Nothing evokes the spirit of the "Endless Summer" quite like a vintage surf car, and who doesn't want to be reminded of an idyllic lifestyle of surf, good times with friends, and warm summer days?
It's a nostalgic paradise that appeals to surfers and non-surfers alike, and part of why classic surf cars have grown to be so popular, even with the technology and conveniences of today's modern-day vehicles.
"I own a '97 Silverado and it's a good truck, but the Volkswagen bus is the only car I know that you can lock a 9'6" board inside of; where people you pass on the road will wave and smile because it makes them happy; and when you pull up at the beach, your car becomes the epicenter and the hangout spot," said Jason Moyer, a 35-year-old surfer from Costa Mesa, CA.
In celebration of the first day of Summer, and of International Surfing Day, we cruised the Southern California coast in search of the iconic surf cars that help transport us from where we are (most likely in an office with flourescent lighting) to where we really belong.
1971 Volkswagen Bus
“This was the first car I ever owned,” said Moyer. “I bought it when I was 16 or 17, and drove it until I was 20. I sold it because I was tired of going slow. I missed it, and was super bummed.”
The idea of buying his second VW Bus started when Moyer and his wife Aislinn began dating.
“She was tired of hearing me tell stories about it and how much I missed it, so we decided to pool our money and get one," said Moyer. "We spent every last cent and cleaned out every account.”
The couple purchased their 1971 VW Bus at the VW Classic car show in Irvine, CA for $8,500.
“It’s a lot for a classic, but they’re only going up in value," said Moyer. "I recently had it appraised for $12,000.”
Moyer, however, has no plans to sell his vehicle.
“It’s the most epic surf/camping car ever,“ said Moyer. “There’s nothing like putting all your gear in your car and driving without knowing when you’re coming back. The adventure isn’t the destination – Mother Nature determines whether the waves are good. It’s all about the journey, and the car is the journey.”
1955 Chevy Bel Air
“I look at it as the history of the vehicle – the nostalgia and keeping the spirit of old vehicles alive,” said Jean Pierre Van Swae, a 72-year old Laguna Beach surfer/shaper otherwise known as “Fly.” “I’m part of that culture. People see my car and go 'Wow!' It’s a happy car."
Fly purchased his 1955 Chevy Bel Air from an Arizona dealer eight years ago, and had it towed to the Capistrano Beach industrial neighborhood where he runs his shaping business.
“The body was all brown – a lunch bag brown,” said Fly. “People thought I was nuts and asked me ‘What are you doing?’ I told them, ‘I’m having fun! I have a diamond in the rough!’”
It wasn’t long before Fly had the whole neighborhood involved in the project of restoring his car. He paid his neighbor, who did the upholstery, in rum cakes.
Although Fly takes his Chevy, which he’s named Peggy Sue, to the beach for surf days, some of the best moments are off the beach.
“Me and my girlfriend took Peggy Sue to In-N-Out, and while everyone else had to eat inside their cars, we got to put the back door down and sit out in the open. I told her ‘Isn’t this great?’” said Fly.
1970 Volkswagen Squareback
“I’ve been into Volkswagens since I was a kid because of my dad; he would race Bugs,” said Shane Smith, a 20-year-old surfer from Huntington Beach. “So I finally saved up and bought one myself.”
Smith purchased his 1970 VW Squareback off of Craigslist for $8,000, and put another $4,000-5,000 into rebuilding it.
“The motor was falling apart and I drove around for a few days without brakes,” said Smith. “It’s been a project working on it, but it’s a lot of fun,”
Smith enjoys the interaction he gets from people driving by or at stoplights who have either owned his car or whose parents had one.
“Everyone loves it,” Smith said. “I have guys telling me ‘I had one; I should have kept it!’ I’m not going to be that guy. I’ll never get rid of it; I’ll keep it forever.”
1951 Mercury Woodie
“When I first got it, it was Plain Jane – I put a lot of work into it,” said Chuck Elliott, 63-year-old resident of San Juan Capistrano and president of the Southern California Woodie Club.
