Who is Wild Bill Tucker? He put the ‘COOL’ in Air-cooled!
Interview By Shawn Burke
Shawn – I’m sitting here in Pensacola, Florida at Brew HaHa having a cold beer with my good buddy Wild Bill Tucker. I've been trying to catch up with you all summer, but you stay on the road & have adventures around every corner! How are you doing Bill? Bill - I'm doing fine Shawn and appreciate the invite to come and share...gosh as old as I am...a lil bit of Volkswagen history! I've been around VWs and have owned one for the past fifty years...since 1969. S - I saw a couple of pictures you shared recently. Was that your first VW?
B - My first VW was a 69’ Beetle that I bought off the showroom floor in Winston Salem, NC. I paid $1,999.99 and never figured out what the $.99 was for. They used to advertise that you could buy a Beetle for under $2000.00. It stayed stock for about six months until I put custom wheels on it, changed the exhaust, then put the typical chrome stuff on the engine. I drove the fool out of that thing! I had it for about four years. When my oldest daughter was born, it was the very first car she rode in coming home from the hospital. I was up at Dobbins AFB, GA near Atlanta. I was picking up my Navy check because I was going on vacation... S - Navy check or chick? B - Check...I was married back then. As I was coming through an intersection, a car cut in front of me making a left hand turn, so I slowed down a lil bit. Immediately behind that car was another car that did not stop and we had a head-on collision. S - Oh No! B - Yeah...the collision totaled out that Bug and nearly totaled me out too, but I was fine. I was not wearing a seatbelt at that time and the top of my head went through the windshield. S - Seatbelts? Was that even a thing back then? B - In 1965, it was mandatory, but I just wasn't wearing it. I stayed in contact with VWs because someone had a 63’ for sale so I bought it and supped-up an engine to put in it. I got orders to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. I decided I'd do a little recce to check out what my new duty station was going to be like and see what it would be like to live down there. I flew as an aircrew on a C118 down there and they made runs down regularly. I saw the type of vehicle I wanted to take down there...it was a VW Bus! Because I was going to be working on the Naval Air Station side of the base, I was going to have to take a ferry to get to work. A VW Bus has eighteen inches of ground clearance, so it was perfect for driving down there. So I bought a 69’ Bus, customized it a bit, made sure it was all tuned up just right. I took that Bus and a Honda XL250 motorcycle. That’s what I drove for four and a half years down at Gitmo. I had a great time in the Bus but sold them both when I left. So I was VW-less until 2003. S - The dark ages huh?
B – Yeah, then I bought a 76’ Bug from a repair shop that had a mechanic’s lien on it. The day I went to look at it...it wasn't running. I told the mechanic to get it running and I'll give you $400 bucks for it. He said that's about what the guy owes me so the next day I went and took a test drive. I was going through the gears with no problems, everything was going well. Then I looked down and under the glovebox I saw a huge wasp nest the size of a grapefruit. So I told the mechanic, I'm gonna pull over very slowly. Do not panic! There is a wasp nest between your legs. So he quickly pulled out a red mechanics rag, & grabbed the wasp nest and threw it out the window. I was thinking...Oh My God! That was the start of what ended up being a $15,000 restoration, over a period of time on "The Grape."
It was a high performance car and I went through alot of different engines. My favorite being a 1776CC motor. It was the type of engine you could just run the piss out of it and it would just run! I never had any problems with it. Eventually I got rid of that engine and built a 2110CC motor. It had a problem with the heads so I rebuilt it to 2180CC. Now that car could jerk the front wheels off the ground! S - Where did you learn to do all that? Selftaught? B - Yes, self-taught, and standing over a couple guy’s shoulders. Because at that time, there was no YouTube or Facebook. The only interactions were on The Samba and a couple other websites and forums. Alot of it was book knowledge and hands on. S - Let me ask you about Rusty. Everybody knows Rusty! Anytime they see a High-top, Bay Window Bus, especially one with Pink Floyd plastered across it, they say...”There goes Wild Bill!” Not just locals, but pretty much around the world! You're pretty well-known! B - It was a bus I found about eighteen years ago. I went over to a guy’s back yard in Pensacola, Florida to get some parts he was selling. I noticed a Bus sitting in his yard with green mold covering it. It was a Champagne Edition, seven passenger Bus. So I asked him what’s the deal with the Bus and he said he was gonna fix it up one day. S - We've all heard that before!
