VWs & Vagabonds: A Love Story

How VW Buses became synonymous with counterculture and the hippie movement.


“Turn on, tune in, drop out.” The resounding words spoken by Harvard psychologist and counterculture figurehead, Timothy Leary, at the 1967 Human Be-In gathering in Golden Gate Park. These words penetrated the souls of thousands of Americans who were looking for social change, for freedom, and for revolution. These Americans felt suffocated in the box that society had stuffed them into. It was time to grow, and take new roads that stretched beyond the white picket-fence built by the American Dream. There was a world in the distance with no fences and no limits, where people were free to explore new dreams. 

The birth of the VW “Splittie” and a revolution

Years before America began its revolution, in 1950, the world of automobiles had its own revolution with the introduction of the VW T1. Otherwise known as the ‘Splittie’ or the ‘Loaf of Bread’ if you were Portuguese (for obvious reasons), the T1 was one of the first domestic microbuses to be introduced to the automobile market. Unlike other vehicles at that time, it was boxy and utilitarian in style with a focus on spaciousness and functionality. The flat-faced 170-cubic-foot oblong vehicle featured a rear air-cooled engine, a split angled windscreen, and nine seats, three of which were removable from the rear, allowing it to transport large groups of people at one time. Needless to say, the microbus stood out amongst its peers and, thanks to its adaptability, offered people the freedom they had never known before.


By the late ’50s, before the American counterculture reached its height, the VW Bus was already being used as a means for revolution. A revolution of equal rights for all races. African-American civil rights activist Esau Jenkins used the VW T1 to transport African-Americans from the remote farmlands on Johns Island and Sea Island, where jobs and education were inaccessible, to Charleston where opportunity awaited. 


However, these African-Americans were descendants of the slave trade, and although classed as free citizens, segregation laws still made it almost impossible to integrate into society and have equal access to such opportunities. The journey into Charleston was long, as the VW chugged along at a mere 60mph and the island roads were rough, but Jenkins ensured it wasn’t wasted. As he drove the bus, he and his wife Janie would teach passengers to read and write, so they could qualify for the right to vote. In the years following, Jenkins and his wife went on to do many more extraordinary things for the civil rights movement, but they will always be fondly remembered for changing the lives of African-Americans in a VW Bus, which they painted with the words “Love is Progress, Hate is Expensive.”

Collin Gonze

The Civil Rights Movement was just one strand of an entire collective mindset shift that transpired through the ’50s, as the pretty bows wrapped neatly around the idea of the American Dream were already unraveling like the ribbons of a ballerina’s slipper as she spun out of control. People were beginning to realize that the democracy, rights, liberty, opportunity, and equality, that the American Dream promised was just that — a dream.

It seemed in reality, equality between race, class, and gender was out of reach; consumerism had diluted people’s principles; and the TV screen had turned their attention away from the real world in favor of ‘The Lone Ranger’ and ‘I Love Lucy’. As Jack Kerouac said, “This is the story of America. Everybody’s doing what they think they’re supposed to do.” But minds began to wonder; what would it be like to live life by your own rules and standards?

The Beat generation

Jack Kerouac answered this niggling question in 1957 when he published his career-defining book, ‘On the Road’a story of two men leaving their lives behind to drive across America for the sake of freedom and adventure. According to Kerouac, “All he needed was a wheel in his hand and four on the road”, and along the way, he found booze, jazz, and women. Controversial? Perhaps. Romantic? Undoubtedly. As much as the unwashed hedonistic characters were defined by their loose moral values, they were defined by their live-and-let-live approach to life, which seemed to afford them a deeper connection to themselves and the world around them. And while the men babbled nonsensically yet with unfathomable clarity about life’s puzzles, what they were really talking about was courage, nonconformity, spirituality, and spontaneity. 


