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Volkswagen Campervan

Published: 29th Jun 2011 - 0 Comments - Be the first, contribute now!

Buyer Beware

  • It’s unlikely that anything other than the lower parts of the bodywork will need attention. The sills, front valance, wheelarches and door bottoms are suspect, with cover sills often being fitted to mask serious problems beneath.
  • Check the floorpans, especially towards the front, where there’ll be lots of mud but no leaked engine oil to protect the metal. Also, lift the engine cover and see what state the inner wheelarches are in; battery often leaks acid.
  • The leading edge of the roof also corrodes, while the metal rots immediately below the windscreen. The result is water ingress.
  • Cotton-sheathed rubber hose is used for fuel lines. This hardens and perishes. The hose should be replaced annually.
  • Campers are heavy and underpowered, so the engines get used hard and wear accordingly. Look for blue smoke, which indicates worn piston rings or cylinder bores. The cheapest option is to fit a used unit which can be bought for around £100; a rebuild is closer to £1000.
  • In general use, the main thing you really need to keep your eye on air-cooled is the condition of the fanbelt. When the belt snaps the engine will quickly overheat and this is the cause of the fires at the back of VWs, often seen on motorway hard-shoulders.
  • Feel for excessive crankshaft end float by pulling on the fan belt pulley. If there’s any detectable movement, the main bearings need replacing, which means stripping the engine.
  • The heat exchangers that make up the cabin’s heating system can corrode and allow engine fumes to permeate the interior. Dangerous!
  • Make sure there are no tight spots as you turn the steering wheel. A steering box rebuild kit for 1955-1963 vans is available exclusively from the Split Screen Van Club, which includes a new worm and peg, but costs nearly £500. If the steering feels very vague, you need to check for king pin wear.
  • The suspension is simple, with torsion bars all round. As well as losing some of their elasticity, ensure that the vehicle hasn’t been lowered, before being returned to normal spec. In the early ‘90s there was a trend towards lowering Type 2s by cutting the torsion bars, twisting them on their splines and rewelding them. You need to make sure it’s been done properly. Itrequires welding of the axle and suspension to attach the necessary parts.

Fast Facts

  • Driving: 4/5

    A hoot; not fast but always fun because you have to drive one well

  • Usability: 4/5

    Hugely practical, a Camper can be turned into whatever you wish.

  • Maintaining: 3/5

    Simple design and good spares availability but can be iffy to work on.

  • Owning: 4/5

    Superb social/club scene and great fun factor come with the badge.

  • Value: 3/5

    Top vehicles can be pretty pricey now – and you need to buy well.

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Camping-up your motoring has never been more fun, or made so much financial sense, says Steve Rowe

You don’t need to be a hippie to own a Volkswagen campervan. This 60-year-old commercial has been a massive hit with poseurs and pragmatists for decades. As a classic, or second vehicle, it makes a lot of sense. As a van, or in people carrying Caravelle guise, this bigged-up Beetle was a high quality, if Spartan, commercial, with a build only bettered by Mercedes. But the ‘VW camper’ (the collective name for all these VWs) soon became just as well known for its funky yet functional design, as well as a fashion statement. When Volkswagen retired its venerable T2 van in 1979, there was many a tear shed among the camping fraternity. The squarer T3 (also technically known as theT25) that replaced it may have been slightly bigger and arguably better, and was also initially available with the famous air-cooled engine, but it was the rounded profile of the earlier design that had come to represent freedom and travel to successive generations of happy campers.Want to join them?

Which model to buy?

