Von Dutch Bus is still alive
It was perhaps the most sought-after derelict bus in Southern California, a 1953 GM TGH-3102 sinking to the ground and shot through with bullet holes. The bus wasn’t particularly rare in and of itself, nor did it run a particularly noteworthy route; rather, they came to see the man who made the run-down bus his home and workshop: Kenneth Howard, the eccentric artist and pinstriper better known as Von Dutch. Now, more than 20 years after his death, his bus will make its post-restoration debut at the upcoming Goodguys Southwest Nationals in Scottsdale, Arizona.
As the story goes, Von Dutch took the former Long Beach city bus in payment for a pinstriping job, then moved his antiquated and unsafe machinery – lathe, drill press, industrial compressor and associated hardware – into the bus, but like most tales surrounding the artist, it’s only partially true. During the restoration process, Kafka said he found markings on the bus that showed it once belonged to Douglas Aircraft, which used it to shuttle employees from one building to another on the aircraft manufacturer’s vast site in Escondido, California. No municipality would have purchased a well-used bus for its own transit purposes, Kafka said, which calls into question whether the rest of the story is true or not. In fact, according to Kafka, paperwork proves that the bus was indeed delivered to Douglas Aircraft.
Whatever its origins, the 27-foot-long, 31-seat bus used a gasoline engine rather than a two-cycle diesel that many such “Old-Look” buses used since their introduction as Yellow Coach buses in 1940. While a 270-cu.in. GMC straight-six likely powered the bus from the factory, a 292-cu.in. straight-six currently resides in its engine compartment
As Howard renovated it, the bus included a shop, a bathroom (complete with a “flying eyeball” porthole window), a hot plate and refrigerator that served as the kitchen, and a rear bunk and table that served as living quarters. In it, the artist turned out everything from motorcycle parts and belt buckles to custom knives and even firearms. Von Dutch’s passion for firearms didn’t coexist well with his passion for drinking, and the six bullet holes in the front of the bus are said to be period-correct ventilation, installed in a drunken stupor by Howard himself.
Years of hard living and a general distrust for doctors proved to be a fatal combination, and Von Dutch died of a stomach abscess in 1992. For years the bus sat abandoned in a field in Santa Paula, sinking to its frame in the California dirt, before being pulled out and sold (in rough condition) at auction for a mere $46,000. Shortly afterward, Kafka, who had worked with Von Dutch at the Rat Fink reunion, bought the bus for nearly $200,000, intending to return the bus to its once former glory.
Outside, the bus was pockmarked with both rust and bullet holes, the result of its time spent outdoors, away from civilization. Inside, it was filled with machinery and tools that may have been period correct, but had no ties whatsoever to Von Dutch or his work. Initially, Kafka anticipated that the restoration would take six months, but each time he removed another panel removed, complications arose. Parts, such as the original bathroom door, liberated before the bus crossed the auction block, were missing and had to be recreated with the guidance of those that knew Von Dutch and the bus well (though the door has now been reunited with the bus, which frees the recreated bathroom door to be used for a marquee). Dick Odette, a long-time friend of the artist, was instrumental in providing advice, as well as helping to recreate parts.