An older article that has been getting a lot of page views lately. It’s time for another moment in the spotlight. -ES
Perhaps one of the most frustrating experiences a vintage car buff can have is not being able to locate necessary parts. As you’ve worked on your “second love” Volkswagen, invariably you’ve run against the brick wall of “that part is no longer available”! “What??? Now what am I going to do?” That’s probably putting it mildly. In my more than 36 year experience with VWs, I’ve had this problem hundreds of times. My two children and I made a regular habit of visiting salvage yards in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. Then, things changed. Government restrictions began making things difficult for the salvage people. Yards were moved or closed. But, don’t give up! There still are some salvage yards located around the Country. Here’s the unique story of one salvage yard oasis; Don’s Bug Barn. As told by Dustin Carter, Don’s son.
How did you get all of this!?!
I have answered this question many times. My answer of “It is my father’s 36 year collection” never seems to satisfy.
Okay? But… but how did you get all this?
I tell the story, which always elicits smiles, that since we are in Texas, it is not uncommon that our story begins with horse-trading. In 1974, my father, Don Carter, got his first Volkswagen from my grandfather, who traded a horse for a dune buggy. My grandfather had no use for the buggy and offered it to my father, who accepted, thus beginning the story of Don’s Bug Barn. Growing up, my father always was a car guy, and throughout the years he acquired all types of American iron and muscle cars. But Volkswagens became his ultimate love.
Once my father started working on the buggy, he realized that it was missing the carburetor. In true Don Carter style, instead of purchasing one part, he bought a Volkswagen Beetle, complete with an engine, for the cost of the carburetor. From there, one Bug led to another, and another, and so on. His first Bug was a 1959 Semaphore Beetle, which we still own. He says he was drawn to the simple, yet sophisticated engineering of a VW. He also liked being able to work comfortably on the engine, while having the ability to pull and reinstall an engine by himself. It did not hurt that VWs also were an affordable hobby at that time.
My father is a collector of things, and when he becomes interested in something, let’s just say he is hooked. To this day, when asked, he is not able to pinpoint the exact reason he built the Bug Barn; other than that he needed a place to work on his VWs. He purchased land from my grandmother, and the foundation for the main shop was poured in 1977, with the help of friends and family. It was also around this time that my father made his first appearances on the local VW racing scene. He had been involved with drag racing for years, so racing VWs was only natural. The Bug Barn owns two VW race cars, a ’61 Ghia and a “slightly” modified chop-top ’67 Beetle, both of which my father named “The Bad Habits.” His hopes were to run the Bug Barn as a repair/parts shop in order to fund his racing.
With his shop operating full time, and weekends spent racing, my father was living his dream. When in 1979 he became a father, my grandmother and mother told him to “get a real job”. It was at this point that my father took a job with the State as a social worker. But that did not slow progress at the Bug Barn. Since my father’s weekdays were spent working at his “real” job, he hired people to run the Bug Barn for him. Through the ‘80s till the mid ‘90s, the Bug Barn flourished. Several excellent VW mechanics operated the business while my father was working. During this time, my father never stopped purchasing VW cars and parts. On the original Bug Barn business card it read: “I buy VWs any condition”. My father had the forethought to know that even a totaled VW still had good parts. He also realized the importance of one-year-only parts, which is why he regards the ’67 Beetle as the best year built. Over the years he bought several ’67 Bugs; we still have 15 of them today.
Growing up, I did not know anything other than Volkswagens. Both of my parents drove Volkswagens, and on the weekends, if we were not buying VWs, we were camping in one or were at the races. My father’s hobby had turned into a successful business. However, the good times could not last forever. Around 1993-94, the Bug Barn lost one mechanic to cancer and another decided to return to college for a career change. This turned the shop back into a weekend-only operation. During this time business slowed. It was only my father and I running things, and with him working all week and me still in high school, neither of us had as much time as we would have liked to devote to the business.
In 2002, when I left home to attend college in Louisiana, things stopped almost completely at the Bug Barn . At this point my father was retired, but his health was declining and his time spent on VWs became less and less. While he battled both throat and colon cancer, the hustle and bustle that used to occur at the Bug Barn stopped altogether. As my father was recovering, my grandmother became sick, putting him in the role of caregiver. I visited as often as I could, and every time I left town I would pass the Bug Barn, sitting there abandoned. It would make my heart sink. My life at this time, though, revolved around college and trying to establish my own career as a professional chef. Sadly, this kept me far from the Bug Barn.
After graduating from college, I worked in several fine dining restaurants in New Orleans, and then moved to help open a restaurant in South Carolina. My grandmother’s health was poor, and the toll of taking care of her, combined with his own health issues, began to affect my father. Nothing was happening with the Bug Barn and each passing year saw more tree and brush growth overtaking the VWs. While I was in South Carolina my father was hospitalized with an awful case of pneumonia. I rushed back to Texas to be with him. After two weeks he finally was able to return home and I returned to my own life in South Carolina. Only a few months passed and he once again was admitted with pneumonia even worse than before. This time I was unable to leave work to be with him, which was extremely hard for me.
