Old VW Campers. Advice/experience?
May 8, 2005 9:42 PM   Subscribe

When I was younger I dreamed of weekends away (and longer) in an old VW camper (called a Kombi, here in OZ). A decade later and I have spouse, kids (4yro, 2yro and 1 on the way) and enough money to make it possible. Good idea or not?

Our last holiday was a week in a small (by US standards) Winnebago style camper that was much enjoyed, but a 30 year old VW might be too much. I'm handy around the house/garden, but have little experience with cars. We would still keep a sedan for daily driving, so this would just be for fun.
Any advice or experience welcome, as well as cautions or encouragement.
posted by bystander to Travel & Transportation (12 answers total)
My family had a VW camper when I was younger and I loved that thing. It was an awesome 1970's brown and orange. I loved the pop-up roof especially. There was just enough room to sleep four people (5 might be okay if they're small). The rear seats folded into a bed for my parents and my brother slept in a built-in hammock over the front seats. I always slept in the hammock five feet in the air. I was probably the same age as your oldest and not afraid of heights. My mother did split the hammock open when she tried to sleep up there, so I would advise leaving it to the little ones.

We did have to get rid of it after the roof broke, but camping was great while it lasted. If you find one in good condition have the roof checked out by someone with experience with VW campers. Otherwise, have fun!
posted by Alison at 9:53 PM on May 8, 2005

We've got an '81 VW Vangon Westphalia (US name for VW camper). It's great, though not a modern machine. The fridge, stove, beds etc are all very nice. Our kids are grown, but I think that the ages you mention will do very well, except that the sliding door doesn't have childproof locks so you'll want to fix up something equivalent. They really are terrific vehicles, though a little underpowered -- we cruise at 60-65 mph, & being passed by heavy trucks can sometimes be disconcerting. Ours needed a new motor after we got it, because it had been standing unused for too many years (we got it for pennies, though, and now it's probably worth more than we've spent)

Fyi, may not be relevant, but there's a four-wheel drive version of the camper, quite rare, known in the US as a Synchro.

Email me if you want more detail (sorry, late night & i can't write more now)
posted by anadem at 10:09 PM on May 8, 2005

I just got back from five days in a rented Westfalia (an '86 Vanagon, I think). People adore these things, and I can see why. Your kids are small enough to fit right now; you could perhaps bring along a tent when they're older. The upper and lower bunks are both double-bed sized: you could stow three little kids in one easily. (Mine didn't have the hammock, but it looks cute!)

Westfalia conversions were done on VW buses, Vanagons, Eurovans and Syncros, so your choices may not be limited to ancient vehicles.

The Westy was so much more of a pleasure to drive than a Winnie or larger RVs. Although it was a little pokey, it had great visibility and handling, and could fit into little parking spots and campsites that many SUVs couldn't handle.

Plus, it would make a great guest house for visiting relatives!
posted by obloquy at 12:12 AM on May 9, 2005

There are a few places that convert Ford/GM vans into campers- do a search for "Sportsmobile" and see for yourself. These can be 4x4 even.
posted by gen at 1:02 AM on May 9, 2005

Join us. Join us.

Actually, mine's a bug, not a bus. But a veedub is a veedub is a veedub.

You've definitely got the climate on your side, when it comes to picking up something half-decent. I don't know about prices in Oz, but here in the UK, you'd expect to pay around £10,000 for a good restored example. You can pick them up a lot cheaper, but they can be a rolling money-pit. Often a non-rolling money-pit, actually.

If you've got the money, definitely get one that's been professionally restored. A paint off, down to the metal, restoration is best. There should be tons of photos of the restoration in progress. That'll give you an idea of how competent a job was done. The people that do this sort of thing usally love taking photos of what they're doing, so if there aren't lots of photos, be suspicious.

If you don't go for something that's been professionally restored, look out for rust. Around the bottom sills. Around the wheel arches. Get underneath and look for rust on the floor-pan. Check the engine bay for rust. Check for rust everywhere. If you see any rust, walk away. Rust, especially around the lower sills, will cost thousands to fix. Wipe from your mind the notion that you can do it yourself. The rear of VW magazines are crammed with unfinished projects for sale.

It's difficult to tell whether the engine's in decent nick, until it blows, at which point you'll know it wasn't. So, try to ensure the the engine has been recently rebuilt, or replaced with a recon unit. For a bus, you should look for at least a 2000cc lump.

Best advice is to get in touch with your local VW Owner's Club. They'll probably be able to let you know about what's for sale in your area. Plus, they'll almost certainly be willing to help you spot a bargain or a beater.

Be prepared for a love-hate relationship of epic proportions.
posted by veedubya at 4:25 AM on May 9, 2005


Buses come in two flavours: splits, and bays. Splits have a two-piece windscreen, with a divider running vertically down the middle. Bays have a one-piece windscreen. Splitties are older than bays, and a lot more expensive, because they are far more sought after. The good thing about splitties is that, if you find one, it's almost certain to be in great condition.

With splits, the price is also affected by the number of windows it has in total. The more windows, the more expensive. That's why, in classifieds, the description usually has the number of windows.
posted by veedubya at 4:34 AM on May 9, 2005

My parents took me and my sister camping from the time we were infants. In my case, since I was the elder, it started with a VW Bug and a tiny tent, when my folks were in college, and progressed over the next 18 years to a fairly lux RV. It was all good; very tight, serious family bonding stuff, and I consider myself unusually lucky.
posted by taz at 5:04 AM on May 9, 2005

Just went this weekend with buzzman in his '82 Westfalia and had a blast (as we always do). Very comfy, lots of fun! Do it!
posted by beth at 6:08 AM on May 9, 2005

I spent 1995 circumnavigating Australia in a Kombi, and it was a bloody good year.

