"Let's play VWs," Randy Slack says.
It's a phrase the Phoenix artist and his fellow local Volkswagen lovers use when they want to meet up at Kevin Stramandinoli's Phoenix auto shop, Crown Restoration. The shop's a clubhouse of sorts, where Slack geeks out over obscure parts and hard-to-find models.
He's obsessed, he readily admits.
Slack traces his VW fixation back to his childhood. His dad always drove them. His first painting, at age 16, was of a Bug. He remembers sitting in his dad's Beetles in the garage as a kid, playing cars.
He's always tinkered with them, he says. And as far as cars go, they're some of the most accessible for aspiring hobbyists because of their simple construction. The obsession kicked in when Slack stopped drinking about nine years ago. He started to channel his free time into restoring vintage Volkswagens.
Currently he has three: a 1951 azure blue Beetle with a split rear window, semaphore turn signals, and a ragtop; a 1960 Westfalia Camper bus named Myrtle painted mango green and seagull gray; and an agave green 1957 right-hand drive Australian Beetle with a sunroof and oval rear window.
They're sitting in his downtown studio space, Legend City. The first two are intact and operable, and the oval's disassembled. With the studio's garage door open, passersby often mistake the art studio for an auto shop. They stop and want pictures with the bus, viewable from the sidewalk along Van Buren Street.
So, how does one start collecting and refurbishing vintage Volkswagens? Slack says the first and hardest part is finding the car. Driving around neighborhoods, browsing AutoTrader, and sifting through Craigslist are all good ideas. But Slack's number-one recommendation is using www.thesamba.com, a Phoenix-based website run by Everett Barnes that serves as a classifieds forum for VW enthusiasts. Users seek and sell everything from original engine mounts and PDF versions of old car manuals to rusty fixer-uppers.
Once you have the car, there are three paths you can take. The first: Make it run and roll with whatever patina the body's acquired. Second: Make it run, in addition to scuffing and painting it for a fresh look. Third: Take the whole thing apart and reassemble it with a purist's aesthetic.
Slack opts for the third modus operandi -- the "insane" way of doing things. And that's where he's at with the oval. The pan, the body, and the engine are separated. There's no deadline to complete it, but he says a full revamp could be done in a year for someone who's mega-dedicated.
"In a weekend, you can go from a pan to ready to mount," he says. "It can look sharp real fast."
Cost-wise, a quick fix could amount to a couple grand (in addition to whatever's spent buying the car itself), but it all depends on what you want to do. For Slack, restoring his cars to as close as possible to their original look is the goal. And that takes time and lots of patience. Slack says he has to do maintenance on his bus constantly, getting under it, pushing it -- and it maxes out at 55 miles per hour.
"You've gotta want to be in that thing," he says. "Those problems don't go away."
Then, there are the accessories. "I tend to play with the funny stuff, the accessories, the girly artsy part." He shows off an original bar set installed in the bus, a flying VW hood ornament, and a chrome clock.
Slack jokes that Stramandinoli is like his drug dealer when it comes to finding bits and pieces he wants for his VWs. "He has helped me make all my dreams come true -- as nerdy as that sounds."
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"It's like I'm a little kid," he says, poring over boxes of such VW odds and ends as Kamax bolts and an espresso maker designed to be mounted on the Beetle's dash.
Though his current refurb project will keep him plenty busy, there's one Volkswagen in particular that remains on his wish list: the very rare Hebmuller Cabriolet, also known as the Volkswagen Type 14A. It's a two-tone two-seat convertible that was only in production for four years.
"I am a sick man," he laughs, opening another box of parts. "It's like dream-come-true shit."