Page last updated at 08:08 GMT, Wednesday, 2 June 2010 09:08 UK

Volkswagen camper van marks 60 years of production

A convoy of VW camper vans on the M23

By Peter Jackson
BBC News

The Volkswagen camper van celebrates 60 years of production this year - and for its generations of fans, the love affair is far from over.

They lie on their backs in oil, get pulled from side to side by their brakes and greet steep hills with a nervous sigh but when you are truly in love nothing really matters.

The owners of vintage VW camper vans are a dedicated bunch, lavishing care, attention and money on their beloved wheels.

They are the first to admit their "Combis" stop badly, weigh a ton, are underpowered and prone to electrical failure - but despite the faults, they remain a magnetic pull.

Campers have been the vehicle of choice for globe trotters, festival-goers, surfers and rock stars for six decades.

A Globe theatre touring production fo Romeo and Juliet (Photo: James Erskine)
Love wagon: Romeo and Juliet in the Globe theatre's touring production

So what is the appeal, and why, like the Routemaster bus or Mini, is the humble van so revered?

Long-term owner Adrian Ward, 45, has more than 25 years experience restoring them and runs a dedicated Camper van garage in Bournemouth.

"They force you to take it easy, force you to slow down, if you're in a hurry then forget it," he explains.

"There's a driving position you develop - this slouch with your elbows resting on the wheel and you leant over it. All of a sudden you can take it easy and watch everyone fly past you.

"There's a well known phrase, 'it's not about the destination, it's about the journey' - that's very apt when you're in a camper."

'Mobile office'

Mr Ward owns one of the rarest of all models - a 23-window Samba from 1962, originally built for touring in the Alps and worth about £30,000.

He has bought more than 40 Combis over the years, which he says are fun, yet versatile enough to "run to the shops or take the family away on holiday".

Rev Simon Lockett
Former farmer Rev Lockett uses his van to get to know his flock better

But it is not just those "in the scene" who have fallen for the dual charms of form and function.

In 2007, when the Globe theatre sent a company out on tour for the first time in 400 years, they wheeled in a camper.

Just like the Elizabethan horse and cart it replaced, the van was packed with costumes and props then incorporated into the production - in this case Romeo and Juliet.

In rural Herefordshire, a vicar of five Wye Dore parishes still uses his 1973 model to reach out to his flock and spread his message.

Rev Simon Lockett, or the Rolling Rev to locals, says he spends a week at a time in the summer camping out in three parish villages to made himself more accessible and visible.

The 43-year-old said: "I guess it's the iconic status that appeals. The youngsters love it but it also acts as a mobile office and I can sit and use the laptop."

Campers, particularly the rarer split-screen models, have become increasingly collectable. Good examples fetch about £13,000 and the best upwards of £25,000.

VW Campervans
Hippy van - popularity with the 1960s/70s counterculture movement
Vee-dub - two syllable variation of company name VW
Transporter, Kombi - the original German names, spawning the variant Combi
Splitty - Versions produced before 1967 used a split front windshield
Breadloaf - its design looks like bread baked in a mould

The rarest of all - an early Barndoor Samba, of which there are just a handful worldwide - would set you back at least £60,000.

One producer in Germany will even ship one containing a six cylinder Porsche 911 engine for 150,000 euros (£127,000) - but the waiting list is five years.

The camper van began life as a wagon to carry panels around VW's car plant in Wolfsburg, until it was spotted in the late 1940s by Dutch importer Ben Pon.

He made sketches based on the vehicle then struck a deal with engineers to develop them - spawning the first model complete with cylindrical headlights, split windscreen and famous circular logo.

Synonymous with 1960s counter culture, the vehicles have never lost their popularity.

Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver travelled around Italy in one for his Great Escape TV show and they continue to feature in countless TV adverts - Dorset Cereals and the Halifax to name two recent examples.

60,000-mile trek

Mike Johnson, 36, from Southampton edits the newsletter of the Split Screen Van Club (SSVC) and has owned his 1959 model for six years.

"Even though they are iconic and cool vehicles, it's function not form that really sets them apart from other classics," he says.

"We use it as a family camper, a run around, a parts hauler and for VW shows... and I love every minute."

SSVC president Neil Smart, 48, says the media has driven much of the interest, along with renewed interest in 60s and 70s music, and surf wear.

Roger Daltry
F1 racer Jenson Button
The Who's Pete Townshend
The Who's Roger Daltry
Actor Martin Clunes

He says more than anything else, he values the friendships and camaraderie he has developed with fellow enthusiasts.

VW drivers famously acknowledge each other on the road with a special wave or sign - an open hand with the three middle fingers folded to the palm.

There are upwards of 65 Volkswagen shows and rallies in England every year, plus a handful in Wales, Scotland and Ireland.

Tales of marathon journeys are not uncommon. In 2000 a US couple gave up their corporate jobs and clocked up 60,000 miles over three years touring Mexico, Central America, South America and Africa in their 1978 van.

Two years ago Mr Smart made his favourite of all road trips in Europe along with five other split-screen van owners.

"We took six splitties down to Austria, driving 2,500 miles in 13 days, and it [his van] never missed a beat," he said.

"Everyone was waving and taking pictures, we were treated like kings and queens because we'd made such an effort to go."

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