- What most people probably do not know is that a VW Type II became the equally iconic camper van.
At the final defeat of Germany, the VW factory was in British hands. The innovative and pragmatic British modified a Type I car chassis to be used as a motorised trolley for quickly transporting parts around the factory to get production levels up.
A Dutch car importer called Ben Pon visited the Hanover factory, saw these adapted trolleys, and thought that a big box could be mounted on top to provide an excellent and very spacious van. When Heinz Nordhoff became Chief Executive of the VW company, a new vehicle was required to compliment the people’s car — and Pon’s idea of a simple work-horse van was a perfect project; it was needed for post-war rebuilding and for use by working-class folk for moving things about. The design was quickly developed and eventually the first VW van (split-window or ‘splitty’) was launched at the Geneva Motor Show.
After a year of production of Type II 8-people buses, delivery vehicles and even fire-engines, Westfalia (a firm of coachbuilders) developed the Type II into a camper van for VW, mainly by putting in a double bed and a cooker as well as elevating roofs to increase headroom. VW Westfalia won over the USA market, while in Britain the most popular conversion was the VW Devon produced by JP White of Sidmouth, but one will easily come across conversions by Martin Walter, Danbury, Canterbury Pitt and Moortown too.
The VW camper van conversion is clearly a classic design icon for the simple reason that it is an instantly recognised item (despite variations); it is ‘of its kind’ (the first van for camping in, a home-from-home), and the basic design remained the same for four decades of production with over five million manufactured and sold.
The classic VW camper van conversions were built between 1951 and 1967. A rear-mounted air-cooled standard ‘Beetle’ engine of about 1.1 litres produced 18kW of power at 3300 rpm, on a standard ‘Beetle’ axle and chassis.
Almost ‘art deco’; it resembles a train or an aeroplane with the split front windscreen, sweeping v-line front and large VW emblem. These ‘splitties’ had a spacious volume of nearly 5 m3 and a payload of about three-quarters of a tonne. During 1963 the engine size increased to 1.5 litres and also the sliding side door became available as an option. The electrical system was 6V, although this changed to the standard 12V just before the redesign of 1967.
The first major design variation was in1967 — the front windscreen had the split removed and the spare tyre was mounted at the front. These are known as ‘bay window models’. The more modern versions produced after 1979 are known as ‘wedges’.
The bay window model made the VW camper van conversions a commercial worldwide success and by 1975 the Hanover factory had built four million of these vehicles. Reliability improved with a range of larger engine sizes became available (1.6, 1.7, 1.8 and 2 litre).
The classic icon status was sealed when the Volkswagen (sometimes misspelled as ‘Voltswagen’) camper van was featured in the ‘Scooby-Doo’ cartoon as the ‘Mystery Machine’. The van has become Americanised and associated with the ‘Summer of Love’, hippies, and now the surfing community in the USA and in Australia.