1959 VW T1 Harley-Davidson Bus

This Panel Van surrendered to the artistic persuasion of Stacey Wetnight in California. Today it resides in Australia. Well known the world over, it’s been almost everywhere man!

Here’s a question for you. What have the classic Harley-Davidson motorcycle and the classic VW Kombi got in common?

It was at the turn of the 20th century that the partnership that was to become Harley-Davidson, motorcycle manufacturer, was borne. William S. Harley and his best friend Arthur Davidson developed a small engine in a shed, one that measured a mere 7 cubic inches (116cc). This was for use in a bicycle frame, and it took the help of Arthur’s brother, Walter Davidson, to help finish it. Upon completion, the machine powered bicycle was let loose on the highway but failed to achieve much other than be a significant mass to move by pedal power up hills. The year was 1903 and the seed was sown for greater things.

1959 VW T1 Harley-Davidson Bus
1959 VW T1 Harley-Davidson Bus

The next engine was almost 4 times the original’s capacity at slightly less than 25 cubic inches (405 cc) and was fitted to a new frame designated not to be of bicycle origin. The move upwards to motorcycle had commenced. In 1904 it marked history as the first ever Harley-Davidson to enter a proper race. Just for the record, it finished a cred­itable 4th.

Now the history of Harley-Davidson the motorcycle manufacturer is a long and complicated one with many battle scars. Dodgy requests at government level, legal battles lost, workforce and management battles, threats and takeovers leave a trail that any motorcycle historian would love to get his or her teeth into. Alas, this is neither the time nor place for such a detour. However, with such humble beginnings you can see how Harley-Davidson and Volkswagen share a common aircooled ancestry in the sense that although one superseded the other by almost some 4 decades, the two marques were not that dissimilar for a considerable time. And it could be argued that the uniqueness of the V-twin (cylinders set at 45 degrees apart which accounts for that classic rhythmic H-D beat) is as defined in stone as the aircooled flat-4 ’phut phut’ or ’dak dak’.

But what has that got to do with a Panel Van out of Melbourne, Australia? Well, it’s all a bit weird. You see, when I first laid eyes on Shaun Digby’s 1959 Kastenwagen I thought, hey, that’s interesting and unlikely to be copied anywhere in the world. Could it even be H-D powered? OK, I didn’t really ask that question, but it has been done before, so it’s not beyond the realms.

1959 VW T1 Harley-Davidson Bus
1959 VW T1 Harley-Davidson Bus

Now, Shaun’s a busy bloke with a die-hard motorhead’s reputation to maintain. Put simply, he’s always been into big motors. Ford V8s, HSVs (Holden Specialist Vehicles) and he’s partnered several classic Mercs. Anyone that knows him would have doubted small cubes we’re ever going to cut-it. And yet something quite extraordinary happened in 2012 when he attended a Mecum auto-auction in Anaheim, California, USA. Mecum, if you don’t know, are one of the big auction houses in the US whose televised shenanigans generally describe a fleet of classic Americana under the hammer. We’re talking small block and big block city: Impalas, Mustangs, Camaros, Corvettes and the like. And occasionally… ’dak dak’.

Shaun’s trip to Mecum’s was merely to get a taste of the classic American automobile good life and to eye up a Mustang or Camaro for importation back to Australia at another time. He wasn’t there to purchase that day, indeed this was viewing pleasure only and by the time the little Panel Van auction was in progress, Shaun was holidaying miles away in Las Vegas. Yes, a little VW Panel Van with a particularly plush Harley- Davidson theme had made its way through the throng of muscle cars. Shaun had spotted it during view­ing and was almost smitten, but he’d gone there to check out the classic Americana, so no big deal.

And yet that little VW plagued him to the point that it became a serious distraction above any Ford or Chevrolet. “If you told me I would eventually buy a VW Kombi from the trip, I would have told you to stop smoking it!” he said.

1959 VW T1 Harley-Davidson Bus
1959 VW T1 Harley-Davidson Bus

Anyway, the VW van with all the H-D credentials got sold at the November 2012 Mecum auction to a new owner, and Shaun’s holiday came to a close. It was time to return home… and it was then he started thinking about nothing else except the little 1959 Type 2 VW.

It took a further four months to track it down, the van now residing in a private collection in St. Louis, MS. Talk about persistence! Contact was made with the new owner and Shaun became the new, new owner. We tracked down the original builder Stacey Wetnight.

