The VW camper van is one of the most iconic vehicles ever produced. Few other vehicles have the ability to turn heads and conjure a spirit of freedom, adventure and open roads.
This is the first of a three-part series providing you with a potted history of the VW camper van, told both in text but particularly through the imagery created by VW’s own advertising over the decades. VW’s “Think Small” campaign for the Beetle in the 1950s was ranked the best advertising campaign of the twentieth century by Ad Age in a survey of North American advertisements. VW’s campaigns were skillfully designed to build a lifetime of brand loyalty.
To understand the history of the VW camper van you first need to appreciate how its heritage is directly linked the VW Transporter, the base van also known as the Panel Van, Microbus and Plattenwagen. Contrary to the common view, it was not until the production of the California in 2005 that VW actually produced a camper van themselves – all previous campers were conversions carried out by other companies.
It was in Wolfsburg, a town in northern Germany, that the Volkwagen plant was supported to produce the Beetle as a means of stimulating post-war reconstruction. In 1947, when production of the Beetle was rapidly expanding, a Dutch car dealer and importer called Ben Pon, famously sketched out a simple, box-shaped delivery vehicle that was based on the Beetle’s chassis. He persuaded Heinrich Nordhoff, who ran the VW factory in Wolfsburg, to put the van into production. It was an innovative design that maximising the load-carrying capacity of the vehicle, in between the cab over the front wheels and the engine mounted over the rear wheels.
The first VW Transporter was unveiled at the Geneva Motor Show in November 1949 and soon became popular as a low-cost, adaptable and flexible utility vehicle. The ‘shoe box’ advert below shows its versatility. The basic Panel Van was simply a load-carrier with no windows. Put in some removable bench seats and windows and you then had the Kombi (the Kombinationskraftswagen). Add some creature comforts such as sliding canvas roof, skylights and high level trim and you had the Microbus or the Deluxe Microbus (also called the Samba). Remove the rear end and you had the flatbed van. Over the years, many variants were produced, both by VW, conversion companies and enthusiasts.
While the Beetle was officially named the T1, the Transporter became the T2. Somewhat confusingly, however, the first version of the van became the ‘Type 2 T1’ – or the T1 for short – with the same nomenclature applying right up to the T5, the current version produced from 2004/05 onwards. The T1 became known as the Splitscreen (or Splittie) owing to its distinctive front end or in Germany, the Bulli. Its personality soon developed and grew.
The T1 was produced for 17 years betweeen 1950 and 1967. During that time, VW evolved and varied the design, positioning it (like the Beetle) as a “people’s wagon”: affordable, adaptable and with a simple design. Soon, it became in icon of classic, 20th century design, with its cheeky ‘face’ and personality widely adored. With its rear-mounted, air-cooled, 25 horsepower engine it wasn’t exactly powerful, but was fairly reliable and simple enough to fix if anything went wrong.
In 1951 VW licensed another German firm, Westfalia, to produce the camper version using the Transporter base and it was exported from 1955 onwards. Westfalia’s camper vans evolved quickly in the early 1950s. They started to produce removable camping fittings that people could install in their Transporters for the weekend, reverting to a work van for midweek. In 1952 they begain producing Camping Boxes, vans with a permantly-installed kitchen unit behind the front bench seat and with a rear bench seat that converted into a sleeping platform.
A number of models catered for a variety of tastes, with different sized beds, solid wood or fomica work tops, and folding or concertina roofs. One of the plushest models, the SO23 Campingwagen Deluxe, designed for export to the USA, had curtains, carpets, insulation, additional cupboards and a 90-litre water tank. The only facility the SO23 didn’t have was an internal kitchen since export laws forbade the use of gas cookers within vehicles. In the late ’50s and ’60s Westfalia also sold a distinctive stripy awning as an optional extra which provided shade on the side of the van and either one or two awning sides.
While Westfalia were the ‘official’ VW converter of camper vans, over the years many competitors entered the emerging market. In the UK, Canterbury Pitt Conversions and Devon were the first companies producing camper conversions in 1956 and 1957 respectively. In the US ASI/Riviera and Sun-Dial converted vans similar to Westfalia’s design.
This great video shows some early vans including a 1950s camper with all mod cons.
This German film provides some amusing early footage of a 1950s Splitscreen Kombi (up to 1 min 30) before reviewing the later T2 T3 and T4 models up to 2004.
A promotional video for a VW restoration garage in London rather than a VW promo, this stands out as the coolest film of T1 vans you will ever want to see. Feast your eyes on two 1952 and 1954 barndoor vans and a 1964 panel van.
Bringing things to up to date, this UK advert engenders a feeling of the heritage that lies behind VW vans. Celebrating the 60 year anniversary of the first Transporters it shows how you too can buy a commercial van with a long lineage.
In Parts 2 and 3 of the series I will review the evolution of the camper van during the ’70s, ’80’s and ’90s right up to the current VW California and ‘Bulli’ concept car.