“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 just anyone.
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 patterns silhouetted on the concrete.”
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.”
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 Curtis 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 some corners.
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 Brubaker 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 turns 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 GM “Dustbuster” minvans. 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 something there.