Wabi-Sabi and the Art of Volkswagen Restoration

(Gus with his awning out in his North Carolina days)

During the almost four years I’ve owned Gus, I’ve wrestled with the concept of restore vs. preserve. Now I enjoy a beautifully restored car as much as the next guy. But there’s something about an original, well-preserved vehicle that I really like. I read Hemmings Classic Car magazine a lot, and they have two features each month – Restoration Profile, which talks about the particular restoration of a vehicle, and Driveable Dreams, which is a preserved car that someone hasn’t restored. I always turn to the Driveable Dreams article first.

Like this beauty – a 1968 Barracuda with 438,000 miles on it! And this car hasn’t been restored – the owner bought it brand new and has kept it well-preserved. The front seats need to be redone, but the engine and car are all original – and amazingly it’s never been repainted! It’s a great story (but you have to be a subscriber to Hemmings Classic Car, or pick up the Nov. 2010 magazine)

Which brings me to the concept of Wabi-Sabi. What is Wabi-Sabi? The best definition I’ve found is here.

Pared down to its barest essence, wabi-sabi is the Japanese art of finding beauty in imperfection and profundity in nature, of accepting the natural cycle of growth, decay, and death. It’s simple, slow, and uncluttered-and it reveres authenticity above all. Wabi-sabi is flea markets, not warehouse stores; aged wood, not Pergo; rice paper, not glass. It celebrates cracks and crevices and all the other marks that time, weather, and loving use leave behind. It reminds us that we are all but transient beings on this planet-that our bodies as well as the material world around us are in the process of returning to the dust from which we came. Through wabi-sabi, we learn to embrace liver spots, rust, and frayed edges, and the march of time they represent.

 It basically stems from Zen Buddhism – wabi is humble and simple, sabi is rusty and weathered (the bloom of time). So what does this have to do with Bus Restoration? Well, it is the philosophy I am going to try and follow when working on Gus. At one point I had even said I was naming him Wabi-Sabi, but a Japanese name on a German bus doesn’t really fit (unless you’re into the whole Axis Powers thing). For me wabi-sabi means not worrying as much about the paint, as Gus’s paint is actually in pretty decent shape and can be buffed out and polished. The dings and dents are a part of his past, and don’t really need to be fixed.

However…some things do need to be fixed, such as large rust areas or dented in rear quarter panels, for example. Things that are detrimental to the future preservation I guess.

How tempting it might be to let the split running down the sofa cushion seam continue on its merry way, calling it wabi-sabi. To spend Saturday afternoon at the movies and let the dust settle into the rugs: wabi sabi. To buy five extra minutes of sleep every morning by not making the bed-as a wabi-sabi statement, of course. And how do you know when you’ve gone too far-when you’ ve crossed over from simple, serene, and rustic to Uber-distress?

A solid yellow line separates tattered and shabby, dust and dirt from something worthy of veneration. Wabi-sabi is never messy or slovenly. Worn things take on their magic only in settings where it’s clear they don’t harbor bugs or grime. One senses that they’ve survived to bear the marks of time precisely because they’ve been so well cared for throughout the years. Even the most rare and expensive of antiques will never play well in a house that’s cluttered or dirty

So in some ways I’m a bit mad at myself for starting to strip the paint off of the nose while doing the windshield lip repair – and doing the repaint of the dash, but I justify it this way:  I wanted to get rid of the spare tire carrier, and also had to do rust repair on the windshield lip. Plus the front end isn’t original anyway, as it has been replaced at some point in the past. Rust has to be stopped – period. I’m going to try to keep it as original as I can, while updating and restoring parts that need replacing.

Like the owner of the Barracuda said, “Anyone can spend money to restore a car, but it’s only original once.”

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