“I was surprised, as always, by how easy the act of leaving was, and how good it felt. The world was suddenly rich with possibility”, Kerouac wrote. Thus was born one of America’s first countercultures, the Beat Generation, led by an inspiring group of literaries in San Francisco’s university scene who turned their back on the material world in favor of the open road, and the possibilities it held. It may have been a small scene, but the beatniks ignited a fire in people, one that would only grow bigger and brighter as the years went on. The world was ready to discover what possibilities lay on the road ahead for them too. All they needed was the right vehicle.


Luckily, the VW Bus was easy to convert into a campervan with space for a bed, sink, and cupboards, giving people the freedom to live without limits on the road and reach beyond society’s boundaries. Seeing its potential to provide this strange new counterculture with new ways of living, Volkswagen teamed up with Westfalia to create the first VW Westfalia campervan. It maintained the style of its original T1 model but was fitted with a stylish studio couch, folding table, seat bench, roll-front cabinet, and sideboard.

 A vintage advert for one of the original VW Camper vans

Of course, the campervan became a hit with aspiring adventurers and, before long, the VW had created almost 100 possible finishes. During its evolution from microbus to campervan, the VW T1 had also evolved to become a symbol of individuality, nonconformity, and freedom, solidifying its role in the counterculture. By the mid-’60s, thousands of people across the US, many of whom were youths and students, had followed the tire marks left on unexplored paths by the Beat Generation in VW Buses, rejecting middle-class morality and forming a new kind of counterculture. Hippies. 

The hippie movement

At a time when the Vietnam War was tearing the East and West in two, these bright-eyed and long-haired idealists denounced materialism and militarism in favor of a “so what, dude?” attitude, and embraced peace, love, freedom, and each other. Together, hippies believed people could expand their minds, awaken their souls, and reconnect with the Earth, so they took to the open road to gather in neighborhoods and festivals fueled by sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll. By now, the VW Bus wasn’t just a bus, it was a way of life. 


In 1967, the San Francisco Oracle, Haight-Ashbury’s hippie newspaper printed: “A new concept of celebrations beneath the human underground must emerge, become conscious, and be shared, so a revolution can be formed with a renaissance of compassion, awareness, and love, and the revelation of unity for all mankind.” Soon after, the legendary Human Be-In gathering was held in Golden Gate Park where over 30,000 hippies congregated to listen to speakers, including Timothy Leary, establish key ideas of the hippie movement. Hearing these radical and rebellious speeches about political decentralization, communal living, higher consciousness, and other far-out concepts, it wasn’t long before over 100,000 hippies had rolled into Haight-Ashbury on a VW Bus with tabs on their tongues to join their budding community on a psychedelic journey to nirvana.


In the summer following the Human Be-In, many more mass gatherings were held, including the famous Fantasy Fair and Magic Mountain Music Festival, to celebrate love, peace, and rock ‘n’ roll. VW Buses, painted in psychedelic colors and peace signs, became the go-to festival accessory, not only because they were a means of living during these events, but because they were a means of individualism and expression.

Bands like the Grateful Dead, who had their own painted VW Bus, had made it the ‘in’ thing to do. During the day, attendees took an astral journey on LSD, created art, practiced group meditation, and vibed to live music by the likes of The Doors and Jefferson Airplane. At night, they would gather around campfires talking of dreams and progress before sliding into the back of their bus for a few hours of sleep. Although it seems to be a hazy memory for those who were there, that summer stayed with America forever. They called it the ‘Summer of Love’. 


Timothy Leary once said that ”Hippy is an establishment label for a profound, invisible, underground, evolutionary process. For every visible hippy, barefoot, beflowered, beaded, there are a thousand invisible members of the turned-on underground. Persons whose lives are tuned in to their inner vision, who are dropping out of the TV comedy of American Life.” But after the Summer of Love, those invisible members emerged from the turned-on underground, and the hippie culture exploded. No longer were there just a few hundred thousand flower-powered youths gathering in small neighborhoods and fields; there were millions of them across America and around the Western world. Their message of love and peace had spread, and so had their unmistakable image. 

