In 1951 Volkswagen, setting a new vehicle category in motion – the VW camper. First it would set out to discover Europe and then the rest of the world.
The Federal Republic of Germany and the German Mark are three years old. Unemployment, POWs and lack of housing are in the headlines. Konrad Adenauer is acting as both Chancellor and Minister for Foreign Affairs on the political stage. His first official state visit is a trip to Italy. Was he a pioneer in a mass movement?
Not yet! A Volkswagen employee only has two weeks holiday, spent at home or in the garden, or possibly visiting the first IAA automobile exhibition in Frankfurt.
The VW Bus has been on the market for a year. Its starting price is 5,975 German Marks. It is available as a simple van without side windows and a Kombi, and most recently as a Samba. Volkswagen advertises it as having “25 windows and a sliding sunroof”. Yes, a full 25 – not 23 – only later to be scaled back to a more familiar number!
The Samba has the same horsepower as it has windows then (25PS) and it is an exciting new VW model: daring and full of spirit. And it can afford to be, with its strong pulling yet tiny engine and relatively low weight for a commercial vehicle.
All this during tough economic times in Europe. America is about to enjoy its Rock ‘n’ Roll but Europe is waiting for what the postwar economic miracle will bring. Six years following and the first German customer orders accommodation facilities to be built into his Volkswagen Transporter, setting a new vehicle category in motion – the campervan. First it would set out to discover Europe and then the rest of the world.
Just one year after its official debut in the spring of 1950, the new Volkswagen thus started out on a second career which continues to characterize its image to this day: a centre for recreation and travel, along the lines of “home is where you park it”.
The Transporter Kombi was in fact the first mobile base from which to drive and then holiday, until then the domain of the towed caravan (be that an upfront horse or automobile). The Kombi is forerunner to hundreds of thousands of camping VW Buses, and no doubt inspiration for thousands of DIY conversions extending the life of those well used vans.
However, in 1951 the design was not so comprehensive, as the first customer from Westfalia would testify. Deluxe at the time… he receives a removable Camping Box fit out consisting of a bench in the rear of the vehicle in front of the rear engine bulkhead, a cupboard with lockable blinds over the engine, a sideboard behind the cab with a drawer, a compartment for the cooker and lots of cushions which can be used in combination with the rear bench as a sleeping space. It’s not what you might call plush by today’s standard, and the gears crunched too if you forgot to double clutch. But the rear is spacious enough for up to three friendly adults. Ever resourceful salesman pitches that in addition; the sideboard and cushions can be removed and used as a spare bed in the home. Might it clash with the latest trend in wallpaper, we may well ask?
But success is slow. The average customer still lacks time and the money, and production begins in small quantities. The official price list for the 1953 Camping Box has been handed down. The sideboard costs 595 German marks, the wardrobe can be bought for 125. The bathroom cabinet with a mirror and holder for an enamel bowl at the double doors costs another 62.50 marks.
In 1955, the Export Camping Box joins the flock. It differs from the standard model with a roof hatch and a luggage carrier behind it on the roof. This is one move away from removable accommodation facilities towards the true campervan. But the Camping Box remains on the market and its development continues for a total of ten years. A camping stove together with a gas cylinder is installed in the sideboard, for example. And the decreased size of the engine compartment over the Barn door model makes a bigger wardrobe possible.
In 1956, the touring holidays take off. “Touring with your own hotel, this is now a realizable dream, not an out of reach luxury which only a few people can afford.” The extras go hand in hand with the economic miracle so long sought after. “A small bar is available at an additional charge with space for 10 cocktail glasses in a variety of sizes under the acrylic glass lid. The shake proof drinks cabinet is installed on a combined cabinet which also serves as a place to serve the drinks.” Did we just say 10 cocktail glasses? Anyone hazard a guess as to how many cocktail glasses their VW camper holds? Rock and Roll!
