The Volkswagen van or camper is one of those rarefied vehicles which seems to transcend mere transportation. Everyone, it seems, has a soft spot within their heart for these old VW’s which hark back to a bygone age: from the very young to the extremely elderly, very few people, regardless of their color, creed or social standing, will fail to notice the presence of a Volkswagen van. These things simply demand attention!
This writer has been involved in exporting vehicles from the USA to the UK for a little over 20 years. Fairly recently, however, he has been exposed to the wonderful world of the VW van in all its various guises. The old classic split window model (or ‘Splitty’ as it is affectionately known) has in recent years found competition for the affections of its many fans in the form of its more modern sibling, the bay window van. In the USA, the Westfalia camper van represents the iconic four-wheeled traveling companion. So popular was the ‘Westy’ that its resultant limited availability to Volkswagen dealers prompted one enterprising Oregon company to produce its own conversion, the ‘Riviera’, based upon the slower selling VW panel van.. Initial resistance to this new breed of camper soon disappeared once the quality of its workmanship and the intelligence of its design became apparent. Nowadays the Riviera has its own very strong and specific following and, although less widely-known in the UK than the ‘Westy’, it is becoming a popular choice among camper enthusiasts.
It is a sad but inescapable fact that although many Volkswagen campers were sold new in the UK, the ravages of a wet climate have resulted in the survival of only a limited number. Although vans sourced in the USA are not without their problems, for the most part the levels of rust, rot and general neglect are sufficiently lower as to make them a far better proposition. In many cases it is possible to find VW campers in the USA which are still wearing their original paintwork. While it is true that some work may still be required to restore them to perfect condition, the effort involved in doing so is not nearly so daunting. For this reason more and more UK enthusiasts are seeking vans which have been imported from the USA; the minor inconvenience of having the steering wheel on the ‘wrong’ side is considered well worthwhile against the benefit of having a solid structure.
Perhaps the reason for the Volkswagen camper’s enduring charm is the sheer efficiency of its interior design, making it an intelligent choice for a small family on the road without the bulk and impracticality of a true RV. Many owners use their camper as a daily driver, thus eliminating the need to keep a specific vehicle solely for travel.
Whereas at one point only the split-window and early bay window vans were perceived as having ‘classic’ status, their popularity has extended in more recent years to include the very latest model years. The appeal of a late-70’s VW Westfalia or Riviera with its practical four-berth sleeping arrangements and more powerful 2000cc fuel-injected motor has become apparent among enthusiasts.
What is certainly not in doubt is the affection in which VW owners hold their vehicles. During the writer’s travels throughout the USA in search of suitable vans for his customers, rarely did he encounter an owner for whom the loss of their pride and joy was not an upsetting experience. More than one person changed their mind about selling, and for two owners the parting was, quite literally, a tearful one.
Also abundantly clear is the high demand for these old Volkswagens: on many occasions the writer was disappointed to have missed a particular van because of a queue of other eager buyers. The search for decent vehicles led to an odyssey covering a significant part of the United States. The purchase of one particular Riviera camper involved a plane flight from Miami to Salt Lake city, Utah, followed by a wonderful drive into snow-covered Idaho. The subsequent purchase (of a wonderfully rust-free 1972 ‘Kombi’) led from Idaho through Nevada to Lake Tahoe, and from there into Northern California. Thick snow, requiring the use of chains to maintain forward motion, gradually gave way to glorious sunshine and beautiful scenery. This is by no means an easy way to earn a living, but the rewards in terms of travel are considerable, to say nothing of the characters one meets along the way. There is great satisfaction to be had from the knowledge that a classic VW has been safely transplanted from its home in the USA across thousands of miles of ocean into the hands of a new and equally loving owner