Woodstock festival

In 1969, Woodstock Rock Festival was held in New York, and although there was a 32-act-strong line-up of rock legends, including Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin, nobody quite expected the event —  advertised as “An Aquarian Exposition: 3 Days of Peace & Music”  — to become one the world would never stop talking about. Almost half-a-million barefoot, beflowered, and beaded hippies turned up on its fields, and parked between them were hundreds of VW Buses, each painted with a colour-happy mural. It wasn’t long before the sheer number of hippies and VW’s that were spread across the vast fields of Woodstock had caught the world’s attention. And while it was the rock music that people hear when they remember the event, it’s the bold emblems on the side of VW Buses that they see.

Many of the microbuses became talking points at the festival for their wacky artistry, but there was one in particular that caught the media’s eye: the Light bus, or ‘the magic bus’ as it became more fondly known. The mural on the magic bus, commissioned by the band ‘Light’, featured mysterious ancient and cosmic symbols, motifs, and words with psychedelic flare. The artist, Bob Heironimus, explained “the bus is really about being one people on one planet.”


While VW Buses had been associated with the hippie culture for a number of years already, the magic bus, as it rolled into Woodstock in all its weird and wonderful glory under the world’s watchful eye, seemed to beautifully finalize the marriage of the two. At that moment, the countercultures that uprooted an entire generation through the ’50s and ’60s were no longer seen as just a ‘rebellious phase’. They were the cause of a global awakening to the idea that it was possible to reject society’s standards, break free from its restrictions, and form a world around your own ideals.


As Leary explained in his 1983 autobiography, ‘Flashbacks’, the phrase “Turn on, tune in, drop out.” was intended to urge people to activate their inner consciousness, tune into the world around them, and commit to mobility, choice, and change as a means of greater self-reliance. Well, they did it — and Woodstock is the proof. It happened to be the VW Bus, aptly named ‘the people’s car’ by Volkswagen, that gave them that mobility. Although the hippies will forever be credited with solidifying the VW Bus as a symbol of counterculture, we have to remember: “Kerouac opened a million coffee bars and sold a million pairs of Levis to both sexes. Woodstock rises from his pages.”― William S. Burroughs. 

Read The Generations of the Iconic VW Bus to see how it evolved following the hippie movement.



A Christmas gift list for BusLifers

A Christmas Gift List for Buslifers

This article contains affiliate links, by using them it helps finance the BusLifers community. We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide means for us to earn fees by linking to and affiliated sites.

If your loved one is a Buslifer, we bet you’ll have heard all about the importance of lightweight gadgets and endless space-saving tips. This is precisely why choosing the perfect Christmas gift for a Buslifer can sometimes be a little tricky…

The good news is your present hunt is finally over! We’ve put in the hours compiling a Christmas gift list for Buslifers for some of the very best gift ideas for your loved one.

Read on to discover some pretty snazzy gift recommendations and some hot tips for delivering to Buslifers while they’re on the road.

Are you a Buslifer? Welcome to the club! You will also want to read this very festive Christmas article we wrote about Christmas On The Road: What You Can And Can’t Do.

Our top ultimate Christmas gift list for Buslifers

For tech masters

Power bankThis is probably one of the most useful gadgets any Buslifer can have on the road. This reasonably priced power bank from Poweradd has great reviews and can charge most devices from phones to tablets.

Mini projectorWho says you can’t enjoy a movie on the big screen while traveling? This portable projector from Artlii connects to your phone and can be charged by a power bank.

Drone cameraThis is one of the best drones out there and a valuable asset for anyone who wants to post on social media or become a youtuber. What’s even better is that it’s foldable for Buslifers who are short on space.  


For the sustainably conscious

Natural soap barsThe sustainable brand Ethique Soap has created this great selection of ideal travel bars for the sustainably conscious Buslifer.

Gift a treeHelp to plant more trees when you gift one with Treedom! The ideal green Christmas gift, choose from different species and countries too.

Zero waste gift boxThe ideal starter kit for Buslifers looking to live a sustainable life. Featuring beeswax food wraps, a mesh shopping bag, and much more.

Foldable solar panelEfficiency and portability combined. This folding solar panel features USB charging technology and is compatible with solar generators.


