HARPSWELL — Calling it a pilgrimage is hardly a stretch.
Every year, customers come from far and wide – driving aging, beloved German vehicles – putt-putt-putting down a dirt and gravel road pocked with potholes to reach the East Coast Mecca for devotees of early Volkswagen automobiles.
Outside Foreign Auto & Supply’s cramped shop, dozens of VW buses of every year, color and stripe are parked in purgatory, awaiting the exacting care of Jon Gagnon and Mike Jordan, who slowly return the struggling buses to better-than-show room condition.
“Often we get whole families to do the drop-off, and the whole family comes to pick it up,” said Jordan, 44. “They’re trusting you with their family member.”
Quietly over the last two decades, FAS Inc., as it is known, has become a hub for high-quality VW bus restorations and engine updates for the classic, recognizable vehicles. A niche of VW bus owners with sentimental attachments and deep pockets has kept Gagnon and Jordan swamped with work, bringing them early bug-eyed and smiling “hippie vans” of the 1960s, to the angular, functional-looking Vanagon and Westfalia models of the 1980s and early 1990s for revival. Services can cost thousands, or tens of thousands of dollars, depending on the scope of the project.
This month, FAS took its first step to establish a toehold in the European market, setting up a permanent relationship with a car parts distributor in England to sell specialized VW parts, which it exports by the container-full.
For the tiny company with five employees, the expansion is a key step toward reaching more customers and growing its connection among vintage Volkswagen aficionados. In two years, the company will move into a 12,000-square-foot facility on the former Brunswick Naval Air Station, a nearly five-fold expansion of space that Gagnon hopes will enhance the company’s work flow and allow it to better serve its customers, who wait up to two years just to drop off their VWs for work.
More than a desire for money or prominence, Gagnon and Jordan see themselves as stewards of the vehicles. While their numbers are dwindling, the vehicles originally drew thousands of converts with their hardy, versatile spirit.
In recent years, the market for classic and restored VW buses has soared, as nostalgic baby boomers have the time and cash to re-invent vehicles of their youth. Auction prices, often used as a barometer of a marque or model’s collectibility, topped out in 2011, when a gray and beige 1963 “Samba” model sold for $217,800, according to published news accounts.
Although FAS will take on jobs as small as a tune-up, repair bills can quickly soar. An engine and transmission replacement can easily cost thousands, while a full restoration and overhaul can reach $90,000 to $100,000. Still, die-hard VW bus owners line up, and at any given time, FAS has about seven vehicles at some point in the restoration process.
Although importation of the Vanagon in the United States ceased in 1992, VW buses remained in production in other countries, virtually unchanged, until 2009 and December 2013, when the last two remaining VW bus factories in South Africa and in Brazil, respectively, stopped production of the older models. The closures marked the end of a nearly uninterrupted production run that began in 1950.
Although more than 10 million were produced in that time, only 669 VW buses remained registered in Maine as of December 2013, according to the Maine Bureau of Motor Vehicles.
“In this industry, parts by the day evaporate like species on the planet,” said Gagnon. “With a niche this size, we’re only one of five (companies) in North America that does exactly what we do, we have to be everything to everyone.”
For years, Gagnon fostered relationships with parts suppliers and distributors all over the world to keep his supply shelves stocked. As demand increased or his customers’ specific requirements changed, Gagnon began commissioning bespoke replacement parts, often machined out of solid aluminum instead of molded from plastic.
One of FAS’s staple services is replacing the puny, 90-horsepower, air-cooled factory engine with a much more modern version, equipped with such luxuries as turbochargers and electronic fuel injection, increasing not only horsepower but fuel efficiency and engine longevity.
To make the updates feasible, Gagnon sees himself as a “facilitator” who brings years of knowledge and diverse relationships to complete a customer’s request.
Between 1999 and 2009, the company installed 3,500 of the updated, in-line four-cylinder engines, until the factory in South Africa that made the motors closed down.
Now, he installs 2013 engines in the same 1980s-era Vanagons, giving new life to an old shell.
One quirk of mating old with new is that the modern engines don’t easily fit in the cramped compartment at the rear of the buses, forcing Gagnon to tilt the motor at a 50-degree angle.
When the company moved from a Bath Road facility to the new shop behind Gagnon’s home in 2000, Gagnon said the restoration business ramped up significantly. After only a couple of months in the 2,100-square-foot shop, they were already running out of space.
The new facility at Brunswick Landing will expand their capacity from two working bays to a dozen, and bring some of the paint and body shop work on site, instead of farming that work to other businesses. He also plans to install an engine laboratory, where Gagnon and Jordan can tinker with engine designs and push a motor to its limits inside a controlled environment.
While FAS has performed some of this engine research and development, the work has been done off-site, and at great cost.
“If you’re taking 2013 technology and putting it in something that rides like a wheel barrow, it has to be a clean marriage,” said Gagnon. “Research and development is a lot of money, and that’s probably what’s held us back from being a heavier hitter than we appear to be.”
FAS’s reputation is built on a meticulous attention to detail, and perhaps even more importantly, the ability to preserve the spirit of early VWs while adding technological advantages of modern vehicles. Mating ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s engineering with the newest engine and vehicle management software is sometimes the trickiest, considering the attachment people have to the way these cars feel to drive.
That attachment to the experience of owning and driving a classic VW bus is part of what keeps Gagnon and Jordan in their tiny niche of a business.
“Mike and I are talented guys, we could be doing something else,” Gagnon said. “But with these vehicles, its truly a unique experience.”
Staff Writer Matt Byrne can be reached at 791-6303, or at: