The incredible off-road resurrection of a legendary Volkswagen stash
It was rumored for years: Some grizzled, old desert rat had a stash of rare Volkswagen Microbuses stacked up in a warehouse in Moab, Utah. Retired off-road tour vans mothballed after 30 hard years with the first motorized tour company in the southeast part of the state. All split-window sunroof deluxe models, precious as the dinosaur bones, that the old man dug from the cracked red dirt. No, they aren’t for sale, and no, he won’t let you see them.
Turns out the rumor was true, the desert rat in question was named Lin Ottinger, and every true air-cooled nerd knew at least some of the details.
That was then, this is now. Lin, slim, tall, and 92-years-experienced, ambles in red plaid, blue jeans, and silver beard, through a patch of 31 old VWs next to his warehouse. Mostly buses wearing knobby tires, dead bugs, and battle scars. To our once-cynical hero, these are ostensible indicators that the breathless weirdos in his garage are of his ilk—cars, goddammit, are meant to be driven. That’ll happen as soon as he can rally us around his belated birthday present, a 1963 23-window Ottinger Tour Bus just put back on the road after 30 years of passive work in dust collection. Today’s agenda: active dust collection, on a rough and twisty piece of the old tour route in the crimson heart of Edward Abbey’s canyonland.
None of this seemed possible 10 years ago. Back then, Lin was seen as just another eccentric curmudgeon guarding a treasure chest of old cars he’d never sell nor pay any mind to. You know the type. It wasn’t a totally inaccurate characterization. Unlike the cantankerous shufflers who so unjustly crushed your barn-find fantasies, however, Lin had an honest reason: When you’re sitting on a treasure, the world is full of pirates.
All the notes and telephone messages and emails and in-person pleas to buy just one bus, please were bad enough. Then parts began disappearing off his eight tour-battered Volkswagens. Lin had retired them to a spot next to his famous rock shop on the main drag into Moab when he shuttered Ottinger Land Tours in the early ’90s due to increased restrictions on motorized travel along his route, now primarily contained in Canyonlands and Arches National Parks. His beloved buses and the Volkswagen community he once embraced had become, at best, a constant source of unnecessary stress.
Rock hunters, amateur paleontologists, and storytellers all, history is important to the Ottingers. Unfortunately, the new generation of Volkswagen fanatics didn’t display much respect for the family’s personal history. Disgusted, Lin hid his VW exhibit away in the loft of an unmarked warehouse outside town. Things calmed down and mostly stayed that way until the early-2000s, when a photo surfaced on the internet: eight dusty split-window Buses packed sardine-tight in the back of a mysterious building, all but one of them sign-painted with a name and location, “Lin Ottinger, Moab, Utah.” Cue—and queue—the pirates.
“Why would I sell ’em?” Lin barks before I finish the question. “One guy come out here and offered me $100,000 for each one of ’em,” he says, leaning against a cobwebbed 21-window. “I told him, ‘Oh, I have something for you right over here… it’s called the door. And don’t come back.’”
One hundred thousand dollars. For broken-down, worn-out work buses. Maybe that seems insane to you. As a split-window VW bus owner more interested in adventure than investment, I personally hope it does. But for worse or better, these temperamental old motorized garden sheds command big bucks now. Especially 21- and 23-window sunroof deluxe models like Lin’s, which even in dubiously restored condition regularly surpass the $100K mark at the big televised auctions. But this story isn’t about classic car values; it’s about classic cars bringing people together in spite of those values—the monetary ones anyway. This is a love story; money has no business here. Money is the Molotov cocktail to love’s International Museum of Painstakingly Assembled Driftwood Art.
It took a labor of love for the Ottingers to give the vintage Volkswagen community another chance. Specifically, the mechanical restoration of an Ottinger tour bus by Colorado air-cooled VW specialists Kustom Coach Werks (KCW). The price was at once trivial and terrifying: KCW wanted a look inside the treasure chest.
Of course, KCW head honcho John Jones knew the legend of the Ottinger Bus Stash. Living about an hour-and-a-half east of Moab in Grand Junction, he also knew the legend of Lin Ottinger. Those buses were never going anywhere. If you can’t buy a legendary bus, he thought, why not become a part of the legend? In 2015, John emailed the Ottinger rock shop with a crazy offer: Let me see your buses and I’ll put one back on the road for free. To his surprise, the Ottingers not only responded, they agreed.
Several months of cutting, welding, and wrenching later, John trailered “Smokey,” the resurrected 1964 21-window tour bus, back to Moab with a 12-bus caravan of friends in tow. With Lin and his son, Sonny, eager to spin wheels on red dirt again, the reunion turned into a raucous off-road redemption run along a piece of the old tour route. It was followed by a jaw-dropping open house and a campout with an irresponsibly large bonfire. This was the first annual Lin Ottinger Moab Trip.
After the third such adventure in 2018, Salt Lake City Volkswagen guru Jason Smurthwaite took an Ottinger bus home, the same ’63 23-window Lin is itching to rip through the canyons today. Only a few days ago, Jason wrapped up a full mechanical restoration on the “Squash Blossom,” which Lin obtained in trade for a Navajo squash blossom necklace in 1965. Still reeling from the knowledge that he and his shop, Westy Restorations, are now a part of the Ottinger bus legend, Jason recalls the half-serious offer that got him here.
