Keeping Alive a Hippie Vagabond Vehicle
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because the soul of the ’70s is alive and well.
The camper van: It’s the antithesis of the all-singing, all-dancing RV, a lumbering beast offering every convenience but costing a fortune to fill up. Camper vans get three or four times the mileage, but home comforts can be pretty spartan. Yet they retain a fierce following among a generation that associates this basic sleepover vehicle with romance and freedom. Production of the Volkswagen Type 2, nicknamed the “camper van” when it was at its zenith, may have ceased last year after 64 years, but it’s still much beloved.
Jez Murphy, who’s owned 30 camper vans since age 18, is only content now with the model of his dreams: a rare 1967 Samba. He habitually drives it to a beach near his home in Sussex, U.K., for the pure joy of giving it an outing, but with just one fold-down bed, he rarely camps in it with his wife and twin daughters. But it’s Murphy’s pride and joy. Why, when its 1,500-cubic-centimeter engine only does 50 miles per hour? The fun factor. “It’s exactly what I want to go to the seaside in to get an ice cream.”
Are camper vans practical? That’s not the point.
That spontaneity of what’s more family car than vacation vehicle fuels the ongoing popularity of the T2, according to Jason Jones of Danbury Motorcaravans, a British firm that holds sole world rights to re-create the vehicle. It can be used for groceries or school runs but also allows for the “freedom of suddenly deciding to take off in it on a Friday night.” Jones also applauds the van’s ability to navigate tricky British roads — narrow lanes and low bridges — and the social aspect of the camper van community. Another plus: When it’s used every day, the battery stays charged.
The T2 was the vehicle of choice blazing the hippie trail across Europe to India in the 1960s — at the same time it was adopted by West Coast surfers and the flower-power tribe, who applied psychedelic decorations to their buses during the Summer of Love. No wonder the first model that VW fitted out with beds in 1988 was called the “California.”
I had a love-hate relationship with ours.
Are camper vans practical? “That’s not the point,” says Murphy, who reckons his “dream bus” is worth $90,000, even though it has none of the plumbing many customized versions offer. “Would a big RV be more comfortable to camp in? Of course,” he admits. “Would a new model go faster? Definitely. But it wouldn’t have the soul.” Camper van traveling isn’t for everyone, especially those accustomed to more luxurious accommodations. Because facilities can be basic — no shower or toilet, a two-burner stove and a small fridge — it just “cannot rival the modern caravan,” says Zoe Hague of O’Connors Campers, which books 450 rentals of the vintage vehicles over a typical British season.
“I had a love-hate relationship with ours,” says Elaine Gilboa, who married into the cult of the camper van and has lived with three in Los Angeles since 1972. She enjoyed the higher-up views not available from a car, but found the sleeping arrangements cramped and that the weather conditions had to be just right. She remembers sweltering on a summer trip to Florida and freezing in the Western national parks during one Easter.
But for some, that also lends a certain appeal: the whole retro experience. Hague says that customers of O’Connors Campers — retired people, surfers, honeymooners, young families — are more than happy to tackle a gadget-free camping experience on a “truly team-building adventure” with a “new member of the family.” Which sounds a little bit like obsession for a small, slow, old-school van lacking in creature comforts. But as Murphy puts it, at least it looks great.