Cross Country Adventure: ’77 Volkswagen van travels from California to Chicago ... and back to La Jolla

ONE FOR THE ROAD: In response to an invitation to classic car owners to share their vehicle love stories, more than a dozen car buffs contacted La Jolla Light to be interviewed about their prize possessions. In this series, we present their delightful roadster experiences.

The 1977 cherry red Volkswagen van now kept in the Lower Hermosa area of La Jolla has come a long way in its lifetime. In the last 20 years alone, the van has been in Hillcrest, Berkeley, Portland and Chicago before coming to La Jolla — all with its owner, psychiatry professor and vice-chair for basic research at UC San Diego, Abraham Palmer.

Palmer first came to own the van, which doesn’t have a name, in 1997 when he was living in Hillcrest working on his Ph.D. At the time, he said, the van was “completely destroyed” and he was not in the market for a vehicle.

“I already had three motorcycles and a car, so I did not need another one. But the van was parked in my neighborhood with a sign inside that read ‘$850 OBO, needs work.’ I would walk past that van every day and after two months, I realized it wasn’t being sold and wasn’t moving. So I called the number and asked what the current best offer was. The owner said her brother wanted to sell it, or that the junkyard would give her $200 for the parts. I offered her the $200 and she took it,” he said.

Among the “work” needed, the engine had to be replaced. But Palmer was up to the task.

“I like working on engines and I had rebuilt lawnmower engines, but I had never rebuilt a VW engine,” he said. “But they were designed to be easily taken out and light enough that one person could put it on the counter. It was designed so that every 100,000 miles, you would have to take out the engine and rebuild it. That’s what people would do. All the parts are cheap and it’s easy work to do. So I got all the books, and piece by piece, took it apart and put it back together.”

Soon after, Palmer moved to Portland, Oregon and drove the van north. A few years later, when an educational opportunity presented itself in New York, he and wife, Stephanie Dulawa, headed east, but left the van behind. “New York was not the place for a large van, so I left it with my brother in Berkeley. Even though he’s a bicycling anti-vehicle guy, he loves this car,” Palmer said.

When a job became available in Chicago, the family moved once again. This time, they were ready for the van to come with them. Palmer flew to Berkeley and drove the van to the Windy City.

“It was a real rarity because nobody can have a VW van in Chicago because they salt the roads in the winter and the vans just rust out. And while older people remember them and would stop and tell me stories about the van they had, young people had no idea what it was,” he said. “Kids thought it was an ice cream truck. They had never seen one and didn’t have a place in their mind or context for something like this. I felt like I was doing a huge public service to the world by having the VW van in the middle of Chicago.”

During the time the Palmers lived in Chicago, daughter Ariela and son Samuel were born, and the van continued to be an attraction for neighborhood children, including hosting “pancake parties,” where Palmer would cook flapjacks in the van’s “kitchen” and children would eat them at the fold-down table.

In 2015, the Palmer family moved to La Jolla, but the Chicago weather had caused wear-and-tear on the car, and it needed a new coat of paint. So the van was worked on while the family moved, and Palmer returned to Chicago to pick up the van a few months after they settled in The Jewel. “Ariela and I flew to Chicago and drove the van back along Route 66. There were states where children could sit up front, and Ariela loved that,” Palmer said. Ariela chimed in, “I loved driving through the rainstorms!”

But with the different terrain along the way, Palmer was reminded of the challenges that come with having an older Volkswagen. “There are the practicality questions because this van tops 45 miles per hour on mountain roads and has no air-conditioning or heating. But we got lucky with the weather (on our drive to La Jolla), it wasn’t too hot or cold. Plus, on any given trip, there’s always a possibility that it might not make it, but we made it,” Palmer said. “To keep it going, if I have a free hour, I’ll do a little bit of work on it. If you don’t like working on something like this, you shouldn’t have something like this because it would be a money pit to have someone do everything. You have to enjoy it.”

But now that it’s here and running, the van is used as a camping vehicle, much to Ariela’s delight. “We went camping and it rained so everyone had wet tents, but we slept in the van, it has a bed!” she said.

In addition to his daughter’s memories, Palmer said everyone has a VW van story. “Everyone of a certain age has some memory, so wherever you go, people tell you stories about the role the VW van played in their life. If you stand back and let them talk, you hear some amazing things. And these are people you might not otherwise meet or strike up a conversation with,” he said. “It’s a happy thing, this van.”

Editor’s Note: In response to an invitation to classic car owners to share their vehicle love stories, more than a dozen car buffs contacted La Jolla Light to be interviewed about their prize possessions. In this new series, we present their delightful roadster experiences.

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