This is the third installment of the “Mexican Paint Job” chronicles. So to better understand the technical aspects of this project, please make sure to read Parts 1 and 2 first!
Let’s back up a bit and talk about some parts that I ordered prior to dropping off the van to the paint shop. I had a week until I would drop the van off in Tijuana for paint. Knowing now that I would be getting a windows-out paint job, I knew that I would require new window seals. There are several places that carry them, however with only a week until I was to drop the van off, I would be cutting it close with shipping.
It was then I remembered a VW parts company in Harbor City, CA called West Coast Metric. When I had first moved to California, I worked for a short time in Packaging Sales, and it just so happened that West Coast Metric was one of my clients. Back then, I knew little about old VW’s. I checked their website and verified that they did indeed now carry Vanagon seals (they used to only deal in Bugs and Buses). So I drove up to Harbor City with my van to pick up all of the assorted seals I would need. Windshield seal, check. Rear Hatch Window Seal, check. Side window seals, check. Door handle seals, check. The total cost of all of the seals I would need was an eye watering $600. The seals from WCM carry a lifetime warranty though, and if they ever fail then I can exchange for a new one.
Seals in hand, I next ordered a new sliding window for the rear passenger side. These rear sliders were unavailable for a while and just came back on the market. They replace your solid “regular” window in the back and give you a sliding window just like in your side door and the window behind your Westy kitchen cabinets. It’s amazing.
Lastly, I ordered from VanagonLife.com one of their VOW window’s. This isn’t actually a window at all, but rather replaces your drivers side rear window, which is covered and therefore practically useless in a Westfalia anyway, and provides you with an exterior mounting platform to store your MAXTRAX recovery boards, high lift jack, jerry cans, or a myriad of other tools and combinations. It’s another one of those recent innovations that in combination with all of the other upgrades to your rig, really takes things to the next level. The ability to store bulky, dirty tools, like sand ladders and jacks on the outside of your vehicle is a game changer. The fact that there is basically no compromise involved (because you are replacing a non-useable window in the case of a Westfalia) only makes it better.
I now had everything I needed, and with only a few days remaining before drop-off, a few fellow van owners and I put our heads together and planned a weekend trip out to the desert. My van’s been in one shop or another most of this year so far, the periods of time in between upgrades were short. Before going in for paint, I needed one last trip. It was my van’s farewell tour in a way, farewell to Assuan Brown, farewell to the long weeks, and months that I would hopefully not have to endure away from it anymore.
With van buddies @CamperLifer (Neil and Kristi) and @Piathevanagon (Ton), we agreed to hit up Giant Rocks campground in Joshua Tree National Park. It was a Halloween weekend, and we were concerned it might be busy so I drove out early in the day to hopefully snag us a spot. However, despite my best efforts, every single camping spot in the whole park was already taken.
As it was already mid-afternoon by this point, I high tailed it out of the park to where I could get a cell signal. I sent out a short message: “Hey guys, J-Tree is a No Go, but I’ve got a plan B, anyone ever heard of Giant Rock?”. And with that, the wheels were set in motion for a epic weekend of camping and off-roading in the Mojave Desert just outside of Joshua Tree.
We spent the day Saturday putting our 3 vans through their paces, romping up and down several huge hills, with steep inclines, rocks, gravel, and sand. Neil’s Syncro made it up the majority of the inclines without too much of a hassle, thanks to his 4WD. My van, being 2WD required that I carry a bit more momentum to make it over some of the trickier parts. While building up speed for one particularly steep and difficult hill, I hit a large lump that catapulted my van into the air and down onto its nose, smacking the ground with a loud metallic thump. Onlookers gasped, my passenger wet his pants, and I wore a smug smile on my face. Not only because my van had conquered the hill in such a dramatic fashion, but because any damage to the body work on my van would be patched up when I dropped it off at the end of the weekend. It was like a free pass to go wild and bash up my van.
