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Rick St. John

Payson father, son restore 23-window sunroof deluxe Volkswagen bus

By Wes Mangum, KSL.com Contributor | Posted - Apr. 26, 2018 at 4:01 p.m.


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Editor's note: This is part of a series at KSL.com featuring some of Utah's coolest cars. If you own a customized vehicle — from sports cars to semitrucks — email fjolley@ksl.com with a photo of the vehicle and a brief description for consideration.PAYSON — When Rick St. John purchased his self-described “rusty old shell of a Volkswagen” back in 2000, his friends didn’t think much of it.

After seeing a picture of a 1961 Volkswagen 23-window sunroof deluxe bus in a car magazine, St. John fell in love. He came across the chance to purchase a cheap one in Reno, Nevada, and jumped at the opportunity. St. John set out across the desert with a trailer and $4,500 and came back with the rusted-out shell of a vehicle. By the time the 19-year-old returned home, it was past nightfall so he didn’t get to show off his new purchase until the next day.

His friends seemed more confused than amused by the old piece of German engineering. It was the same question, posed over and over by each doubtful friend—“Why would you spend all of your money on a rusted out Volkswagen that doesn’t even run?”

St. John had one person on his side, though. His father, James, believed in the Volkswagen, and more importantly, in his own abilities combined with his son’s dream of restoring the unique bus.

“He put his arm around me, like dads tend to do,” Rick St. John recalled of that day. “He told me, ‘I’ll help you get this thing going. I’m going to help you fix this.’”

Rick St. John embarked on a two-year LDS mission shortly thereafter. While he was gone, his father set about slowly, but surely, gathering all of the necessary pieces to restore the Volkswagen.

When St. John returned home, it took five years of working together to complete the rebuild. It wasn’t easy. The end result, though, is a thing to behold. St. John and his father completed a full rebuild of the ’61 23-window sunroof deluxe (also referred to as a Samba). They restored every single detail in the Samba, from the smallest of nuts and bolts right down to its chrome coat-hanger hooks.

“The most fun part, and my favorite part about this vehicle, is the time that I spent with my dad on it,” St. John said. “Not many people get that chance, to spend that much time with their dad. Working with him on a project like this was so much fun.”

The only thing that the duo didn’t do themselves was the paint job—they sent it off to a professional, where it was treated and coated with the exact paint color that it sported on the day that it came off the car lot. The soft white-and-red bus is a picture of hippie style, and a unique one at that.

The ’61 Volkswagen is one of a kind. St. John estimates that there are only two or three of similar condition in the state of Utah, and 40 or 50 across the country. Named for its 23 windows and fabric sunroof, the vehicle features pivot doors and its original Blaupunkt radio. The Samba is finished off with its original restored interior—it’s all the same style, pattern, color and upholstery that it originally featured.

Rick estimates that, based off of recent auctions for Sambas in similar condition, that his Volkswagen is now valued at somewhere above $250,000.

“It was the best investment that I’ve ever made,” St. John said.

He doesn’t plan on parting with the Samba, regardless of its monetary value. The Payson resident takes it to shows across the state where he shares the joy of the vehicle’s uniqueness. Sunday afternoons also call for family drives, as the St. Johns load up the Samba’s three bench seats with over a dozen family members and head out for a drive.

The value of his Samba is in the journey of the restoration, and the time that a father and son spent together to turn a dream into a reality.


Wes Mangum is a Utah State University student and a citizen of Logan. He used to have the biggest, baddest Hotwheels collection around. Wes can be reached on Twitter @hjmangum or by email at mangum953@gmail.com.

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Wes Mangum

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