Tash and I left Melbourne hitchhiking, but it soon became apparent we wouldn't get into many of the national parks we wanted to see unless we had our own transport; so we bought this clapped out old Kombi off some dodgy car yard in Adelaide for $2000. Rust aplenty, dings in the front, no poptop, no camping fitout, 1600cc tall motor. RFS-178 - we called him Rufus the Wonky Bus.

Took Rufus immediately for a tour around the Flinders Ranges (rough, rough roads!) then back to Adelaide for a service. Turned out there had been only one mounting bolt holding the engine in. Had that fixed, and replaced the gearbox with another second hand one that didn't pop spontaneously out of third on every bump.

Bought a second hand queen size futon, a couple metres of pine framing timber and a sheet of particleboard, borrowed a hammer and a saw, and turned the entire back into a large and comfy bed. We put cardboard boxes under the front of the bed to stow our gear, got a couple of 20 litre carboys for water, and engineered Velcro mosquito screens for the front windows.

We did all our cooking on the same metho-powered Trangia stove we'd left Melbourne with in our backpacks. Finding fuel for that got a little tricky in the Top End; there are places that simply don't carry metho because too many people die trying to get pissed with it.

Various bits occasionally fell off Rufus, but we didn't get into serious budgetary trouble with him until Darwin. The oil filler cap had accidentally been left off at some point, and his insides had all been ground away by bulldust.

We got the engine rebuilt with oversize pistons and new rings, but because we weren't willing to spend a cent more than we had to just to get him going, we pressed the mechanic to put all the same seals back in. By the time we got back to Melbourne at the end of the year, Rufus was drinking almost as much oil as petrol.

We gave him away to a friend when we got home. Chris then spent about three grand on him, but it was money down the drain. I think he's forgiven us now.

We travelled at 80km/h the whole way, which was comfortable for Rufus and kept his front mostly free of bugs (much more than 80 and they can't get out of your way). His amazing ground clearance got us into places we had no right to take a two wheel drive, though we did have to park him by the side of the track and hitchhike to get into the Bungle Bungles, and we needed a tow to get us up the hill on the Development Road heading into Cape Trib from the north (and I still don't understand how we managed to make it down the other side).

Budget-wise, we kept a tin under the bed and every time we spent money on fuel we put the same amount in the tin. That covered all the bits that fell off him, and oil, and tyres, and almost covered having his motor rebuilt.

One thing you absolutely must know about travelling in a Kombi: when you see another one coming the other way, you absolutely must wave. There is no excuse for not doing so.

A+++++ good experience would try again. But you'll probably want more sleeping room than we had if travelling with tiny children.

Can't vouch for the bonding thing either; Tash and I broke up en route. But that's another story to be told another time.
posted by flabdablet at 7:45 AM on May 9, 2005

My Volks is the most organic vehicle I have ever owned. It has the VW Rabbit diesel in it, which offsets the slow acceleration with 30 mpg. I plan on keeping it forever.

As a Vanagon, it has crush bars in front, side doors, and an enclosed roll bar in the roof. The early buses can be unsafe, but very aesthetic... consider the neat domes on the early (pre-67 buses) splities... consider that those domes are actually the backside of the headlights. The 68-78 "bay window" models were prone to getting blown onto two wheels by heavy winds.

Vanagon.com, busdepot.com, the yahoo! newsgroups diesel-vanagon, syncro, vanagon, and many more resources are available to advise when needed on repairs.

The Vanagon does very well off road. Eight or nine inches of ground clearance, 50/50 weight balance, and off I go. With studded snow tires I have gone where Chevy Z-71 4x4's have not been able to go.
All the parts, including the engine, are light enough to work on or even replace in a home garage. And pretty inexpensive too.

I could go on and on and on... I'm hooked. Ever see the "Nasty VW habit" stickers? A good Westy costs around 5-6k American. Last caveat... as an organic machine; count on doing regular maintenance and repairs of the "it is a 20+ year old car" variety. Or having 1-2k a year to pay a competent VW mechanic to do. Competent is the keyword.

Glad to help. 82 Westy, 160k, '98-present.
I did just read the "little experience with cars" part... I love my VW, and the regular maintenance is occupational therapy for me... it could be considered a nightmare to others.
posted by buzzman at 8:02 AM on May 9, 2005

Flabdablet seems to about have summed up what I wrote... A++++... If it isn't your thing; well, they are not depreciating. Barring a motor failure; whoop-dee-doo, you lose 10% of investment and resell it.

CaliforniaCampers.com is an example of a rental agency that owns a fleet of 30-40 VW campers that they rent.

bwcampers.com seems to be a european based equivalent.

Ehh, well, back to dealing with the poison ivy rash I got while out being and enviromental activist via chopping down dozens of parasitic vines on the native Texas Oaks last weekend out. Lucky Beth, she hung out around camp and escaped the wrath of the vine... :) She made some killa scrambled eggs and cheddar too.
posted by buzzman at 5:00 PM on May 9, 2005

You can put a Rabbit (or Jetta, I'd think) engine in a VW bus, Buzzman? Oh, man, that would be so perfect! Good mileage and space...I drool!
posted by QIbHom at 4:28 PM on May 11, 2005

« Older Resources for an American in Toulouse   |   Retrieve! Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.