That night we were joined by @LiveWorkWander (Jorge and Jessica) and their newly completed super Syncro named Fury. I drew a lot of inspiration from their past van, Falkor, and was excited to see the upgrades they chose for Fury. I love seeing all of the creative mods that other van owners come up with. Jorge and Jessica had the inside walls of their van covered in carpeting, similar to what we had done with my high top. This was the solution to a problem I was having, as I could not figure out how to deal with the brown interior of my van being different from the exterior blue. I had resolved myself to just living with it, but knew that it would probably bother me. I resolved to speak with Los Panchos about it at drop off as they also offered upholstery services.
The weekend drew to a close, and it came time to drive back down to Tijuana to drop my van off. I loaded my box of seals and took off. I stopped in San Diego where I took off my bumpers, awning, light bar, grilles, and the rest of my exterior trim and accessories. I had agreed with Los Panchos to deliver the van stripped down as much as possible, less for them to lose or risk getting damaged or stolen. As I crossed the border, I was again motioned to stop by the Mexican border agents who performed the now routine search of my van and questioning. I again drove the short distance to Los Panchos and arrived without incident.
Ramiro was waiting for me as I pulled the van up behind the chain link fence of the paint shop, and we quickly exchanged pleasantries. I ask him for quotes for the wall carpeting, replacing all of my front carpeting to match, and new foam and upholstery for my top bunk bed mattress. He yelled for his upholstery guy who begrudgingly left his Mexican soap opera (TeleNovela) which was playing on a large tube TV tucked away in a dark corner of the lot. The two spoke amongst themselves, motioning to different parts of the van. Ramiro stopped and turned to me “Dos Cientos ($200 USD) for the carpeting y Dos Cientos for the mattress”. Completely satisfied with that, I verified with him that these extras could be completed within the 3 week timeframe I had set for the rest of the work. “Si, Noviembre Vente y Uno (November 21st)” he replied. We walked into his office where he filled out a receipt for the additional work, I handed him my keys and walked to the street to grab a taxi back to the border. I stopped, turned around and looked back at the van longingly, wondering if leaving it alone, in another country was a mistake. But I was committed, and there was no turning back now.
Before leaving, I had told Ramiro that I would return the following Monday (one week) to check on the van and his progress. I’ve been around the block now with auto shops of all types and I wasn't going to let this job take double or triple the quoted time as had become the norm. This time would be different, I told myself, and I was going to stay on this shop to make sure it was finished by the 21st.
True to my word, the next Monday I again drove down to the border. This time I parked my car, and walked across the pedestrian crossing into Mexico, and took a taxi to Los Panchos. As I came up the street, the van slowly came into view. My first thought was “Thank God it’s still here”, quickly followed by, “Wow, they're actually making progress”.
As I walked up to the van, I was again greeted by Ramiro. In only a weeks time, all of the body work was finished. I squatted at each corner of the van and peered down the side. Straight as an arrow. All of the little dings and dents, gone. The wheel arches, perfect. I had asked Ramiro to seal up the hole left by my no longer used refrigerator vent, and it too was perfect. I walked around and opened my slider door, yikes. Dust and debris all over my upholstery. I had asked Ramiro at drop off to cover my interior in plastic so it would be safe, but those instructions must have been lost in translation. Im pretty anal with my things, and was upset by lack of care for my interior. Hint for those who are contemplating using this shop (or any in Tijuana), cover your upholstery and interior yourself before dropping your car off. Ramiro agreed to make sure that the van was vacuumed and clean before I picked it up, so that made me feel a bit better. I inquired with him if we were still on schedule and he said that we were. The van would be sanded down the coming week and then painting would be the following week.
I returned again the next week. This time as I came up the street, I could see that my van had already begun being painted. As I exited the taxi and walked up to Los Panchos, several of the workers were pulling out my windshield as several others were scraping off what was left of the seals from the rest of the windows which had already been removed. Ramiro told me that they had mixed some of the paint with primer and had hit it with a first coat the night before. With the windows now removed, they were going to paint it again with primer that day and then finish the painting over the next few days.