Elliott says that his 1951 Mercury Station Wagon, purchased with a limited production Chevy Cameo pickup truck and some additional money, is worth $80,000-$100,000.
“You used to be able to get them for $20-50 back in the ‘60s; surfers would get them as a cheap junk car to throw their boards on and haul their friends in,” said Elliott. “Woodies gained popularity over the years, and now people realize how spectacular they are.”
1962 Volkswagen Bus
“I’ve had over 30 VWs, but this is my first in 30 years,” said Chuck Elliott (owner of the 1951 Mercury Wagon). “When this one came up, I grabbed it, because I’ve always loved them.”
Although the van currently runs sporadically, Elliott’s plan is to fix it up, and take it camping and to VW car shows.
1969-1970 Dune Buggy
“It’s easy to get up early in the morning and check the surf when you can get into this,” said Corey Brindley, a 27-year-old surfer from Capistrano Beach. “I love cruising down the highway in it with the boards, and the convenience is amazing.”
The car was originally built in either 1969-1970 from a 1968 VW Beetle engine, a ‘40s frame, and a ‘50s kit.
“I love the nostalgia of it,” said 31-year-old Capistrano Beach surfer Josh Tully, who hitched a ride in the dune buggy. “All the surfers would get them because they could take them out on the beach looking for surf spots, and they’re cheap.”
1950 Plymouth Deluxe
“I grew up in the South Bay area by Manhattan Beach/Hermosa Beach, and my family used to buy these cars and drive them until they stopped,” said Larry Toomey, 71-year-old paddleboarder from Laguna Beach.
Toomey, who has bought and sold about 120 cars to date, calls his 1950 Plymouth a keeper. “I like this car – it’s inexpensive and fun to drive, gets pretty good mileage, and when you watch old Hawaii surf movies, you see all the old Plymouths.”
1963 Chevy Nova
“I was looking for a beach wagon that I could throw the boards and beach gear in, and drive anywhere from Oceanside to Dana Point,” said Bob Bright, 50-year-old surfer and paddler from San Clemente.
Nostalgia played a key part in choosing his 1963 Chevy Nova, which he purchased off of eBay for $4,500.
“I have memories of growing up and heading to the beach in the family station wagon,” said Bright.
The Volkswagen Beetles are such a classic staple in the iconic surf car lineup, that although we couldn’t track down the owner of this particular vintage Bug, we had to include it in our gallery.
“You see the Volkswagens Buses and Bugs in the background of all the surf movies,” said Smith (owner of the VW Squareback).
Parked along Pacific Coast Highway in Laguna Beach, and equipped with a rack, we knew the owner of this particular Bug had to be a surfer. And sure enough, we saw it puttering down the highway less than 10 minutes later with a driver looking very much the part of a surfer dude.
Why has the VW Beetle become such a classic surf car?
“Volkswagens and Woodies have a similar story to how they’ve become surf cars,” said Elliott (owner of the VW Bus and Mercury Wagon). “They were cheap back in the day, and you could haul your friends and your boards in them.”
1956 Chevy Station Wagon
“For me, it’s a nostalgia thing; I had one just like this in high school,” said a San Clemente paddler who prefers to go by “Just Bob.”
Just Bob also likes his 1956 Chevy Wagon because it fits his 14-foot board, and “It goes really fast.”
"But my dates don't like to drive in it because there's no seat belts," said Just Bob.
Note: According to the U.S. Department of Transportation National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, vehicles in California built before 1962 do not require seat bealts.
1971 Volkswagen Bus
“It’s a great beach car; we keep all our beach junk in it,” said Keith Miller, a 67-year-old paddler from Capistrano Beach.
He purchased the 1971 Volkswagen Bus at the Pomona Swap Meet for $6,500, and put another $6,000 into restoring it.
What makes it the perfect surf car?
“It’s cheap, you can fit a board in it, put all your beach stuff in it, and put all your friends in it,” said Miller. “Although they’ve evolved and now they’re expensive.”