For budding chefs                

Hand blenderAn absolute must-have compact kitchen gadget for all Buslifers. The Braun MultiQuick is a handy blender, mixer, and whisk, making it the ideal companion for cooking fabulous recipes on board a VW Bus.

Recipe cardsOne of the best bits about traveling is sampling plenty of tasty treats. Which is why these recipe cards and storage box are ideal for those Buslifers who love experimenting with local ingredients in their VW Bus kitchen.

Spiralizer –  With a selection of different blades, foodies can create culinary delights from veggie curly fries and chips in no time. This is great for perking up a salad or making raw vegan spaghetti! 


For bookworms

Drives of a LifetimeThe 2nd edition of the National Geographic Drives of a Lifetime is newly released, featuring 500 of the world’s most breathtaking drives. The perfect book for those who are on the hunt for some travel inspiration this Christmas.

Spiritual PlacesWritten by travel journalist Sarah Baxter, this is a beautiful book of some of the world’s most spiritual destinations. A soothing collection that we would all love to experience.

Vanlife DiariesThis beautiful book packed with breathtaking photography is the perfect feel-good read that celebrates the Vanlife and Buslife community.

The VW Bus History of a PassionA concise history for all the hardcore Buslifers out there who live and breathe their VW Bus.


Stocking fillers

Travel mapIdeal for Buslifers with the travel bug. A travel map, they can scratch off the destinations they visit as they go.

VW Bus SocksNo Christmas stocking is complete without socks, and with these VW Bus socks, you can’t go wrong.

Driving glassesThese polarized sunglasses are the must-have VW Bus driving companion for all Buslifers. Helping to reduce sun glare and making driving at night safer.   


The creative’s guide to homemade Buslifer Christmas gifts

We all know how wonderful it is to receive a personal, homemade gift. So, if you’re a dab hand when it comes to crafts, why not consider making a little something to surprise your Buslifer.

The ideas are endless but here is just a small selection of some homemade gifts with how-to guides to help you create them in no time.


Knitted hand warmersThese are a must for the cold winter months. Download the

free pattern via the link and order your yarn in a range of colors too.

DreamcatcherA beautiful addition to any VW Bus, and who knew they were so easy to make!?

Patchwork quiltA truly personal gift, and with this easy-to-follow tutorial, even beginners to quilting will master this craft.

Christmas cards – Send your Buslifer a festive greetings card they will want to keep forever.

Scented candle These scented candles will help your loved one feel at home. Even if they are halfway around the world.

Macrame keychainNo Buslifer should be without one of these to adorn their precious VW Bus keys.

Photo magnetsA cute and inexpensive personalized gift to surround your Buslifer with their loved ones this Christmas.

VW PotholderWhat VW Bus owner doesn’t want their very own knitted version?

BuntingDesign and create your own bunting that will brighten up any VW Bus.

Travel journal  – This tutorial to make a tea-stained journal is great fun. You will also be creating the most unique travel journal out there. 

How and when to deliver gifts to Buslifers on the road

When it comes to getting your Christmas gift to a Buslifer in time for the big day, we say, send it early!

You will need to check specific ‘last Christmas posting dates’ for the country you live in. But to give you an idea, if you are posting from the UK, Royal Mail states that standard international packages need to be sent as early as the 4th of December.  If you are posting from the US, The United States Postal Service lists the 7th December for their priority mail express international service for some countries.*

*These dates are relevant for the year 2020.

Having a parcel delivered to someone living life on the road is easier than you think! One of the easiest and most secure ways to get your Christmas gift to your No.1 Buslifer is to use the service poste restante (general delivery). How it works is that you send your parcel to a post office in a particular location, and they hold it until the recipient can collect it.

To make things even easier, Wikipedia has a helpful entry that lists details of the poste restante services in countries worldwide. Check it out here. 

We do hope that this Christmas gift list for Buslifers has put you in a festive mood! If you’re looking for even more tips to bring some cheer into your VW Bus this Christmas, take a look at our story How To Decorate Your VW Bus For The Christmas Holidays.


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