The #vanlife trend is booming, but not new, and owners of Volkswagen camper vans probably started it all. Nomads have been using these tiny homes on wheels to crisscross the country for decades. They’ve become a symbol of freedom and adventure for those embracing an alternative lifestyle.
Their unique design and versatility make them even more appealing to travelers. They’re practical, comfortable, and stylish, allowing nomads to embrace minimalism and hit the open road.
Today, we’re looking at Volkswagen camper vans and why they have been such a popular van life choice over the years. Let’s get started!
What Is a Volkswagen Camper Van?
A Volkswagen camper van is a Volkswagen van that has been converted into a camper. Particularly retro VW Transporter vans from the 50s, 60s, and 70s that became cultural icons of surf and hippy culture.
Volkswagen started producing its earliest Transporter vans from 1950 to 1967, also known as Kombis. From 1967 to 1979 they made the Type 2, then 1979 brought the T3 with its sharper angles and the first all-wheel-drive option. The T3 was sold as the Vanagon in the U.S.
The models were known as the Microbus, Kombi, or Type 2 over the years, but collectively also referred to as the “VW bus”. These first editions had a boxy, retro design featuring a pop-up roof and a clever interior with lots of windows for panoramic views from inside. While owners had interior space for sleeping, cooking, and storage, they needed more under the hood.
Volkswagen actually subcontracted the camper modifications to the company Westfalia-Werke. These camper conversions were, therefore, given the Westfalia designation. The first Westfalia camper van was converted in 1951 and they continued through many variations of the models until 2003. However, not all VW camper conversions are Westfalia, as other companies took on the conversions aftermarket as well. In the U.S., the Westfalia conversions were the most common.
The top speed in the original models was typically 55 to 75 mph. However, if drivers came across a hill or steep grade, they’d be lucky to hit 45 mph with the pedal touching the floor. Thankfully, newer models eventually featured larger engines that typically reach 80 to 90 mph.
These vans were popular models because they featured a small kitchenette, a dining table, and bench seating you could convert into a comfortable sleeping space. With the explosion in interest in van conversions, it’s not uncommon to see a restored VW camper van conversion on the road.
Can You Still Buy a Volkswagen Camper Van?
Unfortunately, Volkswagen retired the Volkswagen camper van in January 2014. This was primarily due to their inability to follow current safety regulations. However, there are plenty of used VW camper vans available for sale. But don’t expect them to be cheap just because they’re old.
Depending on the age and condition of the vehicle, you can expect to pay $50,000 to $90,000 or more. The more retro and better condition they’re in, the higher the price tag. Owning one of these camper vans isn’t cheap, either. However, you may score a deal if you find a vehicle that requires some TLC.
Pro Tip: Travel back in time and check out these 9 Coolest Blast-From-the-Past Vintage Motorhomes.
Do Volkswagen Camper Vans Have Toilets?
Most Volkswagen camper vans do not have built-in toilets. However, the Volkswagen Grand California is the largest VW van and is one of the rare camper vans with a built-in bathroom. It has a toilet, sink, and shower. Most owners settle for using a portable toilet to answer nature’s calls during their travels.
Benefits of Volkswagen Camper Vans
There are several benefits to choosing Volkswagen camper vans. Let’s look at some reasons you might want to consider one if you’re shopping for a tiny home on wheels.
Is there anything cooler than the iconic design of the Volkswagen camper vans? One of these camper vans traveling down the highway can be a sight. The retro charm of these vehicles attracts attention and deserves a second glance. Almost every generation enjoys the nostalgic look of these vehicles.
The only thing better is a trip down Route 66 in one of these vehicles. However, prepare for honks, waves, and thumbs up as people pass you. You might relive the glory days when the pace of life seemed a little slower.
One excellent thing about these vehicles is that you can take them almost anywhere. You don’t have to worry about low clearances or weight limits. You’re free to roam almost anywhere you want to go. They’re reliable and capable vehicles that can handle various environments.
In addition to being mechanically versatile, they’re also functionally versatile. While there may not be much space, you can use what is available in various ways. Whether you’re sleeping, eating, or relaxing, it’s easy to do in these camper vans. You won’t need to stop and check into a hotel while hauling almost everything you need.
Seriously: We have a friend who used his VW Vanagon to go overlanding!
As long as drivers take care of them, Volkswagen vehicles have a strong reputation for taking care of drivers. Like any vehicle, they require regular maintenance and upkeep. However, they’re durable and long-lasting vehicles.
