[out122ndway] A New Beginning For Trafton’s VW

2901.The end, and a new beginning, for a great Portland east side institution.

If you’re a VW aficionado, you’ll be feeling a pang of … well, your reactions will be as different as the individual. I know how I felt when I realized the change.

But, still, it’s all good. You’ll see.

At 15570 SE Stark Street, in far-outer-east Portlandia, is an auto shop. It has been known in the past as Trafton and Maier Foreign Service, and Trafton’s Foreign Auto. It specializes in Volksies. Just VW’s nothing but VW’s and only VW’s.

And, from time to time, my VW. Which is a 1972, orangey-red, Type I. Or Beetle if you prefer. Or Bug … if you must.

The proprietor of said shop has been one Bill Trafton, a man with VW running in his veins. I’m convinced that the moment he was born, he ran out of the delivery room, found the first wrench he could lay his hands on, and started tightening a bolt on the first VW he could find. Yes, Bill Trafton was that good.

As a matter of fact, he was probably born a little premature because he just couldn’t wait to get started.

I was privileged to hand over my hard earned money to Bill and his crew to keep this sweetpea on the road:

And she still sails the open streets of Portland to this day. Classy ride, right?

As you go into the east 150s, and you hove within sight of Mordor Gresham,  you come upon this unlikely looking construction:

Tell you something, if you can’t figure it out after seeing that front-end over the door, you won’t ever. This is the capital of VW, the Taj Mahal of the boxer engine, the center of cool. This is Trafton’s Foreign Auto Service.

The inside was even more fascinating than the outside. Hence.

That’s a very large scale model of Herbie hanging off the window there. There is a suggestion of clutter of historic proportions on that bookcase on the left. Brother and/or sister, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet. Hark.

You get the idea, don’t you? If it was a knickknack, and it was Veedub, it had a place somewhere in Trafton’s shop. Sadly, I didn’t capture every corner, but I did get some. The entire place had VW paraphernalia, VW standup cutouts, old ads, a glorious and gorgeous gallimaufry of stuff.

That’s my Beetle in the distance, on the lift getting something done. If you ever doubt, you can tell my Beetle by the German flag in front of the front door there. So proud to get that sticker.

Then, I applied it … upside down.


The interior was a-clutter, but at the center of it was the coolest hands ever to lay ministrations on an air-cooled boxer engine. And it was all informed by the wit, wisdom, and knowledge of Bill Trafton, who you couldn’t help but love.

He was an interesting sort, Bill was. He was folksy, always had a story or two, was willing to talk your ear off at the time and, I say this in the best way, he was very, very Christian. Refer again to the facade picture up toward the top of this post. You notice how several panels in each window seem to form a cross? This was not just decor for decor’s sake. One thing you noticed when you went in there was that there was a lot of Christian literature scattered about. There was even a cardboard box full of Bibles at the end of the counter. Bill would let you have one for the asking.

But for all that, he didn’t try to sell you on accepting Jesus. He sold you on his auto expertise. In this world where every zealously religious person seems desperate to convince you to accept Jesus (as though they’re the first one who ever told you about him) Bill let the example of his business practice do the talking for him. He did honest work, he charged a fair price, if it was something that required a couple of minutes of his time he sent you down the road with a smile and a wave (sometimes he didn’t even charge you for it). If you wanted to talk religion, he was perfectly happy to do that. But if you didn’t, he didn’t.

He even once took us out to lunch while we were waiting for the crew to finish the work on the Beetle and we had to hang about because we had nowhere else to go. That is the only time that any mechanic had ever done anything like that at all for me.

Giuseppe’s Pizza, by the way, near 181st and Stark in Gresham. Highly recommended. That was some righteous pizza.

The only door you can’t walk through
without stopping to look at every single thing

The last thing that Bill’s shop did for us was to replace the left rear wheel bearing. He brought that in for under $300. Latterly, the windshield wipers had apparently given up the ghost. Time to see Bill again, and so last Monday we hied ourself out to 155th and Stark to do so.

Almost immediately we found some things had changed. The old sign, with the Pennzoil logo on, had been replaced with a simplified sign simply reading TRAFTON’S VW in these cute retro plastic letters. The half-chassis Type II (or VW Bus, if you like, or Transporter, if you have to, or Microbus, if you must) with a painted Here Comes the Son legend on was still there. But one important thing had gone away. On the west side of the building, there was this large iron cross (remember I told y’all about his faith?), not massive, made of square iron tube about 3 inches through and standing about 6 feet tall.

It was completely gone.

I’d taken this opportunity to look into the back lot of the property which is easily viewable from where you pull in to park your rig. It’s the boneyard that every good mechanic has … half wrecks that they scavenge parts from old ‘dubs and such. It had been … well. simplified. Fewer wrecks, and a big shipping container that wasn’t there before.

