Electrified ’60s Era VW Bus Traces Steps of 1st Cross-Country Road Trip

For Jack Smith, the “A” in DNA seems to stand for adventure. Smith skateboarded across America with a couple of his friends in 1976. Yes, across America. He did this a few more times before deciding he wanted to go it alone, and in 2019 he completed the first cross-country road trip on an electric skateboard — it took 45 days to cover the 2,394 miles.

Last month, Smith, motivated by a documentary he had recently watched, set out on another adventure. This time, he traveled from California to New York in an electrified 1960s vintage VW Bus.

The motivation for the trip was a Ken Burns documentary called Horatio’s Drive: America’s First Road Trip. The documentary chronicles the story of Dr. Horatio Nelson Jackson’s 1903 trip, where on a whim and a $50 bet, he set off from San Francisco in a 20-horsepower Winton touring car to journey across the nation to New York. Dr. Nelson and his co-driver Sewall K. Crocker took this trip when autos were still a novelty. They stirred up interest and skepticism on their stops along the way. They even a bulldog named Bud mid-trip as an unexpected purchased traveling companion.

For Smith, traveling in a vintage VW Bus (loaned to him by his friend Michael Bream, owner of EV West) was an opportunity to make the trip in a no-frills vehicle that was steeped with history. The rusty red bus was dubbed the “Rust Bus.” The trip was an opportunity to experience this historic road trip in a vehicle that was always known by bus owners for fun and adventure. Countless people flashed Smith and his traveling partner Mike Adamski peace signs as the bus passed … even an Amish boy. A train blew its whistle while passing by.

The VW Bus was originally found in Fresno and was buried up to its chassis in dirt. As it was pulled out, it rolled down a hill and smacked into a tree. The Bus was pretty much left as it was, but had a new subframe added to support the weight of the battery pack and a Netgain motor was added to power the bus. The bus gets 160–220 miles of range depending on speed and weather conditions. There is a two-speed transmission, and first gear takes it to 45 miles per hour. Smith says second gear would take it up to 95 if you’re very brave.

Pre-trip, a spreadsheet was created looking at the towns that Horatio originally went through, and then they mapped out charging stops and camps where they could charge.

There were a few surprises along the way. They were charging in Jefferson, Iowa, when they started talking to a couple of guys in a pickup truck. Somehow the show American Pickers came up in the conversation. One guy said he is friends with both Mike and Robbie from the show and offered to call them. Smith ended up going a bit off his planned path to meet Robbie from the show, and they ended up having some beers and riding around in the bus and he showed Smith around their cavernous warehouse.

Smith and I had a fascinating conversation and there are many more compelling stories on my latest podcast episode.

Smith said his takeaway from this adventure was the importance of patience. He experienced this first on his skateboard journeys, where the speed was dictated by the vehicle he was riding on. Indeed, the real America is out there in these many little unique towns. We can’t see it speeding down the highway.

Podcast links for this article:

SEVU 33: Recreating America’s First Road Trip — Electrified!

SEVU 22: Michael Bream Talks Classic Car Conversions

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