Just one year later and Volkswagen includes the “VW Camper”, as it is now called, into its own program. Construction continues in Westfalia. The bodies are given SO numbers internally, the acronym for special purpose vehicle in VW parlance. Another two years down the line, the first anniversary is celebrated: 1000 Volkswagen Campers! And two years further on again, daily production amounts to at least 10 Campers being produced per day.
Ten years after the invention of the Camping Box, the vehicle has blossomed into a compact campervan. The operating instructions praise the 1961 VW camper van: “Inside the VW Camper you will find everything you have always wanted when dreaming of independent, free travel”. And they’re not far off! The interior of the home on wheels has a long bench on the left opposite the sliding doors, and, thanks to the cab seat back rest which hinges forward, a driver’s seat can be integrated into the seating arrangement.
Above the engine to the right there is a wardrobe, and to the left a fridge. There is space for a sliding seat in between, which doubles up as a child’s bed at night. A hammock through the cab offers more space for the kids or just overnight paraphernalia. The bathroom cabinet with mirror shelf and surface for the bowl remains unchanged, but the bowl is no longer ceramic. It’s now made of a revolutionary material called, er… plastic. DIY converters now resort to the “Mosaic” furniture kit, which includes all the furniture necessary for converting a used Transporter into a full campervan and is a roaring success.
In 1962 America welcomes an alternative to wood: low maintenance plastic surfaces for furniture. A folding bench in the rear with a bed extension above the motor is the early base for the sleeping surface. A roof rack can be used for carrying excess baggage either during the day or at night, if required.
It has overhead cupboards above the folding bench, varying kitchen arrangements, a cool box and a water tank with a luxury hand pump. In addition, there is a modern style popup roof with red and white vertical stripes opening to the side. This enlarges the living space considerably, offering two extra sleeping spaces which look suspiciously like hammocks, each measuring 180 cm by 59 cm. Adults might be a squeeze, and the climb to reach and hoist oneself into one would perhaps be a little too adventurous for many. But for lifting ones children aloft what an adventure away from home.
The popup roof also has two acrylic “glass windows” and two ventilation flaps. Never has a little hotel on wheels felt so good, and its occupants feel so privileged. The USA’s great outdoors is just a camping’s breath away.
In the mid sixties the accommodation facilities for the European Volkswagen Transporter cost almost 2000 German Marks. And as the saying went: “When travelling with this VW camper, you do not need to give anything up.” For many this style of campervan is the dream of motorized Sixties camping. And true enough, with a folding bench, kitchen with a cooker and food isolation box, water canisters and electrical lighting in the living area, holiday makers do indeed have almost everything they desire. In 1965 the elevating roof becomes an official component of the luggage carrier with the popup roof spanning front and back and leaving enough space to stowaway goods inside the vehicle. It proves to be one of the most simple options for creating more space and to allow in air and light. It also prevents rain from getting those would be items on the roof rack getting wet at night. And from this year onward the simple removal of the cabin bulkhead panel permits front driver and passenger easy access into the central resting space without the need to leave the vehicle, something of a hangover from the commercial vehicle years.
The Americans went wild about the Beetle, their Beetle, and they went just as wild about the Volkswagen Camping Bus. This compact Transporter had almost no competition. By the end of 1967 when production closed on the first generation of the Transporter, Volkswagen had delivered more than 15,000 camping Buses in the USA, and more than a thousand in 1967 alone.
1967. The final year of European production for the T1 Split Screen. Man hadn’t even walked on the Moon and already new life was about to dawn at the Volkswagen’s Hannover factory.
Yes, the VW camper was a big hit as a recreational vehicle in 1967. Production had risen from 10 campervans per day in 1960 to a new average of 70 per day.
The world loved it, but America loved it the most. Who would have thought that in 1987 a Volkswagen Bus from 1959 would end up in the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan, USA. The campervan was owned by the same family for 28 years and had even been passed down from one generation to the next. Now that’s treating you like family.