Of course that’s actually a fairly recent phenomemon. There weren’t many VW campers chugging around British roads in the ‘Sixties, and very few of those that did make it over here were used for festival-going, free loving and rootless wandering. Most did what any other small van-based camper of the time did – pottering around seaside resorts and Lake District beauty spots – and today’s fashion for lowering a Type 2 onto a set of Porsche alloy wheels, tuning it up and purposely giving it distressed paint and bolting a surfboard to the roof rack would have been unthinkable.
The average VW camper van of the past is much better represented by this 1978 orange and white machine. Never mind modification and tuning – customisation for campers started before the vehicle even set a tyre on the road as first it had to be turned from a bare chassis-cab to a home from home, and there was a large variety of companies performing such work and each could offer a number of designs. This one is a genuine right-hand drive example, built up by Devon Conversions as a ‘walk through camper’ (meaning there is no bulkhead or sill between the driving ‘cab’ and the living quarters). It has a pop-up central roof section that also stores a pair of hammocks, a fixed double bed across the back above the engine, a rear bench seat and a side unit holding a twin-ring gas cooker and grille, a sink and a cold box.
While this very standard (and very ‘Seventies) T2 would not immediately stand out as an enthusiast-owned vehicle, a quick look at its history shows otherwise. Since 2008 over £16,000 has been spent on it, £12,000 of which was spent in a rolling restoration beginning in 2010. Over the next few years the Volkswagen received a new braking system, a rebuilt engine, had its electrical system rewired, new steering ball joints, axle seals and wheel bearings, while a secondhand Devon top replaced the expired orginal. The seats, beds and hammocks have also been retrimmed, refurbished and restuffed. While all this was going on the VW was put to good use, taking part in the Eireball Run (a charity tour of Ireland) three times and making the trek to the Le Mans Classic once. In 2014 alone it covered 8000 miles, which for a van pushing 40 years old is a fair old distance.
ON THE ROAD
And it seems to be well up for more. The camper had been standing for a few weeks before my test drive and it needed a fair bit of cranking to pull fuel up to the carb but then it fired up and ran easily, proving the automatic choke is working as it should. Volkswagen campers are about the journey as much as the destination, which is just a well as you’ll spend a long time getting there. With only 47 horsepower on tap, put through a gearbox with very widely-spaced ratios, the T2 does not do anything quickly. Even on the flat acceleration is, by any measure, glacial and pretty much ceases altogether once into top gear. Climbing up some of Yorkshire’s prettier hills leaves you with no choice but to slot back into second, put your right foot hard on the floor and let the engine churn away at full speed.
But none of this is actually an unpleasant experience, because the T2 makes up for its objectively terrible performance, handling and stability with massive charm and a big fun factor. It also feels wholly unburstable – like you could flog the air-cooled motor flat out for hour after hour without any strain. The camper also rides remarkably well, its torsion springs giving a gentle bounce to its gait that makes it a much more comfortable place to spend time (a lot of time!) than the incredibly basic cab, the strange half-crouching driving position and the floor-pivoting pedals would first suggest. The big, almost-horizontal steering wheel works light and accurate steering without any hint of wander – once you adjust to the top-heavy feel of the camper, and the way that the driver goes around a corner in advance of the rest of the car thanks to the forward-control lay-out, it’s relaxing and intuitive to drive. Even if it is very, very slow.
My previous experience with air-cooled Volkswagens has been underwhelming. With their quirky engineering and proletarian charm I should love them but they have proved curiously charmless and ordinary to drive. The camper is the opposite – I can see why people adore them so much, even if the excesses of the ‘Vee-Dub Lifestyle’ still baffles me a bit. That aside, this is a solid and well-cared T2 that would be ideally suited to either occasional weekends away or some serious travelling.
TOP SPEED: 77mph
0-60MPH: 35 secs
GEARBOX: 4-sp man