It depends on what you want from your camper or how much you have to spend. For example, you can still buy brand new T2s from Brazil, re-engineered with 1.4-litre Golf engines, imported by Beetles UK. Also available as vans and minibuses, most of them are converted into campervans by the UK outfit Danbury Motor Caravans. A lot of people are interested in these brand new VWs because they remove the hassle of repairing and restoring an old one, yet offer all the charm of a classic, with a few modern conveniences thrown in for good measure. This is not always a formula that works, but in this case buyers are unlikely to be disappointed. That said, most enthusiasts crave the original aircooled models. The basic design fundamentally remained the same through the years. The air-cooled engines were originally taken from the VW Beetle, but the vans never had the same separate chassis as the Beetle, instead relying on monocoque construction. Naturally, the ‘split-windscreen’ T1 has the most street cred and, as well as being very old now, they were always extremely basic. The ‘bay-window’ T2 is a bit better, and uses larger engines, although lacks the style of the original. The VW was made in both van, Kombi and pick-up guises, with a double-cab option from 1958. More power from the 1200cc unit came in ‘63. A major new chapter started in 1967, when the split-screen Type 2 was replaced by the bay-window edition. Fitted with a 1584cc powerplant, there was 47bhp on tap – this figure rising to 50bhp from 1970 thanks to the fitment of twin-port cylinder heads. However, from 1971 there was a twin-carb 1679cc engine fitted, offering 66bhp; this could also be specified with an automatic gearbox from 1972. The development continued, with a 1795cc engine fitted from 1973. This offered 68bhp, but the ultimate edition of the Type 2 went on sale in 1975, complete with a 70bhp 1970cc powerplant. That was it for the development of the European-built vans, until 1979, when the third-generation camper went on sale.

The ‘79 T3 may have lost the cute looks of the earlier models but the compensation was numerous improvements, such as a better (and excellent) equal weight distribution, rack-and-pinion steering and an engine choice from 1.6-2.0-litres. There was also a more modern cabin and greater comfort; this generation isn’t the most fashionable but well-kept early examples are arguably the best of the air-cooled breed and are very good value for money. Later examples of the rear-engined T3 used water-cooled engines, with both petrol and diesel versions. Let’s talk prices for a moment. Remember the days of buying these buses for just a few quid? Those days are over. Deluxe or Samba Split Screens command the highest prices; you can pay to £25k for a good one. Early barn doors also command high prices due to their rarity. But £10k-£12k buys a top split-screen, while a project will cost £2k-£5k. Bay-window values are catching up, but there are still a few bargains around. £1k buys a rusty project while a more usable example is £5k and the best ones command well over £10k. There are always plenty of LHD vehicles being imported, usually from Germany but also from the USA, and prices should be at least 10 per cent less than UK models.

Motorhome conversions

When it comes to motorhomes, the particular manufacturer of the conversion can also add to the price. German manufacturer Westfalia, for instance, was well known for its high quality conversions and these can command a premium, if in good original condition. From UK manufacturers, look out for conversions from Dormobile, plus the original Devon and Danbury companies. Other lesser-known convertors include Viking (look out for the huge ‘Spacemaker’ elevating roof) and Canterbury Pitt. Real enthusiasts look for originality when it comes to the state of the interior conversion and can spend ages looking for the correct cooker or the correct sink unit to bring their camper van back to its original condition. An all-original interior in top condition will dramatically increase the value of a classic VW camper.

Behind the wheel?

Yes, of course you can use your VW ever y day with confidence…

The remarkable thing about getting behind the wheel of a camper, even a new one, is just how classic and right they all feel. The cab is spacious but austere, a small selection of old-style knobs and levers sprinkled across a rather plain black dash. The steering wheel is big and bus-like and the pedals, which still sprout through rubber matting (and yes, if you look carefully you can still seedaylight where they push through the floor!) take a while to get used to. That fantastic all-round view and high set driving position is still impressive and the cab is comfortable enough, if not particularly luxurious. New or old, the driving experience is remarkably similar in either.Apart from some of the later bay-window Type 2s, performance of any original-spec camper is going to be on the leisurely side to say the least. However, far from making the driving experience a frustrating one, it just ensures you relax and enjoy the ride.  The water-cooled unit in the new South American-built bay-windows doesn’t sound particularly out of place either – with the engine hung so far back, the characteristic aircooled note was always more noticeable on the outside than it was from the driver’s seat in any case. Having just 1.4-litres to propel a campervan as large as this does not sound much, but even the largest of the old boxer units (the 2-litre) peaked around 70bhp, while the modern motor manages 8bhp more from 400 fewer horses. With their soft suspension, these VWs are comfortable, if floaty, at speed, and although the engine has to work continually hard, there’s never much noise intruding in the cabin. That’s because you leave the sound behind, with the unit buzzing away quite a distance fromthe two front seats. The T3, with its improved suspension and weight layout, is the more secure handler plus doesn’t pitch andwallow so much – all things being equal on these old designs of course. However, all vans suffer from buffering in strong winds (if anything the squarer-fronted T3 is worse here) due the rear engine position, though you won’t be going fast enough for this to be too much of a problem!

