October 16, 2000
THE CAR: Brubaker Box
The original minivan
by John Matras
"We were chugging along
looking for clients, trying to survive with a small design office, when
it occurred to me that there were a hell of a lot of surfer kids getting
around in old beat-up Volkswagen vans." That was Curtis Brubaker's
epiphany. A trip to Newport Beach yielded a photo with eight or nine
vans in it. "I thought, damn, there is something here."
For most that something would
have been just a lot of battered old vans, but Curtis Brubaker isn't
Like most young southern
Californians in the early '60s, Brubaker had a passion for cars, adding
a reputation for pinstriping and painting them. "It infuriated
my dad because there were always car part patters silhouetted on the
A stint working on aircraft
in the Navy was followed by the Art Center College of Design in Los
Angeles--interrupted by a period helping Bill Lear design his executive
jet--and a year-and-a-half at the advanced research group at General
Motors, designing Cadillac interiors and small car concepts. "But
I don't think I was cut out to be a corporate guy, so I came back to
California and set up my own studio and actually did more work for General
Motors, Volvo, Ford and the Japanese here than I did in Detroit."
PHOTO CAPTION: GRAPE APE AND
THE GANG would feel right at home aboard the bizarro Box, a vehicle that
hoped to simultaneously tap into the hip '70s van and VW scenes.
It was then that the idea
for an alternative vehicle developed in Brubaker's mind, combining his
aircraft experience with elements of the economical and somewhat countercultural
VW Beetle, the surfer vans and Bruce Meyer's fiberglass Manx dune buggy.
The result was "A new kind of crossover vehicle."
"It was a one-box design.
We did a mock-up right there in our little office and brought in investors
and people got excited and we ultimately raised a small amount of funds,"
Brubaker recalls. With the $160,000 nest egg, the 31-year-old Brubaker
intended to manufacture a kit car "to fit in the...business model
that had been crudely established by others."
Like so many kit cars, it
utilized the ubiquitous Beetle but had aspects of unibody construction,
with 13 inner and outer fiberglass panels, including a floor panel,
riveted and bonded together. Shock-absorbing bumpers were designed to
look like curved wood. The fuel tank was mounted centrally and the spare
mounted to absorb frontal crash energy. The stock VW front seats were
retained, but a lounge-type seat was created for the rear of the vehicle
for 53-inch-tall vanlets. A single sliding door on the right side was
the only entrance, yielding more rigidity but also controversy from
Not, however, at the Los
Angeles International Motorsports Show. The reaction to a prototype
of the alliteratively named Brubaker Box convinced Brubaker that his
decision to build completed vehicles was right. Negotiations with VW
to acquire knock-down chassis, however, proved fruitless, with VW concerned
about liability. As a result, Brubaker had to buy complete VWs from
dealers, selling off unneeded parts. Awkward and labor-intensive, it
was almost a wash financially, Brubaker says. He leased a 17,000-square-foot
building in Los Angeles to assemble Boxes with plans for five per month,
priced at $3,995, beginning in March 1972, and 400 per month by year's
end. Alas, VW's recalcitrance made additional financing difficult. One
of the investors was, as Brubaker says, "unruly." So the company
filed for bankruptcy without making very many Boxes.
One of the investors tried
to sell the Box as a kit, but the molds wound up being shuffled around
the country as one entrepreneur after another tried to make a go of
Brubaker's bold design. Most successful, perhaps, was Automecca, circa
1974, with its "Sports Van." It's still the Brubaker Box,
though, to those who remember it.
To those who've never seen
one, it's something special. Driving a Box owned by Dick Miller turned
more heads than an Italian exotic. The front bumper isn't original,
but out back the stock '72 VW four-banger behaves like any Beetle engine,
and the Box, weighing about the same as a stock Beetle, accelerates
similarly. The only really strange thing is the way-out-there windshield,
not unlike the first Pontiac Trans Sports. The seating position, with
its raised pedals, is simply peculiar.
Today the "minivan"
is ubiquitous. In '72, the "mini-van," as one publication
called it, was not. The Brubaker Box was the only one. Damn, there was
Reprinted with permission
from John Matras.
