Adopted by Neighbors, a VW Camper Spreads Happiness

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Sitting in the living room of her family's 19th-century colonial home, Lesley Fowks recalled the day in 2002 that her son, Ian Brady, burst in with an announcement: the rusting 1977 Volkswagen camper van sitting in the side yard of a nearby house could be his "for free."

The young man, then 13, explained that he'd be doing yard work in exchange for the nonrunning vehicle. Well aware of her son's infatuation with this derelict VW, Ms. Fowks walked with him to the house, a block away, to investigate.

The camper had been parked under the same tree since she; her husband, Tom Brady; and Ian moved into the neighborhood in 1991. At the time, Ms. Fowks didn't know anything about the camper's owner, James Rose, who had died that year at 78.

Nearly obscured by a curtain of trees, the house on East Ridgewood Avenue was also a mystery.

"It looked dilapidated," she said. "We thought it might be abandoned. People called it the 'tree house' because it was built around the trees on the property."

She would learn that Rose, who had designed the home, was a pioneer and a leader in the modern American landscape architecture movement. The house, which he built in 1953, exemplified his hallmark of integrating structures with the natural setting. A renovation in 1969 added a rooftop garden and a zendo for meditation.

Rose, an avid traveler, bought his camper at a northern New Jersey VW dealership in 1977 and drove it to Mexico that year. A turista sticker remains on a passenger side window.

Known formally as the Campmobile, the model was a factory-contracted conversion of the Type 2 van, popularly known in the United States as the microbus or just bus. Westfalia, a German company, performed the conversions. More a mobile campsite than a mini R.V., the outfitted van has sleeping for up to four, a sink with a hookup for running water and a 120-volt connection for campgrounds.

Through the mid-1980s, Rose drove his camper to schools around the country, lecturing on landscape architecture. Several visits took him to the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, to address students of Dean Cardasis. Mr. Cardasis, who is now the graduate program director at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., recalled riding in the camper.

"Rose loved to travel, but he was very frugal," Mr. Cardasis, whose book about the architect will be published next year, said in a telephone interview. "He didn't buy it as someone who liked to camp, but as a practical vehicle for his travels."

Before Rose died, Mr. Cardasis and others helped to establish the James Rose Center for Landscape Architectural Research and Design to preserve the Ridgewood home. The property was gradually improved, and it opened for tours and to support educational programs.

The camper, however, sat unused and deteriorating for the next decade. By the time Ms. Fowks's son developed his fixation, it looked forlorn, sitting on four flat tires. Rust spots had broken out over its body, and seedlings were growing in the drip rails that surround the van's roof.

"I had seen it when growing up," Ian Brady, who is now 24, said. "There was something about it being parked there for so long. I knew my mom was wondering about it as well."

Before the barter deal was struck, Ms. Fowks had asked about buying the VW, an idea that didn't seem far-fetched, as camping had long been a part of her life. Mr. Cardasis told her that the camper was not for sale; she felt it needed too much work anyway.

"I told my son, 'It's a wreck. The man doesn't want to sell it, and you're only 12,' " she said.

Refusing to take "no" for an answer, the boy hounded Mr. Cardasis to sell the camper whenever he saw him at the Rose house.

"He so impressed me with his passion for that van," Mr. Cardasis, who became the center's director, said. "From the beginning, I had a sense that there needed to be a way for him to get it. So we made the deal for him to work in trade for it."

The agreement called for the boy to spend an hour a day after school raking leaves and cleaning the fountains on the property, among other tasks. The camper would be his at the end of the school year.

After completing his day's tasks, Ian would clean the camper.

"He spent hours with Windex and mildew remover, and used steel wool for the rust spots," Ms. Fowks said. "It was filthy. You could barely see the plaid pattern on the driver's seat."

When Ian had fulfilled his obligation, the camper, which he nicknamed Earl, was towed to his house. A local shop got the engine running, but it took extensive work at a VW specialist, Wagon Works in Englewood, N.J., to make the van roadworthy.

At the first opportunity, Ms. Fowks took Ian and his sister, Jesse, now a sophomore in college, camping.

With flower magnets covering the rust spots, they hit the road. "Compared to a tent, it was a luxury," Ms. Fowks said.

The original engine gave out in 2006 and was replaced. In 2009, Ms. Fowks had the body repaired and repainted for what she called a bargain price. Her bills for the "free" camper eventually tallied $9,000; she now considers it a family treasure.

The factory color, called Marino Yellow, appears to be the same shade used for school buses. Ms. Fowks would know. A 1975 graduate of Parsons School of Design in Manhattan, she briefly drove a school bus before starting a 30-year career in fashion and merchandising in New York. Today, she teaches fashion and design at Westwood Regional High School, and the camper sometimes serves as a prop for student projects.

The Westfalia camping equipment remains intact. The pop-top roof is a highlight, providing stand-up room and a fold-down double bed. The back seat folds into the somewhat narrower lower bed. A mosquito screen was provided so the rear hatch could be left open.

There's a built-in ice chest, but this van was not equipped with the optional refrigerator and propane cooktop of the Deluxe model. Ms. Fowks uses a Coleman stove and a hot plate when camping. A wood-grain table installs in front of the rear bench seat, and the front passenger seat swivels 180 degrees to face it.

The van has no air-conditioning, and the heater, typically weak in the old air-cooled VW engines, is barely functional because ducts are missing from the engine compartment. Ms. Fowks said she uses the camper only in warm weather.

A short ride revealed the van's relaxed manner. The 2-liter, 4-cylinder engine, with just 67 horsepower, labors to push it to 40 m.p.h., but settles into the familiar VW "putta-putta-putta" once cruising. The ride is fairly comfortable, with some wallowing over bumps.

A petite and fit 59-year-old, Ms. Fowks wrestles with the unassisted steering, and it's a long reach to shift the 4-speed manual transmission. "There's a trick to getting it into fourth," she said, twirling the gangly shift lever until finding the slot.

"Even though it's a lot of work to drive, it's an instant stress reliever for me," she added. "There are no gadgets, not even a radio. You're just watching the road, looking out the windshield."

The owner's manual lists a top speed of 75 m.p.h., but Ms. Fowks and her son agreed that for the sake of stability the comfortable limit was considerably lower.

"You really can't go over 50 or 60 miles an hour," Mr. Brady said. "It's a project to drive long distance."

In August, Ms. Fowks and her sister, Lauren Fowks, who lives in Connecticut, took the camper to the Great Divide Campground in Newton, N.J.

"We always put Christmas lights around it, and we're always the only VW camper there," she said. "At stop signs, people flash the peace sign. It's the happiest car on the road."

Location Ridgewood, N.J.

Occupation Teacher (Lesley Fowks); home

theater installer (Ian Brady)

Vehicle 1977 Volkswagen Campmobile

Acquired 2003

autonews

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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