Travel

Los Osos business has found a niche in Westfalias

GoWesty owners S. Lucas Valdes his wife, Kathy, and their dogs Pitaya, left, and Scout, pose with their 1987 VW Vanagon Westfalia Wolfsburg Weekender Syncro camper van.
GoWesty owners S. Lucas Valdes his wife, Kathy, and their dogs Pitaya, left, and Scout, pose with their 1987 VW Vanagon Westfalia Wolfsburg Weekender Syncro camper van. TRIBUNE PHOTOS BY JOE JOHNSTON

On 1-1/2 acres in Los Osos, there’s a fleet of Westfalias — those Volkswagen camper vans that haven’t been produced in nearly two decades.

Some of them look like new. Others have been stripped down to a shell and little else.

“This one will be here for six months,” says Segismundo Lucas Valdes, looking at one of the vans brought in from a state far away.

In an age of sleek new vehicles, some prefer to go old school, paying anywhere from $35,000 to $75,000 to have their Westies fixed up, restored and upgraded by Valdes’ business, GoWesty. While that same price tag could get you a high-end sports car, you can’t sleep comfortably in a Porsche. You can’t put a fridge in a Jaguar. And, besides, Westy owners say, the cars are a throwback.

“There’s a cool factor to it,” said Mecki Heussen of Cambria. “It’s got a turn radius like you would not believe. And it’s just a real bitchin’ car to drive.”

A passionate obsession

The successor to the popular VW bus, the Westy—also referred to as a Vanagon and a camper van — first came off the line in 1979 and was discontinued in the U.S. in the early ’90s, when VW shifted styles and began producing the more modern-looking Eurovan. The vehicles are so popular, Valdes has seen people stop by just to shoot photos of the Westies.

It’s that popularity, of course, that has made his business a success — one that has seen significant growth since Valdes began refurbishing and selling camper vans.

“This has nothing to do with logic,” he said of those who want the vans. “This is a passion-driven thing. Because you could buy a lot of vehicles for $75,000.”

A born mechanic

Outside his GoWesty office, a sign reads “Parking for Cubans Only,” a hint at Valdes’ roots. Valdes was born in Havana in 1960, the year before the U.S. tried to overthrow Fidel Castro in the Bay of Pigs invasion. Valdes’ father actually participated in the failed attack.

“He was involved in covert operations with the CIA off the coast of Costa Rica,” Valdes said.

The elder Valdes, now 80, wrote about his experiences in a book simply titled “My Memories.” In 1962, the elder Valdes moved the family to the Bay Area.

“When the revolution happened in Cuba, anybody with any wealth could trade their wealth, their property, for their freedom,” his son said. “So, basically, if you wanted to walk away from your houses and your businesses, you could in exchange for your freedom.”

While his father’s side of the family had been bakers, his mother’s side had been mechanics. Valdes proved early on that he took after his mother’s side.

“My parents tell a story about the first bike they bought me,” he said. “I rode it for a day, then took it apart the next day.”

By 12, he was working at bike shops in San Francisco. And in high school, he had a mobile car repair business.

“I had a VW Beetle, so I took the back seat and the passenger seat out of it, and I had the tools and a jack in there,” he said. “And I’d drive all over town, fixing cars in driveways.”

Later, he earned a mechanical engineering degree from Cal Poly. But even while studying at Poly, he worked on cars, using his student loan money to buy equipment that allowed him to work out of a rented house.

Upon graduation, he landed a mechanical engineering job at the San Francisco-based FMC Corporation, which designed everything from dock loading equipment to street sweepers. But even then, he loved to work on cars.

“It was almost like the engineering thing was a part-time deal,” he said.

After eight years in the Bay Area, Valdes—now with a wife, Kathy, and two kids — left his cubicle and moved back to the Central Coast. There he had a one-bay shop fixing Volkswagens and Porsches in Los Osos.

“It was a really tough time,” Valdes said.

But then in 2001, he got a big break: The owner of GoWesty Camper Products — a small online parts company — sold Valdes his business. With the ability to fix and restore vehicles, Valdes turned GoWesty into something different — arguably the biggest, most comprehensive Westy business in the country.

“And it took off,” he said.

Customer-driven

His business, aided by 30 full-time employees, sells every part a Westy has — from seat belt kits to full engines. (GoWesty sells an engine a day.) And people from all around the country — including actor Tom Hanks — ship their Westies to Valdes to have them fixed or overhauled.

“We’ve got 15 projects going right now,” he said, walking amid vans with plates from Alaska, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Massachusetts and Iowa.

The vans that aren’t being worked on are being sold. And chances are they won’t be there long. Those Westies, after all, are pretty popular. Featuring enough space for shelves, sinks, stoves and fridges but still small enough to maneuver like a car, the camper vans are especially popular among people who enjoy the outdoors.

“I’ve been camping since I was a kid,” said Heussen, who had friends who owned Westies.

After watching the Go- Westy website for about a year and a half, he finally shelled out $43,000 to buy a 1986 model with a propane heater, fridge and a pop-up top that sleeps four.

“You sleep in your car,” Heussen said, “except you don’t sleep in a car. You sleep in an apartment on wheels.”

GoWesty invites customers to tell them what they want, then they offer to do it—whether it be turning a 2-wheel drive into a 4-wheel drive, redoing the interior or replacing the engine. With the right adjustments, those old vans are maneuverable, as Valdes proved with an offroading jaunt in his Westy.

“These things can go places where only Jeeps can go,” said Valdes, who regularly takes his Vanagon for offroading adventures in Baja.

Ed Shaw of San Luis Obispo bought his 1990 Westy seven years ago and had Valdes turn it into a 4-wheel drive for offroading, plus he had Valdes install a new engine and a solar cell. The van came with a 2-burner stove, sink and fridge.

“I do a lot of backpacking,” he said, noting that he used to have to set up camp with time-consuming tents. “This is so much easier. I can be up and camping in five minutes.”

Through the years, Shaw has had many VWs, including a Beetle, the bus, and a Karmann Ghia.

“They’re pretty straightforward,” he said of the VW vehicles. “I can look at the engine and know what the parts are.”

Consistent demand

While the recession has been tough on the auto industry, Valdes doesn’t seem to have a problem finding business. Even in a tough economy, people still want the classic vans.

“Last year, we had our first down year in 17 years,” he said. “We were down less than 10 percent. That was our worst year ever. The smallest growth year we’ve had was about 10 to 12 percent.”

Growth on the Internet side — now accounting for 54 percent of the $7 million annual business — has helped boost business, which he projects will surpass strong 2008 numbers.

“We’re pretty understaffed right now,” he said.

Many of the people on the staff own Westies themselves. Again, there’s just something cozy about them. And on the road, they get noticed.

“There’s not a day that goes by when somebody doesn’t give me a thumbs up,” Shaw said.

When Heussen, who works in the special effects field, worked on the “Tron” sequel in Los Angeles, his co-workers were especially into the Westy.

“Every lunch hour, I had a few women who were like, ‘Come on — let’s have lunch in your van.’ ”

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