B - He said he was the second owner and it doesn’t run right now and didn’t even know what the problem was. As I was leaving I said, “ok, if you ever want to sell it, let me know.” He said, “ok you'll be the first.” Two years went by and I never heard another word from the guy. Then I got as phone call out of the blue, he identified himself and said “you bought some parts from me a couple years ago. You said you were interested in my bus, well I decided to sell it.” I said, “I'm right in the middle of restoring a 76 Beetle right now and I really don’t have the cash for it right now.” He said, “no you don’t understand. I want you to come get the Bus.” I asked him, “as in free?” He said “Yes, I'm giving you the Bus because I know you will get it going and you will take care of it.” I told him “I can’t just take it from you. I've gotta give you something.” So he said, “give me a dollar.” So I went down and pulled out my wallet and gave him a dollar and he signed the title over to me. I told him I'd be back in thirty minutes. I had a friend who had a trailer. We aired up the tires, took Rusty home, and three days later I had it running. That was fifteen years ago! I eventually lost interest in The Grape as I figured if I don’t settle down I'd end up killing myself in that car. It was super-fast! I always had a tendency to want to race Mustangs and Camaros at all the stop lights.
S - Just to show them you could... B - I'd go through two gears and they'd never come close to touching me. Of course they'd probably catch me on the top end. But by then they were usually so deflated that they didn't even want to try anymore! I ended up selling The Grape to a guy in Mobile Alabama and he came and picked it up and took it away. That was ten years ago. I got Rusty fixed up slowly, but surely til he was street worthy and I drove up to Tannehill near Birmingham, Alabama. S - I know where that is! We just got back from Volks Jam up there last week! B - I took Rusty there, took the center seat out & camped in the Bus...I thought, I'm gonna make a camper out of this! So when I got back home I went to Kikers U-Pull It in Pensacola. They had an old Westy with the interior still in it! I got it all pulled out, repaired it and installed it in Rusty. I had a tin-top camper, with jalousie windows on the driver’s side and left the sliders on the passenger’s side. Rusty, being a Champagne Edition Bus, alot of die-hard purists game me a bunch of grief about converting it to a camper. S - I can't believe you cut a Bus! B – Well, I didn't even get to the cutting part yet! That was later on. So after a lil’ while the top started to get really rusty, henceforth the name "Rusty". I decided to look for a Westy top to put on it. In the process of doing that I was online and looking at a junkyard where you can pan across the images. In the background I saw two high-top Buses! That was about six years ago when nobody had high-top Buses. Nobody wanted a high-top Bus...it’s so ugly! I said, that's it! Rusty, you're gonna have a high-top! I called the guy up and he said yup, it's been sitting here for about twenty-five years. Do you want the whole Bus? I said no...just the top. How much do you want for it? He said, tell you what. If I take it off, $250 bucks, if you take it off $175. I almost crapped my pants! Those were going for $700-800 back then, at least. So I drove up and camped out on a Friday night, got the top off on Saturday. I had to get it up a hill to get it on top of Rusty and I was by myself. It was too heavy for me to lift so I asked the guy if he could help and he said his back was messed up. I asked if he had any PVC pipe and he said sure...got lots of it. So we positioned them on the ground and rolled it like we were building the pyramids. I got it up on top of Rusty & strapped it down tight, and went back home. S - If it will work for pyramids...it'll work for a VW! B - Yes it did! So then I cut a hole in the roof. That was fun! There is a natural outline where the sunroof would have gone on a regular Bus, so I drilled a hole in each corner, put a bolt in the hold and attached a blue snap line to mark my cutout. I took a six inch angle grinder and covered everything with damp cloth. S - So you don’t catch your Bus on fire?