I approached the front door behind The Wife™ and entered with trepidation. What I found inside left me absolutely gobsmacked. Every bit of the gorgeous clutter, the (I think) three decades of VW cruft, was absolutely gone. The old fridge, vanished; Herbie had left for parts unknown (or as parts unknown?) and there wasn’t a scrap of Christian evangelism to be found. A pleasantly neat and tidy, rather freshly-painted, workspace was there.

Now, I don’t want to leave the impression that I was unpleased at what I was seeing. By the same logic, I don’t think that a pin-neat mechanic’s shop is necessarily (operative word there) better – or worse – than a cluttered one. As much banal work comes from a clean desk as brilliance comes from a cluttered one, and vice versa. But when something is a certain way, and that thing changes fundamentally, your pins kind of get knocked out of you. And something that was sure, certain and safe has all assumptions revoked. Everything is back in play again.

In some situations, that’s excitement and fun. When it comes to your trusted mechanic, it results in anxiety. It has gone from being a very known quantity to an extremely undefined one. But we had to venture forward you see; the ‘dub’s wipers were broke down, and rain was on the way, so once more unto the breach, and all that.

The first part of negotiating the new territory was the person managing the place, a very pleasant fellow named Daniel. He took us in hand and listened to The Wife™ outline the problem, and filled in the service order. She has always been a better judge of people than I, and the conversation was going rather well (and The Wife™ loves to talk). The conversation went rather well, and Daniel did something that always impresses me in places where guy stuff tends to transact; he talked to her.

I’ve been in similar situations when she tried to transact the business but the concessionaire insisted to address me until I pointedly reminded them that my spouse was in fact the one who was talking. We have not returned to such places.

So here we were starting off on a good foot. And whoever’s playing that sad violin can stop it now. Thenkyew.

The repair cycle gave us much to be reassured of. It went, largely, as it would if Bill were still in the shop, which tells me one important thing: the new owners of Trafton’s VW clearly understand the good will and reputation attached to the name they’ve inherited (and, tellingly, continue to use even though they presumably could have changed the place’s name). They also care about retaining regular customers. I suppose also part of it is that at least one member of the old Team Trafton remained, a VW genius by the name of Marcos. It also helped that Daniel is as VW crazy as the rest of us; his terms of endearment involved letting on that he, too drove a ’72 Beetle … and that he envied me the crisp responsiveness of my stick shift, which is one of the best things about driving that car.

The real test of it was the potential replacing of the wiper motor. Acquiring the new part could have pushed the repair bill into the low $200s, however, once Marcos got his magic hands on the thing and found that it needed just a little adjusting, it went down to the low $140s. And now, I have a working windshield wiper with 2 actual speeds!

That, and a new old auto shop to take the Beetle to.

The surprise was, as Daniel told us, Bill had actually been retired for the last two years but was taking his time to find the right people to sell the business to. Apparently, he’s chosen well.

We can confidently recommend Trafton’s VW to anyone at this point, even since the change of ownership. Sadly, if you go there, you won’t see the VW Museum anymore, it having gone, presumably, with Bill, and you’ve missed meeting Bill himself, who is one of the truly memorable characters I have known.

He did leave me with something, though. Our lodger walked out with one of Bill’s numerous Bibles which he was happy to give. As I became one of the sometimes-regulars around Bill’s shop (he could clearly see I enjoyed hanging about while the ‘dub was worked on) he decided I needed a copy of the Idiot’s Guide. Now, I don’t mean one of those modern Idiot’s Guides to this, that, and the uddah thing. I mean the initially self-published wonder by the VW God, John Muir, How To Keep Your Volkswagen Alive: A Manual of Step-by-Step Procedures for the Compleat Idiot. The edition I was bestowed with was published sometime back in the 80s but my ‘dub is a ’72 so we’re good there.

Even if you don’t ever intend on working on the ‘dub yourself, you need this book and need to read through it so at least you’re a literate classic ‘dub owner, because that’s the only sort of ‘dub owner there should be, and Muir’s late-60s sensibility and the late, great Peter Aschwanden’s astoundingly sweet illustrations will cause you to linger for a very long time anyhow, and you just might get smart enough to work on your own ‘dub, which would get you out of some scrapes and make you self-sufficient, which is excellent per se. 

All of which is a long way of saying Our friend left with a Bible from Bill Trafton and, in a way, so did I. 

And we shall miss Bill. Take him as a man, all in all, for we shall not see his like again. I just wish I’d of had the chance to say g’bye.

Ecclesiastes 3:1 is a very famous verse, you’ve all heard it: To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven. 

I bet Bill Trafton would have given us an amen on that. 


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