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Very little can match the joy of a mint 1983 Volkswagen Westy. You know it’s someone’s beloved pride. In all likelihood, it has a name. And for a single weekend, I had a vintage model all to myself, having borrowed it for a quick road trip in October through a rental service called Turo.
Think of the service as Airbnb for van owners. It pairs owners of (preferably awesome, totally unique) vehicles with renters looking for a little adventure. Turo lists more than 800 makes and models and seems to have everything short of a battle tank—from Porsches to Elements to Volkswagen campers of all ages. In other words: adventuremobiles you won’t find at Hertz. Turo launched in 2010 in San Francisco and Cambridge, Massachusetts, and now has more than 2.3 million users with 121,000 vehicles in 4,700-plus cities.
I wanted to check out Turo’s offerings, so I browsed the site until I came across a lovely 1973 Volkswagen bus near Atlanta. The photographs and details on the listing seemed great, and for about $80 per day, it was a steal.
Now, the whole point of Turo is to connect with a car that has personality. There’s some risk involved, as I found out when I arrived at the location of the first VW bus I was supposed to rent, 20 miles north of Atlanta, and found a bashed-in, stained rust trap with a fist-size hole between the brake and gas pedals. I called the company. The representative apologized profusely, refunded the charge, removed the listing, and set me up with another vehicle within a few days. Turo claims it makes a point of surveying, testing, and photographing the vehicles it lists, but the rep conceded that they hadn’t gotten around to doing so for this new post. Still, the company holds its hosts to high standards and will address any issues with its 24-hour roadside assistance.
Take two. My next experience with Turo took place in the Pacific Northwest, where I ended up renting Gretel, a 1983 Westfalia owned by a devout Volkswagen enthusiast named Mike, who was so compulsively meticulous that he made certain I knew every nook and cranny of his baby—including where to set the hydraulic jack should I get a flat.
Mike had stocked the van with clean sheets, pillows, a full kitchenette (complete with good coffee and bottled water), and cabinets overflowing with board games and playing cards. It was spotlessly clean, inside and out. Generally, I’d have no compunction about leaving a rental vehicle a little bit worse for the wear. I take turns harder than I normally would and venture off-road in two-wheel-drive sedans. Not so with Gretel. For the first time in my life, I was nervous about renting a vehicle. I’d signed a waiver fee accepting full liability, which was covered under both Turo’s insurance and my own. Turo’s coverage, which you might not require depending on your own insurance policy, protects the renter for up to $1 million in damages for 40 percent of the daily rental, or $64 per day in my case. The company also offers basic coverage for 15 percent, or you can opt out entirely. Having met Mike, I also felt a moral obligation to bring his baby back in tip-top shape. Gretel was a veritable classic, not some featureless Chevrolet Impala. Only the most soulless degenerate could lack concern for this van’s well-being.
All of which was going through my mind as I got behind the wheel of the 33-year-old VW van. I hadn’t driven a manual transmission in years, and I was nervous about the sometimes treacherous backcountry terrain of the Pacific Northwest. Mike had picked me up from my lodging in the north end of Seattle, and then quickly pulled over to inform me that he’d like to do an impromptu driving test on the way to his house. As I tentatively pulled out onto the highway in first gear, boorishly shifting to second, I felt the burn of his scrupulous gaze as I went into third, merging onto Interstate 5 at a mere 45 miles per hour, praying I’d get up to the fourth and final gear without destroying the gearbox and blowing up the engine. But I got to Mike’s house with no mishaps, and Gretel was mine for the weekend.
I hit the road, heading south from Seattle to a friend’s cabin outside Portland. I then broke the very first rule of camping in a camper van and slept in a cabin instead, with the affectionate support of a wood-burning stove. But for the next week, it would be just me and Gretel. My only fears were for my own well-being in the case of an accident—no airbags.
The next day, I made my way down to the Port Orford area, where fog and fishermen run equally dense. It has long been a dream of mine to catch a big Chinook salmon on the fly rod, and I had it on good authority through a friend of a friend that the salmon were in thick along Oregon’s southern coast. Having booked myself a trip to the Pacific Northwest during the fall salmon run, I packed my rod and waders, figuring this was as good a chance as I’d ever have. Fish or no fish, sleeping in a Westfalia was unquestionably better than renting a sedan and tent camping—my normal routine during the fall. The newly upholstered cushions on the backseat bench and bed made for a comfy rest after each day’s activities. The kitchenette provided more than enough cookware and utensils for me and a few friends who joined me for a couple of nights.
I camped atop the cliffs of Cape Blanco, wading and fishing my way through the labyrinth of purportedly salmon-laden rivers of southern Oregon. For almost a week, I retired each night to Gretel—toward which I grew quite fond—before hanging my fly rod inside one last time and putting on one last pot of coffee in the kitchen before hitting the road to return the van the following day.
Despite the early mishap, I won’t use a standard car rental agency again so long as Turo’s around. Being an outdoors enthusiast, simply knowing I can rent an automobile with roof, ski, or bike racks, anywhere in the country and at any time, is a novelty I can appreciate in its own right. Note that none of the major car-rental agencies offer tow hitches or roof racks—let alone crossbars—of any kind. But to think that someone would entrust an immaculate 1980s VW Westfalia—a veritable cabin on wheels—to an utter stranger for $160 a day? That is a 21st-century phenomenon in and of itself.