One of our most recent inductees into the National Historic Vehicle Register is different from any vehicle we have worked with in the past. The 1966 Volkswagen Type 2 Deluxe Station Wagon owned by Esau and Janie B. Jenkins is no showroom queen. The “Jenkins VW” hasn’t been kept in a climate-controlled garage where it’s been meticulously polished before being trailered to its next Concours event. Instead, this vehicle has taken the brunt of South Carolina weather for the last 40 years.
Esau Jenkins, an early Civil Rights pioneer in South Carolina, used this VW as his iconic daily driver during his efforts to provide opportunities, and hope, to marginalized communities throughout the American south. In Esau’s and Janie B. Jenkins’ lifetimes, they purchased buses to transport children to school and workers to jobs, taught adult passengers how to read in order to pass literacy exams to become registered voters, and founded the Community Owned Federal Credit Union to further the economic advancement of their community through low-interest loans to purchase homes and business. The most notable of Esau & Janie B. Jenkins accomplishments was their founding of The Progressive Club, a co-op started in 1948 that housed a grocery store, gas station, day care, and classroom space for community workshops which Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. attended, and served as the model for citizenship schools established throughout the south to teach literacy and political education.
After Esau Jenkins’ passing in October of 1972, his VW was parked and eventually moved to the backyard of the Jenkins family house during an expansion. The family was unwilling to let go of Esau’s VW and the memories they made with it, but unfortunately, life got in the way and the VW sat dormant in the family’s backyard for several decades.
Extracting the Jenkins VW
The Jenkins VW as it sat in the backyard of the Jenkins family home
In March of 2019, the HVA team travelled to John’s Island, SC to unearth the Jenkins VW in order for it to be stabilized and documented for the National Historic Vehicle Register. After enduring the harsh South Carolina climate of salty air, high humidity, and fierce storms throughout its life, the VW had taken its fair share of damage. Rust had eaten into much of the body, the A and B pillars had collapsed, the passenger front door had fallen off, and the wheels were sunken into the ground. The VW needed to be freed and it was set to be no easy task.
Armed with shovels, a MIG welder, a winch, and determination, the HVA Team (with help from the Jenkins family, Progressive Club member Joe Boykin, Keith Flickinger, and more) set out to free the VW from its long-term resting place. The initial steps of unearthing the VW required us to dig up all of the wheel and suspension components that had been reclaimed by the Earth, but as we dug it out of the ground, we found two glass bottles underneath the front suspension. It turned out that those glass bottles had supported the VW from sinking even further into the ground during its 40 years in the Jenkins’ family backyard and made our job much easier.
(Left) The HVA team changing the out the tires on the Jenkins VW.
(Right) Eldrina Jones, Esau’s Granddaughter, admiring the bus during the extraction
As the process of freeing the VW went on, we had to weld several support structures of angle iron to provide greater structural rigidity and switch out the dry rotted wheels for ones that could support the vehicle and hold air. Surprisingly, only two of the wheels were frozen while the others were able to roll, making the eventual towing process much smoother.
After the VW was dug out of the dirt, the angle iron structures tack welded in place, and the new wheels fitted, the moment of truth had arrived for us to attempt to move the vehicle. We originally had the fear that the VW might break apart into pieces due to the rust when the force of the tow-winch was applied, but amazingly the it moved rather easily out of its spot in one solid piece (thanks in part to the plywood sheets under the frozen tires to help it glide across the grass).
Full timelapse of the Jenkins VW excavation
It took over five hours to free the VW from the ground it had sunken into, weld supports so the vehicle was structurally stable, and tow it onto a trailer for transport. The initial steps towards preserving this piece of American history were complete and now it was off to our National Laboratory for documentation and further stabilization efforts.