“The bus came from a junk yard in Stockton, California in 1990,” says Stacey. “I bought it from a friend back in 2004 in Sacramento, California. I traded a ’64 Bug and $500 for it. It needed doglegs, rockers and some other bodywork.” All this was done in the garage, including the paintwork. “Then I started coming up with the idea of making it a utility vehicle, like they were in the Fifties and Sixties. I always wanted a Harley- Davidson so I thought of a mobile repair shop and began collecting motorcycle parts and old tools, then finished the body and paint.”

The paint is a hot rod flat satin black and the safety orange pin stripping is the fine work of Kelly from Kandy Stripes. 12v semaphores from EIS were installed; together with safari windows both front and rear. Rear jail bars were added and a Stay Fast canvas completed the ragtop. Porsche head light grilles and fog lights complimented the outside custom look.

1959 VW T1 Harley-Davidson Bus
1959 VW T1 Harley-Davidson Bus

The interior is essentially work bench cabinets. The rear seat is a Z-bed. Two 6”x9” speakers were installed into the overhead airflow box and the dash was shaved where the radio would sit, and two 5-1/4” speakers rest behind the covered door panels. The rear panels were covered in ostrich skin. The front seat is a hump back with a VW Type 3 arm rest in the seat back re­covered in black vinyl by Paco in Roseville, California. The POW flag serves in memory of all lost. Postcards and stickers adorn the headliner.

For the running gear the bus was converted to the later Bay Window double-jointed axle system (aka “IRS” although technically-speaking VW’s swing- axle is IRS too) and Porsche pattern rear brake drums were torqued in place. The under carriage was detailed. A Wagenswest front beam – narrowed four inches with four inch drop spindles – carries Porsche disk brakes up front. The Porsche alloys at the time measured 14”x6”. A transmission with a 4.12:1 ring and pinion met the motor, which at the time was a stock 1600 built upon an AS41 case. 12 volt Bosch coil, Bosch alternator, tuned header and exhaust meant the van probably had a little more ponies than stock, but it wouldn’t have been much more. But all that didn’t matter. It was a great project (finished in 2006) and won many shows, and made lots of conversation.

1959 VW T1 Harley-Davidson Bus
1959 VW T1 Harley-Davidson Bus

Stacey reckons he sold his Harley-Davidson inspired van in September 2010, it moving from America’s west coast to its east, settling in Florida. There’s possibly a period of unknown ownership or a fault in the space-time continuum, but around mid to late August 2011, Belgian VW sales guru “Stevo”, who was living in Florida at the time, buying and selling-on lots of VWs to many people around the world, bought the van. Stevo bought and sold VW’s so rapidly that it’s amazing he held onto it as long as he did, but eventually it left his place in Florida just under eight months later on 11 April 2012.

The next we know of it is when it pops up at the Anaheim Mecum auction and moves to St. Louis. And the rest is Shaun’s story.

The bus currently runs on Fuchs, 14-inches on the front and 15- inches on the rear. The Porsche 944 disks on the front Wagenswest beam still remain and dip the nose when braking. In fact little has changed, as you would expect, the vehicle being more a piece of artwork than a daily driver. There’s even a 1600 under the lid…

The workshop paraphernalia, such an integral part of this van, was all bubble wrapped carefully before shipping to Australia (by Brock Auto Imports who did a fab job, says Shaun) so that each part was protected from damage during the two month ordeal. I’m guessing the customs and quarantine officials at the Melbourne docks thought they’d have a field day when they saw this one being off-loaded!

1959 VW T1 Harley-Davidson Bus
1959 VW T1 Harley-Davidson Bus

Australia, being a RHD country and the van being LHD presented few problems on account of the vehicle’s age, so it wasn’t necessary to complete a LHD to RHD conversion as more modern vehicles are subject to in Australia. However, it was necessary to install more visual indicators at both the front and rear of the vehicle, and change the exhaust system – in this case to a full stainless steel muffler. One full service of the vehicle later and he’s ready for the road. Well, almost as he’d like to be…

It came as no surprise that the vehicle’s restoration of almost a decade ago was now showing signs of being in need of a refresh. Some might see this as natural wear, but Shaun thought the paint was becoming a little too transparent in places and clearly wanted to protect his investment while still having it present as it would have done with Stacey. So began the painstaking task of masking up all the pin-striping and sign­writing, and applying several new coats of black. Thereafter, several coats of PPG matt clear lacquer were applied. Good for some time to come.

Says Shaun, “It’s a buzz to drive. It smells fumy, it rattles, it’s not quick… but it turns more heads than a Ferrari. Gotta love that!”

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