Genuinely deserving of its iconic status, the VW camper van has been the transport mode of choice for festival goers, surfers and globetrotting rock stars for over 60 years, and these vehicles been used by everyone from vicars to theatrical touring companies.
Enthusiasts often say VW vans are not about the destination, but the journey. To learn how the camper van’s own journey began, you need to go back to the 1940s, after the Second World War, when Dutch importer Ben Pon was visiting the then British-run Volkswagen factory in the German city of Wolfsburg with a view to importing some Type 1 VW Beetles into Holland.
His attention was caught when he saw that factory staff had welded a Beetle chassis to metal from the factory floor, using it to ferry heavy parts around the massive site.
This inspired a 1947 drawing which became the blueprint for the VW Type 2 Transporter.
Unveiled in 1949 before going into full production in Wolfsburg the following year, ahead of a company move to Hamburg in 1956, the first model was simple in its construction and dubbed the “Bulli” in a nod to its beefy appearance.
It looked like a curved box, with a basic eight-seat interior, a rear engine and the driver’s position over the front wheels. Fiat, Bedford and Citroën followed suit with similar concepts.
Known as the “Splitty”, the first generation of Type 2 vans was furnished with Spartan seats attached with bolts which meant they could be moved around.
There were other incarnations before, in 1951, the split screen bus became a camper van and hearts were truly captured. Coach building firm Westfalia, another German company, worked with VW on the first camper van, which incorporated features like a fitted kitchen and comfortable furnishings.
In 1968, the Bay replaced the Splitty as the new generation VW van, noted for its lack of split-screen windows and for being heavier and bigger and having some safety additions, such as a padded steering wheel and grip bars. The Bay went through some important incarnations, including the Devon, Viking, Danbury and Westfalia, but remained a market leader. Of these conversions, the Westfalia or “Westy” was the most popular.
The Bay’s exterior continued to evolve until 1974. Five years later, the T25 was launched. It moved away from the curves of the Bay and the Splitty to present a boxier, more angular appearance. It also offered more interior room, and had a stronger front. For the last 30 years or so, it has had a water-cooled engine.
Many T25s had air conditioning, comfier furnishings and alloy wheels. And there were two Westfalia camper options, the basic and the Weekender, among other T25 models.
In 1990, the T4 model saddened some fans by replacing the rear engine with a front one. The T5 generation of campers, launched in 2003, with a similar appearance and a more aerodynamic design, was aimed mainly at European markets.
In June 2009, VW announced that the millionth T5 had rolled off the production line in Hanover.
Committed fans across the world, whose number includes celebrities like Roger Daltry and actor Martin Clunes, continue to salute the quality, durability and character of their vehicles. Six decades after production first began, after numerous transformations of the object of their affection, the love affair shows no signs of abating.