When shopping for a camper van, you must ensure the current owner has maintained the vehicle. Otherwise, their lack of maintenance could become a significant problem for you. Unfortunately, the older a vehicle gets, the more likely it is to experience mechanical issues. So ensure you regularly inspect your van to keep it on the road.
One of the most apparent benefits of the VW camper vans is their compact size. It’s astonishing how Volkswagen squeezed so much functionality out of these tiny vehicles. However, its compact size allows you to travel nearly unrestricted.
Many drivers enjoy the compact size and not worrying about maneuvering nearly as much. Trying to find a parking spot for a big rig can be frustrating. Luckily, the VW camper vans are tiny enough that drivers have no issues fitting into standard parking spaces.
Many Volkswagen camper van owners discover when they purchase their vehicles that they’ve unknowingly joined a large community. VW owners stick together and help each other out when things don’t go right.
Expect to start waving at every VW vehicle you see on the interstate. The VW camper van community is like the Jeep community. Everybody waves and smiles at each other; you should embrace it and not fight it.
Pro Tip: Need some inspiration for your vintage motorhome remodel? Check out these 5 Old Camper Remodels That Will Blow Your Mind.
Disadvantages of a Volkswagen Camper Van
While there are many things to love about the Volkswagen camper van, they’re not perfect. Let’s look at a few disadvantages of owning one of these unique vehicles.
These vans aren’t cheap. Getting one in good condition will cost you a pretty penny. In addition, if something goes wrong or breaks on them, it won’t typically be a cheap repair. While you may enjoy how they look or the feelings you get when driving, owning one can be a significant hit on your bank account.
While owning a camper van can be fun, you must weigh all ownership costs. You don’t want to find yourself in a challenging situation financially because you embraced van life and ended up on the side of the road.
Just looking at a VW camper van and its flat front, it’s not hard to see why the safety ratings of these vans aren’t quite up to today’s standards. There isn’t much crumble zone between the front and the driver or passengers. In fact, the laws requiring airbags, ABS braking, and emissions requirements ultimately brought about the end of the Microbus as it was too expensive to add in the modifications.
One VW enthusiast also pointed out that the van could be hard to steer with all the weight in the back. Besides not having airbags or ABS, they did not have seat belts for a long time either.
Unless your camper conversion includes updated seats, heater, and air-conditioner, you’ll likely not experience the same vehicle comforts of modern-day vans. Characteristic of vehicles of the era, the dash was sparse and practical, and the seats functional. When driving in winter, heaters usually didn’t do anything for you, and there was no A/C in the summertime.
Original conversions will also skip these upgrades. However, some modern VW dwellers will add diesel van heaters.
One notable disadvantage of a VW camper van is the limited amount of space. The van may feel roomy when you climb into it for the first time. However, filling it with gear and other traveling items can feel claustrophobic. Tiny living isn’t easy; many quickly discover it’s not for them.
Living in such a limited space takes minimalism to a new level. You’ll have minimal storage space, and you’ll need to stay highly organized if you want to maintain your sanity. While it’s possible to live and travel for extended periods in these vehicles, it’s not straightforward.
Many overlook that you’ll have to live in a camper van with limited amenities. Preparing meals in a tiny space with minimal access to power and heat can be highly challenging. Controlling the climate inside a VW camper van can also be tricky. They may not come with heating or air conditioning when parked in a campsite.
While some adjustments are easier than others, the most challenging adjustments to make are with the bathroom and sleeping. Most of these vehicles do not have a bathroom. You’ll have to use a portable toilet or stay in locations close to a bathroom facility. Additionally, the size of your van may mean you can’t fully spread out when it’s time to retire for the night. Getting a solid night’s sleep in comfort can be nearly impossible.
Are Volkswagen Camper Vans Worth It?
We love seeing Volkswagen camper van owners on adventures around the country. We’ve seen some cruising through national parks, which looks like an incredible way to experience our country’s most beautiful landscapes. However, they can be costly to acquire and maintain. If you can afford them and make the necessary adjustments, we think they can be worth it for your adventures.
Would you seek out a Volkswagen camper van for your next trip? Tell us your thoughts in the comments!
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Sunday 30th of April 2023
You guys have come a long way since I first me you in northern California when you first started your on the road adventures. I bought my VW camper when stationed in Hawaii in 1971, loved it. Camped all the time. I upgraded the exhaust system to add more power. When transferred to the mainland I shipped it to California and subsequently travelled the US and Canada. I loved that van. Have since owned a truck camper, Class C and A.
Mortons on the Move
Sunday 30th of April 2023
We sure have Jon, hard to believe were still at it some days! Thats awesome you had one and have tried so many different rigs!