Documentation and Stabilization
The Jenkins VW as it arrived to the HVA National Laboratory
Once the VW had completed the journey from Johns Island, SC to our National Laboratory in Allentown, PA, the documentation process could begin. Since the VW would be going through several stages of stabilization and conservation efforts, we wanted to document every step along the way to showcase the efforts and ingenuity that go into preserving a piece of history such as this vehicle.
After the VW was photographed for its National Historic Vehicle Register profile (a process in which we must fully document a vehicle for its induction into the Library of Congress), it was passed on to the experts of Precision Motor Cars at the NB Center for American Automotive Heritage. This full-time team of experts on automotive restoration and preservation took the Jenkins VW into their hands to get the it into rolling condition and to craft a way to support the car for future showings.
Ted Garrison of the NB Center for American Automotive Heritage frees the stuck brake shoes on the Jenkins VW
After an initial inspection of the state of the VW, the NB Center team decided to craft a covert, tube-frame support system that would allow the vehicle to be displayed in its full form without damaging or impacting its appearance. However, in order to accomplish this, several aspects of the VW had to be corrected for it to appear in proper condition.
To start, the angle iron frame installed during the excavation process needed to be removed so that Jeff Theis, fabricator at the NB Center for American Automotive Heritage, could have a clean slate to work with on the bus. In order to support the vehicle as it was worked on, the crew put the VW on jack stands and suspended the front of the vehicle with an engine hoist so that there would be little force exerted on its structurally unsound components. The next step was to correct the front passenger side of the VW, which had caved inward slightly with the degradation of the A-pillar, requiring the front face of the vehicle to be pulled outward. This was necessary for the frame to be in the proper resting position to fit the passenger side front door back in place.
The Jenkins VW as its tube-frame support was created and fitted at the NB Center for American Automotive Heritage
After the front face had been put into place and repaired the damaged pillars, Theis began crafting a custom-made tube-frame to provide structural support and work as a holding/display rack for the doors that had rusted off of their hinges. The tube-frame system was able to be implemented onto the VW through a special bracket system that allowed it to be attached without welding it to the frame as to preserve the originality of the VW if it ever is needed to be removed.
The efforts of the team at the NB Center for American Automotive Heritage now allow for the Jenkins VW to be transported and displayed as a single structural piece with bracket-attachable doors. With its structural stability secured, the VW was now ready for the final step in the process: Conservation and Clean up.
After the completion of the new tube-frame support system, the VW was sent out to BR Howard & Associates, Inc. (a leading conservation organization specializing in artifact preservation) in order to prevent further deterioration of the VW and prepare it for presentation on the National Mall.
In order to deal with the large amount of biological matter that has grown on the VW, the team at BR Howard & Associates have employed the use of a programmable misting system to kill the biological growth without causing additional corrosion to the vehicle. This process, which is typically used to clean historic masonry or building exteriors, was modified to work with the VW alongside dehumidifiers and fans to keep the humidity from rising too high during the process. This concoction of ammines and surfactants being misted onto the VW has removed large amounts of staining, biological growth, and surface rust, which has revealed much of the original paint throughout the vehicle and restored a vast amount of its original vibrance.
The Jenkins VW during conservation efforts by BR Howard & Associates
The conservation of the Jenkins VW is still an ongoing effort as BR Howard & Associates carefully work to properly conserve the VW for the future. The completed conservation of the VW will be unveiled for the first time to the public during the fifth annual Cars at the Capital this September when the VW is on display on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. from September 20-27th. Don’t miss your chance to see this incredible piece of American history displayed in the nation’s capital along with the Alan Bean Apollo XII Corvette as this year’s entrants into the National Historic Vehicle Register.
We would like to give a special thanks to BR Howard& Associates and The NB Center for American Automotive Heritage for their continued support and contributions throughout the process of preserving the Jenkins VW. The ability to share this important artifact in American history would not be possible without them. Be sure to check out their social media pages to keep up to date on everything on sharing and conserving America’s important historical artifacts.
BR Howard & Associates, Inc.
NB Center for American Automotive Heritage