Automecca Sports Van
(Or...the Brubaker is
by Phil Carpenter
I started to get back into
the little kit van, climbing through the right side sliding door, when
I noticed the guy approaching with his rumpled T-shirt, paunch, dark
glasses and dopey grin. Oh no, I sighed to myself. Not again.
"Hey buddy...wait a
minute. Hey, what the hell is this thing anyway?"
"It's called the Automecca
Sports Van. Formerly known as the Brubaker after the original designer
Curt Brubaker," I replied patiently.
"Oh yeah? Sonovagun.
Shore is a weird-lookin' thing, ain't it? Where's it made, huh?"
Chatsworth. They have a mailing address on Ventura Boulevard in Woodland
Hills if you want to write for information." I turned and started
to slide the door shut, which takes a pretty healthy right arm pulling
it one-handed from inside. I hoped Clem Clod would take the hint and
write Automecca rather than delay me further, but the odds on his being
able to write were rather dim. He also refused to be discouraged that
"So hey, tell me buddy,
how much does a thing like this cost?" He moved closer, sticking
his head in the doorway to observe the yellow Naugahyde and fabric upholstery
and wilting my permanent press Arrow shirt with his breath.
"It depends on whether
you buy the kit and build it yourself on a VW chassis or buy it finished
from Automecca." I noted objectively in the back of my mind that
my voice was beginning to get that strained quality usually associated
with frequent displays of rudeness, temper and occasional physical violence.
Calm yourself, I commanded silently. The guy's just curious. Just because
he's the 27th jerk to stop and bother you today and you're late for
a meeting with the West Coast representative for Ford Motor company
and it's 97 degrees here in the sun and this box has no air conditioning
and you forgot your Right Guard this morning...
That's sort of how it goes
if you spend any time driving the Automecca. If you're a young guy with
time to B.S. the gaggle of girls that always seems to appear when you
park, or a divorcee looking for a conversation-starter that may lead
to bigger and better things, all that attention is a bonus. If you're
always behind schedule as a busy working stiff, it can get a little
heavy. But in the long run I guess we all like owning and driving something
truly unusual and different that sets us apart from the mob. That is,
in my opinion, the single most desirable facet of the Automecca Sports
Van. There's absolutely no question that it will gain attention and
that it's radically different. Some people will be laughing at you as
you drive by, honking their horns as though they had just spotted Dick
Van Dyke in Chitty-Chitty Bang-Bang. Big treat. Others will express
admiration for the futuristic styling with appropriate ooohs and ahhs.
(Dynomite! All right! Out of sight!)
But, of course, you want
to get into the story a little deeper. To regress somewhat, the original
designer named the van after himself, doubtless proud of his idea and
wanting to go down in immortality with such greats as Louis Chevrolet,
Henry Ford, Al Deusenburg and Forrest Tucker. Built on the kit car concept,
the Brubaker was a plastic box with a sliding door and removable rear
engine cover panel all fitted to the ubiquitous VW floor pan and running
gear. The design has many advantages, in my opinion, such as increased
space availability created by moving the windshield forward 2 1/2 feet
and the rear window back a like amount. The interior is quite roomy
for the wheelbase and the noise level is much lower than might be expected
for a light fiberglass shell body.
Brubaker debuted the van
in '72 with a great deal of attendant publicity, and the public's reception
was very enthusiastic. One of the major factors used in selling point
was that the economy normally associated with the VW engine would be
retained in this new kit van, not to mention good handling characteristics.
(This can be a mixed blessing in my opinion, depending upon which year
V-dub you use as a base.) The future looked bright after several major
magazines ran articles publicizing the Brubaker but, alas, the best
To make a long story short,
production never fulfilled the promise elicited and the company folded.
But one of the investors, Mike Hansen, recently became the prime mover
in giving new life to the van by forming a corporation known as Automecca.
