This is a question that has been uttered by many people across the world, I’m sure. This post could also be subtitled “my personal journey to owning a VW camper van” since it tells the first part of my story to researching and testing out various versions of VW campers. In my next VW camper vans post – Act 2 – I’ll review the various modern-day campers available in the UK, but this first part of the story will focus on my first-hand experiences with a Bay window VW.
Owing a VW camper van conjures many different emotions and serves a variety of motivations. For some, it’s a romantic or cool notion, for others purely practical or even an obsession. In my experience there tend to be two broad types of owners:
- first, there are the mechanically-minded VW buffs. Almost always male, they’re heavily into the VW scene having owned and driven various VWs at all stages of their lives (Beetles, Golfs, Passats, Sciroccos, Transporters …) They make modifications to their vehicles and know how it works, inside and out;
- second, are those who see a camper van as a means of holidaying and exploring the world. They typically ‘upgrade’ from camping under canvas for greater flexibility and comfort. Some keep a camper purely for holidays (it’s parked up the rest of the year) but many use it as a daily vehicle.
I belong the second category.
Act 1, Scene 1 (somewhere west of Glasgow, Summer 2008)
Here we all are, unloading a multitude of goods and chattels from our car on to some concrete hardstanding next to a bright yellow 1974 Bay window camper van. It’s a Westfalia conversion with a Viking pop-top, sleeping up to five people. We’re standing in what seems like a farmyard that now houses various industrial units. In spite of the somewhat less-than-appealing circumstances, we’re excited. Did I say we were excited ? Make that EXCITED !! We’re off on holiday for a week in a rented camper van ! This is our chance to test out an original van before we take the plunge and buy one ourselves.
We get a quick tour of the van from the hire company. Looks great. OK, our expectations haven’t quite been met – it’s perhaps a little scruffy inside and those cups could do with a wash. I also realise that the driver’s seat isn’t adjustable (at all) and need to sit on the edge of the seat and use a cushion to reach the pedals but, hey, we’re realistic to know that we shouldn’t expect creature comforts in a 30+ year-old camper van.
We’re soon chugging down a dual carriageway nervously changing up to 4th gear and reaching the dizzying heights of 50 mph. Shortly after we’re enjoying the fine views driving up beside Loch Lomond. We’re realising that driving at a sedate pace allows you a whole different perspective on life; why hurry when the journey is as much fun as the destination ? We’re on an adventure.
We get a wave from another Bay in Inveraray (hey, we’re now part of the VW community). Then we pitch up for the night at Port Ban Holiday Park near Kilberry, with fantastic views westwards to Islay and Jura. [Tip: this is a great site with the Kilberry Inn just nearby].
Act 1, Scene 2 (Islay)
We’ve taken the CalMac ferry across to Islay and are now camped on the dunes at the Kintra Farm campsite (another great site, pretty basic but you’re right at the head of a 7-mile beach).
We enjoy pottering around Islay, well known around the world for its fine whisky. It’s windy and one night the roof starts creaking in the middle of the night. I wake up with the gusts succeeding in forcing the roof down on top of me ! Luckily, I manage to escape being completely flattened and the four of us cosy up ‘downstairs’ for the rest of the night. These things happen I guess…
The novelty of the van is beginning to wear off a little. We wonder why the hire company would let out a van with scratched and dirty plastic cups and board games with pieces missing. Sure, an old van has its quirks and foibles but there’s no excuse for letting down the experience with a lack of attention to the basics. There’s also a distinctly musty smell from the folding roof; previous hirers have clearly not allowed it to dry before packing it away.
Act 1, Scene 3 (Port Askaig, Islay)
We’re waiting in the queue for the ferry back to Tarbert on the mainland, cooking up tea in the van. The table decides to “do a wobbly” and before we know it, a pan filled with boiling noodles has fallen on to the floor narrowly missing scalding the kids. We didn’t touch it – a retaining clip came off and it just gave way. Oh dear, this isn’t going well …
Act 1, Scene 4 (On the bonnie, bonnie banks of Loch Lomond)
We decide to eat out at the posh marina bar belonging to Cameron House Hotel, right beside the loch. After a good meal I walk back to the car park to pick up the van before returning back to the bar to pick up the rest of the family. When I get close enough to see my wife I wonder why she’s frantically waving at me. I stop and she points to the back of the van – the towbar bike rack has also decided to “do a wobbly”. It turns out that the third of four rusty bolts holding the towbar-mounted bike rack to the van has made a bid for freedom. The bike tyres have been bouncing off the road and the whole of the bike rack and steel rear bumper are slumped down towards the road. Fortunately I wasn’t driving faster than 20 mph.
We’ve had enough. We phone the rental company and tell them to come and collect their van since we’re not driving it any further. Within an hour they arrive with our car and we swap our belongings over, relieved to have left an unroadworthy vehicle behind. With a cheery grin the owners tell us that they’re planning to take the same van up to Skye for a fortnight the very next day. No problem, they said, we’ll have it in the garage tonight and the welder will get the bumper patched up good as new …
As you might imagine we are not happy. We write a letter of complaint suggesting that the van is not roadworthy and that no responsible business would ever operate in the way they clearly do. We do at least receive the courtesy of a reply, denying all charges against them.
They did admit that they had wondered whether they should sell the van we had hired at the end of that season. But guess what, they’re still renting it out, four years on ! Unbelievable. And they can only get away with it since customers are only ever going to rent a camper van once from the same company in their lives, and there appears to be so little competition in this market that they can get away with it.
[I should of course point out that this post recounts my personal negative experience with one particular hire company. I have absolutely no evidence to suggest that other companies operate in a similar fashion. I merely suggest that you do your research in advance and select wisely.]
The moral of the story
Readers, you will not be surprised to learn that this sorry tale ended our flirtatious thoughts of owning a “cool” Bay window camper van.
If you happy to fall into the first category of VW camper van owners – see above – then you will no doubt relish the thought of renovating and maintaining an original van, particularly if you are have a spare £10,000 – £20,000 you don’t need. Many people take great enjoyment from being a camper van fanatic and good luck to you.
But if you’re like us and fall into the second category, I would strongly urge you to be prepared to take a reality check on any romantic notions of owning a classic VW. By all means, hire one for a week to ‘get it out of your system’ (and you will !) but think very carefully about long-term ownership. If you’re after a VW camper ‘experience’ there are other, easier routes to enjoyment – which I’ll cover in Part 2 of this story.