I struggled with deciding what to do. With my dad’s health questionable at best, my grandmother’s prognosis not improving, and being my father’s only remaining family, I felt I had a responsibility. Not only did I want to be with my family, but there always was the question in the back of my mind of what should be done with the Bug Barn. My wife, Cassie, and I discussed moving back to Texas. The choice was ultimately decided when the chef I was working for sold the restaurant, giving us the perfect opportunity to move.
With a U-Haul full of our belongings and three cats, Cassie and I returned to Texas in February, 2009. The original plan was that we would clean up the Bug Barn and sell everything within six months. Our time frame however was a little off. As we started the process we realized that it was going to take longer than just six months. The clean-up began with only a small tractor, but with 316 cars on two acres of land, the tractor proved inefficient. We quickly graduated to a backhoe and a forklift; overnight I became a heavy equipment operator. To organize, we had to keep shuffling cars from one spot to another to make them all fit. After many long hours and months of work we began to see progress, but at this point we still had not even opened the doors to the shop. Finally, with some order to the cars outside, we braved entering the shop and the two other buildings on the property. These buildings had not been used in over 14 years; they had been used to warehouse all of the engines, miscellaneous spare parts and the race cars. There literally was no walking room. They were full front to back with VW parts stacked everywhere imaginable. With the help of fellow VW enthusiasts and dear friends, Paul and Elaine Dill, after long hours and days of sorting and moving, we began seeing some small areas of organization take shape. To this day we are still trying to finish organizing, but we have come a long way since that first day.
My plan never was to re-open the Bug Barn. In fact, I had no idea of the state of the classic Volkswagen market at the time I moved back. I was not sure if there was a need for parts or if the hobby was still alive-and-well in Texas. Boy was I in for an education! The classic Volkswagen World was indeed alive-and-well, and people needed original parts now more than ever. There’s so many people today shopping antique vehicles, and shipping them all over the globe.
Unlike when my father started his business, I had the advantage of the web, craigslist, and more specifically, TheSamba became our salvation. Then word started to spread that something was happening at the “VW Bone Yard” in Athens, Texas. People had all sorts of stories about why it was being cleaned up. Several people came out in the beginning and offered condolences to me on the death of my father; others had stories of the property being sold and siblings fighting over the will. With each story, I just smiled and corrected them, telling them that my father was still alive and that I had no siblings to fight with, and that we were just cleaning things in order to sell cars. People were shocked that after so many years something was being done; cars were being moved and someone actually answered the phone when you called. It was at this point, with the growing curiosity of the place, and the looming task of continuing clean-up, that we decided to stay at least a year to finish things. That year became two, and then three, and here we are on year four, running a business we had no intention of starting.
The demand for VW parts still amazes me. Now with the web, at least 40% of our customers are located outside the U.S. The first time we shipped parts to California, I laughed, because my dad used to order parts from California. Perhaps the biggest surprise for me came with our first shipment to Germany. Of all places, I never dreamed that our parts would be going back to their homeland.
The VW community in the Dallas area has been very valuable to our business. Many people who had tried for years to come to the Bug Barn were eager to finally get the chance when we re-opened. Now locals can come to look around all day, and in Texas the term “local” covers anyone within 200 miles. VW clubs enjoy planning day trips to come out to have a pick-and-pull. Groups from all over Texas and Louisiana have visited the Bug Barn. I try to stay active in the local VW community, and attend as many shows as possible.
Without the help of fellow VW enthusiasts we would not be as successful as we are now. One such enthusiast who has been a great asset to our business is Jay Salser. Once Jay learned what we were doing at the Bug Barn, he championed our efforts and has become our honorary public relations representative. He has helped and supported us while also becoming a very dear friend. Another person who has aided us from the beginning is Larry Moore. Larry and my father have been friends for over 30 years. Mr. Moore is extremely knowledgeable when it comes to the Texas VW scene. In fact, Larry was the one who put us in touch with Jay.
These days my dad’s health is stable, for which we are very thankful. We may not buy VWs every weekend as he used to, but that has not stopped me from picking up a good deal when I find one. The business has no employees other than Cassie and myself. Cassie handles the Online ads, sales, shipping and, most importantly, keeps me organized. I spend hours each day talking with VW people while still working at the task of organizing cars, pulling parts, and doing my best to get people what they need to keep their VWs on the road. Although this is not the career I had envisioned, I really enjoy what I am doing; I am proud of the unexpected business we brought back. Perhaps my proudest moment so far, though, came when my dad recently brought me a new business card which reads “We buy VWs any condition.”
Thanks, Don’s Bug Barn, for sharing your story with 1967beetle.com.