They have a small factory in Chatsworth, California where the vans and
bodies are prepared for sale, and a business office at 22462 Ventura
Blvd., Woodland Hills, CA 91364. (213) 340-3538. Hansen has set more
realistic goals, he says, for this trip around. These include limiting
production to around 20 units per month, most of them kit bodies for
customers to build onto their own VW chassis and running gear. The only
way you can get a completely built sports van is to arrange your own
deal with Mike, although he says the pricing varies for each unit due
to customers wishing special paints, stereo systems, interiors, etc.
The full price list is included
in this article, which you not consider as gospel. My experience with
previous kit car articles ahs led me to make disclaimers on any pricing
of components, since the costs of all petroleum-based products often
fluctuate quite rapidly. As far as being able to say how much work and
time is involved in mounting the kit body to your VW, there's no accurate
method of determining this. Each individual van will be built slightly
different by the owner, of course; your own competence and ingenuity
plays a major role in how the project comes out. We've seen some other
kit cars finished very professionally by those who took their time and
bought quality pieces to make a highly finished product...and we've
seen some kit cars that could be used for Mattel commercials. (The one
where the kid runs it across the floor into Daddy's chair and it flies
into 12 pieces.)
The van we tested, dubbed
the Roamer by Automecca, was based on a '74 Thing (which looks like
Rommel's Afrika Corps desert scout cars)--not the best choice, I feel.
The gearing is super-low in first gear and the running gear is noisier
all around than a stock VW Bug. Still, the noise level in the interior
wasn't bad at all. The handling was excellent, no doubt due in part
to the super-fat GR60x14 tires on Keystone offset rims. The cornering
was very much like a sports car and J-turns were easy to accomplish.
But in the interests of steering
gear, wheel bearing and suspension components, I would never run front
tire and wheel combinations that large. The slight shimmy of the steering
wheel on gradual turns is a clear indication that the tires are exerting
excessive leverage on the spindles and tire rod ends. This van was built
mostly for showing off the body lines, so it's understandable why it
had those big tires and wheels. The seating is comfortable in the driver's
position and the windows slide open from the front. The body panel fit
and workmanship appeared to us to be very high in quality and everything
worked well except for one turn signal, which just hadn't been sorted
out due to a lack of time before I drove the van. As with any new vehicle,
regardless of selling price, there were some adjustments needed, but
these were minor.
What didn't I care for? Well,
there are some structural changes I would build into one of my own that
could be accomplished very simply. That is not to suggest the way the
van is now is not "all right." My own feeling is that it would
be better with some changes, both in styling and engineering. I hope
to persuade Mike Hansen to consider some of them for future production
use. They include: Placing a U-joint in the steering column and perhaps
moving the pedals so that the column shaft does not fall directly between
the brake and clutch pedal. This would be a safety move as well as giving
more legroom to the driver. You could then enlarge the brake pedal for
quicker stopping without feeling around for it as much. I also would
obtain a plastic dash console such as contain CB/AM/FM mini-consoles
for pickups, etc. and turn it upside down in front of the steering wheel
to mount all the dash knobs, instruments and radio close at hand for
easy reading and service. A fuse box would also be handy in that location.
The area ahead of the rear seat could be better used to house a small
spare tire and jack with a swing-away covered table top unit over it
rather than letting all that extra space go to waste. No spare is provided
in the van as it is now. Another improvement, in my opinion, would be
a sliding cover under the sunroof so that you have the option of shutting
out the sunlight and heat if desired. This would be an inexpensive blessing
for those hot days on the freeway with the sun in your eyes. There are
a number of various interiors which could be installed, so we won't
touch on that to any extent.
I would like to see the rear
engine cover redesigned so that the lower portion of the pan covers
the engine rather than letting it all hang out, and it could be hinged
to swing sideways for quicker access. This in turn would allow the rear
window to become a hinged hatchback door for access to the interior.
