Straight Out Of Toontown: Ron Berry’s “Surf Seeker” VW Bus

True innovation is achieved by those who refuse to be bound by convention. Custom car building has always fostered creative minds that think outside of the box, but even within this inventive realm, Ron Berry is an outlier. The St. George, Utah, resident has the uncanny ability to turn wild cartoon interpretations of custom cars into real, drivable machines that draw crowds wherever they go.

One of the first builds that really showcased Berry’s unique talent was his Shorebreak wagon, a Rat-Fink-meets-Roger-Rabbit interpretation of a hot rodded Woodie. Berry’s handiwork is so thorough it’s difficult to discern what the Shorebreak wagon initially started out as (an ’83 Mustang!), but regardless, the end result speaks for itself.

The Shorebreak wagon might have Fox-body Mustang bones, but it looks more like an Anglia drag car that's been processed through the lens of a Warner Brothers animator now. Despite the wild customization, the Woodie is a wholly functional hot rod. Berry even devised a custom system to raise the rear fenders to provide access to the gas filler and allow for tire swaps. Creative touches are found everywhere you look. "I had to figure out a way to hold the surfboard in place and also fill in the gap where the board goes in," he says. "So I put a bicycle tube inside of a box I built, and that runs around the outside of the board. You inflate it with a handle in the center console, and it pinches the board tight while filling in the gap."

A project that touched upon nearly every square inch of the car, the build somehow took just 17 months to complete. The Shorebreak build features a 302ci small-block Ford roller motor with a velocity stack-style intake system to give it a mean sound and some nice looking jewelry under the hood.

But while there’s plenty of scoot installed in this creation, it’s really the custom work found throughout the rest of the car that deserves closer inspection. For instance, in order to accommodate the 33×19.5-inch wheels in the rear (and ensure the tires could be easily replaced when needed), Berry designed an automated system that lifts the fenders away from the rest of the body to allow for access.

“It can get a little squirrely when you’re driving it,” Ron said. “It’s pretty well known that you’re not supposed to mix radial tires and bias ply tires together, but we’ve got bias on the rear and radials on front. The rear tires are big Pro Streets, so we could get the scale right and that “animated” look. But the front tires needed to be large as well, and the only thing I could find that fit the scale were these BF Goodrich radials, which gave me the look and feel of a cartoon.”

Of course the custom touches certainly aren’t relegated to performance and pragmatism either. A clear nod to Hot Wheels designs, Shorebreak’s current look is a far cry from the Fox body chassis that underpins the car. Exaggerated fenders, a massive custom grill, and the beach-themed interior appointments all help make this build a standout, even among today’s wildest customs.

Projects like the Shorebreak wagon have a tendency to create a reputation for a builder. When we heard that Ron’s latest creation, the Surf Seeker, was going to be showcased at the Sacramento Autorama earlier this year, we had to get a closer look. While one might expect it to be nearly impossible to top something like the Shorebreak Woodie, Berry might just have done it with this unbelievable 1965 Volkswagen Type 2-style bus.

Re-imagining The Quintessential Hippy Van

Surf Seeker started life as a 23-window VW Microbus, but these days it’s not your typical beach cruiser. “I pulled inspiration from cartoonists,” Berry told My Classic Car. “It has a lot of character – I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone walk up to it and not smile. I guess after 50 some-odd years of doing this, I’ve been able to hammer out some pretty unusual stuff.”

Berry significantly shortened the wheelbase of the bus while widening the bodywork to give the VW the proportions he wanted. "It's part of that cartoon look," he says. "And you can take a nap on the sofa!" Note the skateboard wheelie bars out back, which are deployed from the bodywork by way of a button on the key fob. "You need wheelie bars - you know, just in case. So, that's my interpretation of a wheelie bar." Photography Dave Cruikshank

The first thing that catches your eye is the incredible bodywork. Built from scratch entirely in steel, the VW now sports a 72-inch wheelbase and a total of 24 windows (he split the single rear window into two). “I’ve got some of the most exotic mallets and hammers you’ve ever seen,” he joked.

It has a lot of character – I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone walk up to it and not smile. I guess after 50 some-odd years of doing this, I’ve been able to hammer out some pretty unusual stuff.

Despite the extensive customization, there’s still quite a bit of Volkswagen hardware underneath the Surf Seeker, including a VW Type II front suspension setup and steering components as well as a healthy air cooled flat-four cylinder mill in the rear – a blown 2275cc beast making roughly 200 horsepower.

This ain’t your typical wheezy Beetle motor. Born from a joint-project between B&M and Mopar drag racer Dick Landy back in the late 1980s, the supercharged 2.2-liter air-cooled power-plant is a fairly exotic mill that Berry says may be the last of its kind.

“One of the unique features about this motor is that it was designed by a famous drag racer by the name of Dick Landy,” Berry said. “He and B&M got together and designed the intake system for this in the late 80s and early 90s. We’re thinking this might actually be the last surviving one.”

But it’s the stuff that doesn’t immediately jump out at you that might be the coolest elements of this build – sure, the hand-made fiberglass moldings and trim are trick pieces, but get a load of how he got the headlights to be proportional with the rest of the bodywork:

“Well you know you can buy headlight buckets through the catalogs,” Berry explained. “But they’re, you know, a seven-inch bucket, and that’s not to scale with the rest of the bus. So I went to Walmart and found these 11-inch stainless steel salad bowls and used those instead. In the center of the light I turned an au jus cup backwards and mounted the bulb so it hangs out there where it should be to reflect properly and be correct.”

Wood frames line all the side windows inside the Surf Seeker. However, because Berry didn't want a bunch of exposed fasteners ruining the aesthetic of the interior, he embedded magnets into the back of the wood frames, allowing them to attach to the bodywork without unsightly hardware mucking up the look. Photography: Dave Cruikshank

A key fob-actuated servo pops open the front door to reveal the Surf Seeker’s interior, where there’s no shortage of killer custom work as well. You won’t find a single exposed screw or fastener in there, despite the expansive wood frames that outline the side windows. “That’s something I came up with after I was introduced to these rare-earth magnets,” he says. “All the wood in here is attached with magnets.”

Like the Shorebreak wagon, the Surf Seeker rides on a unique set of rollers. To get the proportions right, Berry selected 24-inch Panther wheels and wrapped them in low-profile Kumho rubber.

Perhaps more than anything else, it’s the Surf Seeker’s bending roof and high beltline that give the bus its Hot Wheels-esque look. “The height is part of that overall character,” Ron says. “If it didn’t have that height, it would just look like a standard Volkswagen bus.” Photography: Dave Cruikshank

Given the incredible design and execution of the Surf Seeker, it should be no surprise that Berry’s latest project was selected for the Sam Barris Memorial Award at the Sacramento Autorama show this year. A nod to the late customizer who, along with his brother George, created iconic customs for use in TV and movies, the award recognizes Berry’s commitment to creating something wholly unique that’s also functional and stunning to behold.

Even at a glance it’s clear that these creations are a labor of love for Ron. But he’s not content to rest on his laurels. “You know, when I’m working on a project I get really focused,” he says. “Still to this day, I like looking at the thing myself. But now the challenge is how I’m going to top this one.”

If the Shorebreak wagon and Surf Seeker VW Microbus are any indication of Ron’s creative potential, something tells us he’ll find a way to outdo himself once again, and we’re anxious to see what he comes up with next.

About the author

Bradley Iger

Lover of noisy cars, noisy music, and noisy bulldogs, Brad can often be found flogging something expensive along the twisting tarmac of the Angeles Forest.
Read My Articles

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