“Man, let’s get another one on the road,” he pitched Sonny Ottinger last year. “I’d do it at cost, wouldn’t even charge you an hour of labor. I’d just like to see another one back on the road.” Sonny agreed, and that was that.
Hold on. One mechanical restoration for nothing more than the cost of parts and another for free? I’ve been a car guy for 30 years and an active member of the vintage Volkswagen community for 20 of them, and I’ve never heard of anything like this. It seems especially bonkers in these sour times of six-figure auction buses. But it happened.
You have to understand the people involved for it to make any sense. Those who frequent air-cooled off-road events like the Moab tour belong to a cult-like subset of the VW bus community dedicated to using these utilitarian vehicles as they were intended, and then some. Most of them got into these vehicles when they were easier to obtain than a rusty Honda Civic and twice as cheap. Now they’re almost unobtainium, especially first-generation split-window models. Too many are hidden under car covers in climate-controlled garages, emerging a few times a year for a car show or perfect weather cruise. To us, this is more than just sad, it’s a betrayal of the adventurous spirit that made these cars iconic—a vehicular archetype of freedom rivaled only by the Harley-Davidson motorcycle. So we’re militant about driving our VW buses—rain, snow, or shine. There’s a sense of duty to keep this strange and inspiring subculture alive and on the road, breakdowns be damned. Love makes you do crazy things.
The Volkswagen bus doesn’t sound like the best choice for an off-road tour business, especially in light of Moab’s more recent reputation as a challenging four-wheel-drive Mecca. Ask Lin why he chose rear-wheel-drive VWs over four-wheel-drive Jeeps when he started the business in 1960 and you’ll get a quick and unfulfilling response: They’re better. If you want the real answer, you have to settle in for a story.
Before the tour business, before the rock shop, and before he had a dinosaur named after him (iguanodon ottingeri), Lin Ottinger was just another prospector scratching around Moab in the uranium boom of the 1950s. Kind of. You see, Lin was particularly good at sighting, staking, and sorting claims; skills many of his peers fell short on. One grey morning in 1958, Lin hopped in his colleague Howard’s Volkswagen van (a real nice one with a big ragtop sunroof and windows that go all the way around) to help him check a claim 30 miles south, near La Sal, Utah. Most of the roads around there were just plain dirt. Rain was rare, so gravel was deemed an unnecessary expense.
It had been raining all morning when the duo arrived at the long, steep hill they had to crest in order to reach the claim. And to hear Lin tell it, it was going to take the rest of the day for the line of Jeeps stuck in the mud before them to make it up the hill, with all the drivers out and pushing one Jeep at a time to the top, then running back down for the next one, and so on. Howard couldn’t wait that long. “He started his Volkswagen up, got up to the Jeeps, and he just cut off to the side—went over the bushes and was throwing up a plume of mud out back,” Lin recalls giddily, pantomiming the arcing mud shower with his long, thin hands. “I says, ‘Boy, that’s real good!’”
Of course, there’s more to it than that. You can comfortably carry six paying customers in a Volkswagen bus. With that big sunroof and all those windows, they’re guaranteed a good view. Fuel economy was stellar compared to the Jeeps of the day, meaning longer tours to more remote areas. And field repairs were simple thanks to the engineered simplicity of the vehicle. The VW bus just made good sense.
Lin’s tour buses received a few modifications to optimize performance in the unforgiving wilds of southeast Utah. Rear bumpers came off for a better departure angle. A homemade snorkel intake on the right rear corner of the roof delivered dry, dusty air down a pipe through the cabin, into the engine compartment, and through a heavy-duty agricultural air-cleaner before a stock single-barrel Solex carburetor gulped it down. Besides these changes and the occasional cut rear wheel arch to fit wider off-road tires, the buses were stock. Fifty horsepower is more than enough for crawling across slickrock.
With careful patience—or reckless aplomb, situation depending—a stock Volkswagen bus will carry you farther off-road than you could ever imagine. Doing just that is a major point of this event. Massachusetts-raised wanderers Rebecca Sisson and James Murphy are finding this out today, following the Ottinger caravan down the aptly-named Pucker Pass in the immaculate white ’69 Westfalia they call home. James chooses careful patience. As he steers his bus between a canyon wall and a giant boulder, down a bad washout littered with basketball-sized rocks, his facial expression shifts from terrified to elated in-sync with a forward pitch that lifts the left rear wheel off the ground and the brake-slipping progress that brings it back down. “I thought I was going to break my bus, but everyone else had already done it,” he says. “It’s definitely not something we would’ve tried on our own.”
There’s something to that quote, isn’t there? Something cliché about the merits of community as a means of raising individuals to heights they might not reach on their own. Alone we are mostly timid creatures. We stick to the pavement. Take the path of least resistance. Hide our broken hearts in dusty warehouses. Rugged individualism, that tired American fever dream, can only take one so far, and it can only take one. It takes two to tango—and at least that many to limp home a carload of tourists on a gravity-fed fuel pump made of old beer cans and an inner tube. Just ask Lin. If you’re lucky, he’ll offer you a ride in a bus matching that description. But keep your money in your pocket; it’s not for sale.