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Peter Aschwanden's Counter Culture Technical Drawings

Posted on 11 February 2016

When most folks think of great counter-culture cartoonists of the '60s, they think of underground comix published by artists like R. Crumb and S. Clay Wilson. It's true that these fellows and their cohorts were the big names in the game, but Peter Aschwanden is an equally great and woefully overlooked artist. His lack of notoriety is particularly odd since he was one of the most prolifically published and influential of any late '60s or early '70s cartoonists. 

Aschwanden's notoriety began with his friend John Muir, a distant relative to the famous naturalist of the same name. Muir was an eccentric ex-engineer for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, who had dropped out in the mid '60s to open a Volkswagen repair garage in Taos, New Mexico. By then the air cooled engine equipped Volkswagen Beetle and Bus had become the unofficial cars of the American counterculture. A used VW could be found cheap, was easy to maintain and repair, and had an appealing oddness about them in comparison to their complicated and powerful American counterparts.

Muir observed that many folks who were picking up Volkswagens didn't know how to take care of them and were quickly burning up engines or catching their cars on fire. The air cooled Volkswagen is very simple to maintain and repair, but it requires a keen ear and observant eye to keep alive as their engines are somewhat delicate and finicky. There were very few resources for the DIY VW mechanic in the mid '60s, the official VW shop manuals were complicated and confusing, and other publishers' manuals were geared towards the mechanically experienced. Muir set out to write a manual that would use clear, non technical, and often philosophical language to walk the mechanical novice through proper automotive care, covering everything from a total engine rebuild to brake adjustment. He wanted to illustrate the manual rather than use photographs, as illustrations are more clear.

Aschwanden and Muir met at Muir's wedding in the mid-1960s. A year after the meeting, Muir approched Aschwanden about illustrating the front and back cover of a DIY VW manual he was working on. As Aschwanden put it, he was busy building a pen for his goats and really didn't want to do the illustration, but after some badgering and the promise that it would be a simple and quick job, Aschwanden caved. After completing the covers it became clear that Muir would need more help. He had been trying to illustrate the manual himself but was not a skilled illustrator. Aschwanden was shortly thereafter roped into doing 80 technical illustrations for the book and numerous updates in the next 18 editions to come. 

Aschwanden was not a classically trained technical illustrator. He applied his personal cartooning style to making accurate technical drawings which are more aesthetically pleasing and expressive than any other technical drawings I know of. Many of his illustrations employ impressive hand drawn type and curious characters. Muir's idiosyncratic writing style and Aschwanden's accurate yet psychedelic illustrations paired perfectly to make an extremely easy to understand repair manual which could easily be used by "the complete idiot." 

The book was first released in 1969 to immediate success. Nearly every VW with a long haired driver would not only have books by Richard Brautigan or Tom Robbins in back, but also a greasy copy of Muir's manual. Many literary historians cite it as an important piece of hippy literature of the late 60's. Over 2,000,000 copies have been printed making it one of the most successful independently published books ever. Nearly every vintage Volkswagen enthusiast has cut their teeth, mechanically speaking, while broken down next to the road, flipping through How To Keep Your Volkswagen Alive

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