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A VW with 'Spirit'

Vintage Alaska Airlines truck restored; icon of perseverance hits the road again

The VW truck first spotted at a Tampa beach. (Aug. 2010)

The VW truck first spotted at a Tampa beach. (Aug. 2010)

PHOTOS: Alaska Airlines

With more than half a century on the road, a 1960 Volkswagen Transporter truck is back in service for Alaska Airlines—40 years after it was part of the carrier's ground fleet in Fairbanks, Alaska. In a company-wide naming contest, employees christened the sturdy little truck the "Alaska Airlines Spirit Wagon," which will be used for parades and special events.

Symbolic of the airline's steely determination and can-do attitude, the Spirit Wagon underwent a makeover recently after years of traveling from Germany to Delaware, Alaska, Washington, Michigan and Florida before returning to the Pacific Northwest.

Alaska Airlines Line Maintenance Supervisor Todd Hess spotted the truck parked on a beach with the faded vintage logo of Alaska Airlines while he was vacationing in Tampa, Fla., in the summer of 2010. Hess took a photo and approached its owner, but never got a phone number.

Back in Seattle, Hess showed the photo to Maintenance Supervisor Kevin James, a car aficionado and restorer, who immediately wanted the vehicle for himself. Using a Volkswagen fan website, he was able to locate the Alaska truck. James then asked the airline's Marketing Department if they'd be interested in using the truck if he bought it. Not only did Alaska want to use the truck, the company was willing to buy it. They sent James to Florida to pick it up (purchase price: $8,500) and gave him a $4,000 budget for restoration.


After more than 50 years on the road, the "Spirit Wagon" returns to work in Seattle. (June 2012)

 

After a thorough cleaning, James had the truck's faded lettering outlined and its exterior buffed. He sandblasted and repainted the wheels himself and found period-correct bumpers to replace the rusted ones. New brakes and running gear were also installed, after which the truck was ready to drive.

James and his co-workers decided against a full exterior makeover. Not only would it cost about ten times the allotted budget, James says many people thought the truck should retain its rustic exterior. Accomplishing most of these renovations on his own time, James says the truck now runs well, reaching speeds up to 60 mph.

"I was drawn to the Volkswagen because I had previously restored a Bug and loved that car," he says. "I've had many cars that I've brought back from the brink of death and made great cars again. It's a great feeling to hear people say how much they love something that you've worked so hard on."

Records show that Alaska's truck arrived in Delaware in 1960 from Germany. It is estimated to have been used in Fairbanks as early as 1968 as one the airline's five company trucks at the time.

After posting a photo of the truck on its Facebook page, the truck's former owner from Battle Ground, Wash., contacted Alaska Airlines. He was able to confirm much of the car's history, adding that he had pulled a generator out of it that was once used to recharge planes on the tarmac.


The newly restored Spirit Wagon at the Seattle Pride Parade (June 2012)

 

Since its restoration, the Spirit Wagon has been featured in the Bellingham Ski-to-Sea Parade, the Portland Rose Festival's Starlight and Grand Floral parades, and the Seattle Pride Parade. During the Starlight Parade, the truck bed was filled with 1,000 Alaska Airlines pilot hats for children. Upcoming events for the classic truck include the Seafair Torchlight Parade


"I think people will love it," James says.

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