EAST MANATEE -- Forgive the confusion caused by more than 200 old Volkswagens parked in the Publix Super Market at Lakewood Ranch Boulevard and State Road 64 Sunday morning.
Was this a real club, an old car auction or a scene from an upcoming movie about hippies in the 1960s?
Sure enough, this was 17th annual "VWs Over the Skyway," which attracted the VW aficianados to caravan over the Sunshine Skyway Bridge.
Unlike showy sports cars such as Corvettes or Mustangs, which regularly are carefully driven or hauled to parking lots for club events, none of these Volkswagen Beetles, Westfalia vans , Karmann Ghias and other assorted automotive creations bearing VW motors came via trailer.
Most roared in gasping and gulping and nearly all wore dings, dents and rust from years of grinding use.
Just a few were restored and spit-polished to a high gloss.
Proud of the rust
Unlike some show cars whose owners spend time when they arrive at a car event applying detail spray and wax, VW owners are proud of the rust, dents and dings on their cars, many owners said.
They leave the rags at home and instead bring lunch tables, pet dogs, children, footballs and skateboards.
"To a vintage Volkswagen owner, rust is 'patina,'" said Scott "The Bug
Farmer" Bowers of New York who buys and sells VWs.
"We like to use our cars," said Orlando's Darren Yeagley, owner of a sweet 1969 VW van.
"Many are daily drivers," Yeagley said. "Part of the magic is that you can still buy parts for a VW and it's not hard to pop out the engine and fix it yourself. Another good thing is that they can do 55 or 60 mph and get 20 miles per gallon."
"I have noticed that VW people like to get their families together and party, but the next morning they clean up the environment so they don't leave a speck," said Rick Mock of Bradenton, who owns a cherry 1972 Beetle. "They are party-lovers and environmentalists at the same time."
VW lovers daily scan a website called TheSamba.com to buy and sell cars and get parts, Mock said.
Renewed VW popularity
Old VWs have become popular to Americans because they are still cheap transportation, and many American families owned one in the 1960s and 1970s so there is a nostalgic connection, said Bradenton's Ian Kogel.
Kogel , a deputy with the Manatee County Sheriff's Office, owns a pristine 1958 purple Beetle he brought over from England, complete with steering wheel on the right-hand side.
"My first car was a VW," Kogel said. "My parents had VWs. So VWs bring back memories and memories keep you young."
At roughly $2,000 per Bug in the 1960s, these air-cooled gems found space in many American garages as an affordable alternative to the gas guzzlers popular at the time.
"People bought them because they would hum right along and were tight and dependable," said Mock, who bought his wife a once-yellow '72. It was born automatic, Mock said, but has since become a manual transmission so it can cruise above 55 mph on the highway.
Bowers said fancier VW buses -- the hottest VWs to buy right now -- can go for $16,000 for just a rusted-out shell. A fully accessorized and restored model can exceed $100,000.
That's a long way from the VW's humble beginnings as a bargain ride. A typical VW bus cost perhaps $2,300 in the 1960s, Bowers said.
"Today you can generally buy yourself an old VW bug or van for $1,500 to $15,000 depending on how turn-key you want it," Yeagley said.
The retro trend today is not to worry about imperfections.
"A new trend is to sand the cars down to bare metal, remove the bondo and leave the rust and dents visible under a clear-coat so people can see what all the years have wrought," Yeagley said. "Each car here tells a life story. We VW owners are all about life stories and adventures."
When the U.S. government forced VW to add more pollution controls to the little air-cooled engines, VW couldn't efficiently do it, Mock said
"The Beetles became more and more complicated and pricey and eventually just faded away, replaced by the Rabbit," Mock said.
For some, a VW offers an eco-friendly and reasonable way to drive all over the world.
Jim and Barbara Miller have been "full-time cruising" in their 1982 VW Westfalia pop-up camper van the last 15 years.
Miller's driver's license gives his address as "82 Volks." He does all the cooking while Barbara navigates.
They have driven their VW through Mexico, Guatemala , El Salvador , Costa Rica , Honduras and the Yukon, just to give a small sampling of their travels.
"I'm about 74 and, if I can stay on the road till I am 80, we will find a little lot and settle down," Jim Miller said.
Barbara Miller recalls seeing beautiful tropical birds in Costa Rica while lying in a hammock near the VW. Miller, like many VW owners, carries spare parts and is often fixing the VW as Barbara is enjoying the birds.
If you are going to get into the VW hobby, it helps to be willing to rebuild a motor, Jim Miller said.