I was excited to see it starting to come together and couldn’t believe that they actually appeared to be on time. With only one week to go there still remained a lot of work to do, but to my surprise before I left Ramiro asked me if I could pick it up that Saturday instead of Monday. We agreed that I would come by on Saturday, I would inspect the van and make sure it was to my satisfaction, and then I would pick it up the Monday after. I thought this way if there was anything I wasn’t happy with, they would have time to fix it and the job would still be done on time.
Saturday came around and Teri and I drove together to Tijuana for our inspection of the completed van. I had been anxious the previous week, would the blue that I chose look ok? Would it be too bright, too loud? I had a very specific image of the finished van in my mind, how would I feel if it didnt meet my expectations? Would I get it repainted if it wasn't right? We pulled up to Los Panchos and I caught my first glimpse of the nearly finished van. Sigh of relief, It looked amazing. I stepped out of the car smiling, walked up and began looking it over.
The blue paint glistened, the truck bed liner was perfect, and the interior work looked incredible. It was everything that I had in my mind’s eye brought to fruition. There were a few minor imperfections which I marked with painters tape and asked Ramiro to address before Monday. There were some spots on the interior that I asked also be covered in the carpeting, and I inquired if he knew someone who could rekey my sliding door lock. “Si, I have someone who can make it work with the key for the rest of the car, probably about $10”, another fix ticked off my list, and another bargain. I handed his crew my Grille’s and hook up boxes that I had brought down with me to be reinstalled before I drove it back across the border. I want the van to look as put together as possible so as not to look overly suspicious. We confirmed the van would be picked up at 11am Monday morning, and Teri and I left for a couple of nights with a friend in Ensenada. I resolved to spend the rest of the day Saturday, and Sunday in a taco-induced food coma. Monday couldn't come early enough…
This is part 3 of a 4-part series on my Mexican van painting adventure. The next entry will have me detailing final pickup, putting the van back together, and then lots of photos of the completed build.
This is part 2 of a multi-part series on my experience painting my van in Mexico. For Part 1, click here.
My research into paint shops south of the border in Tijuana, Mexico kept bringing me back to one place, Taller Los Panchos. In forum after forum, folks sang praise for this shop and its owner Ramiro Ferreyra. Long a destination for budget conscious gringos, the shop has been a go-to for owners of VW Bus’s, Porsche’s and other classics in search of a great paint job at an equally great price. One blog in particular caught my attention. His post chronicles the transformation of his tired, faded BMW 2002 into a gleaming antique with a paint job worthy (to my eye) of any auto show. The beginning of his post started off like this…
“The car is finished! Here is a list of the work done by Los Panchos in Tijuana.
Strip the old paint off
Remove all windows, grills, trim and lights
Fill in holes in the front left from the Euro bumper conversion
Repair dent in driver side front fender
Repair rust on Drivers rear wheel well
Fill holes in A pillar from antenna
Fill holes from side reflectors front and rear
Fill holes in rear from Euro bumper conversion
Remove doors and repair rust on both doors
Remove hood and repair hood support and rust on hood
Repair rust behind passenger side fender
Block sand and straighten every panel
Install new black vinyl perforated headliner
Respray in Fjord Blue
Paint exposed areas of the engine bay
Paint IE Motorsports Zender style air dam
Reinstall doors and hood and align
Color sand and polish
Replace All window seals with new seals
Reinstall grills, trim and lights
The price of all this work was $2,000.”
$2,000!? Could this really be true? For about the price of a low-end Maaco paint job here in Southern California, I could drive an hour and a half to Tijuana and pay just $2,000 for this kind of paint and body work?
A week later, I set off for Tijuana in my van in search of Los Panchos. As I drove over the border, the familiar rush that I get crossing any international border washed over me, a combination of nervous adrenaline, excitement, and trepidation. It's a feeling I get from nothing else, and it's one of the most addicting sensations that only travel and exploration gives me. Soldiers stood watch and waved cars through as they passed into Mexico. As they saw me approach, they motioned for me to pull over (never fails).
