My eye had first been caught by a two-tone 1962 pickup truck version of the T1 VW Bus. Resting in a bed of dead weeds, it resided in a distant field far below my rural mountain road vantage point. However, while the iconic VW held my primary interest, my inability to identify the pair of battered Porsche-like sports cars accompanying the VW on that overgrown field began to gnaw at me.
I had to go back for the story. Little did I know the extent of the story that awaited me.
Mr. Thomas’s forest of old Porsches, VW buses and more
My determination took me down to the base of the steep slope in search of answers and access to the, apparently, once loved but now forlorn trio. I snaked my way along a narrow descending dirt road that brought the field closer. Arriving at a rustic country home, I sought someone capable of answering the question ”what’s the story behind the orphans in the field?”
Met by a pleasant woman with a phone to her ear, I explained my interest in abandoned classic vehicles for a Drivin’ News story. She forthrightly explained that her husband owned the cars and he would have all the answers to any questions I might have. She directed her attention to the phone and then back to me. He would be waiting in their large hay field down the road, she explained.
As I rumbled down the dusty gravel access road that traversed the hay field, a moldering but quite complete 1963 Buick Riviera and a distressed T2 VW van came into view. I sensed that there would be much more to the story than I had anticipated.
There waiting to greet me, stood master stone mason Cameron Thomas. A slender wiry man who, though in his late 70s, possessed a handshake like a leather skinned vice that left no doubt that he remained quite active in the day to day operation of his stone business. With a ready smile, a quick wit and an easy southern accent, Cameron said, “My wife tells me you have an interest in cars.” Then, with a friendly gesture he directed me toward a wide path into the nearby forest. Cameron said, “You might find this interesting.” Interesting indeed.
We turned our backs to the Riviera and VW van, both left for later discussion and moved into the woods on a single lane width trail. Early on, the view through the leafless trees of a forest in winter showed glimpses of shapes and colors that hinted at what awaited. Shortly thereafter, the path widened to reveal my first glimpse of multiple clearings where an eclectic array of vehicles possessing a heavy German accent lay strewn about the landscape.
Porsches of numerous flavors, VW Westfalias, Beetles, and Rabbits together with a sprinkling of British sports cars and a stray Jeep, all in various states of disrepair and degeneration populated the woodscape.
Staring at this assemblage, it appeared to be the land where air-cooled and German vehicles came to die.
Cameron explained that he began amassing his collection of over sixty automobiles about 50 years ago. Back then in his 20s he had formulated a retirement plan that called for accumulating desirable automobiles with the intention of building a workshop where, when he had the time, he would refurbish the cars and sell them.
Cameron admits to being partial to air-cooled German cars. He says, “ The air-cooled stuff was more of what I was looking for. My interest kind of transformed into a hobby.”
Many of the cars came to Cameron in good or at least running condition. So what happened? When asked the 64 thousand dollar question “why were they left outside,” Cameron says, “With the demands of my business, I never got around to building the workshop and we were too busy buying to do any selling. If a car experienced a problem, there always was a place for it in the woods.” With Cameron owning a large expanse of fields and woodlands there clearly existed an element of out of sight out of mind.
Entering the opening in the woods a battered 1972 Type 2 VW Westfalia greets us. Cameron explains that he purchased it and together with his son Jon refurbished it for Jon’s high school transportation. Leaving school one winter day Jon fired up the Westfalia and without letting it warm up made a dash to leave the school parking lot in front of a school bus that was descending from a good way up a hill. Cameron says, “My son made his move and made it to the middle of the road when the cold engine stalled. After leaving a 70-foot skid mark the bus T-boned the VW on the driver’s side.” The energy of impact delivered a blow sufficient to deposit some of the chrome letters from the hood of the bus onto the VW’s front seat. As for his son, he walked away with a few bruises. Lucky kid.
Next to the Westfalia a 1984 928 Porsche, one of two Cameron has accumulated, had a history of outrunning the local Corvettes. Cameron says, “It had a good bit of work done on the engine.” Cameron drove it for a year or so around 2005. In thinking back he says, “I can’t really think of a good excuse for parking it in 2007.”
Behind the 928 can be found the T2 Westfalia that Cameron bought right after his son’s accident. He says it was a good driver, that it was pretty much complete, including the original interior, when he bought it in 1980. It has sat unmoved in the woods since Cameron bought it.