As it is now, the van can only be entered from the right side door,
so carrying anything is a real problem if it's bulky. Also, in the event
of an accident where the right door is jammed, you'd be trapped with
no other practical exit. As far as styling, a new front piece could
be added with a lower gravel pan extending down around the front torsion
tubes so the axle and all that ugly stuff is covered as well. The wooden
bumpers look too homemade for my taste. A set of chrome nerfs of tubular
steel would be preferable. Also, the front end shell could be easily
reworked to take a set of rectangular headlights, the current trend,
thereby making a futuristic van look even more modern. A porthole-type
window in the rear quarter-panels would aid visibility, let in more
light and could be vented for air circulation. A set of Ford van side
mirrors would also aid in rear viewing as they stick up higher. Our
right side mirror was worthless on the test van. A new paint scheme
also would help with some custom striping, etc. That's my idea of a
super-trick little mini-van that would be great fun to drive handle
well, get terrific mileage and best of all...would provide you with
a never-ending stream of characters coming up and asking, "Hey
buddy...what the hell is this thing, anyway?"
Prime mover in the new
venture is Mike Hansen, an original back of the Brubaker who refused
to let it die. He works alongside his men to keep quality control to
his personal standards.
We found handling to be
excellent with the wide GR60x14 tires on offset Keystone rims and the
lightweight body. The van is great fun to play with, although more conservative
tire and wheel combinations would make it better to drive and increase
Factory assembly line
is small, as is current production goal of 20 units per month. Automecca
plans growth in stages. You can get anything from a basic body to the
complete vehicle from Automecca.
Sliding door in right
side is only means of exit and entry. Body is fitted with door that
is fully adjusted before leaving factory. Roof channel is seen here
with sturdy steel sliding bar mechanism.
The size of the Automecca
kit van can best be displayed by placing it nose to nose with the ubiquitous
VW bus. Performance of the kit van is slightly better, as is mileage,
due to light fiberglass body and smaller overall dimensions. Practicality
takes a back seat to styling.
Rear section of van down
to molding just beneath taillights should be hinged hatchback, in our
opinion, and the wooden bumper replaced with nerf bars. The bumpers
now, however, are super-strong and are spring/shock mounted for 5 mph
crashes. Rear exhaust looks messy, should be tucked away with special
plumbing or covered somehow.
instruments are a long reach for driver and are impossible to service
easily. A new console immediately in front of the steering wheel would
be preferable to us, along with a spare tire and jack on the passenger
Rear of interior was done
with couch and settee cushion. This space can be used in a variety of
ways, but it is large enough for three passengers without squeezing,
or four for a love-in. Kit interior pieces were well finished for the
The engine cover is removed
by taking out two bolts at the top and two screws at the bottom corners.
We feel the lower portion of the cover could be hinged at the side to
swing away and the upper part made into a hatchback door. Servicing
the engine is very easy as is.
Magazines articles on the
BRUBAKER BOX Sports Van:
(1) Car and Driver,
March 1972, "The Best Thing that’s Ever Happened to a Beetle."
By Gordon Jennings (Cover Story)
(2) Dune Buggies
and Hot VWs, Summer 1972. "Fancy, Functional - The
BRUBAKER. It could put the
FUN in Functional." By Chuck Nerpel
(3) Road Test,
September 1974,Volume 10 - Number 9, "The Return of the BRUBAKER
Sports Van - A Mini-Van Designed for Many Uses." By Walt Woron
(4) Four Wheeler,
April 1972, Volume 9, Number 4, "BRUBAKER: A Micro-Mini Van for
Street/Off Road Use." By Walt Woron
Greats, August 1974, "The
BRUBAKER Returns! The Return of the BRUBAKER BOX." By Wally Wyss
(6) Van World,
March 1977, "Mini-Van of The Future is Here Today (The Box Comes
Back)" By Chris Hosford
Greats, April 1977, "The AutoMecca Sports Van (Or...the
BRUBAKER is back?...)" By Phil Carpenter
(8) Dune Buggies
and Hot VWs, April 1977, Volume 10 - Number 4, "AutoMecca
Sports Van" By Scott McMillan
(9) KIT CAR,
The Car Builder’s Authority, November 1999. "BRUBAKER BOX (The
Box Was Tops)" By Harold Pace (Kit Carchives)
October 16, 2000, "THE CAR: Brubaker Box. The original minivan."
By John Matras