“Open”, the soldier ordered, motioning to my rear hatch and slider. The soldier poked and prodded, and satisfied that the giant beast of a van wasn't smuggling illegal firearms as he assumed must have been the case, he swung around to my drivers side window. “How much did you pay for this?” he asked, standing back and looking at the van in amazement. “Eh, Dos Mil dollars” I replied, trying to make my van sound as cheap as possible. I sensed some sort of shakedown was about to happen, so I put on my fake charade about how I'm broke and live out of my van and was coming down just for the day to visit some mechanic's shops in Tijuana because I couldn’t afford to get work done in the U.S.
“Go, Go” he mumbled as he waved me on. My ruse had worked, and despite the fact that I had done nothing wrong, I was relieved to have gotten away with something, whatever that something was.
I followed my trusty Google Maps thru a maze of Tijuana streets, complete with 7-way intersections which lacked any sort of traffic control mechanisms. However, in a surprisingly short amount of time, less than a mile or two, I found myself in front of Los Panchos. A older Mexican man motioned for me to pull inside the shop's small lot behind a chain link fence.
I jumped out of the van, stuck out my hand. “You must be Ramiro” I said. “Mucho Gusto”.
I told Ramiro I was there to get a estimate on my van, and I ran down the list of what I wanted…
For them to take out all of the dings and dents
To fill in the hole in the side of the van from the no longer used fridge vent
To seal the hole in the bottom where the propane lines used to run through the floor pan
For them to remove the windows, and paint the van, matching the paint to a photo of a Blue VW Doka that I had printed up and brought to him, and then to reinstall the windows with new seals that I would provide.
Ramiro walked up and down the van, running his hands along as he went. He studied all the imperfections carefully, stopping occasionally to wipe his brow with his hand, fatigued from weight of the job that I was asking of him. Watching Ramiro, I could see the price jumping, I knew that the BMW 2002 was painted for around $2,000 a few years back. I figured with the size of my van, the high top, patching the holes and such, the total would have to be at least $3,000. Plus, the way he was carrying on, I knew he had to be winding up to hit me with a big number. “Cuanto?” I asked nervously. Ramiro thought for a moment, his hand on his chin, eyes gazing at the concrete floor. “One thousand, nine hundred” he replied. I’m not sure I've ever stuck my hand out so quickly to shake someone else's.
And with that I followed Ramiro inside a small office to hammer out the finer details. He pulled out an old paint sample book, and I took out my photo. We turned the pages trying to find a color that would match up. Ramiro stopped on a page and pointed to a color, 1959 Ford Surf Blue Poly. I held the photo up next to it, and to my eye it was damn close. “How many coats of paint?” I asked. “3-4 and then a coat of clear coat” Ramiro replied. Damn, what a deal is all I could think to myself. “When do you need it done?” he asked. “Tres Semanas” (three weeks) I replied. He asked for 4 weeks, and I replied that it was very important that it be 3 weeks and no more. I reiterated that it was very important ("Muy Importante!!") that it be finished on the 21st of November. Having had my van in various shops for the majority of the year to date, I now realize the importance of setting a firm completion date up front.
“Ok, November 21st” Ramiro said, penciling it on the calendar hanging above his desk. “You drop it off next Monday?”
“Yes, Monday November 1st,” I replied.
And with that, the wheels were in motion for my Mexican Paint Job Adventure. I made the short trek back to the border, and waited in a long line of traffic for 3 hours.
“What was your purpose in Mexico” the border agent asked me through my window. “I was just here today to get some quotes on having my car painted” I replied. “Be careful that the shop you use is reputable” he warned. “A lot of times people will take their cars in for paint here, and the shop will work with drug cartels who stuff the insides with drugs and attach a GPS monitor to your car. When you drive back across the border they will track your car and then come in the middle of the night to where it's parked and rip out the drugs.” I wondered to myself if this was more hyperbole or a genuine concern.
“By the way, how much did this thing cost you?” the border agent asked.
This is part 2 of a multi-part series on my experience painting my van in Tijuana, Mexico. Be sure to check back soon for the next installment.