Cars of the Counterculture
An entire generation rebelled against mom, apple pie and often, the family Chevrolet
The rebellion included automobiles . . .
We were forever saying “what a trip” but showed little interest in the four-wheeled way to go on one. This despite previously being a generation of obsessive car fans. Show a Baby Boomer two square feet of sheet metal from any car manufactured between the time he was six and the time he smoked his first joint and he—and many a she—will tell you the make, model, year and, often, the horsepower. Furthermore, the sensation seeking, sexual indulgence, rootlessness and revolt of the counterculture were formed by the automobile. The bohemian/beatnik/hippie ethos begins with the “Ford baby” flapper, conceived in the back seat of a Model T, goes On the Road with Jack Kerouac, and winds up in a paisley VW Microbus delivering the flowers in my hair, and me, to San Francisco in the Summer of Love.
The truth is, of course, that we hippies did like cars—as kids wanting to get away from mom and dad and waking up before noon always will. But we liked cars our parents wouldn’t be seen dead in. And thanks to the hodgepodge genius of the pre-1970s automobile industry, we found some great cars that filled the bill. It was a bill we could pay on our “spare change?” budgets. As flipped out as we were, we managed to pick cars that, nearly 50 years later, remain worth owning—although maybe without the house paint applied with four-inch brushes.
The most popular counterculture choice was, in a way, the most peculiar. Long before the flower children were born, an evil dictator commissioned a little rattletrap for his fanatical adherents and somehow the Nazi People’s Car became the power-to-the-people car. The Volkswagen Beetle went from Führer to Führer-out. The price was groovy—$1,639 new in 1967. And by then some 10 million Beetles had been built, mostly with interchangeable parts. In theory, I could get a Volkswagen for free by putting together things that had fallen off other Volkswagens.
But not many things did fall off. This, as much as price, was the appeal. Dr. Ferdinand Porsche’s “Folk-Wagon” was a case of on-the-ball oddball design. The Beetle was a sturdy item—a good thing for its spacey owners, whose idea of maintenance was to convince the crankcase to achieve inner peace through Transcendental Meditation. But even total flakes supposedly could, and sometimes did, repair a Volkswagen. To remove a Volkswagen motor, get under the car and lower the engine block onto your stomach. This was one way to get rid of hippies.
The base 1.5-liter ’67 Beetle had only 53 horsepower and wasn’t as tiny as the sneering squares claimed. But it didn’t feel underpowered, at least not when the driver was supercharged. In those days our minds were blown rather than our engines. And driving a Beetle was a high. The gears were so compliant and the clutch was so light that groupies on mescaline could be taught to stick shift. Handling was right on—though not necessarily right on the pavement. As in a Corvair or Porsche 356, cornering was full of over steer emergencies. But in the Beetle these were emergencies that happened at 25 mph, the kind you could deal with when you were high. We “heads” did not, by the way, consider the Beetle cute. We didn’t go to see “the Love Bug.” We weren’t that stoned. We thought the VW looked practical, useful, purposeful. Why this was attractive to a bunch of impractical, useless people riding around in Beetles for no purpose, I forget. Maybe it kept the Yin and Yang in cosmic balance.
We did have a purpose when we were riding around in the Beetle’s Microbus cousin—to pick up as many hitchhikers as possible. Sooner or later one of them was bound to have some dope. There was almost no limit to the number of hippies you could pack into a Microbus. Whoa, who’s driving this thing?
Not that anyone would want to. The Microbus really was underpowered. The handling was the same as what we’d encounter years later, in the cars made by our sons for the Cub Scout Pinewood Derby. And the forward control driving position put a rectangle of split windshield in your face, giving an eerie TV-screen effect to oncoming traffic, like it was being staged. “And though she feels as if she’s in a play/She is anyway…”
My mind seems to be wandering. Must be the acid flashbacks. But what makes the first-generation VW Type 2 Microbus still cool today is that it was pure, clean and logical. Volkswagen engineers looked at the passenger vehicle as it had existed for half a century and decided to go with the box it came in. A brilliant stroke of industrial design, never mind that it led to the minivan. Shut up, kids, Daddy’s having a flashback.
the offbeat beauty of the Microbus shows a forgotten side to the counterculture: Hippies had interesting taste in design.
And never more so than during our love-in with the Volvo 544. Of course it was from Sweden, a country with socialism and nude volleyball, so we would have been into Volvos no matter what. But the Volvo PV 544 brought peace and love to car styling—a ceasefire in the 20th century automotive design war between old-fashioned exposed contraption and upto-date encapsulated mechanism. The traditional styling cues were all there in the 544, showing location of passengers, whereabouts of wheels, the place the engine goes and what the radiator does. Yet the look was futuristic. The result was a crunchy, organic, hand-weave kind of modern technology, perfect for the half-Luddite, half-space cadet sensibility of the 1960s.
Ford had done something very similar with its 1942 models, few of which were built due to WWII being such a bummer. There’s a grease pit legend that Volvo bought the ’42 Ford machine tools and shrank them. Can you dig it?