Moving to our right brought us to another Werstfalia. Camerson acquired it in 2000 and except for winters drove it fairly regularly. Then after sitting for the winter of early 2005, he sought to fire it up in the spring of 2005. The engine locked up. Banishment to the woods quickly followed. On the plus side it remains a Westfalia with a solid and an original interior. On the down side, some windows are broken or gone and it features first class spider webs.
At this point evidence of a clear pattern has taken shape. It appears any vehicle that suffers failure merits banishment to the Cameron Thomas forest trail.
The fate of Cameron’s five 944 Porsches gives strong substantiation to the one strike and your out in the woods theory.
Arrayed in a neat row of five 944s, the first and last in line rated as good drivers when purchased. Others came from junkyards or the garages of people who had given up on their restoration.
One of the 944s had jumped the camshaft and bent all of the valves. Cameron and friends removed the head and reassembled the engine. When they fired it up as Cameron says, “It started screeching like a banshee and that was that. We must have missed a bent part in our rebuild.”
Upon returning to the hay field, I asked about the Buick Riviera. Purchased in the early 1970s, Cameron says, “It was in good unrestored condition and a fine driving vehicle. Up until he had bought it the Buick had never spent a night outside of the garage.
What happened? Apparently that Buick had a two-piece drive shaft with a center U-joint. The U-joint went bad. Cameron says, “At the time I had a great deal of difficulty finding a replacement. By the time I found one my interest in the Riviera had passed.” The Riviera has sat ever since.
As we approached the end of the abandoned car trail of tears a 1963 Willy’s Jeep came into view. Cameron had come found it in Florida years back and trailered it back to Virginia. It has spent considerable time in the woods. Cameron says, “It is solid with less than fifty thousand miles on it.”
And at last we come to the trio that initially captured my attention. The two sports cars left for dead in the field are two Chalon rebodied 1972 914 Porsches. The brainchild of a California parts distributor, the Chalon kit imparted a 914 with a more aggressive slant nose presence.
The engines in Cameron’s two Chalon 914s remain 4-cylinder but brakes and suspension components reflect significant upgrades. Both cars ran strong when purchased and Cameron drove both with pleasure until the large tree fell crushing both.
Interestingly the most functional and except for his 1941 International military truck the oldest in Cameron’s collection is his 1962 T1 VW pickup. Purchased in 1985 the pickup features a 1600 cc beetle engine, upgraded brakes and a later transmission. Unlike its brethren in Cameron’s collection, with current antique vehicle tags, this VW stands poised to hit the road.
In honest reflection Cameron realizes his retirement plan, like a garden untended, took on a life of its own. He admits that he didn’t appreciate how much the cars would deteriorate over time.
Now what? At this point Cameron says, “My son has made it clear that he does not want to live on a junk yard. He would like to see everything gone except the orange VW Westfalia we purchased to replace the one T-boned by the school bus.” Cameron acknowledges that there will be some head butting between he and his son on the issue. Cameron also accepts reality, saying “I accept that they need to go. I’m not going to live long enough to work on them all now.” Of the sixty he accumulated he has sold twenty. He says all are available. Anyone with a serious interest can contact him by email (firstname.lastname@example.org). When asked if he could only restore one of his cars which would he choose, interestingly he chooses the 1963 Willys Jeep. He says, “It is solid and simple which translates into an ideal candidate for refurbishing.”
Having seen a lot in his 78 years, Cameron in his easy southern way and with a reflective knowing smile says, “Time takes its toll. It comes along slow, but it is always coming.”
Wow would love to take a walk in those woods. Incredible cars, but I’d agree they need to be sold before there’s nothing left to sell.
You should email in and plan a trip:)
Burton , As you know, there are many talented people coast to coast who can turn the trail of tears into
wicked air cooled rat rods. Hopefully for he and his family potential byers will see this and visit the auto farmstand.
He has some really interesting stuff in serious need of some love. I hope some talented dedicated people step to the plate.
This fella reminds me of a guy by me in Oregon, dead now. He would buy anything, cars, boats, houses to name just a few . He would move them to his property and never touch them again . I would contact him occasionally to inquire about buying the cars but always got the same response NO. He eventually died and I bought the majority of the interesting cars. One was a 1954 Hudson Hornet, Twin H and all.
That sounds really interesting. Congratulations on your determination.
Great story burt.hope we can meet this spring/summer, so you can see my
I look forward to seeing your Barracuda.
What a wild collection and a great story, Burton! Yet another (virtual) page-turner. Kudos!
It really is a wild collection and a great man who assembled it.