was the only way I could improve the cuts. The ceiling was the toughest piece to install since there is such a big curve. I’m really lucky that my dad was there to give me tips on sanding and staining along the way.

tom petriken van life

Were there any interesting tools involved?

I always find myself referring to both the Volkswagen Owner’s Manual and Bentley Manual for guidance. VW’s are made in a way where everything has a purpose so leaving out a small detail can lead to a big problem. It never hurts to double check the source, even if the instructions are from 1971.

The Internet has really given an advantage to the younger generations who are undertaking restoration projects. I frequently visit a Volkswagen forum called TheSamba.com for inspiration and help with Big Red. It makes sense to do your homework and read up about the past experiences of other owners before tackling a complicated project. Whenever I have a question, I can find my answer on there. A few weeks ago, I used a 15-part YouTube video as my guide to restore the jalousie windows.

What’s next on your van-to-do-list?

There’s always something in the queue for Big Red. I have a total of 15 windows and eight of them are leaking every single time it rains. I’m taking it one window at a time and replacing the original rubber that has rotted over the years. The other day, I completed the rear hatch window. I tried to be extra careful since this was my first time removing glass. I think I was most nervous after all was said and done because it was time to see if I actually fixed the leak.

Eventually, I want to get Big Red painted with fresh coats of factory chianti red. I want her to look like she rolled right off the production line in 1971. Before that happens, some bodywork is necessary to remove the exterior rust. I’m planning on taking a bodywork class in the Fall so I can do this part of the restoration myself.

tom petriken van life

Do you ever plan on moving into Big Red?

Big Red is my home away from home. I spend so much time working on and cruising in my bus that its like I live in there already. It’s good to know that my means of transportation can also turn into a small apartment. Within minutes, my bus can transform from a bedroom into a dining room. I don’t know too many people who can say that about their vehicles.

See more of Tom’s van on Instagram @Tom_Petriken and @Melissa_Dilger

*Photos by Melissa Dilger