The 544’s ’42 Ford aura is a fake-out anyway. Get in touch with the 1965 544’s inner self and there’s a 1.8-liter ohv four with twin SU carburetors and five main bearings that lets you push it well past its 6,500 rpm redline and stated 90 horsepower. The four-speed transmission is all synchromesh. Unibody construction meant a curb weight only a few hundred pounds heavier than the Beetle’s. The Volvo’s handling was sharing and caring but in a get-real way. It could roll most small sports cars into a spliff and smoke them. And it could whip a muscle car if you could lure the muscle-head onto a road with curves. But, being hippies, that wasn’t our scene. Usually.
What were the Swedes smoking? Another improbable way to give people in Jesus sandals a lead foot was the Saab 96. Everything about the Saab was whack-o. One of its pistons was missing. The oil went in the gas tank. The engine drove the wrong wheels. And the car looked like an airplane that had lost the bottom of its fuselage and its wings, which, since it was manufactured by Svenska Aeroplan Aktiebolaget (Swedish Airplane Ltd.), it was.
The three-cylinder, two-cycle engine, even in its 850-cc, triple-carburetor final reincarnation (good Swedish karma, man), produced only 60 hp, so the 96 wasn’t truly fast. It just went fast in places where nothing else could go fast. The 96 dominated international rally championships, not to mention the dirt road up to the commune and the pea stone drive in front of the college dorm.
Most of us had never experienced front-wheel drive. Outta sight. Call it a Happening. Until we discovered throttle steer. Call it a tow truck. We liked the two-cycle engine because, with fewer cycles, it was saving the earth’s circularities, or something. And the Saab was great for bugging authority figures such as gas station attendants. “Give me a Dixie cup of gasoline and two teaspoons of Castrol.”
VWs, Volvos and Saabs showed imagination, but the ’60s were even more imaginative than that. What was needed to completely freak the establishment, your parents and your ad executive older brother—that sellout—was a day-glow-slathered school bus packed with tie-dyed dropouts, a lot of blotter acid and some Hells Angels—like Ken Kesey had with his school bus. “Imagine no state troopers/I wonder if you can…”
Fortunately for everyone on America’s highways, we weren’t “together” enough to drive a bus. “Imagine parallel parking/On LSD…” (Kesey’s school bus, by the way, was a 1939 International Harvester named “Further” for which he paid $1,500 in 1964. Rip-off.)
The next most imaginative thing to do was to find a mellow hippie chick, a bandana-wearing dog named “Free” and an old pickup truck, and travel across America like in “Easy Rider,” except with a different last scene. None of us ever did it. One of the three elements was always missing. Sometimes it was the mellow hippie chick. Sometimes it was the dog. Usually it was the old pickup. I could never get it started.
The hip pickup was a Ford from 1956 or before, though a Chevy, Dodge or Studebaker pickup from the same era was a blast, too. These trucks still had real truck styling, which is to say none. They were authentic. (Authenticity was considered very important among people who spent all their time pretending to be something other than white, middle-class Americans.)
The 1950s Ford was, in fact, a modern truck—or became one when equipped with the heater/defroster option. The base engine was a 226-cubic-inch pushrod inline six producing an adequate 115 horsepower. The bench seat was large enough to accommodate any size of mellow hippie chick. The travel across America would have been reasonably comfortable if the dog wasn’t too smelly. The reason it never happened was that, in those days, used pickup trucks had been used—to haul hay wagons, muck out barn stalls, take livestock to market and yank stumps. Nobody detailed a Ford pickup in 1956, or changed its oil, either.
So we weren’t in Ford trucks, and we usually weren’t in Saab 96s, Volvo 544s, Microbuses or even Beetles. Not many counterculture types had counterculture cars. Real hippie conveyance was mostly hand-me-down beater, or rusty bucket from the sad back row of the used car lot or borrowed from mom.
In an attempt to clear the doobie haze of nostalgia, I researched the subject. I found a big book, WOODSTOCK: Peace, Music & Memories, published on the 40th anniversary of the largest gathering of hippies of all time—unless they serve hash brownies in hell. There are a lot of photographs in the book. (the good news: People really did take their clothes off. The bad news: Gyms had not been invented.) You will recall that Woodstock was not one of history’s brilliant exercises in transportation logistics. Many of the photos are of traffic jams.
In what can be seen of the Woodstock Music and Art Fair, station wagons outnumbered VW Beetles, 15 to 14. There were 10 Microbuses, nine panel vans, two old pickups, one Saab and no Volvos. Three psychedelic school buses are visible, but these were part of the show. They belonged to the Hog Farm Collective, which provided the teeming crowd with such valuable services as announcing over the P.A. system, “If you dropped the brown acid, go to the Bummer Tent.” there were 10 sports cars, including a Corvette, one Karmann Ghia, three Corvairs, a Mk II Jaguar and a Checker sedan. Everything else was ordinary Detroit Iron. But that’s reality—and what did reality ever have to do with the 1960s?
To see this article in its original format, view the pdf version of the Winter 2011 issue of Hagerty magazine