If you see an older model Volkswagen cruising around Taos County, be certain to wave. The driver, friendly and gregarious Brian Lewis, is probably trying out his latest restored vehicle.
"I fixed my first VW bus when I was 15. The vehicle had a blown engine and other problems," Lewis recalled recently. "I didn't know how to fix it, but I wanted to do so. I had little (money), so I had to do the work myself.
"My dad wasn't a mechanic, so I sought help from the book John Mauro's Idiot Guide to Volkswagen Repair," Lewis added. "I replaced the engine, transmission and brakes. Then, I was mentored by Bob Costa who owned a Volkswagen shop in Los Angeles. I hung around his shop after school and became the shop gofer. I also learned a lot."
Lewis' process for restoring a VW begins with finding the vehicle and buying it. Next he works on the body of the vehicle before completing mechanical work. "I don't do the body work. Here in Taos, Dusty Vallo has worked on the bodies of seven or eight cars," he said.
"Since 2005, I've worked on 22 or 23 Volkswagens in Taos, but I've also worked on them in other places, especially Los Angeles. I've purchased 100 vehicles during that time, many of them for parts. My work includes engines, transmissions, brakes and interiors. I've owned all of the cars that I've restored. After I fix them, I drive them and enjoy them," said Lewis.
Not all of his VWs are the same color, but his favorite is turquoise, reminiscent of the water in the Caribbean.
When Lewis finds another project, he sells one of his restored Volkswagens to finance the next venture. The auto enthusiast only works on Volkswagens, restoring his projects only for himself.Models and colors vary, and Lewis selects his vehicles according to how he relates to each one. In 2005, a drunk driver hit Lewis at the Gusdorf Road and Cañon bypass intersection. His restoration hobby increased because he couldn't work his regular job, giving him more time to work on his hobby. "It has been very interesting. People drive by, see the VW and ask to buy it," he said.
When asked to describe some of his vehicles, Lewis listed five that he completed in New Mexico: a '67 VW 27 window deluxe bus; a '66 type 34 Karmann Ghia; a '64 Karmann Ghia convertible; and a '62 VW type 2 single cab. Restoration prices vary, depending on the amount of required work and parts.
Lewis explained the economics of the Volkswagen industry: "Everyone remembers stories about the VW craze. So many owned a Volkswagen. In German, the word 'Volkswagen' means 'vehicle of the people.' In the 1960s, the vehicles were inexpensive to purchase. Currently, that's no longer the case. Today, some vehicles may run from $75,000 to $200,000."
While Volkswagens form a large portion of Lewis' life, his past and present includes a much larger story. He was born in Los Angeles and grew up in Echo Park, a low-income, racially diverse community. The product of the Los Angeles school system, Lewis earned an overall A-/B+ overall average and performed as a top athlete. He earned All City distinction in basketball and All State in swimming. "I love sports, but I couldn't focus on just one. I'm interested in many things," revealed Lewis.
Lewis lived in Los Angeles from 1959 to 1992 in a wonderful, diverse neighborhood much like the population of Taos. This experience taught Brian not to judge people by race, color or creed. He developed a love of cultures, especially foods, and by age 7, knew all the possible cuss words in Spanish. He and his California neighbors remain friendly to this day.
After high school, Lewis traveled for six months and then worked for six months, enjoying his love of surfing around the world. Notable sites of special surfing include the following: Australia; Hawaii; Portugal; Bali; Mexico City; France; Costa Rica; New Zealand; and Puerto Rico. He graduated from Cal State LA with a bachelor's degree in physical education in 1983. Other employment reveals Lewis' varied talents and interests. He completed work in the mail order section of an alternative record store, Rockaway Records, until he finished his degree. In 1988, Lewis worked as a programmer and during that time, he lost all his worldly possessions in a house fire. Brian served as assistant manager of a pottery and floral warehouse. For six years, he worked for American Computer Group in Los Angeles. During the Rodney King riots, he realized the thin line between sanity and insanity and decided to leave the city.
On a more personal level, Lewis met his wife Yvonne at a family wedding on Catalina Island. The couple married 23 years ago. She works at Berkshire Hathaway, and the couple live with five rescue dogs and a gift, a desert box turtle. He moved to Taos to help care for his ailing mother, Sophia Lewis, who taught for 40 years. She passed away in 2001. His father, Dr. Albert J. Lewis, a teacher, psychiatrist and social and political activist, died in 2009. Lewis credits his parents for his varied interests. He also enjoys time with his brother Aaron who lives in Carson.
In Taos, he worked with his brother in the construction industry and for Gary Storch at Taos Mountain Satellite. Brian joined the Pike's Peak VW Club, not a show club, but one devoted to rare vintage vehicles. Today, he does not belong to the group, but he has shared some of his restored work at shows for the Taos Auto Enthusiasts. He's now content to drive and restore the cars rather than exhibit them. Lewis volunteered at Stray Hearts, plays golf, enjoys fly-fishing and photography.
The avid photographer participates in the activity mainly for enjoyment. A UNM-Taos class with Jonathan Blaustein four years ago introduced Lewis to a new perspective in photography -- to look at things as an entire subject. The idea helped him develop a series on fears, cathartic to his feelings from the car accident years ago.
He is drawn to artistic photography, especially that created by Lenny Foster, Geraint Smith and Judy Barns.
Lewis aspires to Hindu teachings that advise, "Let go of the negative past and strive to be your natural self,' and the Jewish tradition of family.
Another of his passions includes his organic food and a vegetable garden. Because he didn't marry until age 35, Lewis ate as a "bachelor cook."
"I was exposed to many foods, and I prepare anything -- Mexican, Spanish and Northern New Mexico. However, I also like East Indian, Chinese and Thai food, and I prepare what I feel like eating at the moment," he related.
The man with a sense of humor and many interests concluded the interview with the following remarks: "I've become pretty savvy about Volkswagens, but I've never considered myself an expert. There's always something to learn, and this enjoyment keeps me humble."
Who knows? Maybe if you wave at Lewis as he cruises his latest VW around town, he just might wave back.