The Daily Option?

The short answer is that yes, of course you could use your VW every day with confidence and ease. After all, the things are still used as taxis in many parts of Central and South America and clock up colossal over-loaded miles. The Achilles’ heel of the old air-cooled vans was a heating system that was rather theoretical, especially after several decades of decay had eaten into the heat exchangers (the modern T2 has a proper heater plumbed into the engine’s water jacket). There is no synchro-mesh on first gear, so it can take drivers of moderns a few crunches before they remember to come to a complete stop to slide the gearstick into bottom gear. By modern standards, the VW is fairly heavy to drive,but that’s all part of the character. If the pace of these old timers doesn’t appeal there’s a massive amount you can do to perk these vehicles up (see our Hot Car Classic on the Beetle –June 2010 issue – as a guide) but the current fad is to slot in the Subaru boxer engine, as found in Impreza and Leagacy ranges. The engine is quite similar in design and size and there are complete kits available in the States. Being van-based there’s more than enough space for daily life, although most folk seem to deck theirs out as a motorhome. The rear engine means an extremely high rear load deck, which is why side doors were always welcome and set a trend for modern vans to be so equipped. Fuel economy will depend upon the age and condition of the vehicle in question, along with how it’s driven. The pedestrian performance can mean that the pedal is to the metal all too often. Even so, expect around 30mpg driven sensibly. One thing we would improve on a six-volt pre ‘67 vehicle is converting to a 12-volt electrical system – it’s well worth the time and expense, if for no other reason than connecting your Tom Tom when exploring the wilderness that lurks beyond the M25?

Ease of Ownership?

It’s an old school VW for goodness sake so relax! Spares and parts are very easy to obtain and while some special tools and know-how are required (especially on the engine) the mechanics are so well known that you won’t run into trouble. What still impresses is the high standard of quality these vehicles were made to – in many ways shaming the latest VAG products. Rust and previous bodges will be the biggest worry and expense, but all you need is available from owners clubs and internet forums, which are there to help – and that’s one of the best things about this VW.

Timelines

1949

The first prototype van is built using the Beetle's chassis. This was not up to the job, and a unitary body was developed instead, leaving just the engine to come from the Beetle along with its running gear.

1950

Production begins of the Van, Kombi and Bus versions which are latter known as ‘Splitties. All have split front screens and 1131cc/25bhp Beetle engine. A rarely spotted pick-up version follows in 1952

1962

1967

Redesign sees split windscreen and sculpted nose replaced with a single bay and smooth front. Same wheelbase but longer overhangs. Revised rear axle allows a lower floor. Engine is1.6-litre, 47bhp from the Type 3.

1971

1.7-litre engine from the VW411 is offered as an option, giving 66bhp and better packaging thanks to relocated cooling fan. For the 1974 model year, this engine is replaced by the 68bhp 1.8-litre unit.

1975/79

Engine grows to 2-litres and70bhp. Available with automatic option. Production of the T2 ends in Germany in ‘79, to be replaced by the angular T25 but continues at the VW factory in Mexico with old 1.6 air-cooled engine.

1991

Mexican Type 2s finally ditch the air-cooled engine, but continue for a further five years using an adaptation of the Golf's 1.4 water-cooled powerplant. When production ends in ’96 it carries on in Brazil.

2005

Brazil finally gives up on the aircooled motor, and all T2s built from December onwards are powered by the 1.4 Golf unit. This delivers 78bhp on petrol and 80bhp when run on ethanol fuel. Still being imported…

We Reckon...

When you think that some people travel around the world in these vehicles, living in them for months (or even years) on end, it gives you some idea of how practical they are. But you don’t have to drive around Africa to appreciate the camper’s qualities. As long as it keeps going, all’s well with the world!



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