VW Collectors Unite Under Historic Landmark, Camp Out Under Full Moon

South Jersey Volkswagen Club Event Celebrates Spirit of Freedom, Adventure
By VICTORIA FORD | May 22, 2019
Photo by: Chris Seiz WINNING PAIR: The Brodback family (from left) Carl, Frednia, Cassy, Nate, Jon and Sandy relax with their VW popup campers and enjoy the scenery at the rally in Barnegat Light.

Barnegat Light — Barnegat Lighthouse State Park set the scene for the South Jersey Volkswagen Club’s camper rally and campout this weekend, which drew dozens of enthusiasts with their old VW buses, campers and teardrop trailers. The event is a judged show, potluck dinner, bonfire on the beach and overnight stay in the parking lot – an all-around celebration of the sense of adventure and freedom the Volkswagen brand evokes.

The first of such events was held in Bass River State Forest in 2015. Subsequent events have been held in Barnegat Light.

Campers came from near and far, throughout New Jersey and Pennsylvania, to share their vehicles and make memories.

“Everybody has a VW story,” according to Norm Priest of Westville, whose 1960 single-cab pickup was the oldest of the lot. In the select words of Christine Sablynski from North Jersey, “nostalgia” is just a euphemism for “I got laid in one of those once.”

For Frednia Brodbeck, the event was a homecoming.

She and husband Carl of Island Heights were making a weekend of it with their son Jon, his wife Sandy and their two kids Cassy and Nate, the couples’ pair of orange buses parked side by side.

“My mother was born in a shanty in Barnegat Light,” Frednia said. As kids, her mom and aunt knew the lightkeeper and would get special access to climb the lighthouse. She is the third-generation Frednia, after her mother and grandmother. Her third great-grandfather was Sammy Perrine, the sneakbox builder of Perrine Boat Works. Another relative was an early member of the Beach Haven Coast Guard Station.

The Brodbeck family’s love of VW campers goes back to when Jon was a kid and the family would take road trips to New England.

“They’re just a lot of fun,” Frednia said.

“It’s a good, affordable way to go camping with five people,” Carl said.

The love was rekindled when the grandkids came along.

The Barnegat Light event is particularly poignant, Frednia said, describing the feeling of “just us, the lighthouse and the full moon.” There’s something magical, she said, about the middle of the night, when you get up to use the bathroom, and everyone else is asleep, and you look up at that lighthouse in the still of the night. So peaceful.

Stephanie Chomiak said she “had to come all the way to South Jersey (from up north) to find a good club.”

For her and her friend Sablynski, camping is a respite from the noise of life, a chance to put aside the phones. “None of this,” she said, gesticulating thumbs on an invisible device.

Chomiak has always liked Volkswagens – and might even have a Beetle to thank for her very existence. Chomiak’s mom always told the story of how, when she went into labor the day Stephanie was born, they had to borrow a neighbor’s Beetle because it was the only vehicle that could get up the hill to the hospital.

Some of the examples on display exemplified the ultimate in miniature living, long before the so-called tiny house movement really took hold.

Jay DiPompo, a core member of the South Jersey VW Club, has a Westfalia Weekender with a kitchenette and pop-top.

Matthew and Marilyn Sacher of Downingtown, Pa., brought their 1977 Westfalia with Berln interior, ideal for the tiny, mobile lifestyle. When the Sachers got it, the pristine collectible had been in storage for 30 years. The amount of dirt and dust on it was incredible, but hidden beneath the grime was a sage green gem.

James Rura of East Windsor accessorized his with his own artwork on small handmade tables and some cute curtains made by his wife and sister-in-law specially for the Barnegat Light event. He called his setup “basic but equipped,” with everything a guy could want – his fishing pole, transistor radio, folding picnic table and vintage Coca-Cola cooler.

“If you’re coming to an event like this, you have to bring all your vintage stuff,” he said.

VW buses were produced from 1968 to 1979, some of which were Westfalia conversions or “Westies.” Vanagons were made from 1980 to 1991, after which point the engine was moved to the front and the era of the Eurovan camper began, lasting until 2003. Volkswagen plans to introduce an electric Microbus in 2022.

Many of the old buses and campers on the road today are a far cry from the factory setup, having been pieced together over time. Among collectors, Chomiak explained, “When you see something that’s going to be thrown out, you harvest what you can.”

Part of the joy of owning and working on an antique, Priest explained, is the hunt for the parts, especially the elusive ones. For example, original rear bumpers are hard to find. In the earlier models, the rear bumper had to be removed to get to the motor, and the owners, “being lazy or probably too high, didn’t always put them back on, and a lot of them got lost.”

Chomiak bought hers in January 2016, and it’s been an ongoing process of getting it road-ready. Her husband tried sleeping in it once and decided it wasn’t for him, so it’s been a girls’-getaway-mobile ever since. “We set up a little village,” Chomiak said.

Priest’s ’60 pickup may have been the oldest, and looked the part, but inside and underneath, the single port-engine runs “like a dream,” he said.

He had GM muscle cars all his life and made his living as a GM mechanic. Then about eight years ago while shopping for a vintage Frigidaire on Craigslist, he stumbled upon a 1974 VW tin-top camper that his fiancée wanted. Later he got the single-cab for himself. (He also has a 1970 high-top, a 1972 Super Beetle and an ’85 Vanagon with a Riviera roof.)

His first was a ’65 Beetle with a Baja kit, he said. It was the worst, he said; the carburetor would freeze. “I’d have to take a leak on the carburetor to thaw it out to get to school. That lasted about two weeks.”

Nowadays, the rusty blue pickup comes with him to shows because it has the most character. But looks can be deceiving.

“The drive line is all brand new,” he said. So are the interior seats, custom panels and headliner, which he’ll invite you to see, but good luck with that door handle.

Priest gave it the finesse, adding the common refrain among aficionados of old things: “This is hard to open.”

As for the exterior, he said, “I just want to keep it as original as I can for as long as I can.” He enjoys the attention and waves he gets, though he gets nervous when he can tell someone in another car is trying to take a picture while driving.

To start it up, he kicks off his flip-flops, because “I have to drive barefoot.” Flesh-to-pedal contact connects him more intimately to the machine.

“You can feel more,” he said.

With a canvas tarp secured over the back end, the truck doubles as a comfortable bunk for the night. The 8½-foot bed has drop-down sides that turn it into a flat bed, plenty roomy for a mattress. Saturday night was his first time camping with it.

The SJVWCC has 53 members that are actively involved, Priest said. He mainly sticks to events closer to home that fit into his work schedule.

The names of the shows on the regional circuit are great: the German-American Society of Trenton has “Dubs in the Shrubs”; “Westies in the Woods” happens this weekend in Branchville; “Filthy Buggers” comes to the town of Hope in April; “Dubs on the Boards” is in Wildwood in September.

victoria@thesandpaper.net

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