60 years old and still going strong: Happy birthday to the iconic Volkswagen Campervan
Saturday 22 May 2010
The sound of scraping metal gears, a plume of smoke from the exhaust pipe, coming to an embarrassing and untimely stop on the side of the motorway... this is the all-too familiar tale of motoring holidays in the Volkswagen Type 2 T1, aka the Splitscreen, the Microbus, the Splittie, the Bully, the Vee Dub, the Hippie-van – or, to non-diehards, the VW Campervan.
This year marks the 60th anniversary of this, the most iconic and best-looking member of the camping-vehicle fleet. And today, the bug-eyed beauty continues to grip the British imagination, despite tales of atrocious starter mechanisms, failing batteries and weak hand brakes. But where did this unlikely love affair begin? Let us look to the Dutch businessman Ben Pon, Volkswagen's major importer for The Netherlands in the late 1940s.
After transforming his father's sewing shop into a car showroom, Pon took a trip to the VW factory in Wolfsburg, Germany, in 1946, which inspired the first working sketch of the Campervan. Pon struck a deal with engineers in Germany to develop his doodle, but it would take a couple of years before his idea would start rolling off the production line.
After struggling with speed and aerodynamics on the new Campervan, a few simple changes were made to Pon's sketches, and the famous "Vee" was added to the roofline and windscreen, which not only made it beautiful and sleek but created the memorable split windscreen, cylindrical headlights, rear engine and the circular VW logo which still endures.
When it was first released, people weren't sure about this rectangular Lurch, compared to the increasingly popular, smaller Volkswagen Beetle. But they soon got the bug and the Campervan has been a motorway pin-up ever since. It has inspired spin-off models, ambulances, pick-up trucks; in 2005, celebrity chef Jamie Oliver travelled around Italy in his blue Sambavan for his Great Escape TV show – and the same model recently popped up in an advert for Dorset Cereals. Today, it seems the mighty VW Campervan epitomises everything from family jaunts through the Brecon Beacons, to midlife crises, surfing getaways and festival frolics.
"Why do we love it?" asks David Eccles, a VW owner since the mid-Seventies, the editor of VW Camper magazine and author of Campervan Crazy. "Because it reminds us of when life was simple: chuck the kids and food in the bus and go." Plus, they just look great, he adds. "Kids all point and smile and say, 'Look at the van with a face!'"
Over the years, VWs have become increasingly collectable, particularly the older, much rarer, split-screen models. Antique versions in good nick now fetch more than £20,000 on auction sites like eBay. And a number of companies are reaping the benefits, renting out vans for the weekend to fair-weather holiday-makers. One such company is Camper 4 Hire which has a fleet of pristine leather-trimmed vans, each with a back-story and a silly name, including Van Dyke, Van Gogh, Van Halen and Van Morrison. Of course they want to make money, but company director Adam Stanley insists it's also about keeping the VW peace-and-love legacy going.
"Campervans have always carried the image of freedom in summertime," he says. "Companies like us create a way for people to have a go even if they can't afford to buy one. They are going up in price every year in their thousands, they are in shorter supply and many of the oldies are rotting in people's gardens. At least we are looking after them. And as long as that is happening they should keep running."
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