Volkswagen might have finally killed off the original Beetle, but its van cousin - the basis of a million camper conversions - is currently enjoying a stay of execution. Known to its friends as the Type 2, or "bay window" van (its predecessor had a beaky nose and split windscreen), it fell off the twig in Europe in 1979, but factories in South America kept churning them out. Two Gloucestershire-based brothers, Chris and Jason Jones, have been quietly importing the vehicles from Brazil since the late 1990s and have developed a lucrative sideline converting them into caravans, although minibuses and bog standard vans are also sold.
The brothers are inheritors of a vehicle-engineering and car dealership business almost 70-years-old. Their grandfather was involved with AJS motorcycles and their father developed a six-wheel-drive system for Land Rovers. The brothers are still involved with making bullet-proof Land Rovers ("If you see an armour-plated UN Land Rover on the news, it's probably one of ours," said Chris).
They began importing new Mexican Beetles after Chris brought one to the UK for himself and found that other people wanted one, too. "The Beetle thing was supposed to be a hobby for Jason and I to work two days a week. Instead, it became a £3m full-time, pressurised business," Chris said.
Word of their Beetle-importing activities reached the Brazilian van factory, which approached the brothers and asked if they'd like to import their vehicles, too. It was a fortuitous move. "In the past two years we've seen sales drop alarmingly on the Beetle side, and with the vans we haven't had to make anybody redundant."
The pair now employ 14 people to build the campers. They bought the remnants of an Essex-based motor caravan-making business called Danbury. For a generation of children who grew up in the 1970s, the name Danbury will always be associated with VW campers painted in violent oranges and yellows, with Formica work surfaces and rectangular foam cushions inside. Nostalgia on wheels.
Chris reckons his customer base is generally aged 35 to 60. "People buying campers are more laid back than people buying cars," he said.
But turning back the clock isn't cheap. The converted vans cost between £18,000 and £30,000; there are also posh versions with leather seats, alloy wheels, lowered suspensions, lots of chrome bits and DVD players. "We've got two vehicles in build costing £30k plus. We've sold them with purple and pink leather. One was in metallic blue with cream leather to match the gentlemen's Bentley," said Chris, adding that one recent customer had been an 'It' girl, although he couldn't reveal which 'It' she was. "We sell to normal people, too, the sort of people who've had other vans restored three or four times and want a new one," he said.
He concedes that the opportunity for them to do this is likely limited. T2 vans are no longer being sold to private buyers in Brazil; the model survives on sales to the army and continuing export-market orders. VW apparently plans to use the factory to make cars for Europe, including a sub-£5,000 model called the Fox. Chris reckons his beloved vans will not be around in 12 to 18 months. Danbury is preparing for this awful day by converting modern Renault vans, and has designs on a Fiat.
What then, is the appeal of the old VWs? "You travel at 65-70mph. They teach you that it's not about being somewhere that matters, it's about getting there. The Renaults are quiet and refined, but you tend to blast to where you're going. The VWs only have a 250 to 300-mile fuel range, so you start to explore the area you're in."
With Chris riding shotgun, I took to the lanes of Gloucestershire in one of his creations. I've never been a Beetle fan, with its fart-in-a-bath engine note, back-to-front handling and sit-on-the-floor driving position. But the van is a different story. The engine lives a long way from you, and since driver and passenger sit over the front wheels it has good weight distribution and nicer handling (although, with nothing but a tin front and spare wheel between you and oncoming traffic I wouldn't care to crash one).
The old dear has that lovely look-over-walls driving position and big floor-hinged pedals which require some serious stamping to get the best from them. New, the nodding-dog ride is less noddy and the gear change is floppy but oddly precise. And Type 2 drivers do without a new-fangled fifth gear.
With just 1,600cc to push it along (although the engine now has fuel injection and exhaust catalysts) performance was surprisingly perky. Anybody who has driven one of these things before will be instantly at home with its relaxed character.
It may be old, slow and living on borrowed time, but when this motoring icon finally disappears from the road, a lot of people will weep into their plastic sandwich boxes. It's easy to see why.
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