B - Right! So I had a guy in there with goggles and earmuffs and a fire extinguisher standing by. I had another guy spotting for me. I cut a straight line, another straight line and took that top out. I prepped everything and set the new roof in place and put seventy-two sheet metal screws in and had a high top. I decided to paint it black and then I was sitting in the driveway looking at the Bus when it came to me…Dark Side of the Moon. It was the best known & most popular album, released in 1973 and at the top of the charts for eleven years. I was in the Navy and missed all the concerts. S – You’ve taken some pretty amazing road trips in Rusty. You’re one of the few people that drive a Bus every day, even more than I drive mine! B – It looks cool and I’m glad I’m able to drive it, but it’s kinda like doing maintenance on a helicopter. You put in a hundred hours of maintenance to get five hours of flight time! With Rusty, I’ve gone through every possible scenario you can think of to keep that Bus on the road. It really is a road worthy vehicle. I’ve rebuilt all of the suspension, engine components, steering, it has been a real good Bus to operate on the highways. I’ve always had the philosophy that if I ever broke down in any state, I’d know someone to contact for parts or to help me fix it. I’ve had a few major break downs too! Last October, three days before our Rare Air car show, I was on my way to a meeting and had an electrical fire. It burned up all the wiring in the engine compartment. S – Pretty scary scenario for sure, you see pictures all the time of Buses that burn to the ground. B – My safety training from the Navy came in handy. I grabbed my big fire extinguisher that I always carry and put that fire out. It sure was a mess! It took me a long time to get it straightened out. S – There was a second fire if I remember right? B – Yep, once I got everything and spent hundreds of dollars to rebuild another engine, I pulled out of my driveway and had another electrical fire! A wire got pinched as I was putting the engine in. It was to the fuel shutoff valve. It was a minor fire but enough to destroy the carburetor components. I ended up rebuilding a brand new stock engine with fuel injection, and it has been running really good! S – I know you had a really challenging year but you always manage to keep a smile on your face - no matter what you go through. How do you do that when you face challenges like this?
B – Well, you have to! One of the things I always do is document very thoroughly in Wild Bill’s VW Adventures on Facebook. I always detail what I’ve done to correct the problem in order to help others prevent it from happening to them. In order to keep a classic VW going, you’ve got to make mistakes and get advice from other people. So I think I’ve ended up being an influence on a lot of people. You’ve always got to keep pressing forward and you can’t allow yourself to get discouraged. I’ve had a lot of different scenarios happen and once I get that fixed, something else will happen! S – Kinda like Joe Dirt says, “You’ve gotta keep on keepin on!” B – That’s right! The only thing I need now is a mullet! What keeps me going is that Rusty is my only form of transportation - by choice. S – You could choose to drive any kind of car: Ford, Chevy, so why do you choose an old Volkswagen? B – Even with a newer VW, you have to be an ASE certified mechanic to work on it. You can’t touch it unless you are. My Bus, with a few hand tools and a little bit of time, you can fix anything on it. S- It will take you anywhere you want to go! B - If it breaks down, you can fix it! If you can’t fix it, I’m in a camper, so I’m at home wherever I am. But that also applies to how cool social media is right now. If I’m driving cross-country and I get to Houston, and my alternator goes out, or if I’m broke down on the side of the road, all I’ve got to do it go on Facebook or on the Bay Pride Facebook page Jay Gould set up and say… “This is Wild Bill. I’m broke down on Interstate 10 at exit 37. I need an alternator. Is there anyone around that might have one?” Within minutes someone will reply and say, “Oh yeah, Joe Schmuckatelli has one. I’ve already called him and he’s on his way!” S- I know Joe Schmuckatelli, cool dude! B – Yeah, that guy is pretty well known! But that’s the cool part about it. The Volkswagen community is like an underground cult. We have our own language and our own currency: trading and selling parts. S – I’ll trade you some rebuilt heads for some upholstery work. B – There you go! And also, we never ever leave anyone behind! If someone breaks down or needs help, someone will always go and respond to it. Elin Adcock is a great example of this! S – She has literally helped me fix my Bus at night on the side of the road! B – That’s it! And I’ve helped her fix her Karmann Ghia and her Bus. And she has helped me. It’s not just confined to four or five people, it’s Volkswagen wide! S – I’ve heard it over and over again and I believe you’re making reference to it now, the Volkswagen Community. It’s tight knit, it crosses lines of ethnicity, age, sexual preference, whatever. Why do you think, Volkswagen? These classic, quirky, oil dripping, air-cooled old cars - why VW? B – Because there is one thing common among all Volkswagen owners. If you’re driving down the road and see another Volkswagen coming, you know what it took to keep that car on the road. There is an instant bond and you throw up a peace sign, shaka, wave or whatever to let them know that bond is there - no ifs, ands or buts! If they’re a Volkswagen owner, you’re going to help them and they’re going to help you. S – I remember