By the time the VW California was launched in the UK in 2005, VW camper vans had a heritage stretching back over 50 years. In Part 1 and Part 2 I traced the history of the camper van from the humble beginnings of the earliest splitscreens in the 1950-60s through to the burgeoning popularity of the bay window and subsequent variations from the 1970-2000s. In this post I bring the story right up to date, including speculation on what future camper vans may look like.
While the camper van is a modern-day icon synonymous with VW, the one characteristic shared by every 20th Century van is that none of them were sold directly by VW. They were all conversions, produced by Westfalia as well as a host of other companies using a VW Transporter base vehicle. However, the sale of Westfalia to DaimlerChrysler in 2001 prompted VW to re-think their approach. With the imminent launch of the latest version of the VW van, the T5, VW took the decision to reinvent a modern camper van with production based in-house.
Unsurprisingly, VW had learned a lot from the many designs and modifications of camper vans during the previous 50 years. They applied their design expertise – the kind of expertise that comes from a deep understanding of how their customers actually use their vehicles – to produce a vehicle that is specifically designed as a camper van right from the start. (In a future post I’ll review the many T5-based conversions that are now available and demonstrate the compromises that have to be made in after-market modifications).
These promotional videos show off the ingenuity of VW’s design. Forget heavy, clunky materials – in come lightweight aluminium, veneers and plastics. Why have chunky rectangular units when you can have subtle curves to your worktops, tables and units. From the ease of an electronically elevating roof to the ingenuity of the storage (including the outdoor chairs stored in the tailgate), the California is a true 21st Century camper van.
While a dedicated camper van, the California easily serves as a daily vehicle owing to its compactness and flexibility. At 2.44m it is no longer than a standard MPV or mid-sized car, although front and rear parking sensors certainly give you greater confidence in tight spaces. While a slight drawback for larger families, the standard California seats just four with an optional, removable fifth seat being available to position between the rear bench and front two swivelling seats.
Plenty power is provided by a range of 2-litre turbodiesel engines, either 6- or 7-speed, and with a 4-Motion (four wheel drive) version also available. It’s needed too – with the camping equipment on board the van weighs 3000kg and deserves appropriate care and respect when driving.
When pitched on site the van comes into its own. Pop up the roof, open the windows to let in the light and lift the ceiling on its hydraulic supports so you can stand up. Swivel the front seats around and slide out the internal table in between. Unclip the outdoor table from the sliding door and the two picnic seats from the tailgate. Unwind the (optional) awning to give you some shade to sit under. Then brew up a cuppa and relax ! (If you’re used to tent camping, getting set up will take you at least an hour … with the Cali you’re sipping your cup of tea within 15 minutes).
In 2010 the T5 van underwent a subtle facelift, including updated engines, new-style headlights, larger mirrors and a lighter internal colour scheme (the facelift version is shown in this post). At the same time, VW launched a new model in the UK – the Beach.
The Beach is designed to provide an even more flexible solution for owners that need to combine the practicality of a 7-seater for daily use with the option to also use the van for camping. It lacks the kitchen equipment and electrically elevating roof and so as a camper van really requires an additional driveaway awning tent to allow for cooking and storage, although just like the California is does sleep up to four adults.
While gaining in popularity, the California and Beach are still seldom seen on the UK’s roads. Just under 2500 have been sold between 2005-12, the vast majority being Californias. Of course, there are many more T5s that have been converted into camper vans – marginally cheaper to purchase perhaps but lacking the quality and style of the models produced directly by VW.
So, what does the future hold for the VW camper van ?
Well, VW unveiled a concept vehicle – the Bulli (the German nickname for the original T1 splitscreen) – at the Geneva Motor Show recently. While smaller than the California and without the camping (kitchen) equipment, the concept appears closer to the flexibility of the Beach but much closer to an MPV in design. It retains the unmistakable styling of the VW van, particularly with its two-tone paintwork and large VW badge, but is a clear demonstration of the next generation housing an electric rather than a diesel engine.
Since the launch of the T1 in 1951 VW have evolved the VW van every 12-15 years or so. If this pattern holds true we could be seeing the next iteration making its appearance towards the end of the decade.
For further reading and inspiration check out:
- VW UK’s California Website
- VW Australia’s Kombi Beach Website
- VW Australia’s California Website
- VW Germany’s California Website
- the UK VW California Club forum
My later posts including