Seeing a white-haired gentleman like Lawrence Hacking driving down the street in a 1967 Volkswagen Microbus doesn’t initially seem out of the ordinary in any way. Finding out that it was the first new vehicle his father ever purchased and the very vehicle in which he learned to drive makes the story all the more interesting. Hacking’s connection to this VW in particular goes much, much deeper than that.
The vintage front licence plate from India hints at its storied lineage. Hacking’s father was a mechanical engineer who worked for Atomic Energy of Canada. He moved the family to Rajasthan, India, in 1967 to work at the atomic power station. Hacking can still recall laying eyes on the bus for the first time as it arrived in Mumbai (then Bombay) from Germany.
“It was a big moment in all our lives,” he admits. He and his three siblings immediately piled into the vehicle, chattering away with excitement. “This was our family vehicle,” says Hacking, “My dad was a bit of an adventurer, so on his vacations, we used it to tour all around India.”
Nuclear Family, Nuclear Power
That power plant changed the course of history for the area since it gave them reliable electricity for the very first time. Completed in 1973, the Rajasthan Power Project (RAPP) was similar to the CANDU (Canada Deuterium Uranium) pressurized heavy-water reactor (PHWR) and constructed through a partnership with Canada. The agreement included the caveat that India would not use the spent waste to create nuclear weapons. Only a year later, India completed a nuclear test called Smiling Buddha and the contract was dissolved.
From there, the family moved back to Canada where the elder Hacking worked for Bruce Power in Kincardine. The family bus was shipped here with all of their personal effects. Shortly thereafter, Hacking admits to virtually destroying the van. Inheriting his father’s adventurer spirit, Hacking was the first Canadian to ever successfully complete the Paris to Dakar Rally, a competition known for punishing vehicles and, at times, being fatal for riders. Attending motocross and enduro races across the country, he’d load dirt bikes into the back of the van and even sleep in it.
“This was also my first vehicle,” says Hacking. “I learned to drive in it, passed my driving test in it, I took it to my first dirt bike race. I even had my first car accident with it.” Asked if he had any other significant “firsts” in the vehicle, he laughs and says, “No comment.”
Hacking sold the VW back in late 1970s and never expected to see it again. During that time, he focused on family life, worked in marketing for a number of motorcycle manufacturers and completed many rallies – from Dakar and Targa Newfoundland to the Baja 1000. Under the ownership of someone else, the van had its own fair share of adventures, apparently being rolled into a ditch by an intoxicated driver.
Do You Believe in Serendipity?
The journey to track down the van started with a call from Hacking’s brother Mark in 2012. He heard that Volkswagen was launching a factory restoration for microbuses that would return customers’ vehicles to their former glory. His brother asked, “I wonder whatever happened to that old bus of Dad’s?” which got him thinking. Hacking created an online post in search of information. He didn’t have high expectations, so was floored when the phone rang just two days later.
“I think I have the bus you’re looking for,” said the man on the other end of the line. “It’s sitting out in my back field.” Asking for the man’s information, Hacking immediately punched the address into Google Maps satellite view, and sure enough, there it was. What were the odds that this man in Manitoba would click on that particular wanted ad?
“Knowing the story, the guy could have raked me right over the coals, but he liked the story, so he sold it to me for $500,” Hacking recalls.
It was in pretty rough shape the last time he’d seen it, but it was even worse when he arrived at the farm to retrieve it. Sitting derelict, up to its axles in mud, was the exact VW Microbus his father had purchased and shipped to India all those years ago. Pulling back the shag carpet Hacking installed as a teenager revealed stickers he’d put on the floor as a little kid. Hacking admits to being moved to tears as it was being loaded onto the trailer. The van that had played such an important part of his childhood and formative years was coming home.
Restoration and Rebirth
The initial plan was simply to prevent the van from decaying any further. It was so far gone that it would have been well beyond saving were it not for its sentimental value. It was such an overwhelming project that a year passed before Hacking could even get around to starting any kind of restoration. The fact that it was a standard 11-window bus without any upgrades or options helped, as is the fact that they are a popular vehicle to restore, so parts are readily available. “My dad wasn’t a flashy guy,” Hacking says, “It didn’t come with chrome bumpers or even a radio.”
As he was searching for parts in online forums and wrecking yards all over North America, another bit of luck transpired. Over 40 years earlier, Hacking had peeled off a few pieces, including the front bumper, and threw them in a cousin’s barn. Sure enough, when he returned all those years later, the boxes were right where he’d left them.
The mission became trying to preserve the legacy of his father by preserving as much of the van's originality as possible. Involving more time and money than he cares to admit, a full restoration took place over the next few years and is still a work in progress.
“Any vintage vehicle needs work constantly. You can make yourself crazy trying to make it perfect, so you just need to enjoy it how it is.”
It may not be a DeLorean, but it is still something of a time machine. “It brings back a lot of family memories,” Hacking says as he smiles, “And they are nice memories.”
Hacking's father passed away at a relatively young age and never met his grandchildren. This bus is the closest thing to a physical, tangible connection that exists. An irrepressible and exuberant man, Hacking gets wistful for a moment as he relays the deep connection he has with the vehicle.
“My dad sat in this very seat. He held the same steering wheel and looked in the same mirror, and that’s something special.”
This Volkswagen Microbus may have been built in Germany and spent a number of years in India before being abandoned in Manitoba, but now it's home, right where it should be. What a long, strange trip it’s been.