when I first met you Bill. It was about six or seven years ago. I believe it was at the Pensacola show and there were a bunch of Boy Scouts coming through looking at all of the VWs. They were all in uniform and they thought and said this was the coolest thing they’ve ever seen. You took the time to talk to them and explain the VW Community to them and how we take care of each other. I remember you saying that if you ever see one broken down, it doesn’t stay there. You stop and you help them get it going again. I think they caught onto that because the Boy Scouts have that same… B – …that same motto. Yeah! Speaking of youth, we old timers have been around a while. As we retire and begin to die off, that knowledge goes away. We have to pass that on to younger Volkswagen enthusiasts. If a young person comes up to me, like Carlos in our club, he met me one night at Sonic. I was parked in the Bus and he came up to me and started talking. I said you must own a VW too. He said yeah, it’s a 68’ but I can’t drive it, it’s broke right now. I can’t get it running. I told him about our club Rare Air and that we hold monthly tech sessions. You should bring it over and we can troubleshoot it, figure it out and get it running. His face just lit up! It was like manna from Heaven! His enthusiasm was picking up. When I first met him he didn’t know the difference between an alternator or a generator or had hardly ever worked with hand tools. Looking over my shoulder as I worked on Rusty, and helping him work on his car, knowledge was passed on to him. Now he is passing on knowledge to other younger people, so that’s the lifeline for us. We’re in a dinosaur like atmosphere. They’re not making them anymore. You can still get aftermarket parts. In Pensacola just a few years ago there were at least a half dozen VW repair shops. Even Jeff’s Little Shop in Navarre is gone now, all of them are gone. S - You were just talking about Carlos that you were helping. You could charge him for helping him if you wanted to. You could make some really good money with your experience and knowledge. Why don’t you? B – My payoff is passing the knowledge on and keeping the passion alive. If I have to spend money on parts, they will voluntarily pay for that. But yes, I could charge them if I wanted to. I’m retired and have an income coming in. It’s nice to supplement that income sometimes, but my main concern is helping individuals gain knowledge and keep their cars on the road. S – That’s reward in and of itself. Seeing more of these classic air-cooled Volkswagens out on the road and seeing these young kids light up with excitement. B – Exactly! Car shows are so important for that reason! They’re pretty much all the same. Come in and shine ‘em up, park your car, they’re judged, but then you see some people you haven’t seen all year long. You see people doing business transactions. I know you were looking for a 65’ front fender and I know a guy that has four of them. That type of interaction has to happen for our hobby to stay alive. I hate to see a VW club do a “final show” and everyone throws their hands up and says, we’re not going to do this anymore. Because that show is one less gathering place for people to connect, make friendships and connections, business transactions and the camaraderie necessary to keep us going. That is what is especially unique about us. You’ve got other car clubs, Mustang and Corvette clubs, Porsche clubs, but there is nothing more unique than a VW meeting. S – We’re family!
B – You’re driving a car that has a seventy to eighty year old design and cars that are manually operated. Window cranks are manual, transmission is manual, steering is manual, basically the engine… S – No airbags, no A/C, basically a death trap on wheels, but we sure do love ‘em! B – Always keep a fire extinguisher! That’s the first thing we do with everyone who joins our Rare Air club. Tell them to get a fire extinguisher and keep it in your VW at all times. If you get one…then get a bigger one. If you have a fire, you are 9-1-1. If you get after it in the first thirty to forty seconds, you can typically get it out. We keep our VWs going by having our monthly tech sessions. Bring your VW and if you don’t know how to fix it, there is always someone there who does. If we can’t get it fixed at the tech session, we can figure out what needs to be done, or refer them where to get parts, or an engine, or reputable shops for paint and body work. So it’s essentially another gathering point. S – I remember a couple years ago, I was helping a friend of mine, Dave Martinez, from Mississippi. He needed an automatic transmission for his daughter’s Westy. I couldn’t find one anywhere and nobody wanted to touch it. There was an eighty something year old guy in Texas that used to work on them but he was basically retired now. But you were up in Tannehill in Birmingham and scooped it up and brought it back down to the Coast. It weighed about five hundred pounds and you had it in the back of Rusty. You helped me find what I needed to help Dave get the Bus going again. B – Always glad to help out another VW brother!
S- Well, it was great catching up with you Bill. Thanks for taking the time to share your story and some of your experiences with us! Thank you for your service to our nation, as well as your service to our Volkswagen community! I wanna be you when I grow up! B – Yeah…if you grow up! LOL! S – Yeah right! LOL! Well, maybe we all can figure out a way to be a little more like Will Bill! Ready to share knowledge and experiences or lend a hand to anyone who needs it! Let’s keep that VW spirit alive and keep ‘em rolling down the road!